True History: What makes it true?
October 19, 2020
History consists of a combination of past events, studied by scholars in some cases, left with rooms for interpretations. Like many other fields, history could be relative, it could as well be subjective. The variations of interpretations make history very complex and versatile at the same time. Concerns are present in this field as to which side of the story one should consider. As truth could be relative, it is often hard for historians to believe in something from one side just because it has been properly recorded. Often times conventional sources could be puzzling. For example, it has been taught for decades after decades though media, and traditional schooling how great Columbus was, and how he “discovered” America; place already governed and ran by the indigenous population. In the book Victors and Vanquished Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico author Stuart B. Schwartz examines the events related to the fall of the Mexican empire by comparing them through the lenses of Bernardino de Sahagun, and Bernal Diaz. (Schwartz 2000, 1-20) Although they bear some superficial similarities, the differences between the accounts are clear. These accounts have been targets of positionality and have been heavily tempered to cater to one side. Truth could be relative, but a true account of history is something that is not filled with positionality.
Positionality is sort of a personal bias reflected in research and writing about certain or most parts of history. Positionality can be influenced by a number of factors including socio-political context of a study. (Rowe 2014, 627-628) Positionality in most cases can bend the truth if not tempering it entirely. Many historical records have been targets of positionality; colonial records are one of the major examples. (Toro 1995, 35-40) The conquest of Mexico has recorded impressions, opinions and stories from participants and observers on both sides. Many Spaniards who participated directly in the conquest had contributed their side of stories in these records. One line from the book by Schwartz shows the presence of positionality in these records— “These accounts reflect the personal, political, economic, and social interests of their authors”. (Schwartz 2000, 15)
Schwartz’s book intends to shed some light on how the traumatic encounters between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of Americas have shaped the world we live in today; although in negative ways. (Pérez 2000, 15) It shows the day to day life in the Mexica civilization prior to the conquest, their rise in the valley; basically, their whole way of life away from the Europeans or rest of the world. They also had the accounts and records of the warfare with the Europeans. The Spanish conquerors’ concept was much different than the records of the peoples of Mesoamerica. (Schwartz 2000, 2-3)
The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica had their ways of life which was quite different from the Europeans. Priorities were different in these societies and the leaders were more of defensive towards foreign aggression than straight up brutal. Religions played a vital role in this society, but they were very different than the ones seen in the northern parts of the world. The people had big pyramids as temples on high altitudes. Religious leaders often used to offer gifts to the god in form of flowers, fruits, and sometimes even humans. (Schwartz 2000, 11) The Spanish conquest had plans to spread Catholicism in the Mesoamerica. Even though the Spaniards claim to have acceptance with their way of progression of religion, they did not have it easy when they wanted to set up the cross on top of a Mesoamerican temple. The Mesoamericans had many different tribes and religious practices throughout the area. When the Spaniards first came to these areas they were greeted with flowers, fruits and gold. The Spaniards had their eye on the precious metal. Although they could not find enough gold to hoard and become “rich” they found the white precious metal named silver in these areas. The Spaniards slowly started mining for these metals and started exploiting local workforce at the mines with less than minimum liveable wage.
Spain was going through religious reunification during the time of these expeditions and invasions. Inquisition was established to insure and enforce the orthodoxy of society, especially of those recently converted from Judaism and Islam. (Schwartz 2000, 12) The voyages of Columbus exposed the South America to the imperials. It grew interest in colonization of the Mesoamerican lands. They have colonized the many islands in the Caribbean, and a few places at the Mesoamerican mainland by 1500-1513. (Schwartz 2000, 13) The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica did not have a strong modernised army similar to the Spaniards back then. As a result, most of the Mesoamerican kingdoms were easily defeated and colonized within the shortest period of time. The colonization caused bloodshed, exploitation, and old-world diseases to the indigenous peoples of the new world. (Schwartz 2000, 13) The Spaniards had the biggest weapon of mass destruction during that time. They had mastered the art of spreading viral diseases among the indigenous population who had little to no immunity against these old-world diseases.
The Mexica and Spaniards were well suited opponents as they had many similarities between how their societies were built and prospered. Both of them had heavy religious influence in their daily lives, and both justified their imperial expansions in terms of theological ideals. Despite all these the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica were stone aged civilizations and did not have much exposure from the rest of the world in terms of technologies. (Schwartz 2000, 13-14)
Historical texts or records are meant to be interpreted by scholars who can extract vital information from the resources. People can have accounts which can be left for interpretations for future references. Whether a record is true or not must be agreed on and validated by opinions and resources of people from both sides. This could bring the accounts to a middle ground and might even reveal whatever could be considered closest to the “truth”. Historical research should be free of any sort of positionality. A historical statement free from positionality is the “true” history.
Pérez, Carlos. 2000. "Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua." In History: Reviews of New Books, by Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua, 112. New York.
Rowe, Wendy. 2014. Positionality. Vol. 2, in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research, 627-628.
Schwartz, Stuart B. 2000. Victors and Vanquished : Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's: Bedford Series in History and Culture.
Toro, Fernando De. 1995. "From Where to Speak? Latin American Postmodern/Postcolonial Positionalities." World Literature Today 69 (1): 35-40.