History is More Than Old Stuff


Because I am an historian (and maybe in particular because I'm an historian who calls myself "an historian" rather than "a historian,") people assume that I have a love for all things old.

Part of this, I am sure, stems from misconceptions about how we define history as an academic discipline. It is likely that every community in the world has a keeper of the old stories and the old things, and being a holder of historical facts and objects, often, is different from the way academic historians "do" history. Therefore, when I travel and experience "old" things and ways, I think less about what happened and more about what it means.

I have been teaching European history for quite some time. In fact, I have taught at least one European history class every semester of my professional career. Therefore, I suppose, people expect me to know all the names and dates from European history. While I don't know them all - we have technology now, so memorizing dates is a useless endeavor - I do know the important trends in European history. Those trends deeply influence the way I am experiencing Europe so far this week.

Imperialism is the primary lens through which I see and understand history, and I have been looking for vestiges of that history here in Europe. My students always seem surprised when I talk about Belgium's imperial history because the Belgians were not as prolific as, say, the Spanish, in their empire-building efforts. However, Belgium is part of one of the more brutal and tragic chapters in the history of Imperialism.

In the 1880s, King Leopold II of Belgium managed to personally lay claim to a large portion of central Africa. He founded what would become known as the Congo Free State, and he did so not for the benefit of Belgium, but for his own personal benefit. The Belgian government loaned him money to pursue the project, and the result would be some of the most brutal treatment in a system characterized by brutality. In his landmark book King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild estimates that as many as 10 million Congolese people were murdered or subjected to other brutalities at the hands of Leopold's agents.

In my experience, the people here know that, and they regret it. So far, all three of the Belgian people with whom I have discussed the country's history have acknowledged the country's imperial past. Two of them brought it up first when I mentioned that I am an historian of imperialism. This stands in stark contrast to the way we understand our history as colonizers in the United States.

Often, on social media, I am struck by how defensive Americans are about their past imperial sins. Whether discussing our obligations to Puerto Rico or our treatment of indigenous peoples, many Americans have a cavalier attitude about it. I know many people who say that the domination of white people over people of color was inevitable. This thought disgusts me, and it is rooted in racism. Our history of genocide against indigenous peoples in the United States is a disgusting sin, but few Americans, it seems, really care.

As I continue to travel in Belgium, I am hopeful that I will have the opportunity to talk with other Belgian people about their collective past. In Belgium, as in the United States, it seems that we know a good bit about WHAT happens. The disconnect, it seems, appears to be in deciding what the past means. Yesterday, a faculty member at a college we visited explained that the Dutch understand wealth as human capital, not hard resources. In the United States, we just aren't there yet. Perhaps that is why we are so comfortable, as a society, with our history of murdering innocent people in order to steal their resources. Some day, I hope we reach the point of regret, then corporate repentance. Belgium, it seems, has already reached that point.

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© 2019 -  Joshua Wilkey - This Appalachian Life