Thursday, January 28, 2016

Historical Flavour

My knowledge of History is fairly limited to what I learnt at school. Or what I remember of what I learnt at school. I was lucky to have entertaining teachers who livened the classes up. One finished each lesson with a few minutes of listening to music. I am not sure how that connected to what we were learning, but don't think that matters. In High School, the main focuses were South African History and World History. Although we did a project on the American Revolution, the emphasis in World History was the World Wars. In South African History, we looked at the European Age of Discovery, the Great Trek, the Mfecane, the Anglo-Boer Wars, the Anglo-Zulu Wars and the formation of South Africa.

Isandlwana - site of one of the first engagements of the Anglo-Zulu war (1879)

A few years ago, I read Conn Iggulden's Conqueror series on Genghis and Kublai Khan. It is awesome. He takes as many facts as he can find, and then weaves a story around it to make it more readable. Like the history teacher weaving in music, the story teller can bring things to life by melding characters together or twisting plots slightly. As a historian, he adds an appendix where he explains the changes he made and the gaps he filled. Most times, we don't have this, we just hear the story.


Even if we were transported back in time to a place, we would have our own way of seeing the world to deal with. We wouldn't be able to know all the 'real facts' simply because we were there. No individual in that actual time would be able to give us the full truth either. They wouldn't know it. They wouldn't know how to explain it. Some things can't be explained, they can only be lived.

I often go back over my own history. My understanding of it changes. I don't consider this living in the past. As I age and have new experiences, it adds flavour to my previous experiences. Different threads of history make sense in different ways once you know more of the context. Once you reach the age your parents were when a memory happened, you get a new view. Each relationship you have gives colour and understanding to other experiences. Even speaking to people who shared the experiences of your past with you is illuminating. They experienced those moments differently and they have been marinated with a different path.

I learnt a lot about European engagement with South Africa. I didn't read almost anything about the engagement of Southern Africa with Islam. That history is much longer. Europeans didn't discover Africa. Africa was part of the Old World. Africans discovered Europe. I didn't learn about the great empires of Africa. I didn't learn about the richest man to ever live. Musa I of Mali had so much gold at a time when gold was highly valued that you basically can't quantify his material wealth. He could have whatever he wanted. So much so that there are stories of him leaving a trail of inflation in his wake as he headed to Mecca for his pilgrimage.


History, like most learning, is a series of better questions. It is a very good way of unravelling prejudice. Empires comes and go. Learning is shared. Paper is discovered in one place. Numbers in another. Ways of growing food. Tools. These things spread over long periods of time. Neighbouring tribes go through years of vendetta and blood rage, then join together, forget their contempt and direct their hate elsewhere. Hate dissipates. Memories change. Identities change.

The important thing is the more beautiful questions. And the music at the end of the class.

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