Learning from History

It is important that the teaching of History in schools be started at the earliest, ensuring, especially in respect of Mauritian history, that it is taught based on texts which meet the test of scholarly scrutiny and do not pander to selective amnesia

For decades now, History is not taught in our secondary schools. A Committee of ‘wise men’ are rumoured to be ruminating on how to do so. In a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country like Mauritius, the teaching of History should have been a must. We are fortunate to be a microcosm of humanity having our origins in three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia. We are already a model of intercultural osmosis. Apart from those who have boxed themselves into ivory towers or their narrow sectarian ghettos, mainstream Mauritius is an interactive laboratory of cultural exchange. Obviously, the openness of people to their neighbour’s culture is a function of the tolerant nature and philosophy or otherwise underpinning their cultural values and the ethos of their civilisation. Mauritians with an open disposition adhere to a blended Mauritian culture while preserving the diversity of their cultural roots. Openness facilitates integration. Our model of integration can be proudly showcased to the world as it enriches and ‘synergises’ our plural society.

Depending on one’s receptiveness, the learning of History provides a global perspective on the exhilarating story of humans from their origin in Africa to their migration across the world and their chequered evolution and history to present times. As evidenced by latest studies on mitochondrial DNA and physical anthropology, primitive Homo sapiens evolved some 200,000 to 60,000 years ago into anatomically modern humans solely in Africa. From the use of the first stone tools by the first humanoids to the invention and use of the latest high-tech gizmo, humans have from the first settlements to the birth of the first major civilisations in Mesopotamia (in Iraq), Egypt, the Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution and the present environment conscious cyber Age shown resilience, shrewd innovativeness and intelligence to charter the future.

History is one of those humanities disciplines, like literature, art or philosophy, whose learning helps people think out of the box. The capacity and acumen to think out of the box is a much sought after quality in every field of human activity. In a globalised world, where to be competitive, companies more and more source globally to supply the local sales outlet, knowledge of history and cultural differences allow economic actors to better hone products and services on offer to meet demand and adapt strategies to penetrate new markets. This is so vital in an export oriented country like Mauritius presently striving to tap opportunities or prospect tourists in emerging markets and having the ambition to act as an economic and commercial bridge between Asia and Africa. To know the history and cultural mores of the country and the people we want to do business with is a commercial and economic imperative, if we want to improve our competitive edge.

Exodus and diaspora

Economic downturns, natural calamities, wars and conflicts as well as colonialism have over the past centuries led to massive movement of people across the world. For example, during the potato famine years starting around 1847, about a million poor Irish migrated to the United States in spite of terrible hardships and insalubrious living conditions in the US. Today, they represent nearly 12% of the US population. Similarly, between the unification of Italy in 1861 and the rise of Fascism in Italy in the 1920s some 1.9 million mostly poor Italians migrated to either North or South America. There are today more than 4 million Italians living outside Italy. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade run by European slave traders have forcibly uprooted an estimated 9 to 11 million people from their homes in Africa to the colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. Afro-Americans today number some 38 million in the United States representing 12.6% of the US population.

The Indian indentured labour system in operation from 1833 to 1920 and the more than two million Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire in numerous wars, including the Boer War and the two World Wars, some of whom settled in the lands they fought for as well as Indian emigration have resulted in over 25 million people of Indian descent, the second largest diaspora, living in every major region in the world. The mass emigration of the Chinese from the 19th century to 1949 caused by wars and starvation in mainland China and Chinese emigration have resulted in an estimated 40 million Chinese living outside mainland China.

On a smaller scale this process, fuelled mainly by war and uprisings, continues till today. The conflicts in Sri Lanka, Congo, Syria, Afghanistan or the various Arab Springs have generated their load of emigration or clandestine migrants. As a result, in all the major developed countries, the population is more and more diverse and globalised. However, integration remains a burning topical issue.

Faith and culture

Colonialism and slavery which advanced hand in glove with proselytization, the conversion of the colonised and enslaved people, destroyed cultures, severed the people from their cultural roots and erased their cultural identity. This condemnable process has caused profound damage to the identity and cultural persona of the converted. To repair these crimes of history, Liberia was created to allow the descendants of slaves to reboot with their African roots. Afro-Americans have since the 60s started a robust process of searching for and identifying themselves with their African roots. It is capital that faith and culture remain distinct. It would help the equilibrium of a multi-cultural society if all its diverse components assume and are comfortable with their respective cultural identities. In the Middle East and India or South America, there is a healthy distinction between faith and culture. Both Muslims and the large Christian population in the entire Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq or Egypt, a proportion of whom are followers of the some of the oldest Christian denominations such as the Syriac and Maronite groups, share the same several millennium old culture and traditions as well as a common Arab identity. They have similar names such as Khalil (Gibran the writer), Tariq (Aziz the former foreign minister of Iraq), Fairuz (one of the most popular singers of the Middle East) Yusuf or Mariam as their Arab countrymen.

Similarly in India, where Christianity was introduced before countries in Europe to Kerala’s Jewish community in 52 AD by Thomas the Apostle, Christians have Indian names. Indians of all faiths have preserved an Indian identity and the traditions and mores of the diverse States of India they live in whilst devoutly following their respective faiths. In Mexico, Mayan populations continue to preserve their ancient Mayan traditions in parallel with their Christian faith. This simple and logical rule allows all people to be comfortable with their individual identity and helps eliminate angst in society

Intolerance, fundamentalism and openness

Across the history of mankind intolerance has caused irreparable damage to the world’s cultural heritage and the wealth of knowledge of humanity. Innumerable libraries, rare books or manuscripts have over the centuries been destroyed in the name of religion. The libraries of Alexandria which contained an incalculable wealth of ancient knowledge diligently copied and preserved in papyrus scrolls were destroyed by fire decreed by the Coptic Pope Theophilus in the 4th century owing to intolerance. For the same reasons, all original Aztec manuscripts and codices relating to their religion, calendar, astronomy, astrology and treatises about the divine and the universe were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadores as they were considered heathen. Only codices bearing a Spanish influence remain. The Maya sacred books were destroyed by the Bishop of Yucatan.

The Inquisition destroyed numerous writings in Europe. More recently, extremist rebels who had captured Timbuktu in Mali, a renowned centre of Islamic scholars and scholarship set fire in 2013 to an Islamic Institute housing some 30,000 important manuscripts which serve as a resource for Islamic research. Fortunately most of the documents had been removed to safety before the attack. During conquests, places of worship of the vanquished have been prime targets to be ransacked. For example, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and the Inca temples, buildings and palaces in Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire in Peru were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadores in 1534 and a Cathedral was built on the foundation of one of the Inca palaces.

There is also a narrow and intolerant view on the right to education for girls as evidenced by the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria some three months ago by the extremist group Boko Haram and the gun attack on Malala Yusafzai, who was fighting for the education of girls in the Swat district, in Pakistan in 2012. As punishment, the Boko Haram who considers that girls are not entitled to go to school threatens to sell the Nigerian schoolgirls into slavery. Can the drone programme help?

Pagan, infidels, kafirs, gentile, heathen are all terms which characterize intolerance. From the philosophical standpoint, how can the conceptualisation of divinity and a code of religious ethics based on a distinction between right and wrong, by the thousands of communities across the world be judged as heathen just because they are different from our own? Are not all faiths paths to the same goal? Are not all places of worship like our own? Past indoctrinations die hard among those who believe in the hegemony of their faiths over others. It is only obscurantists who in our day and age think otherwise.

In November 1999, just before the Millennium celebrations, we took a family holiday to Israel and stayed in Jerusalem in Rechavia where the well-to-do Palestinians used to live before the Arab-Israel war in 1948. During our stay, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, all churches and religious sites such as the Via Dolorosa or the Mount of Olives, the Wailing Wall and the Al Aqsa Mosque as well as churches in Nazareth and Bethlehem in the occupied Palestine territories.

We prayed in our own faiths in all these important holy places of worship of the three main faiths that originated in the Middle East and I narrated the story behind each of these places to our children. They each received a medallion from one of the priests at the church on Mount of Olives which on our return home they placed on their own initiative in our Puja ghar. On their return to school, their Muslim friends were awed that they had visited Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site of Islam.

Some nine months later, in September 2000, Ariel Sharon the Prime Minister of Israel made a highly provocative visit to the Temple Mount near Al-Aqsa Mosque which ignited the 2nd Intifada which lasted till 2005. We also visited the Holocaust museum. How can a people who have suffered so much lack the generosity to make peace after 66 years of conflict with Arabs they have lived among for thousands of years?

In the mid 12th century, the first deans of the renowned Faculty of Medecine of Montpellier were Arabs followed by Jews followed by Frenchmen. In India, Nalanda University, founded in the 5th century in Bihar, was the first great University in recorded history. It had eight colleges, one of which was built by King Balaputradeva of Sumatra and was one of the world’s first residential universities as it had dormitories for students. The University which had some of the most famous teachers was a renowned centre of learning for Buddhist and Vedic philosophy, logic, grammar, medicine and received patronage from foreigners. The Chinese pilgrim Xuangzang who studied, taught and stayed in Nalanda University for nearly 15 years said there were some 2000 teachers and some 10,000 students from all over India and from countries like China, Japan, Korea, Turkey, Persia, Greece, Tibet, Ceylon, Indonesia and other countries of South East Asia. He gave detailed accounts of the University in the 7th century. Admission was decided on merit and the benchmarks were so high that as much as 80% of applicants could not be admitted. Nalanda University was financed by generous endowments and royal patronage by the Guptas, Harsha and others. The University was sacked and destroyed by the Turk Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193.

Following a proposal by the President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to revive Nalanda University the project was approved by Government in 2010. Construction works have advanced rapidly through funding of a project outlay of some US$ 1000 million by India with contributions of US$100 million from Singapore and Japan. The first academic session is to start in 2014.

Court scribes pitted against research and scholarship of historians

The Pharaoh Ramesses II wanted to emulate his father Seti I and obtain a victory over the resurgent Hittite forces in the north and expand Egypt’s frontiers into Syria to control the lucrative trade routes. At the battle of Kaldesh, the Hittites who had developed new chariots pioneering the use of iron wheels ambushed Ramesses’ troops who were outnumbered and suffered heavy losses. The Pharaoh fought the battle to a stalemate and returned to Egypt as a hero. Once in Egypt, he proclaimed that he had won a great victory. Ramesses had the monuments in Karnak, Luxor and other places decorated with reliefs and inscriptions describing the battle in details as a major victory. Recent evidence shows that it is the Hittites who won the battle at Kaldesh but the Pharaoh’s court scribes had for thousands of years maintained through false propaganda the unfounded claim of Ramesses.

The learning of history in Mauritius will enable all those in our society who have been robbed of their cultural identity through proselytization or subservience and domination to reboot with their true identity as well as lead everyone to discover the culture, history and values of their other countrymen resulting in a more dynamic cementing of the national fabric. It will also help exorcise the hangovers of past and present indoctrinations by those who thrive on cultural divide and thus consolidate nation building through a better understanding of and openness towards one and all. It will also make everyone be fully cognisant with our own history through the trials and tribulations of the past so as to better manage and arbitrate the future. It will also enable our exporters to become smarter and more savvy economic actors.

It is therefore important that the teaching of History in schools be started at the earliest, ensuring, especially in respect of Mauritian history, that it is taught based on texts which meet the test of scholarly scrutiny and do not pander to selective amnesia. Mauritians remember the dire difficulties faced by the economy and the people in the post independence period marked by two devaluations of the Rupee by 22% in 1979 and 16.7% in 1981, low GDP and the sea change in approach, stimulii to growth, fiscal policy and general policy framework which kick-started a period of sustained growth as from 1984 into the 1990’s.


* Published in print edition on 13 June 2014

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