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History, whitewashed?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

“Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”

The quote by George Orwell depicts the necessity and importance of history, in not only an individual’s life, but for shaping the future generations as well. However, history is often written through a biassed lens, with subconscious and inherent prejudices. It can serve to glorify the past of a country, inducing higher levels of patriotic sentiments in citizens, when compared with showing their ancestors actions in a harsher light.

Colonialism was a traumatic time for all of Europe’s colonies. However, a recent study showed that 44% of British people believe that the UK should still have colonies and were a source of pride when they existed. This arguably distorted belief could be blamed on pro-colonialism historians like James Mill, who justified imperialism on utilitarian grounds, stating that India found itself in an ‘unenlightened and semi-barbarous age’, whereas ‘freedom is the offspring of civilization and philosophy’. Claiming that the British aimed to civilize and educate the Indians, while having never visited the country himself. It could also be due to the whitewashing of history in schools in the UK, wherein their colonial past is but briefly mentioned, and are taught of the reign of their monarchs and fights for freedom instead. These factors ensured the belief of the British people in the righteousness of their ancestors’ exploits. However, many are now pushing for a rewrite to these books, to ensure that children get a more rounded understanding of their past.

History can be rewritten due to political motivations as well. Chile’s school books were rewritten in 2012 to refer to General Pinochet’s dictatorship, as a regime instead. The left wing was outraged at this change claiming whitewash, while the government, of the canter right, maintained that it was simply to refer to it in a more broad perspective, as a military regime. Historically, the right had supported the dictatorial regime while members of the left wing were assassinated and sent to exile. The president of Chile at the time, Sebastián Piñera, himself is anti-communist, thus may have had motivations to paint General Pinochet in a softer light while simultaneously painting Allende in a harsher one.

Scientific and archeological evidence, on the other hand, is one of the most factual and logic based reasons to rewrite history. Evidence of a 1.8 million year old skull now suggests that human evolution was simpler, with fewer deviations and branches initially believed. It may also mean changes in the migration patterns that historians believed that early humans had followed. New found evidence has almost always ascertained a change in history books.

Most historical data and books available today, capture only the lives of a certain segment of society in any given age, the truth in these books thus, would greatly vary. To create the most cogent and factual piece, historians should aim to rid themselves of any inherent biases, and sketch the picture that held the truth for the largest section of people. History rewrites do often try to contain this as well.

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