Monday, October 19, 2020

A word of praise for official history

Do the official military historians do the best Canadian histories?  

I've been doing a Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry of a British Columbia judge, Archer Martin (d.1941), who among his other duties was a judge of Admiralty. I needed to sort out a little point of admiralty law and jurisdiction (not, shall we say, my specialty), and that led me by winding paths to Johnston, Rawlings, Gimblett, and MacFarlane, The Seabound Coast: the Official History of the Royal Canadian Navy Volume I, 1867-1939, published in 2010 by Dundurn Press.  

It's 1014 pages long, and for my purposes I really only needed about five paragraphs. But I ended up reading quite a lot of it. It's not exactly an easy read, and it's a thousand pages on a period when there barely was a Canadian navy.  But it is just very satisfying sometimes to be reading in a history that seems absolutely authoritative and knows a very great deal in fields where hardly anyone knew anything previously. Who else works on this scale, with such authority? I recall having a similar reaction to The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force (1994), when I looked into it for a completely different reason years ago.

It occurs to me that the official historians have a great advantage in working in scholarly teams with long term, defined purposes and goals. There are four listed authors here (one of whom was also an author of the air force history), and research reports by several other stalwarts of the Defence Department Directorate of History turn up frequently in the notes. A history of this scale -- presumably several volumes are contemplated -- would be beyond the ability of almost any single historian. Individual scholars, by and large, simply cannot live long enough to produce works on this scale with this depth of research and this degree of slowly acquired authority.  Most academic historians, even working in large departments, tend to work alone on what interests them. Non-academic historians, even more so. 

I wonder why academic historical research remains so individual and piecemeal. One can think of some notable collaborative efforts: the Maritime History Group and the unofficial collective of New Labour historians some decades ago, the demographers of Universite de Montreal even earlier.  (Update, 21 October: and some women's history projects more recently, including one on suffrage.)  But they tend to be scarce, small, and a bit haphazard. The academic freedom of scholars to pursue whatever they please is a precious thing, I don't doubt, but I wonder what we lose by seeming to avoid resolutely all, ah, collective organization in most professional historical work. 

Working collectively, the official historians don't seem to fall prey to groupthink or officialese. The Seabound Coast advances a lot of confident opinions about some substantial matters in Canadian history, not least on the old saw that in Canada "imperialism was a form of nationalism." Well, in naval history of the early 20th century, this book, without making a big thing about it, persuades me again that imperialism was very much a form of imperialism.

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