Reviewed by Richard Tutin
The line “History is written by the Victors” is often attributed to Winston Churchill though its origin is unknown. Even so, the reality of its meaning can often be highlighted when events are put under the spotlight of critical evaluation and interpretation.
In recent times, the way history has been taught in schools has been criticised especially how the given narrative does not always match the full story when other voices are allowed to speak and be heard.
This is especially true when it comes to discussing the interactions between the Indigenous/First Nations communities of Australia and the European settlers and explorers both before and after 1788 through to the present day.
It’s these issues that David Mountain explores and critically examines in Past Mistakes – How We Misinterpret History and Why It Matters. Mountain’s main thesis is that the stories we tell about our past matter. They matter so much that he challenges the reader and budding historians to not only to tell the story but to do it dispassionately and with precision.
Mountain believes that for too long the histories that have been told and written over the centuries have been filled with the prejudices and, what he terms, misinterpretations of the authors who have given us much of the information we know about the world as we understand it. In the process, a lot has been omitted, often intentionally, in order to promote a particular image or point of view. These omissions include the erasing of the contribution of women, the whitewashing of different events and the invention of civilisations.
To prove his point, Mountain takes us on a journey of historical wonder from the beginnings of civilisations through to the end of the twentieth century. Along the way he highlights what he sees to be misinformation that has been documented and accepted as fact by historians, teachers and students as the centuries have rolled by. In many instances he digs deeper by consulting other sources that have either been found or revealed in later times or, for whatever reason, have been totally suppressed and are only now able to see the light of day.
For example, we are familiar with the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. The theorem that bears his name is a mainstay of mathematics. Most school students remember learning it even though they have forgotten how it can be practically applied in daily life. He is credited with the discovery of prime numbers, irrational numbers and the concept of odd and even as well as coining the term ‘mathematics’. Mountain though offers a different interpretation of Pythagoras that is worth reading.
Pythagoras is not alone in being put under Mountain’s penetrating spotlight. Christopher Columbus and the way in which the American West has been portrayed are also examined, often in scathing detail. The erasing of the contribution of women during the late medieval period also scores a chapter that makes for uncomfortable reading and can lead to some deep introspection that reminds us that perhaps not much has changed here in the twenty-first century.
As well as highlighting the misinterpretations, Mountain also canvasses why they have occurred. The promotion of a cult of personality, creating a myth of nation building, slandering other civilisations in order to promote your own and endorsing gender domination are offered as both motives and purposes for the growth and encouragement of historical misinterpretation. He also points to the way in which material has been interpreted in the absence of any other documents or sources.
Mountain encourages us to dig deeper in our historical reading and research. He asks that we look beyond the readily available literature and sources and seek out other voices and points of view. His own meticulous research for this book bears testament to his desire to remind us that while history matters the process is by no means perfect. We need to learn from our interpretational mistakes and avoid making them all over again.
David Mountain is a writer, speaker and editor based in Edinburgh. He is fascinated and infuriated in equal measure by history, politics and philosophy and can’t resist pointing out flaws and contradictions in how we think we understand the world.
Past Mistakes – How We Interpret History and Why It Matters
by David Mountain