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The Use and Abuse of History

Education 17 Aug, 2023 Follow News

Dr Livingston Smith

Dr. Eric Williams, author of the book Capitalism and Slavery.

By Livingston Smith, PhD

Professor, Department of the Social Sciences

University College of the Cayman Islands

Famous historian E. H. Carr notes that history is a dialogue between the past and present and that how historians understand the past, is influenced by the social, cultural, and political issues that stirred their time. This is important to know as having shaped the present, the past does not just wither and die. Many of those who construct current policy are conscious of engaging the past, even though sometimes they do so in pursuit of their own selfish purposes.

What we teach our young about the past is as crucial an activity as what takes place in engineering, accounting, and medicine. The recording of history is expected to be based on the critical examination of sources, the careful and ‘objective’ sifting and synthesizing of information. It is expected to obey the standards of scrupulous attention to details and scientific exactitude in source documents utilized etcetera.  However, historical data do not necessarily speak for themselves and so the historian describes, contextualizes, and explains. In piecing together human meanings and institutions, the historian interprets history, and in many instances, to serve specific objectives of various kinds.  Thus, Churchill’s famous quip, ‘History will be kind to me, as I intend to write it.’

While there is some truth to the claim that winners write the history books, hitherto colonized peoples especially must take the writing of their own history as important as their desire to achieve sustained socioeconomic transformation. As our history is important for self-knowledge and self-empowerment, as the basis of a sense of identity, and for the creation and sustenance of our cultural frameworks, it must be taken seriously what we teach our young people as historical knowledge. This is especially urgent given that what is written as historical knowledge is subject to abuse by those desirous of maintaining dominance in the social, cultural, and political spaces of society.

I will mention two examples of such abuse. The first is the literature about the factors that ended slavery in the British empire. The focus was on the role of the abolitionists, members of the British anti-slavery society such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and James Ramsay.  It is not that these individuals did not play an important role, but their role was very much overstated. It is as if, as Eric Williams pointed out, the British started slavey in order to end it and celebrate doing so.

But the deeper and more profound causes of why it ended were ignored and when premier historian Eric Williams wrote the book, Capitalism and Slavery in 1938, a thesis on the economic history of British empire, he was shunned by publishers and accused of undermining the humanitarian motivations for the Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act. The data gathered by Williams led him to recognize the shifting but deeper economic forces at play. David Barnette, writing recently in The Guardian, explains that it was not until 1964 that the work found a publisher in the UK, but it had been out of print there for decades. Now, eighty-four years after, he continues, his work was rejected in the UK, and seventy-eight years after it was first published in America, where it became a highly influential anti-colonial text, a new edition of Williams’s book, Capitalism and Slavery, was to be published in Britain.

The essence of William’s work was that the abolition of slavery in the British empire was due to the changing nature of the capitalism. It was in the interest of British capitalists that it be brought to an end, and not because of a sudden burst of conscience. Sugar capitalists no longer saw advantage in the West Indian sugar monopoly and so turned against the slave trade and then, slavery. Williams was meticulous in detailing interconnections between the wealth of Britain, the slave trade, and the Industrial Revolution.  The slave plantations, slave ships, the manufacturing of goods, the insurance companies, the banking system were all locked together.

The extensive wealth that slavery created provided the economic foundations of the industrial revolution. This revolution catapulted industrial capitalists to become the main players in the British economy and they preferred free trade, not the continuation of the preferential sugar duties that benefited the traditionally wealth classes. They desired an army of low wage factory workers and a global playing field.  Williams also pointed out that the very institution of slavery started out of economic reasons, not racial bias, but that as the institution ballooned and flourished, racial theories and justifications were developed. In other words, racism did not cause slavery, but developed because of it. Slavery was essentially economic.

The abuse of history here was the deliberate attempt to sideline a considered perspective that would have added to and widened the discourse.

A more recent example of the abuse of history is Florida’s new educational standards in relation to what is taught about slavery in America. It is now required of public schools that they teach that enslaved black Americans learned useful skills which they could apply in their personal lives, and thus, in this sense, they benefited from slavery.

This is not only the abuse of history, but also obscene and obviously racist. The brute fact that slavery wreaked havoc on the lives of millions of Africans casting a shadow on their descendants must not be undermined by a desire to abandon the truth to meet political and other objectives.


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