Objectivity gets thrown a lot in history as a discipline. There are historians who believe that a scholar must be as objective as possible while others believe that it is impossible to be objective. I, as a scholar, have been assaulted with this terminology. As many of you know, I had attempted a qualifying year at the University of New Brunswick last year. Previous to that, I took history and native studies at St. Thomas University, both schools being in Fredericton, the provincial capital. When I applied to do my Masters in history at UNB, I did the usual routine: I looked up a professor who would be best suited to supervise my native history thesis. That professor was quite fond of my thesis topic and readily supported the idea of supervising it. He certainly was qualified to do the thesis, based on his extensive work in the field in which I was studying.
However, my application to their history department was rejected on the grounds that I did not have a strong history background. Evidently my native history courses taught by native historians was not considered history enough as their discipline dictates. However, they had suggested that I take their unofficial qualifying year: taking more undergrad history courses at their institution as a means to catch up to their requirements to getting into their Masters program. This differs from an official qualifying year, in which people who had never taken history courses before can take both undergrad and grad courses in history as a means to catch up. The latter is a promise to be accepted into their program if they succeed. The former, such as myself, have to reapply. I ultimately agreed to this arrangement — and its not because I was stupid! My native profs and I knew full well I was being jerked around. One even suggested that UNB was only accepting students “of fairer skin” and unfortunately there is some truth to that. There was another reason why I was rejected. They stated that they did not have a professor who was qualified to be my supervisor in native history. I immediately attempted to correct them on that assumption, as I had previously arranged a suitable supervisor. Instead I got a snarky response. Therefore, I had decided to take courses at UNB, simply because I had no other plans as the term started shortly after the decision.
I had quickly discovered the appalling historiography UNB practices. I would like to emphasize here that UNB is not full of New Brunswick historians. There were historians from both United States and Canada and further into Europe as well. But to illustrate the context: in a course entitled “the history of the biologicial sciences”, I saw something early on in the course and decided to ask the prof in front of the class, “Are we going to discuss the evolution of the science in Asian, African, and Arabic communities?” The response, “No. We’re just going to talk about European history because that’s the important one.” Of course, there goes Mark’s red flags.
The massive problem I had was actually in another course entitled, “Gender, Race, and Disease in the Early Atlantic World”. Indigenous peoples were not included. Somehow, the fact that 95+% of the population was killed by European diseases just wasn’t relevant to a course that includes the words “Race” and “Disease”. I became known as the angry student in that class, always arguing against the arrogant readings we were forced to read and bringing up the fact that indigenous peoples existed. Worse still was when we came to the topic of African slavery. There is a historiographical theory that suggests that it was too hot in the tropical climates for Europeans to work, therefore they required the use of African slaves to do the work for them as Europeans got deathly sick; and conversely, it was too cold in the temperate climates for African slaves to work in because they get deathly sick, therefore Europeans did the work themselves. This supposedly explains why the northern states and Canada had very little slaves versus the southern states and the Caribbean. To advocate this theory, my prof brought out a primary document of a doctor in Jamaica during the time of slavery who supported that claim.
It was such a racist theory and I made sure to tell her and the class that. The doctor in question was a slave and plantation owner. Of course he would support a theory that legitimates his greed for slavery. But as immediately as I started my rant, my prof slapped me with “you’re not being objective” and that I should be “in the mentality of the times”. Therein lies my issue with objectivity. If I had an issue with a historian’s work, I would be called on for not being objective and my concerns would be labelled as unprofessional. Here is my perspective: historians are absolving slave owners of their judgment in history on the backs of both Africans and indigenous peoples. That is not objective either. Historians can, have, and will always judge Hitler and Columbus, and rightfully so. But I can be accused of not being objective if I judge slave owners?
I had since checked up on some of these facts. African slaves had a high mortality rate, much higher than Europeans in the dreaded hot climates. Most died within seven years from the onset of them being slaves. Many died because of the brutality of their slave owners, certainly. I even found a document where a slave owner pushed his unwanted slaves off a cliff if they were too old or feeble to do the work. But besides that, I have noticed that most of these slaves died from diseases such as Malaria. How does a theory such as one where “African slaves were ideal in hot climates” even get started? A slave owner said so and as a result, we have to believe them. And if we don’t believe them, we have to believe that “in the mentality of the times” those slave owners believed it. I realized too that I had lost the students in that class. At this juncture we were presenting papers to the class and the papers reflected what was learned in the course. Among the papers was this intro line that I memorized, “Slavery was an unprecedented experiment in multiculturalism”. I was so distraught by how this course was shaping the minds of students that I found a quiet place on campus and just cried.
My biggest mistake, however, is not complaining about this course and my prof to my native studies profs from St. Thomas until it was late in the semester. It was actually during a native studies guest lecture by Ward Churchill that I realized what was really happening. I was challenging a history made, created, and maintained by Eurocentric historians and the defense they have against me is to make me look as less of a historian, as less of a professional, and ultimately, unqualified, as possible. Churchill has a book coming out in late January entitled “To Disrupt, Discredit, and Destroy” where he reflects on how academics attacked him (and quite viciously, I might add), because he too challenged the mainstream history. As soon as I get some extra income, I’m buying a copy of it.
Because of this lecture and my subsequent complaint to the native studies profs, a number of things happened. First, I prepared my paper for the course I was in by purposely being the least objective as possible and making it about indigenous peoples and how their doctors were disrupted, discredited, and destroyed by European colonialism. I got a C+ for my efforts, the lowest grade I got all term, but damn I was so proud of that paper. Secondly, one of my native studies profs who heard this complaint, decided to create a super course on research methods with only the students he determined was good enough to take it. He made sure it was offered when I was available to take it. This will be discussed later as “Advanced Research Methods”. Thirdly was, of course, my perception of history as a discipline. My aforementioned prof hooked me up with books on history and objectivity, moral judgments, and the fallacy of empiricism. During all this, I had a third course at UNB with a prof who not only appreciated my work, but had me teach her class on indigenous topics. She not only respected me, but she comes to me for advice on scholarly works in indigenous history.
At the end of term, I got my grades, with my C+ final grade in the evil course. The UNB history department emailed me to tell me that I won’t be accepted into their masters because of my grades and because they did not have a suitable professor to supervise my thesis. I informed the UNB prof who liked me, who in turn was not happy with that course of events, and suggested a few professors at other universities, including one at Saint Mary’s. The email rejecting me from a Masters program also recommended that I drop out from my year at UNB altogether, which really irked a lot of people and did not help the perception a native studies prof had that they only accepted people of “a fairer skin”. But nonetheless, the one history prof who liked me offered to do a good letter of reference for my new applications. I didn’t even ask her, she just said she would do it. This was really big for her to do, because at the time, she was trying to be hired as a full time prof at UNB. She didn’t get it and I fear her helping me had something to do with it.
Consequently, I took her two courses in the next semester. I decided that I wasn’t going to drop out (what the hell was I supposed to do with no money and rent due — applying for jobs is no guarantee I can get one before my bills are due). So that’s two history courses with that one nice prof, one super course on advanced research methods with one of my native studies profs, one course with another native studies profs on native resources, and finally, one course on environmental history with the prof who had agreed to be my supervisor for my thesis. I told the last prof of my issue and he was absolutely stunned — not because I didn’t get in, but because the grad committee rejected me saying that there was no one qualified, when really his publications dictate that he is! Anyway, his course was pretty good, but alas, not relevant for this blog entry. However, it is worth noting that he began his course by saying that it is not possible for historians to be objective. Well… imagine that! Oddly I fear that the objective profs at UNB are working against him too. I made him realize it though. I’m not sure where he headed with that.
The courses that the history prof who liked me taught were on immigration in Canada and… North American slavery! Both courses were excellent. The paper I did for the slavery course actually fought the climatic theory (that it was too hot for Europeans to work and therefore they needed Africans to do the work for them). She loved it! I discussed the fallacy of objectivity and the mentality of the times, but the most important thing to learn about slave plantation owners is that they owned so many slaves because they wanted to make a substantial profit!!!
Now really, was that so hard? Alas, I find that in historiography everywhere. The Beothuks of Newfoundland, for example, were killed off by European settlers either as a hunting sport or as attempts to enslave them. Now we have historians who try to claim that the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk were at war with each other and the Beothuk became extinct because of it. If most of the evidence says that Europeans killed the Beothuk, why are we making stupid theories to absolve those particular Europeans of their crimes? But historiography started out as a Eurocentric ideology, one that was battered and torn apart by historians who knew better. However, it seems like we’re going back to that Eurocentric ideology.
And that leads into the second most important thing I found about slavery: there were Europeans who were dead set against it from day one. When the Spanish and Portuguese committed genocide against indigenous peoples and took African peoples to be their slaves in the Americas, some of the Spanish and Portuguese protested. Where the hell is that in the history books? This isn’t a “race” issue at all. Europeans are NOT inheritantly racist, only those people (European or not) who can make economic gains by convincing others that different peoples are inferior. In other words, the elite: the ones who make the profit, the ones who decide government policy, the ones who have the most to gain. The Catholic Church denounced slavery in 1537; the Puritans in the early 1600s; the Quakers in the mid 1600s. Something tells me that people were against slavery before Christianity even existed.
Then herein lies the story I learned from both the native studies department at St. Thomas and my own research. When the Spanish and Portuguese came to the Americas, they came upon people. According to the European doctrine Terra Nullius, if you come upon land that is inhabited, you cannot claim it as yours. Columbus was told by the Spanish monarchy that if he claims uninhabited land for Spain, he would be given a royal title and ownership of that land. What does Columbus do? He explains in his journals that indigenous peoples were not human, but a species of animal. It didn’t matter that his men were having illegitimate children from their violent rape of indigenous women and therefore could be concluded that they were all the same species. No. Indigenous peoples were not human beings. Hence, as a former prof of mine says, the birth date of modern racism is October 12, 1492.
After attempts to enslave those indigenous peoples of Hispaniola were unsuccessful and seeing that diseases were taking its toll, Columbus decided to kill them all. Yes, it was that simple, I’m very sorry to say. The objective was to clear the island for a sugar plantation after striping the island of gold. The Taìno were an obstacle to Columbus. It was that easy to kill them all because they were considered animals. After that, the Catholic Church decided to have a debate over whether or not indigenous peoples of the Americas were considered human. They spent years debating this until finally, they decided that they were human. Humans that can be converted to Catholicism. Bring in the missionaries. In the meantime, it was considered okay for Europeans to take the land from indigenous peoples because indigenous peoples “were inferior” and therefore it was right for Europeans to take it. The racism continued.
However, given that Columbus had no one to be slaves on this island, he embarked in his many trips from Spain, following the current, to the coast of Africa, where a pre-existing slave commerce was popular. He loaded his ships with African slaves and took them to his duchy of an island. He emptied his ship of slaves, loaded the cargo of produce and followed the gulf stream back to Spain. Efficient. The most important note here is that Africans at this time were not synonymous with the notion of slavery. Slaves could be of any nation, European or African or at this time, indigenous to North America, as the Portuguese demonstrated when they kidnapped a ship load of Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia. However, just as Columbus wanted indigenous land and decided to get it by making indigenous peoples “animals”, Columbus needed to convince people that Africans were inferior and therefore it would be okay to make them slaves. The second aspect of racism was born. Other European nations bought into it, despite European, African, indigenous American, and global protests against it.
This is a history most people won’t get. I had it taught to me in the native studies program and the UNB history department were not teaching it at all. Its not obscure. One look into documentation and you’ll find this history. There are protests against Columbus Day in the States all the time, as there should be. Can you imagine a country having a Hitler Day? How can you not protest that stupidity? I think there needs to be more common sense here, but I fear that if people aren’t taught that history, then racism would always be there.
And history became the focal point for the aforementioned native studies’ advanced research methods class. It was set up to be like a graduate course, which my prof use to do in his former university. Historical materialism was an important concept. The idea that history changes because humans make decisions based on material motives. Why does racism exist? Because if you want to take something that belongs to someone else you have to de-humanize that person and make it seem like they don’t deserve it. A classic example is the appointment of Michëlle Jean as Canada’s Governor General. My previous blog had an entry that reflected the racist comments Canadians made objecting to that appointment. In those comments, they wanted a white person to have the job. “Why should a black person get it?” someone had asked. “She got the job because she’s black,” another suggested. Racism here wasn’t the feeling that someone has deep inside — it was there because a Haitian refugee got the job and a European person did not.
And that brings me to language. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work was front and centre in this course I took. I have to say, that reading P. M. S. Hacker’s book “On Wittgenstein” made me a better academic. I am able to argue so much better with the knowledge that little book contained. Language has meaning. Meaning is use. All languages are constructed so that one can lie, otherwise that language would not be able to function. Think about it… why should we take that doctor slave plantation owner literally when he says that its too hot for Europeans to work and therefore there must be African slaves? The idea that he could be lying at all never occurred to the prof (or if it did, she was quite smug to keep it silent). Primary documents CAN lie. Anybody CAN lie. It forms propaganda. How do you legitimize slavery? Do you use “Well I have slaves because I am a greedy immoral jackass that can make a substantial profit if I don’t pay my workers” or do you use “I need slaves because its too hot in this climate and I get sick and I must therefore get Africans to do the work for me because Africa is hot and therefore they would be okay to work in this heat without getting sick”?
This advanced research methods course was the most valuable course I had ever taken and my prof designed it with me in mind. The objective was to make me an arguer. And I became an arguer. I hope others from that class picked up on that objective.
So then it came time for my application to other universities. Because I had four universities to get transcripts from plus application fees, each school I applied to would cost me at least $190 each. So, that year, I could only apply to one — Saint Mary’s in Halifax. I picked that one because the UNB prof that liked me suggested a prof there first, so I gave it a shot. I did the routine. I emailed the prof and discussed my thesis idea to him (the same identical thesis as before). He liked it and we ended up talking about the Acadian deportation based on a theory I had, but that’s another story. Then I applied.
Now, my UNB transcript had this glaring C+ on a senior seminar course. I had two options: ignore it and hope the SMU profs won’t notice or address it right away. I decided to address it — forcefully. I told them about my objections to the theories addressed in the course and submitted as part of my writing sample, the C+ paper I did, and frankly told them that this was the historian I am and that I wasn’t going to change.
A few months later, I was informed that they had accepted me with a full scholarship. By this time, I was working on a paper for my native resources class. My prof for that loved it and gave me an A++ on it. I had never received an A++ on anything, but damn, I highly recommend it. That feeling you get with two pluses is something else. Anyway, she and I are looking at publishing it with another paper of hers in a potential collection of works. I had discussed the idea with my new supervisor here and we’ll see where that leads. In the meantime, I had moved to Halifax and started a Masters program in History.
Believe it or not, all of the above was a prelude to what I’m going to talk about in Part II.
-end part I