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

How do you start a revolution?

Revolution: a forcible overthrow of a government of social order, in favour of a new system.

Such occurrences are scattered throughout time, bringing rise to such figures as George Washington and Fidel Castro both of whom continue to influence our world today. However how does such an impactful event begin? Even though revolutions are complex, multifaceted events at the heart of many lie the same conditions, processes and catalysts. As the father of Communism, Karl Marx stated ‘History repeats itself…’ Even though the fundamental assumption at the centre of Marx’s idea is simplistic, common strands can be found throughout time providing the keys to social change across the ages.

The famous phrase, ‘The economy, stupid’ coined by James Carville during Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign seems to aptly summarise the underlying presence of the economy as a force for change throughout history and more specifically as a catalyst for revolution. The 1917 Russian Revolution can serve as an example of this; from 1916 Russian peasants were expected to work for 11 hours a day in adverse conditions. At the end of the long and gruelling day they returned to their living quarters typically sharing with at least five other workers. In addition to this Sergei Witte’s land reforms earlier in the 20th century that created overcrowding on the land plots in which they worked, and the continued refusal of the Tsarist regime to allow worker ownership of land led to brutal economic conditions and an appalling quality of life for the poorest in Russian society. These negative economic factors made Russian workers look for an alternative governing system that would better represent their views and allow them to remove their Tsarist oppressors. One such alternative was the Marxist-Leninist ideology gaining tract throughout Russia, an ideal based on the removal of private property and as a result the autonomy of land they so desired. Thus five years later after much violence and bloodshed the USSR was formed, with the principals the workers had fought for enshrined in the new constitution ‘It is only in the camp of the Soviets… that it has been possible to eliminate the oppression of nationalities… and to establish the basis of a fraternal collaboration of peoples.’ As proven by this example, when a large group in society is hungry and economically disadvantaged they will typically look for a new system that removes the disparity in wealth seen before.

As the French philosopher Voltaire once sardonically remarked ‘An ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.’ Even though Voltaire died in 1778 this quote still seems to apply in a world in which assassination is a key method in upholding governments deemed unacceptable to western interests, as seen by the removal of the ruling power in Chile, Guatemala and Iran. However the use of violence to supplement suffrage and undermining democratic principles can be seen as another strand connecting revolutions in the modern world. The People Power Revolution of 1983 in the Philippines can clearly be linked to the misuse of the democratic process. Ferdinand Marcos had been the President of the Philippines since 1965, after the end of his second term in 1972 instead of standing down he used martial law to reinforce his power and by 1973 he had established himself as the lone ruler of the Philippines. Marcos’ rule slowly became more despotic, creating a new self-written constitution and either arresting or exiling all of his political rivals. Ninoy Aquino was one of such rivals, before Marcos established martial law Ninoy was the leader of the opposition. Aquino was permitted to leave the Philippines in 1980 after suffering a heart attack during his seventh year of unjust imprisonment. On August 21, 1983 Aquino returned to his home country, the speech he planned to make on his arrival stated: “I have returned on my free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through non-violence. I seek no confrontation.” However he never read this statement as upon stepping off the plane at Manilla Airport he was assassinated. The violent killing of a popular, non-violent political figure appeared to be the final straw for the people of the Philippines and even though protest had been prevalent before the assassination of Ninoy, Filipinos became united in action against the violent dictatorship. They took to the streets in mass peaceful-protest, at the peak of the revolution three million people marched down the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, wearing yellow ribbons in homage to their lost leader. This collective action and mounting military assaults against his regime forced Marcos to resign in 1986, finally ending fourteen years of repression and corruption. The People Power Revolution truly unified the people of the Philippines showing that democracy is a concept for which people will always fight, and that going against the rich tradition of representation and egalitarianism makes revolution inevitable.

These two factors only skim the surface of the complex multi-causal nature of revolution but they do begin to explain how such an event could be started. Even though many view the idea of revolution as a cliché of a bygone era, as we move into a period of economic uncertainty and electoral fraud becomes increasingly apparent, such an event could be just round the corner.

Contributed by Joe Tyler-Todd