Thursday, January 18, 2018

Memory and history

“There was a moment in time when the last eyes to have seen Jesus were closed forever”. This is a poetic way of expressing a point very important to everyone who writes about the past: the time always comes when no one is left alive who witnessed or took part in a historical event.

Recently I read an article about how historians have tried to explain the origins of World War 1 (1914-18), and the author made the same point in a different way: “There is a significant difference between writing the history of a subject some of whose sources are still living and breathing, and that of a subject whose sources are only documentary (written)”.

He made the point that the history of World War 1 had made the transition from the first to the second phase: no one is still alive who actually fought in the war. (There may be some persons, over 100 years old, who have childhood memories of the end of the war, but no combatants still survive.)

The outbreak of World War 1—the events of July and August 1914—is being commemorated in this centenary year, and for the next four years, there will be events marking the various episodes in this terrible conflict. But the history of the war can now only be written from written sources.

Soon enough, there will be no surviving persons who fought in World War II (1939-45). In June, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France, was commemorated. And everyone pointed out that this was probably the last time that actual D-Day veterans would take part in such an event. They are all now in their late 80s or 90s.

In T&T, very few persons are still alive who witnessed or participated in the labour uprising of June/July 1937. In 2012, the first general secretary of the OWTU, Elbert Blades, died at the age of 110; he had been central to the events of 1937. Nor are there many living individuals left in Trinidad and Tobago who fought or served in some way during World War II—Royal Air Force hero Ulric Cross died recently—though many older Trinidadians and Tobagonians do have childhood memories of the war years.

This inevitable fact, that people die and their first-hand memories of historical events die with them, should remind us of the importance of oral history. This is the systematic capture of people’s spoken memories of the past, including of specific events such as the 1937 uprising, or Independence Day in 1962, through interviews which are recorded and then written down (transcripts). These recordings and transcripts become oral sources for historians, to be used in the same way that we use written documents, to reconstruct the past.

The author of the article on the history of World War 1 noted that, though no one is left alive who fought in the war, extensive recordings were made in Britain , from the 1950s onwards, of old servicemen and their memories. The Imperial War Museum in London, for example, created and archived hundreds of such interviews. In this way, the oral history method preserves spoken memories of actual participants long after they are all gone.

The oral history method has been used to research T&T history too—Blades was interviewed several times, for example, and these recordings and transcripts are accessible to researchers. There are oral history programmes at The UWI St Augustine campus, run by the Alma Jordan Library and by the History Department, and no doubt other organisations have their own initiatives.

The more the better: we need these oral testimonies, combined with written, visual and archaeological sources, to reconstruct the past in all its richness.

Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of history at The UWI, St Augustine