Wanting to Claim History – Debate

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Who does history truly belong to? Apart from the obvious answer ‘all of us’ – it is no where near so clear. When I was studying and later working abroad, that question came up quite frequently. First, let me disclose that I studied History at Trinity College, Dublin. In England, I was a proud National Trust card-carrying member. We have the ‘shared’ history of our ancestors, but then somewhere along the path, the concept of ‘their history’ and ‘our history’ starts to emerge. So while this might not be a pressing question for the vast majority of people wandering around loose on a Saturday afternoon, it is a question that plagued me for many years.

Prior to 1620 and the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock (a dubious story at best), let’s talk about European ancestry. In 1620 most of our ancestors were busy living their lives in whatever country they called home. Baring migration patterns for food, work, etc., most people lived their lives where their ancestors had lived for generations. There would not have been a split in history and who it belonged to at that point. As the Colonies were populated by immigration, we started to build up American history and a new version of past-history. Consider the Revolutionary War (an insurrection if you were pro-monarchy and living in England at the time).  Americans cut their traditional governmental ties with England. But for a large portion of settlers, the cultural ties remained because they were products of English parentage.

Irish people came to North America to escape the effects of the Famine (and other reasons, of course). Other countries had their immigrants, their reasons from leaving their countries of birth. Of course, they brought their culture and traditions with them to transplant onto North American soil. Then the Western portion of the American landmass opened for settlement.

What is my point in all of this generalized history? Well, who ‘owns’ what?

The English Civil War (for example) is seen as belonging in English history books. It is part of their history. But could it not be claimed by Americans/Canadians of English heritage? Since it took place in 1642-1651 there were only a handful of settlers in America, and largely English ones at that. Is that considered ‘shared’ history or English history? The American Civil war is ‘our’ history, but it had a lot of Irish soldiers.  Do Irish people (in Ireland) lay claim to that war because native-born sons fought on either side? Or hunting buffalo to near extinction. Yes, that is a blemish (big one) on America’s History, but a significant portion of the people perpetuating the slaughter were wealthy tourists from other countries.

There are so many intersecting points of hisotry it is truly difficult to come up with strict delineation. When I visited the Guild Hall in Rochester, UK – apparently they used prison hulks in the River Medway and off the coast for Prisoners of War during the American Revolution. I had to laugh at one account of an English soldier saying how hard it was “not to like the Americans, because they are so similar to us.” Chances were very high that those prisoners were of recent English extraction, or possibly even English by birth. Of course the prisoners and the guards were cut from very similar cloth!

Just something to think about.