As discussed in a previous post, History is the Conquest Song of the Victors. Historians who have developed an understanding of this problem have created the field of “Subaltern Studies” — which studies history from the point of view of those who lost the battles. A very different point of view emerges when we look at history from this point of view. For example, according to the standard story told about how White Settlers captured and occupied the continents of North and South American, the “Indians” — the original inhabitants of the Americas were barbarians and savages who were overwhelmed by the “civilized” White settlers. The reality, which is now gradually emerging, is radically different. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob have written the book: Telling the Truth About History which explains how the standard histories which are popular are heavily biased towards the victors, and how we can peel through the masks placed by the victorious historians to arrive at a deeper and more accurate understanding of our past. I have written a brief summary of ONE of the chapters of this books — Re-Learning History: The Conquest of America. This shows how the brutal realities of Indian genocide by White Settlers is hidden in the standard accounts. A far more moving treatment of the repeated tragedies which led to the destruction of American Indians is available in “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee“; this has been written by Dee West, an American Indian, with true depth of feeling about the systematic destruction of the habitat and lives of the American Indians by the White Settlers.
Over the past three centuries, the Europeans set out to successfully capture, conquer, and colonize, the rest of the world. By the early 20th Century, they had conquered about 85% of the globe. Because of their dominant position — hegemony — the only stories about this colonization available are the ones written by Europeans themselves, or by those deeply influenced by European education. It has now been widely recognized that these histories are “Eurocentric” — they portray Europeans as the only heroes on the stage of world history. According to these Eurocentric histories, civilization, science, technology, democracy, good governance, honesty, courage, capacity for rational thought, and ALL good things known to man, originated in Europe. Realizing that Europeans were an advanced civilization, while the rest of the world was in ignorance and darkness, the Europeans spread out throughout the world to bring the benefits of civilization to the barbarians and savages living elsewhere. This JUSTIFICATION of the European conquest and colonization is known as the story of the “White Man’s Burden” (the burden of their responsibility to spread their knowledge and civilization.) The truth is extremely different from this cover story. See my essay on the “Ways of the Eagles” for a short description of the reality of conquest India, compared to the Eurocentric myths that we have learned to believe. An excellent recent account is the book by Shashi Tharoor, called: “An Era of Darkness” which describes the brutalities and horrors of the “Raj” or British Rule in India, which have been suppressed and hidden in Eurocentric accounts. The true stories of European brutalities in the process of global conquest are so horrifying that sensitive human beings cannot read them without feeling pain and horror; for a small example, see my earlier post on Colonial Atrocities.
It has been my constant effort to provide some Subaltern stories — histories from the point of view of the loser of the battle — to counter the Eurocentric stories that we have learned from the hegemonic powers which dominate the world. There are SO MANY myths that we have learned and absorbed, that the job of cleansing our minds is long and difficult. We have to work on it one story at a time, piece by piece. Only after gradually cleaning the windows of our minds can the light of truth shine through. Below, I reproduce an article along these lines published in the Express Tribune on Dec 6, 2010. It is interesting that, bowing to the power of the hegemon, ET edited the article and OMITTED the part about the US Invasion of Iraq — we don’t want to displease the masters and lords of the world, do we?
Despite overwhelming superiority in firepower and strategic advantage in their attacks on unsuspecting beasts of the jungle, hunters manage to emerge as heroes in their tales about the trophies hanging on their walls. An African proverb explains that until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
For the past few centuries, people of European origin have dominated the world. Nearly all the stories being told about the world in this era glorify them, and celebrate their conquests. In Orientalism, one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, Edward Said showed that European imperialism and colonization of the rest of the world permeates all aspects of their literature and thought. A disturbing implication is that the idea of European superiority is implicitly absorbed by anyone who consumes their literary, cinematic or other intellectual or social products – a category to which virtually every reader of this column belongs. Historian Henri Pirenne showed how the attempt picture themselves at the centre stage of history at all times has led Europeans to a substantially distorted understanding of world civilizations, their close interrelationships, dependency and balances, and their contributions to weaving the fabric of global history and society. Efforts of such scholars have led to the understanding that much of our common stock of wisdom about human beings and their history in the past few centuries is “Eurocentric.” Deep and valuable insights about ourselves emerge when we try to get past these blinds.
One of the central themes of the European view of the world is the idea that whole world was in darkness and ignorance, and dawn of the age of reason first occurred in Europe. It is a sign of the weakening of European hegemony that strong evidence against this thesis is now emerging. In The Theft of History, Jack Goody documents how Europeans borrowed and adopted inventions of other civilizations, and claimed them as their own. The Incas were master botanists and created maize by cultivating and cross breeding inedible and poisonous plants. Their inventions continue to feed the planet. Muslim discoveries in mathematics, cartography, heliocentric astronomy, physics, optics, pharmacopia and surgery have been largely suppressed, and European imitators have been put forth as originators of these ideas in current histories.
The one-sided tale of European power naturally creates an inferiority complex among the vanquished. For example, a while ago, an article published in Dawn stated that the British brought concept of public education to the subcontinent. In fact, research by historian Leitner reveals that British rulers crippled and destroyed the indigenous educational systems of Punjab beyond hope of revival, Evidence of embarrassment and shame about our ancestors, heritage, traditions, and nationality is easily found in a broad spectrum of writings of Pakistani authors. On the basis of an incident where two men were beaten to death in front of spectators, a columnist for the Express Tribune recently proclaimed that we are a nation of cockroaches; comments on this column are almost uniformly admiring and agree [later their was a strong backlash]. In Germany, millions of innocent civilians including large numbers of women and children were burned alive in ovens scientifically designed by engineers for this purpose. As the award winning sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has shown in his book Modernity and the Holocaust, this occurred with the knowledge, cooperation and tacit consent of large numbers of the German population. Yet I do not know of Germans who call themselves cockroaches. More recently, the Iraq war launched on false pretenses has led to deaths of more than a million civilian and destroyed the lives of virtually the entire population of Iraq. Yet those who are prepared to condemn all of Pakistan for two deaths, never tire in their declarations of admiration of the USA as an ideal society.
The project of telling the story from the point of the view of the vanquished has been named “Subaltern Studies,” and has made a lot of progress in India, but not as much in Pakistan. It is encouraging that what we used to call the Mutiny of 1857, our children study as the War of Independence. However, substantial additional effort is needed to overcome a deep seated inferiority complex which makes us seek foreign experts for solutions to domestic problems.
Central Listing for my published Newspaper Articles at: The Subaltern’s Tale ; more, related news/articles on Subaltern Viewpoints – stories from those who lost the war — in order to counter the Eurocentric Perspectives we have absorbed.