Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Colonising Moment

History considers cause and effect, or so it seems. It collects the antecedent events, actions, ideologies, social and economic conditions, belief systems and so on to explain a historical moment. Public understandings of history follow this pattern. History is understood to be about knowing what happened in the past, or maybe even about understanding what happened in the past. The professional traditions of ‘historical objectivity’ though, leave historical moments dead, in the past. We tend to publicly forget that history is actually alive and an actor in the present.

The colonising moment is an example of this. Present public versions of the histories of European colonisation may no longer only offer a benign myth focussing the heroism of the settlers, but even these new narratives serve to locate colonisation in a detached past.

Paul D'Amato's story on America's thanksgiving pulls together history and present and begins to unravel the consequences of this great public historical myth. D'Amato explaination of the story of an Indian named Squanto teaching the European 'pilgrims' to palnt corn and saving them from starvation is useful to readers like me, an outsiderwith no knowledge. His account of what is missing from the story, however, sounds very familiar from my Australian perspective:

"What we aren't told is that Squanto learned English because he had been abducted and made a slave in Europe some years before, and the place where he taught the new settlers to plant corn was the village he had grown up in, Patuxet, now depopulated by the impact of European diseases."

D'Amoto's goes beyond simply correcting the omissions of this defining American story noting that "the first Thanksgiving was not the end of the story. The Indians very quickly discovered they had little to celebrate" he tells the story of ongoing oppression and resistance that goes on today. The public history of Thanksgiving is silent on this part of the story.

This article reveals much about two moments of colonisation. One located 400 years ago with the establishment of a settlement at Plymouth, and one located in the present with the annual celebration of this great American public myth.

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