Writing History

This sounds a bit dull but in the current climate, the words we use and how we use them is becoming more important. Advice to aspiring novelists often suggests they avoid qualifiers such as very, often etc when more precise terms can reduce their word copy to and make the prose more lively.

That’s fine but in history we often deal with vagaries, gaps in records and errors so we need to qualify what we say to ensure accuracy. Using terms to imply certainty can be misleading and may deter further investigation which could reveal another version.

I recently found a claim that all civilisations before the 19th century were based on slavery. This assumes the author has investigated every civilisation to reach the conclusion. And how should civilisation be defined? Such concrete claims suggest the author knows more than they do. This is why I do often use terms like I think, possibly, approximately etc.

A prime example of this was the announcement of a death of a merchant in the 18th century press. If I was researching him I would have noted that as fact and moved on. But the following week the editor complained that he was still alive and asked people to check their facts.

A few weeks later the same man was announced dead. Again this was rebutted and the source condemned. Yet a third announcement was published.

What on earth was happening?

This was before local journalism. Editors relied on public supplying most of their news. So, did someone wish the man dead? Was he ill and not expecting to recover, these reports were close to the truth?

My guess is it was a joke among his friends to see how often they could fool the editor. But that’s a guess. I don’t know and am happy to learn the truth.

I think it was Aldous Huxley wrote how you can mislead people by using concrete language. He claimed the finest image of a certain saint was in a church he named. His listeners assumed he was knowledgeable and had seen others for comparison. He may have only seen the one. There is no way of knowing.

Likewise in the wake of the Colston statue removal there have been statements about the Royal Africa Company being the largest shipper of slaves.

This is true but what others were there? As I understand the South Sea Company took over the business for a time but the rest were by groups of individuals. Promoters were merchants or ships captains who sought investors from colleagues & the public who purchased shares to spread the risk.

Context also matters. The Diary of Thomas Turner is a record of the life of an 18th century shopkeeper. He was unhappily married to a wife in poor health. He often wrote of how he wished he could love her. She eventually died and his diary ended when he married his servant and had a large family. It seems his diary was a substitute for a sympathetic friend, a way to cope with his sadness.

One thought on “Writing History

  1. I found this post extremely interesting. I completely agree that when we’re writing or talking about history we should always try to be as accurate as possible and so in many cases we should probably use qualifying expressions like “quite often”, “in certain cases” and “most of the time” when we’re making general claims as it’s impossible for us to know about every single instance or example and it’s better to err on the side of caution!

    Like

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