OpinionA historian’s craft

A historian’s craft


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Looking back into my college days as a History undergraduate, I never expected to reach a point where I would be writing history.

Of course, we were taught by our professors the rudiments and methodology of historical research, not to mention the varying theories and ways of how historians write in our historiography class, but I never thought of one day following their footsteps.

In fact, I thought of taking up Law – given that I belong to a family of lawyers in both sides of my parents, to fulfill my paternal grandfather’s desire to follow in his footsteps.

But that never happened since I changed my mind when I was in my last year in college. I decided that time to take the academic path, and become a history professor.

Admittedly, the reason why I decided to take that less-travelled path is because of the influence of two history professors I had back in college: Dr. Earl Jude Cleope [who later became my mentor and adviser in graduate school], and Prof. Carlos Magtolis Jr. [who was like a father figure to me in college, and who guided me in my journey as a young graduate teaching fellow of history in Silliman University].

Through their guidance and mentoring, and as their apprentice, I learned the ropes of my craft, i.e., teaching and writing history. This is what the British historian G.R. Elton called as “a proper apprenticeship.”

Thus, I consider my years in Silliman as a graduate teaching fellow as pivotal years that helped me refine my craft as a young historian.

Suffice it to say, it was only during my time as a graduate student of history that I started to gain further interest in writing history – or doing historical research.

To many, historical research might seem rather jejune. To them, history will never be as interesting as works of fiction in literature since most of the things they learned about history – as an academic requirement in college – were taught to them in a way that seemed boring and monotonous, a mere enumeration of facts.

As a result, history as a subject, if not a craft, became otiose; it served no purpose to them, unless of course, if they were History majors.

But I would tend to disagree though on the futility of history as a subject. Perhaps those who see this were just unlucky to have had dull professors or were unabashedly tendentious against History as a subject itself. We can try to prevent the former from happening by training better history professors, but I’m afraid we cannot do anything about the latter – if one is really not interested or sees no purpose in the subject regardless of the many explanations in defense of it, then we have to let it be; those things are external to us, and we cannot control how people think.

As I belabored in a previous article, history undoubtedly has a purpose.The most important one is that it is used to have a better understanding of change which is, to quote G.R. Elton, “the essential content of historical analysis and description.” Moreover, it also serves as a guide for us to avoid, not necessarily repeat, the mistakes of the past.

Elton’s counterpart – whom he disagreed with in terms of the methods, if not philosophy — was another British historian, E.H. Carr. It was Carr who proffered the idea of history as having a utilitarian purpose, with it serving as a guide to policymaking in the future. His vision for history is not surprising, given his professional background as a diplomat.

Elton, on the other hand, was an academic who simply saw history as a “pleasant occupation.”

In my experience, albeit still in my early stage as a practicing historian, I have learned that it takes time and patience to write history. In fact, I have my own routine of writing which I have in part learned not from reading books or guides about it, but from my own experience.

First and foremost, historians cannot write history without sources (much better if the sources are primary) or present evidence.

Aside from perusing the primary sources, one must also master the voluminous related literature, or secondary sources, apropos to his specific topic so that he can find the necessary gaps that need to be filled.

According to E.H. Carr, after doing the preliminary readings, and finalizing the notetaking, the historian then goes on to write his work from beginning to end; but for Carr himself, he tends to write in between.

Somehow, I have the same routine of writing history, and tend to write in between after reading and verifying the sources. The most tedious part is the perusal of sources, and concomitantly, the verification process. This will usually take weeks, even months and years.

What follows is even more important, and that is the interpretation of present evidence. This is where historians tend to oft-times disagree with each other. And this is why many consider history as a craft, not a science, for there are indubitably no general laws in history, inasmuch as others would believe so.

There can be many ways of interpreting historical events and actions of historical actors that can be subject to discussions.

In my case, I have written about the wartime collaboration issue in Negros Oriental during the Japanese Occupation, where I investigated the dynamic interplay among local collaborators, Japanese forces, and the civilians.

My main goal was to understand whether the collaborators’ actions somehow mitigated or, conversely, exacerbated the suffering of the Oriental Negrenses under the hands of the Japanese occupiers.

Later, based on the evidence, I interpreted that most of the collaborators in Negros Oriental indeed were passive collaborators, that is to say, they were merely working with the Japanese forces, and not adhering to the same principles or policies.

Matter-of-factly, some of the collaborators played the double game, and worked surreptitiously with the guerrilla movement – as were the cases of Mayor Mariano Perdices and Cong. Jose Romero.

To provide historical context of their collaboration, I also looked back to the time of the American Occupation when local officials from Negros Island opted to side with the Americans for practical reasons, as they thought they could never win a war against the Americans.

This happened while President Emilio Aguinaldo and his men were fighting a war against the Americans in Luzon.

It must be noted that throughout Philippine history, the political elites have always had a penchant to collaborate with foreign colonizers.

This happened when Spaniards arrived; this also happened when the Americans decided to “benevolently assimilate” us; and later on when the Japanese decided to “emancipate” us from Western tyranny.

This has always been a pattern in our history, something that would explain why collaboration with foreign colonizers has always been a common attribute of the Filipino ruling class.

Another aspect of World War II history that I’m currently writing about is on Japanese wartime atrocities specifically in Negros Oriental, albeit I’m trying to look into the atrocities in Negros Occidental and Siquijor as well.

With regard to wartime atrocities, one can simply list the varying Japanese wartime atrocities and their motivations for it, but this is not enough to give meaning to it.

The better thing to do is to see the larger context of the atrocities committed, and understand, aside from the motivations of the Japanese forces, why things like these happen in war where civilians unfairly become the victims of such atrocities.

In the case of Negros Oriental, the atrocities happened mostly out of retribution against guerrilla attacks or skirmishes.

Most of the wartime atrocities in the Province were done by June 1944 to May 1945 which was a time when the 174th Independent Infantry Battalion led by Col. Satoshi Oie took over the command of the Province.

Based on the voluminous war crime trial documents on Colonel Oie, it is apparent that the violent and egregious crimes by the junior officers and the men of Colonel Oie were committed to create a sense of security in the Province.

Many Oriental Negrenses from Bayawan to Vallehermoso were killed as a result of reprisals against guerrilla attacks. Cases of massacres  of families, or of men who were simply rounded up are aplenty.

But is it simply enough to enumerate these cases and explain their causes and effects? For some, yes; but for others, no.

Those who are not contented in enumerating and discussing Japanese wartime atrocities often try to provide a comparative approach to history, and they do this by comparing the atrocities done by the Japanese with the atrocities done by the Americans during the Philippine-American War – a war that has been forgotten to varying extents because of the process of benevolent assimilation [through education] that followed afterwards.

More on this comparative approach and interpretation of history in my next column.


Author’s email: [email protected]






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