Historical Veracity and Other Oxymorons

The narrative of history is seldom balanced and factual. It isn’t history’s fault. Unfortunately, history has a nasty habit of changing depending on who’s telling the story. History, it’s been said, is written by the winners. If a nation or tribe is engaged in a battle and the battle ends badly, in the retelling of the battle the heroic efforts of the victors may overshadow the heroic efforts of the losers. That’s plain old human nature.

Then again there’s the problem of memory. If the battle in question was waged yesterday, it’s easier for the story teller to recall the details than if it took place a hundred years back. And there’s the problem of context. If the narrator was conscious during the first half of the battle but was out cold for the second half, he or she won’t have much to say about the big finish.

And finally, there’s the problem of embellishment. Sometimes a story teller just can’t help spicing up the story. Often a well-told tale is better received than a boring recitation of facts. Well, to be perfectly honest, some story tellers are natural born liars. Let’s take a case in point.

Christopher Columbus discovered the new world in 1492. He had three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He sailed under the flag of Spain (even though he was Italian by birth) and claimed the lands he visited in the name of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. His voyage was intended to map out a new route to Asia from Europe in order to expedite trade. And he called the natives “Indians” because he thought he’d sailed all the way to India, and the name stuck. This much we know from history.

Had the Taino people written the narrative they might’ve put a somewhat different spin on the event. They might’ve described a peaceful people living in a flourishing culture in the Caribbean who were one day accosted by a mob of matchlock-toting hooligans. These brash strangers from abroad, speaking a strange language, violated the sanctity of their bucolic paradise and forced them to surrender their pagan beliefs in favor of strict adherence to a code of conduct they neither understood nor embraced. Alas, the Taino people had no written language and their own Arawakan tongue was destined to die out after a hundred years.

In conclusion, don’t believe everything you read. And believe only half of what you’re told. Unless the person telling the story is holding a matchlock to your head. Then go ahead and believe whatever gets you through the night. Or through the ensuing millennium. Cheers!

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