When I was studying history at ‘A’ level in 1964, our syllabus identified 1492 as the year in which ‘Modern History’ began, the year that Columbus ‘discovered’ the ‘New World’. I was not told that it was also the year in which Columbus, in his relentless search for gold and slaves, instituted shockingly cruel and genocidal policies in the Caribbean islands he had ‘discovered’, including the rapid decimation of the populations of indigenous Arawak Indians. Neither was I told that it was the year in which Muhammad XII, the last Emir of Granada, surrendered his city to the Catholic Monarchs after a lengthy siege, bringing to an end 780 years of relatively peaceful co-existence under Islamic rule in Al-Andalus. And no mention was made of the Alhambra Decree in the same year, expelling all Jews from Spain unless they converted to Roman Catholicism. Clearly, I was expected to assimilate the dominant ‘narrative’ from a Eurocentric perspective, a straightforward ‘story’ about modernity, progress and outreach as pivotal features of Western civilisation and hegemony.
In Deceit & Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others, Robert Trivers refers to ‘false historical narratives’ as ‘lies we tell one another about our past. The usual goals are self-glorification and self-justification…False historical narratives act like self-deceptions at the group level, insofar as many people believe the same falsehood’, unconscious of the fallacies that went into constructing the narrative. In ‘The Power of False Narratives’, Robert Parry gives us an example in the defeat of a modest gun-safety bill in the US Senate which is ‘further vindication of Orwell’s cynical observation that “who controls the past controls the future” since the American Right has persuaded millions of Americans that a false narrative about the Second Amendment is true.’ And Trivers is also surely right that ‘if a great majority of the population can be raised on the same false narrative, you have a powerful force available to achieve group unity.’ The emotional power of such narratives can easily be harnessed and exploited by leaders in the service of identity politics, corporate power or tribal or national interests. Thus, ‘German people have long been denied their rightful space, so Das Deutsche Volk muss Lebensraum haben! (German people must have room in which to live!) – neighbours beware. Or the Jewish people have a divine right to Palestine because ancestors living in the general area some two thousand years ago wrote a book about it – non-Jewish occupants and neighbours better beware.’
I was fortunate in having a very enlightened history teacher whose method of teaching was not to teach at all but to ask the class to research the topic at hand. This was very similar to the Harkness method at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire which I observed in action when I visited the school to investigate the method forty years later. He would ask one of us to give a presentation based on our research, followed by a discussion amongst the class, with little intervention from his side. I recall being asked to give the presentation on Columbus and the ‘Age of Discovery’. Budding iconoclast, subversive rebel and non-conformist myth-buster that I was, I delighted in undermining the dominant Eurocentric narrative. I based my counter-narrative on my eye-opening research into the Convivencia in Al-Andalus which was totally new territory not only to me and the class, but also to the teacher, especially since there were so few books on the subject in our school library.