Saturday, June 25, 2011
Revisionist History: Leader or Butcher?
Edward Cornwallis was the Britsh Governor who founded Halifax. Streets and parks, a military base, and a school are named after him.
Sorry, a school WAS named after him. It is being renamed. Here is the Globe and Mail article.
The basic facts are that British policy at the time (mid 18th century) offered a bounty for Mi'kmaq scalps, and even though part of the reason for this was retribution for the British scalps the Mi'kmaq were taking, native leaders called for the removal of his name from Cornwallis Junior High School to correct what they perceive as a historical wrong. The school board vote was unanimous.
So Cornwallis Junior High will be named something else after community debate. I never went there so that is only of minor interest to me. A school, after all, is just a school.
But this kind of revisionist history does concern me. I feel the same way about the new re-printing of Huckleberry Finn which removes the N word from the book. About our governement spending money on apologies and payments to people that were wronged in some cases hundreds of years ago.
I am all for opening up the past, to look at it in light of the present and our current societal values and mores. And I understand that some terrible things were done through the years to people who did not deserve them.
That's history. It's not nice. In fact it's quite terrible. Always has been. History, after all, is just a record of what men and women have done to each other over the centuries. Proof if you will that humanity is brutal. But you can't whitewash it all and pretend it didn't happen. And if we stopped honouring those whose great deeds were marred by less heroic aspects...there'd be no-one left to honour.
It has been said that history tells the story of the winner, and that is often true. I am glad there are historians who bring forward the other side of the story, who paint in the brushstokes to give us a more clear picture of what really happened. I am glad native Mi'kmaq historians are giving us their persepective of what Cornwallis did and how it affected them. This only adds to the great historic tapestry and weaves a more complete picture.
But where, I wonder, will it stop? For every hero, there is dirty history. For every conquerer, there is the vanquished. They were judged in their own time and made into the figures they were. To say Cornwallis was not a hero because of what he did to the Mi'kmaqs essentially dismisses the other merits and values that were prevalent in the 18th century.We can't apply our standards to the past and if we do, if we topple them all in the name of political correctness, does this do any of us any good?
The past is what has defined us. We can't change it. It would be better for all of us if instead of trying to reconstruct the past using our version of what is right and wrong (and remember, we only think we're enlightened - future generations may disagree), we recognize each other for who we are today and move forward on that basis.