The Story of the Hunt
Empire thrives on hubris. Untroubled by conscience, it disdains its victims as infidels, inferiors, and incompetents. Most historical narratives emphasize adversarial relationships (battles, treaties, colonial forays) and the emergence of ideas and inventions that have shaped human experience and our perceptions of it. The hubristic assumption is that the experiences and perspectives of the victorious (ie those that consolidated wealth and power through aggression) gives them the right to shape the narrative for posterity, conflating influence with accuracy.
The actor Michael Caine once said, “Beware the twin imposters of Success and Failure.” Wise counsel.
Even now, images of gore tend to dominate, evidence – as if we need it, of our addiction to adversarial thinking. As with violence against the natural world and against women and the poor, human history has been written by the so-called victors and is, therefore, not interested in the truth that emerges from a composite of quotidian perspectives.
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe famously quoted the proverb: Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Achebe’s understanding of this truth was hard won, personal. As a child of empire, he became a writer in part to tell the stories of the suffering that fed the insatiable appetite of colonialism.
Though war is ubiquitous, it is not natural: It is an anomaly unique to humans and is not seen in living systems. Perhaps that’s why, when I think about war and history, I sometimes think of outlandish scenarios: Hannibal, for example, crossing the Alps in 218 BC with 100,000 men and 38 elephants. Of the elephants, only one is said to have survived – the one that Hannibal himself rode.
A different history survives somewhere – perhaps manywheres, not found in any textbook or gloating nationalist spin. Numerous indigenous cultures can still chant their lineage down through the centuries. Story and song cycles survive that verify this. At one time we all must have lived in this way.
Absent alternative tellings, the history of conquerors marches forward unchallenged, the silence of the vanquished mistaken for agreement. (The digital age has begun to change this.) But surely Hannibal’s elephants communicated with each other about what they underwent, what they witnessed and how they suffered. And, since elephants are communal, and, therefore, exquisitely empathic, surely they noticed the privations endured by the humans who drove them. Because elephants communicate continuously, over large distances, it may be that there are elephants yet today who carry history’s full account.
The same must be true of many other animals whose communication prowess is robust. The utterings of whales, for example, are said to be so densely packed with information that a single hour of whalesong contains the equivalent of the entirety of human literature. The lions, too, have their version of events, as does everything tortured in the name of empire, science, religion and profit. In addition to millennia of silenced humans, this includes laboratory animals (rats, chimpanzees, monkeys, mice), amusement park animals (fish, dolphins, seals, whales) as well as zoo and circus animals. This past December I was scuba diving with a friend when one of the groupers that was known to hang out around the hotel dock became ill and died. My friend was beside himself. “I’ve known that fish ten years!” he exclaimed. They were friends. They recognized each other and spent time together. Even plants have memories. Like us, they have been monocropped into sterile submission in flagrant disregard for the communal intelligence of their original design.
Knowing these stories would surely change humans for the better. We can begin by imagining them. The past and its unread authors have not disappeared, they have only been obscured. Let us remember that it’s not only History’s bloody cruelties that endure. Embedded in every stone, stalk, soil and bone, the world’s chain of infinite kindnesses continues unsung – and intact.