Why can't you believe everything you read in a history book?
November 19, 2007 5:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for two brief historical accounts of the same event or events, to show how history can be distorted. Bonus points if the events relate to European encounters with indigenous peoples in the Americas.

It doesn't matter what event or period of history this recounts. I'm just looking for a couple of paragraphs in each account - and it can be as specific as the conduct of the Conquistadors in a particular battle or as broad as the settlement of the American West. The key things is to show how historical events for which we have good documentary evidence can be presented radically differently, especially in a propagandistic way with the more traditional account.

It doesn't really matter if the more modern account is itself not balanced, as long as it's at variance with the first. Thanks very much!
posted by Dasein to Education (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Pick up a copy of Zinn's A People's History of the United States and contrast almost any part of it with any standard High School history text.
posted by jon1270 at 5:41 AM on November 19, 2007

Bartolome de las Casas "A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indes" contains a number of short descriptions of how the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, Central and South America were encountered (ie killed) by Europeans. It's pretty sensational stuff. Any section could be compared, as the poster above me suggests, with a standard high school history text.
posted by greekphilosophy at 5:51 AM on November 19, 2007

Lies My Teacher Told Me has lots of examples of this.
posted by grouse at 5:52 AM on November 19, 2007

Silencing The Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot is about this specifically. This is one of my favorite books from college. Highly recommended.
posted by zennoshinjou at 6:46 AM on November 19, 2007

Seconding Zinn. Excellent work on his part.
posted by mateuslee at 6:49 AM on November 19, 2007

Find the first-hand account of the Pilgrims stealing corn from Indian burial mounds, to contrast with the other descriptions of the first Thanksgiving.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:03 AM on November 19, 2007

Have a look here.
posted by Miko at 7:13 AM on November 19, 2007

This is kind of interesting, and happend at the time (as opposed to being reported differently in later histories):

In fact, the bilingual Treaty of Wuchale did not say the same thing in Italian and Amharic. The former text established an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia, which [Ethiopian Emperor] Menelik discovered soon afterwards. The Amharic version, however, merely stated that Menelik could contact foreign powers and conduct foreign affairs through Italy if he so chose.
posted by Doohickie at 7:44 AM on November 19, 2007

Jennings' 1976 _The Invasion of America_ would be a good counterpoint to the New World myth.
posted by absalom at 7:47 AM on November 19, 2007

Thirding the Zinn book. Instead of contrasting it with the standard high school history book, one can also look up corresponding events in books by Paul Johnson, for maximum cognitive dissonance.
posted by chengjih at 8:08 AM on November 19, 2007

Perhaps more literary than what you're looking for, but Gabriel García Márquez's novel "Crónica de una muerte anunciada" (chronicle of a death foretold) is essentially 4 retellings-- some mutually exclusive-- of a murder as an investigative journalist searches for the real story in a small town in colombia.
posted by conch soup at 9:36 AM on November 19, 2007

By far the most profound treatment of this theme that I know of is Marshall Sahlins' "Islands in History", though you might also benefit from reading Obeyesekere's book on the same topic of "contrapuntal" Hawaiian & European narratives of Captain Cook in Polynesia.
posted by Rumple at 9:52 AM on November 19, 2007

Whhops, I see you are looking for two brief accounts. Well, there will be plenty of accouts transcribed in both of those books, maybe even via googlebooks or something.
posted by Rumple at 9:57 AM on November 19, 2007

In my country of birth there was a deposition of the head of state in 2004. The world was led to believe that there was a lack of leadership and widespread corruption. Upon my own investigations I uncovered a monumental matrix of deceit and political intrigue Involving the C.I.A. the National Endowment for Democracy, The IMF and World Bank and the I.R.I! This country, the most steeped in History of all sovereigns nations in the West Indies, one of the best revolutionary tales(The black Jacobins defeated Napoleon's brother, aided Simon Bolivar in his revolutions, forced the Louisiana purchase and even aided the American Revolutionary war), moniker-ed Tragedy of The West stands today as the poorest country of this hemisphere. It is Haiti.

This historic event was recent (although much of it's History is distorted).

You'd be hard pressed to find anything since this is just another shameful footnote in American politics and no one cared much (Presumably because it was about poor people and poor black people). THIS is as much The NYT is able (willing?) to get. but THIS is the real story detailing exactly how the press spun it. (from a UK based periodical)
posted by Student of Man at 4:07 PM on November 19, 2007

How about taking a passage from Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore and setting it alongside a passage from one of Hughes's right-wing critics such as Keith Windschuttle? The point is that Windschuttle doesn't accuse Hughes of falsifying the facts, he criticises him for the way he selects evidence and organises his argument, which makes this a very good case-study of the practice of history.

Another good example would be to compare and contrast two different accounts of the Indian Mutiny (aka the Indian Rebellion, aka the Indian War of Independence) .. plenty of different perspectives to choose from.

The object of the exercise, I take it, would be to show that it's possible to take the same set of facts and come up with radically different interpretations of them. That's where the Hughes v Windschuttle example is so useful. The trouble with using Zinn is that the facts are very much in dispute and the whole exercise might easily turn into 'OMG TEH TRUTH!!' versus 'TEH PROPAGANDA!!' which would not be very interesting. What I mean is, it's possible to look at the Hughes v Windschuttle debate and feel that whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, both writers are genuinely trying to tell the truth as they see it; whereas with Zinn v the rest there are accusations of deliberate dishonesty flying about, and there is really no middle ground: if one side is right then the other side must be acting in bad faith.
posted by verstegan at 3:07 AM on November 20, 2007

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