Pilgrims with tales to tell

August 27, 1999

Harvey J. Kaye joined historians on the road to Galicia this summer to debate where their work was leading morally and politically I came away from the second international congress of "History under Debate" in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, having enjoyed myself immensely and feeling rather hopeful about history's prospects.

My wife Lorna, younger daughter Fiona and I arrived in Santiago several days early to explore Galicia and practise our Spanish. In July the festivity abounded. Xacobeo, the annual pilgrimage to Santiago - the city of Saint James, Spain's patron saint - was already under way. In fact, we were put up in a 17th-century monastery next to the cathedral.

Santiago is this year's European cultural capital. Every evening at 11pm, the plazas became venues for jazz, classical or folk concerts. Lorna and Fiona especially enjoyed the flirtatious Tuna de Derecho (the law students' traditional musical group), which performed nightly under the arches in the main square.

I can personally attest that Galicia deserves its renown for seafood - octopus, squid, scallops, mussels, shrimp ...

My enthusiasm clearly pleased my hosts, but they had brought me to Spain to talk history. So when the congress opened - more than 500 scholars from around the world assessing 20th-century historiography and deliberating where to take the discipline - I got serious. Meanwhile Lorna and Fiona continued to tour, shop and flirt. Which is not to say I stopped enjoying myself.

I hate to sound provincial, but I had never taken part in a conference as grand as this gathering. Led by medievalist Carlos Barros, the organisers had evidently worked hard to bring it together. Professor Barros had secured financial support from the regional government - itself no mean feat.

The provincial president is none other than Manuel Fraga Iribarne, leader of Spain's conservatives and a former protege of Franco. Surreally, Mr Fraga himself gave the welcoming address, quoting none other than the world's premier Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

At the close of the first day, I commiserated with a fellow American about how the length of the sessions seemed almost punishing, however fascinating the several presentations.

I jokingly asked when Catholic Spain had succumbed to the Protestant work ethic. Indeed, the only redeeming feature of the fact that I could not - for medical reasons - drink the local wine served at lunch, was that I was able to stay alert through those evening sessions. I would have relished a siesta.

Since I had not spoken Spanish intensively in almost 25 years, it surprised me how quickly the words returned. My Latin colleagues generously complimented my competence (acquired in Mexico), but I could tell that Lorna, who read Spanish at Birmingham University and spent a year in Madrid before we met, impressed them all the more with her Castilian fluency.

Though the sessions were demanding, the papers were well worth hearing, especially those delivered at the round tables. Having focused on American studies for the past several years, I was keen to hear about scholarly and pedagogical developments from Paris to Patagonia. I tried not to be too impressed by French historian Jacques Revel, director of the Annales School, but failed.

I really liked the Spanish historians and their graduate students (several of the former had served in the opposition to Franco as youngsters).

It was also a pleasure finally to meet Cuban historians. And I had looked forward to hearing about Chinese historiography ten years after Tiananmen, but, sadly, the talk by the Beijing historian sounded more like party propaganda than scholarship.

The Argentinian historians of my own generation moved me in particular. They had survived the dictatorship years, some of them in exile or jail. They had lost colleagues and comrades. Yet they remained determined intellectuals, eager to connect their work to projects for justice and change.

I was honoured to appear with them on panels about "Historians and Power" and "Historians and Commitment". For all my professed radicalism, I felt like a naive innocent alongside them. Nevertheless, they seemed to appreciate my words, particularly my plenary talk, "Fanning the Spark of Hope in the Past". Meeting them inspired my delivery.

It struck me that the historians present shared certain concerns, regardless of their national origins and political sympathies. They were anxious about fragmentation, both of the discipline and of the grand narratives of past and present. They wondered about the duties of historians, morally and politically, and about how historians might speak more effectively to the public outside academia.

Professor Barros urged participants to see themselves as part of a movement. He called on us to think globally, conceive of the present moment in terms of civilisation change (here I dissented somewhat), and consider what kind of constructive role historians might play in the making of the new global society.

I argued for a critical, committed, democratic historiography. No consensus emerged. But that was fine. We had made a pilgrimage to Santiago to debate history, not wrap it up.

It thrilled me simply to know that we were openly debating matters of theory and politics in a country where merely a generation ago it would have been out of the question.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States.

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