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The Case for the Study of History: The Advantages of the Participant Historian. Part Three (final)

Education 01 May, 2024 Follow News

Professor Livingston Smith, UCCI

‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,’ is a famous quotation of Winston Churchill, British statesman, soldier, and writer. Is it the case that those who write as historians about events in which they were involved, are doomed to write in ways favorable to themselves? If this is so 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? Given the human factor, is it possible to be objective in writing in these circumstances? Is there a challenge of belief given the methodology of the participant observer? What are the possible strengths of this approach?

Eyewitness history, as is sometimes referred to when the historian is also a participant, has strong advantages. Greek historian Thucydides, in writing The History of the Peloponnesian Wars explained that he described nothing except what he saw himself or learned from others from whom he made careful and particular enquiry. This book is a classic, and one of the earliest scholarly works of history, yet Thucydides was an Athenian general during the war which lasted between 431-404 BCE. Famous ancient historian, Flavius Josephus, who recorded the Great Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70, thought that his personal participation in some events of which he wrote benefited him as a historian. Niccolò Machiavelli, writing in the seventeenth century, also wrote much of history as a participant.

Some believe that the historian should be far removed from the passing emotions, the political and other conflicts of his own day in order not to compromise the historical vocation.

However, as Arthur Schlesinger points out, great historians as Bacon, Raleigh, Adams, etc., participated in the history they wrote, at least, to some extent. And this was not fatal to the history writing enterprise. In fact, there are benefits to be derived when the historian writes from his own direct experience. With the rapidity of change in modern societies, especially because of technological innovations, the present becomes the past far more quickly. There are few countries which have experienced the torrents of globalization, transformations in demography and modernity as quickly and as thoroughly as the Cayman Islands This means that for the Cayman Islands, the past is ‘yesterday’ and not centuries ago. In these circumstances, one should expect a strong role for the participant historian.

Schlesinger further explains that eyewitness history has traditionally been seen as deficient in the collection and interpretation of historical facts. However, this is not necessarily so. When the historian participates in the historical episode, he is more critical of the materials, he can examine witnesses, and so has a more realistic judgement of the facts. Further, the public can scrutinize the work even more closely, as the events are not too long gone. The personal participation of the historian can sharpen his judgement, and ‘stimulate and amplify his reconstructive imagination’ to quote Schlesinger. To quote Schlesinger further, ‘Historians who know how laws are passed, decisions made, battles fought are perhaps in a better position to grasp the actuality of historical transitions.’ Similarly, he writes that the historian who has taken part in public controversy, who knows the inner workings of conflicts and how many decisions are made under pressure, without the benefit of hindsight and full information, how confusion and ignorance, chance, personality factors, accidental circumstances and stupidity all play a role, has a good chance of better understanding the historical process.

The participant historian is better able to communicate how people think and feel, as he is not writing about events many years after the fact. As he is writing about events nearer in time, he can more faithfully and accurately re-create events and their causes, ideas, and institutions.

Powerful insights can emanate from the participant historian that are not easily available to non-participant writers, hundreds of years later. When history is constructed way after the event, the historian must rely more on extrapolation and reconstruction, hoping what is reconstructed is what really happened.

Bodden’s work as a ‘participant historian’ is no less important because he has been involved in what he has written. In fact, his vantage point gives more credibility to his works, and because of this we can be more fully edified. However, a participant historian in Bodden’s position, having been a senior EXCO member and minister who is writing on contemporary politics and politicians with whom he served his country, requires from him every attempt to bridle subjectivity and bias so the writing of history is not only writing as experience, but the presentation of ‘facts’ based on multiple sources, in a non-judgmental manner, as far as possible from a participant historian.

However, whether the historian is writing as a participant or has assumed the ‘traditional role’ as the objective ‘outsider,’ he does not dispose of his values and presuppositions.

It is the responsibility of the reader to engage with any body of knowledge, especially those of the social sciences, armed with strong doses of suspicion and skepticism, ready to learn, but even more so to ask questions. When this attitude is taken, questions are asked, more is written, and the end-products are likely to be more representative of the truth.


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