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Sunday, 20 November 2011

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Reclaiming history

As I pointed out in the previous week’s column, one of the major concerns of the postcolonial writer is reclaiming history. A fact that a postcolonial writer should be aware of is the existence of the versions of colonial history which often colours native with black.

Historiography has been a weapon at the hand of colonials. Promod K Nayar observes, “As James Mill’s History of British India (1817) and numerous other works have demonstrated, they were written from specific racial, class, ethnic, and political standpoints, and appropriate for imperial purposes. On occasion, such ‘white histories’ were used to catalogue native ‘crimes’ as evidence of the latter’s barbaric nature”.

Many theorists have argued that the colonialism was grounded on the very notion of ‘othernesses of the other. It has been pointed out that the entire discourse of colonialism was based on the us/them, I/them binary. In that binary, the Europeans stood for self while the native for ‘Other’. What this binary means is that the power of defining and governing the savage Other, naturally, vested with the Europeans.

Promod K Nayar has pointed out that such discourse on history has been effectively used recently to justify war against ‘terror’. “Perhaps, the best examples of such pseudo-evidentiary history –which could then circulate as justifications for colonial tyranny, much as discourses on non-white despotism and threats have been used recently to justify was against ‘terror’- are available in the white narratives about American Indians.”

In the narratives of captivity and battle from the 16th century downwards, the Indians were depicted as vicious and the white immigrants (to the New World) as the innocent victim. Nayar points out ‘Recorded history of the New World Immigrants narrativised either European heroism or their sufferings at the hands of the ‘villain’ Native and said nothing about the massacre of thousands of Sioux or Micmac people. ”

Perception

What is obvious in such historiographies is that it is one dimensional and single perception. Nayar citing the poem ‘Thanksgiving Dinner During Pelting Season’ by Mary Moran, points out how Moran captures the colonial version of the Indian-European encounter.

“The catholic church tells us stories about
Their early missionaries in Canada. They say
The Iroquois made savage attack on the clergy.
They say the Indians captured Anthony Daniel and
Flayed him. They say Iroquois strung a necklace
Of red-hot tomahawks around Jean de Breboeuf’s neck
Then “baptized” him in boiling water. They claim
The tribal members drank his blood and that
The Chief ate de Breboeuf’s heart. ”

Nayar observes that the focus of the poem is on the Indian’s barbarism, the death of Europeans and the violence that marked the encounter. Audre Lorde, writing about Apartheid, observes the one-sidedness of the white man’s historiography.

“I reach for the taste of today
The New York Times finally mentioned your country
A half-page story
Of the first white South African killed in the “Unrest”
Not of Black children massacred at Sebokeng
Six-year olds imprisoned for threatening the state
Not of Thabo Sibeko, first grader, in his own blood
On his grandfather’s parlor floor…”

Propaganda

It is a fact, that during the anti-Apartheid struggle, the propaganda played a major role and it can be concluded that the white man’s historiography projected a one-dimensional history reinforcing the views of the white minority in South Africa. The ultimate objective of such exercises was to depict the European as the most civilised race and native as barbarians.

“ ... such a historiography, supported by new discipline of archaeology (which has been used to bolster Western values), located Europe at the centre of the world and at the top of the human evolutionary order, with Asians and Africans at the lower end of the scale. This depiction of native culture in ‘definitive’ and ‘authoritative’ works of history –especially after history became a ‘ science’ in the nineteen century enabled the colonial ruler to justify European presence. Dismissing native spiritual views in favour of the material and the religious in favour of the scientific, anthropology, history, and archaeology constructed the great colonial binary: savage native /advanced Westerner. Further, these same biased works were used to teach ‘native’, so that it produced natives who had assimilated the white man’s values” states Nayar in highlighting the colonial project which re-shaped or reconfigure the thinking of the native and the pivotal role that the education played in the project.

Sri Lankan scene

The re-writing of the local history and righting the history has been a dominant matrix in the corpus of pre-colonial and post-colonial literary works in Sri Lanka. Though one may tend to dismiss the early pre-colonial literary productions such as those by writers like Piyadasa Sirisena and S. Mahinda thera as pure rhetoric and propaganda works on account of their literary value, it is obvious that what they attempted was to re-write colonial history in their own modes and manners. Often they contested the spread of European culture and pagan religions.

This literary movement, on the one hand, was a natural outcome against the backdrop of anti-colonial political campaign and the native resistant to the alien culture and faith, on the other hand. Although Martin Wickremasinghe chronicles the pre and post colonial history as a sub-text to his famous trilogy Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya and Yugantaya, it is unclear whether serious attempts have been made, so far, to contest the colonial history in Sri Lanka. Unlike in South Africa, Sri Lankan case is that the authorised version of white man’s history seemed often to be reinforced by the Sri Lankan historians. Re-writing or righting the history seems not taken seriously by Sri Lankan literati in general and those who claim to be ‘post colonial’ writers in particular.

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