Wednesday, August 8, 2007

To the Historian All Men Are Dead

Blogger's note: Since I find myself in dialogue with a bioethicist working in the United Kingdom (see IRBs vs. Departmental Review and its many comments), now seems like a good time to present the views of Sir John Kaye, a British historian of the nineteenth century who used correspondence and interviews, as well as documents, in his work. I first read this passage as an impressionable college freshman, and it shaped my views of what historians do and why.


Sir John Kaye, "Preface," 1870.

From Kaye's and Malleson's History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 (1897-1898; reprint, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1971), vol. 2, xi-xiii.

Dealing with the large mass of facts, which are reproduced in the chapters now published, and in those which, though written, I have been compelled to reserve for future publication, I have consulted and collated vast piles of contemporary correspondence, and entered largely into communication, by personal intercourse or by letter, with men who have been individually connected with the events described. For every page published in this volume some ten pages have been written and compiled in aid of the narrative; and if I have failed in the one great object of my ambition, to tell the truth, without exaggeration on the one hand or reservation on the other, it has not been for want of earnest and laborious inquiry or of conscientious endeavour to lay before the public and honest exposition of the historical facts as they have been unfolded before me.

Still it is probable that the accuracy of some of the details in this volume, especially those of personal incident, may be questioned, perhaps contradicted, notwithstanding, I was about to say, all the care I have taken to investigate them, but I believe that I should rather say "by reason of that very care." Such questionings or contradictions should not be too readily accepted; for although the authority of the questioner may be good, there may be still better authority on the other side. I have often had to choose between very conflicting statements; and I have sometimes found my informants to be wrong, though apparently with the best opportunities of being right, and have been compelled to reject, as convincing proof, even the overwhelming assertion, "But, I was there." Men who are personally engaged in stirring events are often too much occupied to know what is going on beyond the little spot of ground which holds them at the time, and often from this restricted stand-point they see through a glass darkly. It is hard to disbelieve a man of honour when he tells you what he himself did; but every writer, long engaged in historical inquiry, has had before him instances in which men, after even a brief lapse of time, have confounded in their minds the thought of doing, or the intent to do, a certain thing, with the fact of having actually done it. Indeed, in the commonest affairs of daily life, we often find the intent mistaken for the act, in the retrospect.

The case of Captain Rosser's alleged offer to take a Squadron of Dragoons and a troop of Horse Artillery to Dehli on the night of the 10th of May . . . may be regarded as an instance of this confusion. I could cite other instances. One will suffice:--a military officer of high rank, of stainless honour, with a great historical reputation, invited me some years ago to meet him, for the express purpose of making to me a most important statement, with reference to one of the most interesting episodes of the Sipáhi War. The statement was a very striking one; and I was referred, in confirmation of it, to another officer, who has since become illustrious in our national history. Immediately on leaving my informant, I wrote down as nearly as possible his very words. It was not until after his death that I was able orally to consult the friend to whom he had referred me, as being personally cognisant of the alleged fact--the only witness, indeed, of the scene described. The answer was that he had heard the story before, but that nothing of the kind had ever happened. The asserted incident was one, as I ventured to tell the man who had described it to me at the time, that did not cast additional lustre on his reputation; and it would have been obvious, even if he had rejoiced in a less unblemished reputation, that it was not for self-glorification, but in obedience to an irrepressible desire to declare the truth, that he told me what afterwards appeared to be not an accomplished fact, but an intention unfulfilled. Experiences of this kind render the historical inquirer very sceptical even of information supposed to be "on the best possible authority." Truly, it is very disheartening to find that the nearer one approaches the fountain-head of truth, the further off we may find ourselves from it.

But, notwithstanding such discouraging instances of the difficulty of extracting the truth, even from the testimony of truthful men, who have been actors in the scenes to be described, I cannot but admit the general value of such testimony to the writer of contemporary history. And, indeed, there need be some advantages in writing of events still fresh in the memory of men to compensate for its manifest disadvantages. These disadvantages, however, ought always to be felt by the writer rather than by the reader. It has been often said to me, in reply to my inquiries, "Yes, it is perfectly true. But these men are still living, and the truth cannot be told." To this my answer has been: "To the historian all men are dead." If a writer of contemporary history is not prepared to treat the living and the dead alike--to speak as freely and as truthfully of the former as of the latter, with no more reservation in the one case than in the other--he has altogether mistaken his vocation, and should look for a subject in prehistoric times. There are some actors in the scenes here described of whom I do not know whether they be living or whether they be dead. Some have passed away from the sphere of worldly exploits whilst this volume has been slowly taking shape beneath my pen. But if this has in any way influenced the character of my writing, it has only been by imparting increased tenderness to my judgment of men who can no longer defend themselves or explain their conduct to the world. Even this offence, if it be one against historical truth, I am not conscious of having actually committed.

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