Is History written by the winners?

‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.’ Winston Churchill

The study of history and our remembrance of the past has become a battleground in recent years, with historians on all sides of the political spectrum weighing in on our collective understanding of history and the perceived bias and nuances contained within it. As Winston Churchill aptly surmises in the above quote, much of what we now believe to be fact was once conceived by a historian, with his own set of motives, presuppositions and purposes. But is history truly written by the winners? Or is that too a simplistic view to take of the rich multi-layered study of the past?

The writings concerning the American Revolutionary Wars show all too well the impact the victors have on the recording of their own histories. The Battle of Waxhaws or as many American historians and textbooks refer to it ‘The Waxhaw Massacre’ has had one of the most biased portrayals when looking at the history of the conflict. These American textbooks tell a tale of a one-sided massacre in which the Continental army led by Abraham Buford was slaughtered by the Loyalist force after they had raised the white flag of surrender. The pictorial sources of the time show Loyalists spearing the American force on their bayonets as they tried to flee and the leader of the Loyalist force, Banastre Tarleton, has been portrayed by many American written sources as a tyrant, who unmercifully slaughtered the surrendering opposition. However even though it is true that the Continental army suffered serious losses during the battle, the American perspective of it appears to be both overblown and inaccurate. Even though, like all events in history, what actually occurred at Waxhaws will never truly be known. A more balanced view of the conflict can be seen by ignoring the supposed ‘first-hand’ accounts that have come to define our knowledge of the time. The first of such primary sources was written by Henry Bowyer three decades after the event.  Henry Bowyer was the primary advisor of Abraham Buford during the battle and he claimed that he was tasked with taking the white flag to the British before fleeing after he faced heavy fire, he then stated that: “The rage of the British soldiers, excited by the continued fire of the Americans, while a negotiation was offered by flag, impelled them to acts of vengeance that knew no limits.”  The second of the sources was written by Doctor Brownfield, who dictated his story forty years after the battle took place. He too claims to have carried the white flag to the British but similarly to Bowyer he claimed he was “cut down” and could not deliver the flag. But when these accounts are compared to Buford’s own record of the conflict, clear errors arise. Buford stated that the bearer of the white flag returned to him after the surrender was rejected and makes no mention of them being fired upon or struck down.  This contradicts directly the accounts of both Bowyer and Brownfield, neither of whom recalled returning to Buford. The picturesque accounts of both Bowyer and Brownfield do however resonate with the overriding American narrative of the War of Independence, in which an oppressed people overthrew their cruel and violent rulers. A discourse perpetuated in both the textbooks and collective consciousness of American’s today.

The example given above is just one of many instances in the recording of history in which sources are ignored or inaccuracies forgiven to ensure that the national view of events is continued and validated, as Enoch Powell stated in his 1964 lecture at Trinity College, Dublin:

 All history is a myth. It is a pattern which men weave out of the materials of the past. The moment a fact enters into history it becomes mythical, because it has been taken and fitted into its place in a set of ordered relationships which is the creation of a human mind and not otherwise present in nature.

In effect the sources of yesteryear are melded and linked by historians to create a view of the past based on their prejudices and preconceptions. So in this sense history is not written by the winners but by whomever wishes to leave a mark on the records of our past. However if we wish to truly progress from some of our archaic assumptions about the past we must begin to question the supposed bedrock of our collective historical understanding and move toward a more balanced and nuanced view of what came before.

Contributed by Joe Tyler-Todd

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