Those who see the world from only one narrow point of view get called a number of things–parochial, provincial, and worse–and are encouraged to seek out other perspectives and broaden their view. Not everyone can travel the world, but the world comes to us through immigration and the internet, restaurants and recipes. Most of us, if we are inclined, can learn about and appreciate the cultures, cuisines, and histories of others.
But can we see ourselves the way that others see us? This is a harder ask, I think, especially for Americans, who are used to the world coming to us and to defining the world on our terms, whether through soft power or military force.
When we read about history, we might diversify our sources, taking in perspectives from writers with different ideological commitments and beliefs. But how often do we hear the observations, say, of Japanese historians, recording their impressions of the U.S. as they saw it in the 19th century?
A great part of why we don’t read such histories is that we generally don’t even know they exist. The YouTube project Voices of the Past aims to remedy this, introducing viewers to primary historical sources from the past, and from all over the world, that show professional historians and ordinary people recording events across barriers of language, culture, nation state, and social class. At the top, we have a reading from “Konyo Zukishi,” written in 1845 by Japanese geographer and historian Mitsukuri Shōgo, who, in turn, based much of his knowledge of the outside world on Dutch books, “as they were the only European trading partner through the Sakoku period of isolation,” a caption in the video informs us.
Mitsukuri Shōgo’s history accepts as fact that the territories of North America “didn’t even have a name” before the arrival of European settlers, completely ignoring the presence of hundreds of indigenous nations. The descriptions of those settlers are charmingly revealing, if not wholly accurate. “Several tens of thousands of Englishmen, who refused to subscribe to the tenets of the Anglican church, were arrested and sent to this distant country,” we learn. “These people lacked sufficient food and clothing at that time, but they privately rejoiced because there were no rulers in this land.”
Further up, we have an early third century commentary written by Chinese historian Yu Huan. Hundreds of years before European navigators set out to find and appropriate the riches of the Indies, only to end up in the Americas, the Chinese wrote of a world history that included the Roman Empire, reached by way of Egypt, which is called Haixi, “because it is west of the sea,” and which contains the great city of Wuchisan, or Alexandria. Yu Huan writes as though he’s giving driving directions, and leaves every impression of having made the journey himself or transcribed the words of those who had.
Above, a young soldier in Napoleon’s Grande Armée describes the real horror of the death marches through Russia in 1812 in excerpts from Jakob Walter’s Diary of Napoleonic Foot Soldier. He calls one march “indescribable and inconceivable for people who have not seen anything of it,” then goes on to paint a grisly scene in the kind of grim detail we do not get in Napoleon’s justifications of the invasion, below, taken from The Corsican: A Diary of Napoleon’s Life in His Own Words. There are many more histories we rarely, if ever, encounter, which show a world that has been networked and connected for thousands of years, as in excerpts below from an Arabic compilation of travel accounts, Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī’s “Accounts of China and India,” written in 852.
Hear many more fascinating and usually inaccessible primary sources from ancient and modern history read aloud at Voices of the Past.