Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Revising of History

"History is written by the victors." ~Winston Churchill

* * *

In 1637, in the peaceful Mystic River valley, in what is now Connecticut, a Native American tribe known as the Pequots lived rather peacefully and powerfully. They exerted some control over the neighboring tribes and enjoyed a high level of prestige. They traded with a strange new people, who had come over the sea some years before and had made their home there. They were odd in their manner of dress and speech, but they were friendly. Today, we know these strange people as the Pilgrims.

Eventually, however, tensions arose. Tensions had always arisen, but this was taken to a new level. Disputes over property, attacks against cattle (which to the Pilgrims, was an act of savagery only a beast could perform), that soon the Pilgrims knew that the Pequots had to go.

Gathering allies from other Native American tribes (among them the Mohicans and the Narragansetts, who were themselves against the Pequots), the colonists pledged to wage war on the Pequots. These tribes agreed on the condition that the women and children be spared. It didn't seem a strange request to them - that was how wars were always fought, to them, it was normal. The wily colonists agreed. But that was never their intention.

One night in June, 1637, the attack happened: secretly stealing into the enclosed palisade the Pequots called home, the Europeans and their Native American allies attacked. It was slaughter. Muskets shot many. The Pequots fought hard and fierce. Many tried to escape, but the exits had been sealed by brush, or else guarded by armed men. For those that did manage to escape, a line of Mohicans waited outside, ready to shoot anyone who tried to run off. Eventually, however, the bloodlust reached a crescendo.

"Burn them all!" John Underhill, the leader of this "expedition", cried out. The original intention was merely to kill, and plunder. But that would not work. Total destruction was needed.

More than 1500 Pequots were killed, the rest, sold into slavery. The Pequots were utterly destroyed.

* * *

I bring this story up to illustrate the fickle nature of history. This war is relatively little-known. Oh, yes, people may know of it, but yet many, many more are ignorant to the darker side of the beginnings of our nation. This battle happened only 16 years after the first Thanksgiving: a communal celebration between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans, giving thanks and blessings to true friendship, commending all to God. Yet, less than two decades later, these same people commended God for a decisive victory, a true "victory of Christianity", in the words of one church leader.

This is not to bash Christianity or even the beginnings of the nation in any way. This is to illustrate that there are two sides to every story: yes, there was goodwill and peace, but there was also bloodshed and death. The Native Americans were not wholly innocent, however: they later retaliated with "King Philip's War" in 1675-6, led by the son of Massasoit, the chief who had feasted and communed with the Pilgrims back in that first Thanksgiving of 1621: Metacom, better known by the British as "King Philip". Metacom led a fierce battalion of many Native American tribes in coordinated attacks against many New England towns and colonists. It nearly destroyed the English presence in New England.

"There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged." ~Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn was a historian who believed in the revision of history. To him, history was a lie, due to the influence of the elite and the privileged in all records. In a way, he was right. He took it to a new level, though: the level of the underdog. His "People's History of the United States", a paean to the underrepresented groups in American history: women, Native Americans, African Americans, the Irish, Mexicans - was also very derisive. It criticized the makers of this country in countless ways, denouncing the hypocrisy of religious freedom; the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; slavery, and much more. Zinn was rather too extreme, however: yes, people have done bad, horrific things in history, but there were also many good things. All events in history have led up to where we are now in history, which is not a very bad place to be. A happy medium is what history needs.

* * *

There are many approaches to history: the conventional approach, the extreme revisionist approach, and the distanced, balanced approach. I will illustrate examples below.

Conventional: Pilgrims were very friendly and preached religious freedom. They formed friendly relations with the Indians in the first Thanksgiving.

Extreme Revisionist: The Pilgrims were hypocritical, murderous people that waged all-out genocide and persecuted other groups, all in the name of Christianity.

Balanced: The Pilgrims had cordial, friendly ties with Native American tribes, but due to need of expansion and cultural misunderstandings that result from two completely separate groups meeting and coexisting, they launched murderous, barbarous attacks.

The balanced approach is the most correct. However, it is also the most difficult to achieve: there are too many lies, myths, misconceptions, fabrications and confabulations to sever and untangle from the web of history. What we can do, however, is become informed.

Don't take what you know from middle-school history class to be correct. Read Howard Zinn's diatribe against most of U.S. history. But also read other sources! Read about the illustriousness of America, the shining beacon of hope it was, and is, and will continue to be, for many around the world. Get both sides of the story. The side one knows is always the mythical side. Deconstruct history, and learn the truth.

Don't only take America for an example: learn about the world! Europe is not world history: the British and French, the Romans and Greeks are not the sum of history. Learn about the marvelous innovations of the Chinese and the Islamics, the great works of the Egyptians and the Incas, the great societies of the Hawaiians, the Polynesians, the Aztecs.

You will become more informed. The truth will reveal itself to you. And then, perhaps, we can shed the various hatreds and prejudices of the past, and become more united, as humanity. It can happen. But it will only happen with a communal effort: everyone should become informed. Atrocities must be exposed, innovations must be celebrated. And then, with equality and balance, perhaps we can achieve some semblance of peace and unity in this weary world.




  1. This was an interesting read. I've never officially studied American history so all that I know about it comes from random books that I've picked up and stories that I've heard. This story about the Puritans definitely contradicts the mental image that I had of them before. I had always known that they were harsh to the natives and all, but the books that I had read only mentioned Phillip's war so they made it seem like the Native Americans attacked unprovoked. Thanks for further informing me. :) A few questions: Do you think that AP World History provides a balanced and detailed description of history as a whole? If not, which sources would you recommend? Also, what are your opinions of APUSH's perspective on American history? Does it seem biased towards one side?

  2. Micah: The thing about AP classes is that they’re pretty lax. The College Board really doesn’t care how you learn world history, as long as you understand the key concepts and ideas and events that the test covers.
    That being said, AP World as it is dictated by the College Board is pretty straightforward: six periods of history, with a MAJOR focus on trade, peopling of areas, innovations, and civilizations. The thing is, however, that Europe and East Asia (particularly China) and then, at the very end, America are so integral to world history, that you invariably have to study and cover them more. But I thought there was a neat balance (until about 1700, but you can't really help it: Europe is necessary to understand imperial conquests of the 1800s and the two world wars).
    I would recommend the textbook I used last year, it was really great. Our homework every read was to read and outline a chapter of it: that's all I did last year. It's called "Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past". It's fairly balanced for most of history (but then, Europe has about 12 out of the 40 chapters, East Asia about 7 or 8.) But it does devote considerable space to Islam and pre-Columbian America, and Africa, especially. I learned a lot.

    I'm only just starting AP US, so I can't really give an accurate reprt on that. But flipping through my textbook and the course framework, I can tell you this: AP US is getting a redesign this year: the test and the key ideas being tested on are being changed. I feel it will be a bit more balanced, as it is supposed to emphasize more of the underrepresented groups in US History that helped make America great: the immigrants, the Native Americans, &c. I think it'll be balanced. But I'll be able to give you more in a few more months.

    1. I'll just add that I did that APUSH two years ago, before the redesign. The history tests are usually the same format, ish, with 80 multiple choice questions and three essays. 80 questions is nowhere near enough to tell whether you have an in-depth knowledge of American History, so the idea is more in width than in depth.

      I think that a lot of bias will come from the teacher, and while I enjoyed my teacher a lot I don't think we necessarily covered many of the repressed groups that have existed in North America with the same detail as we covered those triumphants who are now the heroes of American legends. I still enjoyed the class, though, and even situations that are exactly the opposite need to be taken with a grain of salt.

      What I learned in AP Euro is to really, REALLY look at original sources, and from all bias points. That is one of the main points needed when writing those essays. If you read about poverty from the stance of rich and poor people in an age, look at their jobs and their backgrounds, you'll have a clearer picture of what truly happened, rather than just what your teacher says.