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Alternative History: an Introduction

Alternative History: an introduction

What is ‘Alternative’ History? I ask this question because it is one that I have put to me quite frequently. When I mention the subject at lectures it is frequently been pointed out by well-meaning critics that there is no such things as ‘alternative’ history. The past is the past; what has happened, has happened and that is that needs to be said. Well of course up to a point this is true. Facts are indeed facts. For example there is no alternative to the fact that Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and was succeeded by James I. To suggest otherwise is either to display ignorance of the facts or to be making mischief for the sake of it. However, not all of history is as cut and dried as this would suggest. The job of the historian is not just to be an accurate chronicler of events. In any case this an impossible task since so much is going on at any given moment that no one person has the full picture. It is the role of the historian to tell ‘his-story’, i.e. to put events into a comprehensible framework where they make sense.

Now this is where the problems set in. Historians seldom operate alone but draw their material from consensus opinions. They are also mostly subject to political and economic pressures to tell their stories in ways that flatter the powerful and bolster the claims of ruling elites. Now you may think this is no longer the case: that with our universities and colleges independent of Government, that historians are free to write and teach what they like but this is clearly not the case. Historians who want they careers to prosper are under immense pressure to conform to the requirements of those in power. If they do not do this, then they are in danger of their funding being cut and not receiving the promotion or recognition that they might otherwise expect.          This is certainly of the teaching of emotive subjects like the British Empire which since the 1960s has gone from being regarded as a universal good (bringing Christianity, medicine and the rule of law to millions of people in Africa and Asia) to a shameful force of colonial suppression (destroying native cultures, exploiting the agricultural and mineral wealth of foreign lands,  treating people of colour as inferiors).  This is a particularly good example as it shows how within a generation of so, what was considered as not just an acceptable but even admirable interpretation of British history has changed, It has done so not because the facts are any different now from how they were in 1950 but as a result of political changes. What might have been politically correct in 1950 is no longer so now. Conversely, what was considered unacceptable and even shameful then is now, because it is ‘politically correct’ within the current context, is taught openly (for example that the Indian revolt of  1857 was a justified uprising against colonial oppressors and not just a ‘mutiny’ of troops who should have stayed loyal to the British crown).

All this is fairly easy to understand within the context of the modern world. The history taught today in Britain, in a country that is still in turmoil following its relegation from super-power status at the time of the Suez crisis, is bound to be different from that taught at the time the British Empire was at its height. What is much odder, though — and arguably of greater interest to us here — is the way that the teaching of ancient history is also subject to manipulation..

Now it may come as a surprise to some people to hear that the history of ancient Britain as today taught in schools and universities is profoundly different from that understood at the time of Shakespeare. One example is the idea that the Welsh, Irish and Scots are all ‘Celtic’, i.e. descended from a family of nations that we call the Celts. Today we take this idea for granted: so much so that Wales, Cornwall and Scotland are often referred to as the ‘Celtic fringes’. Such an idea, however, would have seemed very surprising to the medieval inhabitants of Britain, as indeed would be the now commonly accepted notion that the English and Scottish are even British. At that time the term ‘British’ was more or less synonymous with Welsh: the descendants of the original inhabitants known since Roman times. The English, descendants of the Anglo-Saxons were not British and neither were the Scots, who were known to have come from Ireland in the 6th century AD.

The real British, (today’s Welsh), did not call themselves ‘Celts’ either. They believed that they were descended from people who, led by a prince called ‘Brut’ came to the island from Greece, their ancestors of a few generations earlier being the ancient people of Troy. This, incidentally, is why in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI part I the Welsh are referred to as ‘Trojans’!

So why and how did the history of Britain change and what more general lessons may this have for us ‘alternative historians’? Well first of all it has much to do with the early development of what we now called archaeology. Prior to the Great Fire of London, people took their history from reading books. Popular among these were the chronicles of Britain that were called ‘Brutes’ because they nearly always began with the story of the Brutus migration from Troy. Foremost among these was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. This book, based on ancient Welsh accounts of the early history of Britain was accepted by most people as a more or less accurate rendition of the past. However, the re-discovery of Roman London under the ashes of the medieval city reminded people of the entral place the Romans occupied in Britain  following their conquest of 43 AD. Concurrently, Caesar’s. for the most part hear-say propaganda account of how the Britons were near savages who practised human sacrifice and shared wives, was accepted at face value. This called into question the idea presented in Geoffrey’s history and other sources that the Britons had a single king. If they were this primitive, or so the reasoning went, then it was more logical that they were more like the tribesmen of 17th century Africa and lacking in any unitary authority.

The net result of this re-thinking was that Geoffrey’s and other Brutes were dismissed as outright fictions. In their place a truly fictitious account of British history was erected based on the idea that the pre-Roman inhabitants were Celts. This in itself was very curious because the earliest account we have of the Celts (Caesar’s) tells us that they inhabited the central region of Gaul: what is now France. We also read from Roman authors that they were tall, blonde-haired people, while those same accounts tell us that the Britons were, in the main, short and dark-haired with a swarthy complexion! Not only that, prior to 1700 no-one had ever referred to the Britons (or Irish and Scots come to that) as being ‘Celts’. It was, in fact, a fiction made up to explain certain similarities in language and cultural artefacts that could as well have been explained through commerce.

 

I have gone into this example at some length because it is one that I am most familiar with but there are other anomalies to consider, such as the so-called ‘bronze age dark age’ (of some seven hundred years) that archaeologists have invented to explain the history of the near east. Yet this in itself throws up other anomalies. How is it that in the Greek world, following the collapse of Mycenean Civilization, the people who came out of this ‘dark age’, were still speaking the same language, using more or less the same sort of arms, and seem to have progressed little if at all in other crafts such as the making of pots? We don’t, after all, see Western Europe coming out of its dark age following the collapse of the Roman Empire with only minimal cultural and linguistic changes. In fact we would think it very peculiar if this were the case. So why do we think this of Greek society?

The answer is to do with the innate conservatism of archaeology which once it has settled on a consensus finds it almost impossible to change it. Because it is accepted as fact that the Trojan War took place in c. 1200-1100 BC, then it follows that this is the date of the Mycenaean age. Since this doesn’t tally with the known history of Greece at the time of Athens, Sparta and other great city states, then it follows there must have been a dark age, thereby explaining why there are few artifacts to be found in the layers in between.

We could discuss this for hours but rather than do this, I recommend that those who are interested in this subject get hold of and read a fascinating book called Centuries of Darkness by Peter James. It reveals the shambles that, unknown to most people, underlies the contemporary chronology of the near east and how this has distorted our knowledge of history in the most incredible way.

 

Finally there is one last point that I would like to add before leaving this subject of Alternative History and this is the way that wrong perceptions of the framework in which archaeological investigations take place most often leads to wrong conclusions concerning what has been found. The problem here is that if you don’t believe the old histories that have been handed down to us (e.g. the brutes) and you adhere to a fabricated, modern history (e.g. the ‘Celts’ of Britain) you won’t see the evidence for the former even when it is right under you very nose. This applies very specifically to bronze age Britain. For if you go to the British Museum and compare the workmanship and even type of weapons used by the ancient Britons in the centuries before the Roman conquest, you will see that they are almost identical in style and type with those found in the near east. The evidence is there, in other words, to indicate that the scenario of history presented by Geoffrey is correct it is just that we don’t see it.

This is why ‘alternative’ historians, such as myself, Robert Bauval, Alan Wilson and David Rohl are much needed. For it is only by drawing attention to the inconsistencies of the accepted model of history that we can begin to frame a correct view of the past and therefore of how we got to the present. There is much to discuss.

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