What to believe?

Napoleon Bonaparte was once reported to have said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”   George Kitson Clark once said, “No historian should be trusted implicitly.”  Norman Pearson is quoted as saying, “To look back upon history is inevitably to distort it.” There was a time whenever I read something in a history book or was taught something in a history class, I believed it to be the “Gospel truth.”  Now being older and wiser I no longer do.  So why would I say that?

imagesI recently read a book titled, Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. What surprised me, was that Mr. King claims that the massacre that allegedly occurred at the Alamo was a fabrication, a story created over the years. But that is not what history says.

I did some internet research and Wikipedia says this about the Alamo massacre: “In the early morning hours of March 6, 1866,  the Mexican Army advanced on the Alamo. After repulsing two attacks, the Texans were unable to fend off a third attack… Between five and seven Texans may have surrendered; if so, they were quickly executed. Most eyewitness accounts reported between 182 and 257 Texans died, while most historians of the Alamo agree that around 600 Mexicans were killed or wounded.”  I checked other websites which say more or less the same thing. So who is right?

Mr. King also says, the story about Pocahontas and John Smith, perpetrated by Disney’s movie Pocahontas  is also a myth, or in other words a fabricated story. He claims that John Smith would have been 24 years old and Pocahontas maybe 10 or 12 years old at best.

Now Disney’s version of the story is one of romance between an American Indian woman named Pocahontas and John Smith, who journeyed together to the New World with other settlers to begin new lives.  Do the children, or even adults for that matter, who have watched this movie believe they have watched a historically accurate depiction of events of the past?  Probably.  My experience as a teacher has been most young people think what they see in movies and on television is truth or is real history. At least Wikipedia sets the record straight about the story of Pocahontas as it says, “In a well-known historical anecdote, she [Pocahontas] is said to have saved the life of an Indian captive, Englishman John Smith, in 1607 by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him. The general consensus of historians is that this story, as told by Smith, is untrue.”  So we know Mr. King is likely right about the Pocahontas story.

In July of 2007 while on a family trip to Eastern Canada,  we visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, NS. At that time there was an exhibition on pirates. It was interesting to learn that commonly held belief that pirates make their enemies walk the plank as well as the belief that  pirates often have parrots on their shoulders are myths. We learned that these are myths. There apparently is no historical evidence to support these commonly held beliefs about pirates. Also, the wide held belief that pirates buried their treasures is also a myth. I guess I was somewhat disappointed to learn about these untruths as I always thought pirates did bury their treasures.

So what else have we been taught that is NOT a historical truth?  According to the article, Facts Prove Everything You Thought You Knew About History… Is Dead Wrong, Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He only discovered the Caribbean Islands.  I don’t know about you, but I was taught in school that Columbus discovered America.  It has been proven that the Vikings were in North America before Columbus as there is an archeological site at the northern tip of Newfoundland where they discovered the remains of the Viking’s houses. In fact, they reconstructed a replica of the settlement about 100 yards away from the site. It has been unquestionably determined that the Vikings were there for about 10 years, specifically, Leif Erikson and his extended family. I guess I can erase that untruth from my memory.

Dictonary.com defines the “Napoleon complex” as the condition of being small in stature but aggressively ambitious and seeking absolute control. It could just as easily be called the “Short Man Syndrome.” In other words, this complex is named after Napoleon Bonaparte because of the widely held belief that Napoleon was short. But according to the 16 facts article I referred to earlier, the truth is Napoleon Bonaparte was not short at all. He was five feet, seven inches. That was slightly taller than average for a Frenchman at the time. Another historical inaccuracy to erase from memory.

The idea that Albert Einstein failed math in school is an urban myth (see 20 things you need to know about Einstein). It turns out that Einstein didn’t fail math in school, it was a false claim published by Ripley’s. The truth be known is that when he was 15, he mastered differential and integral calculus which makes sense since he is widely held as one of the world’s few geniuses.

Then there is the History Channel series called Hunting Hitler that proposes that Hitler faked his own death, escaped through the Berlin underground to an airport, flew to Spain where he was smuggled onto a U-boat and taken to Argentina with a stop at the Canary Islands. He then lived hidden in the Argentina jungles and was eventually seen in Brazil and Columbia. Now I was always taught that Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin in 1945 although this apparently has never been confirmed. Now I must say after watching eight episodes and considering the evidence provided, I am now thinking what I’ve been taught about Hitler is wrong. I am now leaning towards the premise that Hitler did not die in his bunker in 1945.

Louis_RielIn Canada, history has always taught that Louis Riel, a Canadian Métis trailblazer, who led two resistance movements against the Canadian government and its first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald was a traitor. He was a traitor because he led two rebellions known as the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870 and North-West Rebellion of 1885. In July of 1885 Riel was charged with treason. Riel was publicly executed by way of hanging in November of 1885. Since that time, the majority of Canadians have held the belief and been taught in school that Louis Riel was a trouble maker; someone who betrayed Canada which is why he was hung for treason. This is what I was taught in school and I have always believed that he was an insane traitor of Canada.  Ironically, on March 10, 1992, the Parliament of Canada passed a unanimous resolution that named Louis Riel as founder of the Province of Manitoba, because of his role in defending the interests of the Métis people and contributing to the political development of Western Canada.  So what is the truth?  Was he a traitor or was he one of Canada’s founders?  Personally, I now side with Riel as a hero who was willing to stand up to the government of the day for the rights of his people; the Métis people.

So what is a person to believe?  Should we trust what we read in the history books or what we see on the History Channel? I think not.  We must at the very least be skeptical. It is interesting how a person can grow up learning about historical events only to discover later in life that those events are untruths, or at least they have been exaggerated.  Having taught Social Studies for years, I have always taught my students to be skeptical.  History involves interpretation of the events that occurred in the past.  Therefore, interpretations can be slanted, exaggerated, and falsified.   To quote the Roman poet Phaedrus, “Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.” Things are seldom what we’ve been led to believe. I guess now I have become a bit of a skeptic.

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Author: Sommer season all year

I am a retired school teacher. I taught high school for 35 years.

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