The new generation has to keep an open mind with a view to reviewing our history, rediscovering and understanding human nature, unearthing new pre-historical evidence; they will also have to make new adjustments and corrections, forgive always and forget where possible…
By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
As primary school students we had to learn from our geography book, by Ardill, how Mauritius, the Star and Key of the Indian ocean, lies on the route between India, the far East and the Cape of Good Hope which the captain of MV Wakashio ignored. And within our lifetime we saw cane sugar harvesting, then our only Mauritian source of foreign exchange, moving to the fourth place while tourism came to top the list. As grown-ups we asked ourselves how long will tourism occupy the top position without jeopardizing our economy? The cleverest of us thought of climate change with the subsequent rise in sea level eroding our beautiful shores as a potential threat.
The ‘toppling’ of Saddam Hussein. Photo – www.msnbc.com
None of us thought of any imminent danger to our tourism, until Covid-19 struck and practically shut down our hotel industry and tourism; nor were we prepared for the manmade Wakashio disaster. And we suddenly discovered that cane leaves could be used as artisanal buoys to salvage our shores from the leaking oil from a shipwreck – well after they were used as fodder for our erstwhile thatched houses or for producing energy or manure.
In a decade these tragedies striking our shores, Covid-19 and other Wakashio, would be history
That History, linked inevitably to the presence of human beings, is just a mirror to the past nature of man and women interacting with nature; it’s about their emotions, failings, decline and their faculty of rationalization. In 80% of cases it may be about their egoism, cruelty, bias and sadism, while 20% may be attributed to their altruism and budding intelligence.
Few of us simpleton adolescents of the 1960s could have appreciated that truth at secondary school — much to the despair of our history teacher who tried to infuse such wisdom into our heads; but unfortunately, our grey cells were too immature. Leaning towards the science subjects with contempt for such abstract topics like History and too ready to give it a skip, we would still squirm in our shoes when we reminisce about those boring classes, where the only innovation and revenge we dreamed of was to nickname our history teacher “Sommeil”.
Only time and maturity would rekindle in us the truth that history is all about our own ancestors; gradually Socrates’ axiom know thyself would tickle our guilty conscience, driving us back to our past.
History, be it social, military, geographical, political, biological, genetic, religious, intellectual, philosophical or scientific, is like a flowing river of subtle ‘cause and effect’ past events prior to the present time. But is that past a few seconds, some months, years, decades or millennia away?
Consider ourselves. Are we of the future? Surely not. Of the present? This lasts only about two minutes, we are told. So surely, along with our personality and character, we are just the progeny of a past.
Are we not the products of our chromosomes, genes and genomes — where do they come from? They have evolved, mutated and morphed during hundred thousands of years to produce us – a living proof of time gone by. Similarly, the chemical elements in our bones, flesh and organs have been compounded in the bowels of dying stars millions of years ago; we are walking pieces of stars. Recorded within us is the past of our universe. We are history alive! But some smart one may ask: Is the unrecorded past History or Prehistory?
But generally, when we talk of history, we mean recent social, political or military past events that have impinged on our present state of mind, fortune and situation.
As history is a record of our past, it means that someone would be the recorder. And the ultimate question is, how impartial and intellectually honest was the boss of that time or his recorder or scribe? As our ancestors were tribals before forming countries and nations, it was inevitable that each nation had derived different views about what happened in the past. Nowadays each nation or country, limited by its own boundary and laws, would have its own heroes who grew at the expense of other people — the latter viewing the former as villains. The French think Napoleon Bonaparte was a great emperor, but the Russians viewed him as an anti-Christ; those very Slavs who defeated Hitler also, and lost more millions of people than any nation in the Second World War; but the west would still like to belittle the Russians.
Jean Marie Le Pen of France was convinced that the Holocaust, which occurred some 70 years ago, never existed; so also the modern Japanese history books fail to mention the horrors the Japanese military perpetuated in concentration camps in China during that war. The fact is some authorities want to alleviate either their guilty conscience or to suppress the good deeds that the vanquished people had left behind. With time our history gets biased and skewed. Or still as racist emotions run high after a conquest, minority languages or cultures were obliterated to be replaced by those of the victors. And with modern democracy the descendants of those minorities reclaim their suppressed heritage.
The Balkans can illustrate this very well; recently the old Byzantine St Sophie church in Turkey has come to question historical past — first a church, then a mosque, then a museum under a secular policy — it has again been reconverted into a mosque in a more Islamised Turkey which is obliterating its Christian past. India’s Supreme Court’s verdict has put a rest to the dispute about Ayodhya being the birthplace of Lord Ram who is revered by Hindus. In one case the conquerors have monopolized the monument of the vanquished, and in the other the vanquished have come back to lay claim to their rightful heritage. History is being rewritten.
Along with Africans or Asians flocking to richer countries for a better life, descendants of all unfortunate slaves discover that they have to cohabit with the old masters’ descendants on new shores, where the majority community have statues of their heroes who epitomized the devil to the newcomers. Winston Churchill is admired by the Anglo-Saxon for his warfare performance during the Second World War, but others elsewhere in the world hated his racist deeds and remarks. So in the UK a majority of those immigrants want his statue to be pulled down, leading even his sensible granddaughter to suggest that it be shifted to a museum. But the majority of the Anglo-Saxons are not be of that view — Churchill is their hero who must go down in history books, forming part of those who contributed to the fame and valour of their population at a certain time in the past. And after the homicide of the Afro-American George Floyd in the USA, which subsequently unleashed worldwide civil unrest against the atrocities of some colonial-minded authorities, there has been a call to review history, to rewrite it. By extension some past racist heroes and their statues were targeted, for they were no saints just like George Floyd was no angel.
Some 20 years ago when the Americans and British invaded Iraq illegally, many Iraqis were glad to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein, siding with the invaders; the same attitude prevailed in Libya where Gaddafi was dethroned and killed; but surely nowadays many of these local rebels in both countries would have second thoughts with the present chaos prevailing in their countries. Pulling down statues has not brought any solution to their woes.
The European colonialists were convinced that their language was superior; they scrapped and replaced the local ones by theirs, which is still news in South America. Unfortunately, many indigenous people themselves became apologists for those very oppressors, recording history to the detriment of their own people, while the real bitter truths are buried below tons of historical camouflage.
It is against the backdrop of such historical past that the new generation has to keep an open mind with a view to reviewing our history, rediscovering and understanding human nature, unearthing new pre-historical evidence; they will also have to make new adjustments and corrections, forgive always and forget where possible… Surely pulling down statues of heroes — a symptom of our times but not a solution per se — would in itself become another facet of History.
* Published in print edition on 8 September 2020