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Let’s not Devalue the Study of History - Local History - Part Two

Education 24 Apr, 2024 Follow News

Dr Livingston Smith

Professor Livingston Smith, UCCI

I sought to make the case in the first article that it is only through a thorough knowledge and understanding of the history of the Cayman Islands, how the society was formed and how it has evolved, that one can hope to understand its people and culture. This understanding then, in turn, will lead to an appreciation of how far the islands have come and, also of its current successes and travails.

I want to close on the note of basic issues in historiography and epistemology. Historiography deals with the tools and craft of the historian, the methods he uses in researching and writing history. What is involved in our knowing, representing, and explaining history? This is a question of epistemology. How do we know we know? What can we really know?

As I have said before, it is important to look back to look forward, to understand the past to shape the future more consciously; to understand historical continuities to create a more just and democratic society. The past and the present are always intertwined, the past interfacing with the present in both good and bad ways. The study of history does not lead to exact predictions of the future, as the complex settings in which we act are never twice the same. What we have as certainties are probabilities, possibilities, and complexity. One can even question the possibility of learning from history, but hopefully, we can understand the forces, choices and circumstances that brought us to our current circumstances.

What about the historian’s representation of history? Who must she represent? Must it only be important and consequential people as the so-called great man theory of history believes? But what of the so-called little people? Caymanian historian Roy Murray’s has written quite a bit about Elizabeth Jane Trusty, a black woman who lived in Cayman in the 18thc. Murray uses all the available records on Elizabeth Jane Trusty to reconstruct her experiences as both a slave and a free woman of colour on an island in which a slave society had evolved since the first years of permanent settlement in the 18th century. In doing so he gives a fascinating account of history told from the perspective of the little people. But why did he decide to focus on a former slave who became a free woman? Historians, like other researchers and writers, make choices on what or who to focus on. But there is always value in reading and examining what they write.

What about explaining history? What are the intellectual tasks that define the historian’s work? The historian must make sense of archival and historical information that exists – historical data do not speak for themselves; the historian must interpret individual pieces of evidence. The historian conceptualizes, describes, contextualizes, explains, and interprets events. Historical data do not speak for themselves, necessarily. They are up to multiple interpretations. The historian’s craft involves and requires interpretations of actions, meanings, and intentions of individual actors of cultures that characterize whole populations. The historian must piece together the human meanings and institutions that underlie a complex series of historical events and actions, in terms of the thoughts, motives, and states of mind of the participants.

And what should we make of a local historian like Roy Bodden who is the author of several books: The Cayman Islands in Transition: The Politics, History and Sociology of a Changing Society (2000); Stories my Grandfather Never Told Me (2007); Patronage, Personalities and Parties: Caymanian Politics from 1950-2000 (2010); A Gathering of Old Men (2012); Reflections from a Broken Mirror: Poems about Caymanian Society (2014); and From Guard House to the Glass House: One Man’s Journey through the Maze of Caymanian Politics (2018). His upcoming publications are: The Defilement of Misamba and Other Stories, a collection of poems titled This is the Fire, and From the Vestry to the Premier: The Evolution of Caymanian Politics.

In most, if not all his books, he writes of events and situations in which he himself was intimately involved – what I call the ‘participant historian’. What is the nature of objectivity and subjectivity that must be examined? Is it possible to be objective in writing in these circumstances, given the human factor. Is there a challenge of belief given the methodology of the participant observer? What are the possible strengths of this approach?

Bodden’s telling of history is more a narrative of events, many of which he was part of. If the history told by Bodden is a history of the recent past, rather than some distanced timeframe, what might be some challenges and consequences of the telling of history as a narrative about the recent past, a construction of the historian who was also part of this history, a participant even in decisions that he writes about. In the construction of meaning, is the historian not unavoidably implicated? We examine this further in our final article on the subject.

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