Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Muse of History

Saint Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott understood how tough it can be to draw simplistic poetic conclusions from the past...

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.

If the muse of history is speaking to you, it should not be spouting platitudes, or easily digestible moral certainties. Rather it should sound almost annoyingly sarcastic.

Take a relatively local example. Bartolomé de las Casas, the first resident Bishop of Chiapas and first official ‘Protector of the Indians’. According to one biographer he came from a family of conversos, Jews encouraged under duress to adapt to Catholicism as the Reconquista was completed.

He ended up as a missionary to the Maya here in Guatemala. His defence of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean region is often characterised as the beginning of the modern notion of human rights. Crucially, he participated in the Valladolid Debate of 1550, the first time a ‘moral’ enquiry had been held in Europe into the treatment of peoples encountered elsewhere — and was rather firmly on the ‘side of the angels’.

So far, so straightforward. But, whispers the muse, along the way poor Bartolomé made the fateful suggestion that it might be a better idea to import Africans to do all the work in the New World. And thus his very good intentions led in part to the institution that currently more than anything else seems to feed the sense of shame eating away at our civilisation.

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