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Friday, 22 July 2011

History is written by the victors: how do we tell our story?

One thing we have returned to again and again during the past year, trying to organise a commemoration of the Llanelli uprising, is the question of how you remember such momentous, and controversial, events. The late, great Professor Gwyn Alf Williams, one of the foremost Welsh historians, said the following, in his profound book The Welsh in their history, about the ways we bring the past into the present:

“Some forms of a tradition do not merely encapsulate a past, they sterilise it; they remove it from the historical equation of the present. This is not to cultivate an historical consciousness, it is to get rid of it. The past, in this process, is in fact abolished, in much the same way as the physical fabric of a town.” If we try to depoliticise the past, if we try to seal it up and make it into a holy icon, with no relevance to the present and its struggles, or turn it into some Disney theme-park, we lose it. He was talking about Merthyr Tydfil and Dic Penderyn, but the same is true of Llanelli.

The past is profoundly political, at least as political as the present. I would not expect to understand the present if I did not understand its politics, and this is doubly true of the past. This is not to do the past a disservice, but to recognise that it is contested, a site of struggle. The history as the slave sees it is not the same history that the slave-owner sees. The past is not presented to us on a plate, ready-made. It is a struggle to apprehend it. And which voices from the past are most consistently ignored? Those of the poor and oppressed. History is written by the victors.

The writer and critic Walter Benjamin wrote that “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was’. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” The strike and riots at Llanelli in 1911 flashed up, illuminating shameful things hidden in the darkness: the suffering of the poor and the brutality of the forces sent to suppress them. It is in this spirit that we should commemorate 1911. We should, quite simply, speak truth to power.

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