In sixteenth century Korea, a naval genius called Admiral Yi changed the course of history almost single-handedly. The Japanese military leader Hideyoshi had made the decision to invade China to bring down the Ming dynasty and all that stood in his way was the militarily weak state of Korea. Having rejected the introduction of guns into their army years before, the Korean aristocrats that fought still used archers as their main form of attack. Their cannons were around one metre at largest and they had never updated their defensive walls to allow for the firing of these cannons at advancing troops from the ground. Their weakness showed when they were faced with noise and dust billowing around them as gunfire erupted and Japanese Samurai charged. In situations like these they had an unfortunate habit of running away. Korea saw around a million deaths as it struggled through the war.
Countless attempts have been made to tie together strands of history from around the globe to create one all-encompassing set of events. Yet still in schools and universities around Europe and America the true complexities of these interconnected events are rarely recognized. Almost all things are studied with their value weighed against the West and sometimes, more damagingly, through the eyes of Western nationalism. For example, it has only been in the last few years that a masters degree has come into being exploring black British heritage. Does this imply that some things are off limits because they are too ‘embarrassing’? Why is it that our version of history has become so narrow?
Admiral Yi won his war by making Korea into a naval superpower. He harnessed unique marine advancements of his country, that had been developed to fight Japanese pirates (Wokou) over the previous two hundred years, and turned it on the rival nation. He won face offs in which his force was outnumbered 10 to 1 by the enemy, with his innovative incorporation of reinforced turtle ships, cannons and ramming tactics. He ended up being put in charge of almost all naval missions, blocking supplies and soldiers being ferried to China. Ultimately he became almost individually responsible for the defeat of Japan and the failure of their invasion of China in 1592. Incidentally, it is this reputation of naval strength and weakness on land that often characterised the British. The Koreans arguably had a better claim to the stereotype. So why is it that when we think of the sixteenth century we imagine Henry VIII, a man most famed for his marital life, rather than Admiral Yi who sculpted history in a war that cost a million lives?
The answer to this question lies in two places. Firstly, in the course of written history, and secondly in the flaws of history itself. The written history of almost any popular event will have gone through two main stages: contemporary history, or history written by people about their own past which in most cases amounts only to nationalism or exaggeration; and revisionist history, the reflection on past events by historians that attempts to erase the bias introduced by the initial records. Korean nationalist history, like that of any other non-Western country, never makes it to Europe and America. This means that a disproportionate number of books and accounts that glorify the comparatively minor acts of Western people are far more widely read. This provides us with some pre-assumed framing of human history where we care far more about Queen Elizabeth than Hideyoshi. It is only natural that we end up excluding people on seemingly arbitrary grounds.
History itself is also contributing to this misconception, however, as it is a consumable commodity. Whether it is through individuals paying to study a degree in it, members of the public buying books on it, or TV channels commissioning shows on it, history is subject to the laws of supply and demand. People in the West demand history to be set in the West because it is natural that people would want to learn about and relate to their own heritage rather than someone else’s. This would not prove to be a problem if the West was not also the disproportionate producer of written history. Due to Western nations having more wealth to invest in education and exploration, more widely spoken combined languages, and more freedoms of speech and opinion, it is the heavyweight in the historical world. Although it doesn’t completely dominate, it does have a lot of clout in terms of how people perceive history.
So next time you read about Chinese history and it’s compressed into one clumsy paragraph, or the slave trade is explored with no reference to the impacts on Africa, try demanding something better. We need to stop cutting off history when it strays away from our own continent and accept one simple fact: this is no longer nationalism it is simply untruth.