Some time ago, I wrote about the destruction of statues by people who didn’t like the opinions or actions of the historical figures they commemorated. Both sides in that controversy accepted the basic facts of history. They just looked at them from different points of view.
I have recently tried to refute Kanye West’s suggestion that slavery was in some way a choice on the part of the slaves. On thinking about it, I realise that you could say all us historical novelists change the past to suit ourselves. We change history by inserting fiction into it to varying degrees. So is the kettle calling the pot black? Are we guilty of denial?
In what way am I in denial about historical facts?
I try to be true to the known facts of history most of the time. I usually take known facts as my framework and insert fictitious characters and events into them. Sometimes, I make minor changes to the facts in order to make a good story or to make one simpler. When I do that, I mention it in historical notes in the book, unless it is too trivial to mention. I try to avoid denial of known facts.
Disagreement is not denial.
There are many things historians disagree about. Mostly, these are interpretations rather than facts, but sometimes there are historical documents or pieces of archaeological evidence that contract each other. I claim the right to choose which ones to believe, like anyone else. However, I do not deny known facts and am not aware of any historical novelist who does. We don’t need to. The facts are interesting enough, and there’s plenty of scope for being creative without changing them.
Who is in denial about what?
It is amazing how many well documented facts people have chosen to deny in recent times. I cannot know the reasons. Perhaps some people find denial an easy way to deal with things they find inconvenient. Perhaps others are too lazy to go in for proper debate about the past. Here are a few things that some people have denied.
That the Twin Towers were destroyed by an Islamist group.
The Manchester Arena bomb.
The murder of Jo Cox MP.
In the Bible, it says the authorities paid some soldiers to say that Jesus’s disciples stole his body, so people could deny that he had come back to life.
Perhaps you know of a few more?
Denial is the opposite of fiction. It doesn’t involve creativity and it prevents debate rather than stimulating it.
I was amazed to hear that anyone thought slavery was a choice, at least on the part of the slaves. That it went on for four hundred years seems irrelevant. It went on so long because a small number of people with wealth and power found it profitable. (By the way, I don’t accept the idea that most British people benefited from it). You might as well say that prison is a choice. In that case, you might be more nearly correct. You have the choice to do or not to do the crime.
How does slavery come into Highwaypersons?
In Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, the main characters begin by knowing nothing about the slave trade. During the course of the book, (where they are looking for a missing person, solving a murder and uncovering a plot) they learn about the slave trade from a sailor and from a former slave. They encounter a slave owner and a few of his favourite slaves. They also go on board a slave ship that makes an unscheduled visit to a British port.
I assure you that I have not exaggerated or distorted the facts about slavery in that book.
Slavery was in the past: why drag it up?
I have written before about statues and other symbols that some people find offensive. It is obvious that slavery is an issue that does bother a lot of people today. We can’t sweep it under the carpet. I want us all to hear the truth, even the bits we find uncomfortable. Let’s examine the facts and listen to various opinions.
What about the present?
I do not want us to devote too much time to blaming people now long dead, or to arguing about apologies. If you have the energy and inclination to get involved in any campaigns, I suggest trying to eradicate modern slavery: people trafficking, parts of the sex industry and debt-slavery (mainly in the Indian subcontinent).
You could also work on defeating racism today. If educating people about the past helps, then let’s do it. But it’s the present that needs liberating.