Saturday, October 31, 2020

The importance of nuanced history - a note

There was an interesting short post on Christopher Moore's History News, Historical Ethics. The post begins:

In 2017 the Law Society of British Columbia removed all the honours and distinctions it had previously given to Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, appointed in 1858 as the first and for a long time only judge in the new colony of British Columbia. Statues were taken down, etc. The Society was acting on a report that condemned Begbie for disregarding indigenous law, putting to death warriors of the Chilcotin war of 1864, and having "negative" and racist views.  

This decision was challenged by a group of B.C. lawyers, many of them long active in indigenous legal matters and legal history, put it to the Society that, while it was appropriate that Begbie no longer be considered the symbol of justice in British Columbia, the report was inaccurate and misleading and unworthy of the Society. They provided evidence to the contrary to the Law Society. When they got no response,  they took their case to the (virtual) annual general meeting of the Law Society, put forward their case as a motion -- and got it passed. I leave you to read Christopher's post for more details. 

Christopher is concerned with questions of both accuracy and nuance in history or, perhaps more precisely, the use of history. The case against Begbie was apparently both inaccurate and also failed to recognise his other achievements. 

My first instinctive reaction was highly sympathetic to Christopher's position, Indeed it still is. However, reflections on my own experience illustrated how difficult the whole area is.

I have written a fair bit over time on questions of selection, perception and bias in the writing of history. I have tried to suggest that bias is inevitable in the questions we ask and the way we frame our arguments. However, in practising our craft we have to be guided by the evidence even where it is contrary to our views. More importantly, we have to present the history in such a way that it is checkable and potentially refutable. 

When I was CEO of the then Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists I consciously used the College's history to support changes that I wanted to make. In that sense, I was no different from those today who are seeking to use history to bring about change including removal of monuments. I was trying to select and weight elements in the College's history to bring about the changes I wanted. However, my selections had to be defensible in terms of evidence. I could not just use history willy-nilly regardless of the evidence.   

I have been running an introductory course on the history of Australia's New England, the Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the north, south, east and west. It's an adult education class and a fairly big effort with 20 lectures and 9 discussion groups. I have found it more time consuming than I expected because the material that I am delivering is new. There are no overall texts. My blogging has suffered as a consequence. I console myself that once the task is complete I will be able to use the material to complete some other writing projects.

I have found that the act of teaching has forced me to address some of the questions that Christopher raises. This is an area where I have some strong beliefs, where I and my own family have been involved in events. I have tried to manage this by pointing to my own biases,

The course also involves contested territories. I have consciously put that in plural. 

The impact of European settlement on New England's Aboriginal peoples is an example. 

I had already presented three lectures on Aboriginal history up to 1788. This is contested territory in itself. I was challenged by Aboriginal people who held different views, including the belief that Aboriginal people had been here from time immemorial. 

I then described the spread of European settlement over the penal and pastoral expansion periods. In doing so, I said that I was consciously leaving the impact on the Aboriginal peoples aside to set a context, for later discussion.

I then devoted two lectures to the impact of occupation against the framework of the pattern of early European occupation, This allowed me to some degree to sketch out the differing patterns of occupation and response. I then took two case studies, the Hunter and the New England Tablelands, to show how patterns replicated while varying, to explain nuances.  

The invasion period is contested territory. My approach meant that I barely mentioned massacres, a dominant trope today. Instead, I focused on the patterns of impact and response, starting with impacts such as disease that extended beyond the moving frontier and on the Aboriginal response. I had wanted to use this as a base for telling the story of later Aboriginal history. It's important because it hasn't been written, but I ran out of time and could only sketch later elements. 

Dealing with these type of issues is obviously uncomfortable. This is where nuance comes in. We are concerned with what happened and the pattern is rarely black and white.   


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