Don't Worry about "Rewriting History": It's Literally What We Historians DoRoundup
tags: historiography, revisionism
Charlotte Lydia Riley is a historian of contemporary Britain at the University of Southampton.
People are suddenly very concerned about the perils of rewriting history. We must be vigilant, apparently, to the possibility that great swaths of the past will be forgotten or, worse, “erased”. We must remain alert to the risk that our history will be “whitewashed” – as if there were enough whitewash in the world – with the difficult, complex bits disappeared. Meanwhile, unaware of all the controversy he has caused, Edward Colston’s statue lies peacefully at the bottom of Bristol harbour.
Historians are not too worried at the threat posed by “rewriting history”. This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew. Despite what Leopold von Ranke – one of the pioneers of modern historical research – said, history is not only about finding out “how it actually happened”, but also about how we think about the past and our relationship to it. The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present.
The other important thing to hold on to in this debate is that statues do not do a particularly effective job of documenting the past or educating people about it. Much has been written recently about British “imperial nostalgia”, and the idea that as a nation we yearn for the empire that, for many of us, ended before we were born. But this country’s relationship to its imperial history is built more on erasure and forgetting than on remembering – it is a series of silences from the past. The number of monuments to men who enslaved other humans or who killed hundreds of unarmed civilians or who performed other horrific crimes in the service of empire, or the woman who presided over them, stands in contrast to the number of critically engaged conversations we have about empire's crimes. Every time a statue comes down, we learn a little more.
Some people would have it that the British are just too polite to talk about the dark side of imperialism. But it isn’t shame about the past that prevents us from having these conversations. For the British to be ashamed of their imperial history, they would have to know about it, and to understand both the worst excesses of imperial violence and the simple daily injustice of imperial rule.
But many British people don’t know about this, and mostly they don’t care to find out. Instead, as a nation, we exonerate the actions of people in the past by claiming that it was simply a different time, with different values, forgetting that many brave people at the time protested against these atrocities, and resisted, and worked tirelessly so that they might be uncovered or condemned.
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