History’s lens –

Slaves waiting for sale, Eyre Crowe, 1861

There are lots of different ways of looking at history: social, political and economic to name but three. if you study medieval political history it will inevitably seem to be dominated by men. It’s only in more recent times that the lens of social history has altered some of the viewpoints that were a given in the past.

We also all apply our own filters to everything around us, so inevitably we do the same to historical events. We approach them from our own viewpoint and our own time.

And if you want, you can look at an event through a range of different lenses including historical significance; primary evidence and interpretation; continuity and change; cause and consequence; historical perspective; science; and ethical judgment Applying the lenses produces a deeper and, perhaps more accurate, understanding of the event. Only when a lens is changed do we realise that the old focus could have been improved – and inevitably looking through multiple lenses can be confusing at times, especially if the information is conflicting or just plain new. Seeing things through different perspectives isn’t always easy and there are limits to some lenses because of the lack of primary source material.

Oh yes – and this is just a short list of possible lenses – I’ve not started talking about the Marxist view of history! Or indeed a feminist view of history.

And that brings me to the image at the top of the post. Only when you know that the image is of the slave market at Richmond, Virginia do you realise that the neatly dressed men, women and children are waiting to be sold; its impossible to know if a family group waiting together, if they’ll continue their lives with one another or whether they’ll be sold separately; will the mothers be allowed to stay with their children? Nor can we know the circumstances in which the work was made until we read Crowe’s recollections:

On rough benches were sitting, huddled close to- gether, neatly dressed in grey, young negro girls with white collars fastened by scarlet bows, and in white aprons. The form of a woman clasping her infant, ever touching, seemed the more so here. There was a muscular field-labourer sitting apart; a rusty old stove filled up another space. Having rapidly sketched these features, I had not time to put my outline away before the whole group of buyers and dealers were in the compartment. I thought the best plan was to go on unconcernedly; but, perceiving me so engaged, no one would bid. The auctioneer, who had mounted his table, came down and asked me whether, “if I had a business store, and someone came in and interrupted my trading, I should like it.” This was unanswerable; I got up with the intention of leaving quietly, but, feeling this would savour of flight, I turned round to the now evidently angry crowd of dealers, and said, “You may turn me away, but I can recollect all I have seen.”

And its only on reading another account, social and economic, that it becomes clear that men selling slaves dressed their ‘merchandise’ well in order to draw their buyers’ eyes – and in dressing everyone similarly it was possibly to disguise men and women who might be unwell or sickly. In either event, it reduced people to objects – and that isn’t what any modern viewer sees when they first look at the picture – it’s only when the other lens are applied that the full horror of the image being depicted becomes apparent.

Crowe didn’t paint this as a historical painting – it was a social comment on the America he was visiting with Anthony Trollope. It would have to be said though that there are very few images from the period depicting black history (unless you count the images created by the abolitionists designed specifically to arouse sympathy) – demonstrating that even in the more recent past history’s lens becomes unfocused and fragmentary because some very important parts of the jigsaw are missing – to mix my metaphors.

And don’t forget that the stories we see are snapshots. The image above is an etic snapshot – it’s of Crowe looking in and making his observations His account of the way he came to make his image is an emic snapshot – it’s his internal viewpoint. Etic and emic are more usually associated with the social sciences rather than history.