Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The history from below approach.

The phrase history from below was coined by Reymaldo Clemena Ileto to describe the history of the ordinary people.[1]  It is more commonly referred to as social history.  Social history has been defined by Trevelyan as “the history of the people with the politics left out”[2]  Samuel notes that social history prides itself on being concerned with “real life rather than abstractions, with ordinary people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events”[3] 

Social history appears to concentrate on what Samuel terms Resurrectionism, where the past is rescued from the “enormous condensation of posterity, reconstituting the vanished components of the world we have lost”[4]  Certainly Warren’s study is a classic example of this as well as showing the value of this type of history.  Although many historians have trouble defining this type of history, many histories of this kind are characterised by their concern with the ordinary people.  This unifying theme usually involves a celebration of everyday life, especially when it involves hardship and suffering[5]

What are the disadvantages of the social history approach?  There are many, according to its critics, although to its practitioners these could be seen as strengths or else as counterweights to historiography as it used to be practised and written in its characteristic weighty, dense and dull tomes.  Samuel believes that the dangers of the social history approach include:

·      Pandering to a commonsense empiricism in which the evidence appears to speak for itself and explanation masquerades as the simple reproduction of fact
·      Being influenced by an aesthetic of “naive realism” in which the more detailed the description, the more authentic the picture is supposed to be
·      Its preference for human documents and for close-up views have the effect of domesticating the subject matter of history and rendering it harmless
·      A tendency to indulge their subjects and a desire to establish empathy, leading to a history were we see the past in terms of its own values resulting in a history that is subjective[6]

While these criticism are valid, it is important for the practitioner to be aware of these pitfalls and to strive consciously to overcome them.  As Williams has written, “there are ... no masses, only ways of seeing people as masses”[7].  The quality of our history is dependent on the skill with which we analyse and interpret the data at hand.

There are many benefits in using the social history approach.  This approach has legitimised and enlarged the field of historical knowledge, as well as opening up whole new areas of historical inquiry and taking the production of historical knowledge far beyond academia.  It has opened our eyes to whole classes of records and evidence that were never considered useful before.  The use of the Coroner records in Warren’s studies of Rickshaw Coolies testifies to this.  Social history is now a legitimate field of study to the point where it has been claimed that “Social history is not a particular kind of history;  it is a dimension which should be present in every kind of history”[8]

The first reading I will analyse is that of McVey, Introduction:  Local voices, central power.  This chapter focus on the relationship of power between the centre and the periphery in South-east Asia and the move by historians to studying localised and regional structures with the emphasis on social history rather than merely concentrating on the big picture as had traditionally been the case in the past.[9]  Her essay concentrates on the time of intensive contact between South-east Asian societies and Western Colonialism.  This period is characterised with the gradual but relentless imposition of centralised control by the colonial overlords wherever this was possible and the attempts by the local citizenry to opposed this, no matter how futile their efforts were.  In this context outlying centres became subsumed and dependant on the centre, something that has not usually occurred before as the pre-colonial power structures did not have the state apparatus and military strength to enforce their will on outlying population centres.  Co-operation was achieved with these centres through patronage and mutually beneficial links.  With the advent of the colonial powers this patronage gradually ceased as they no longer needed these links to retain power and control.  Not only was control shifted to the centre but the weight and power of outside rule and control was increased.[10]  This resulted in the local population becoming increasingly alienated and embittered leading to small scale and usually futile revolts and insurrections across South-east Asia.  McVey also looks at the role of local elites in this power shift.  Some lost out but many employed in the new bureaucracies benefited.  The other salient aspect to emerge from her essay is that many people who formerly could aspire to positions of authority and power now had these avenues closed off, leading to further dissatisfaction and unrest.

In analysing McVey in the context of this essay, it is apparent that her discussion, while focusing on social history within states, is not really a history from below, but rather an analysis of changing power structures within societies.  However she clearly identifies the impotence of the ordinary man in the bigger scheme of things and is therefore a useful introduction into the exploration of history from below.

The second reading is by Rimmer, Manderson and Barlow. “The underside of Malaysian History”.  This is a true local history focusing on the ordinary worker and citizen in a variety of settings within colonial and post-colonial Malaysian society.  This work was prompted because of a dearth of similar material on Malaysia and a need for this type of history to be documented.[11] This first chapter provides the setting on why a people’s history is important for Malaysia and how to go about it given that most ordinary people left very few records.  Inevitably this is analysed in the context of colonialism with the authors making the pertinent point that it was the undocumented toil of the ordinary Malaysian workers that enabled  Malaya to be of such economic value to Great Britain.  As such, the authors note that “this study represents a departure from the traditional emphasis on colonial history preoccupied with British action, reaction and inaction to local happenings”[12]  Invariably by writing this history from a different perspective the heroes and characters will of necessity be different to a conventional history, leading to serious questions being raised “about the nature, priorities and costs of British capitalism, notably the extent to which they were squeezed by their political masters”[13]  The rest of this opening chapter briefly discusses the areas of endeavour covered in the rest of the book, for example, Children, housewives, rice cultivators, rickshaw coolies, workers and vegetable gardeners.  The paucity of sources and how the lives of these workers can be reconstructed from available sources is briefly examined.  I will focus on this aspect in greater detail when I discuss Warren.
The approach as postulated in this reading is a trend to the internationalisation of the historical debate, where history is examined from the perspective of the colonial worker, not just the colonial overlord.  This results in the development of a people’s history of Malaysia, rather than a history of colonial occupation of Malaya.  By illuminating the lives of ordinary people we are able to gain a better understanding and appreciation on their role  in national arena.   As the authors conclude in this work, “As these studies of Malaysian history are also evocative of real life experiences the provide the descriptive base on which a people’s history can be built into social theory”[14]  This certainly ties in with what Samuel termed resurrection when defining this type of history earlier on in this essay.

The third and final reading is by Ileto, “Towards a history from below”.  This is a very important work but also  controversial according to ones viewpoint and how one feels about post-structuralism approaches to Philippines history which tends to view workers in a light that was not accorded to them at the time and probably would have been rejected by them if it had.

Ileto attempts to analyse how the peasantry actually viewed the Philippine revolution as well as write his history from their perspective.  This is truly a history from below, not only writing about the role of the ordinary man, but writing it from their viewpoint.  He uses as his starting point the Payson text  (the passion of Christ read by the peasantry during holy week ceremonies).  He also uses other unconventional stories such as Tagalog text and poetry, songs, epics, confessions, prayers and folksongs[15]  Ileto is controversial because of the way he interprets the Payson texts.  To him the peasants identified literally with Christ’s struggle.  Christ is thus seen by the peasants as a radical and the peasantry relate strongly to this.  Ileto takes this identification by the peasantry to its logical conclusion where he interprets everything within a religious or millenarian framework. 

Ileto notes correctly that peasants are different from the elites and the intelligentsia.  He surmises therefore that they rose up in revolt for different reasons as well  He postulates that the masses rose up for religious reasons rather than for political reasons as was the case with the elites.  Ileto’s book was very popular because it was exotic and controversial.  Nothing had been written from this perspective before and religious texts had never been interpreted in this way either.  It is appealing too because of the populist notion of the oppressed common man sacrificing himself for religion instead of power or politics.  This is classic history from below stuff, idealising the common man and putting him on a pedestal in the centre of the universe.  However, while this interpretation is appealing, it also assumes some sweeping generalisations.  While it undoubtably applied to some peasants it is improbable that it held for all of them and gives a distorted picture of the Philippine revolution and the role the masses played in it  In conclusion I will merely note that it is a classic essay from the history from below perspective and is an excellent, if not altogether accurate, example of writing a people’s history from a people’s perspective.

Rickshaw Coolie

The first book I will analyse is James Warren’s,  Rickshaw Coolie:  a People’s history of Singapore, 1880-1940.  In this book Warren attempts to recreate the life of the Chinese rickshaw pullers in vivid detail, their lives, their experiences and their suffering and their influence on the city and the city’s influence on them.  To achieve this is no mean feat.  Warren has uncovered an impressive array of sources to enable him to complete this task.  By far the most important records he uncovered and used are the Coroners records, where the lives of the pullers are paradoxically revealed through their death.  Other sources include the oral testimony of those few rickshaw pullers still alive and photographs, which graphically enlighten the picture he is trying to paint.

He divides his book into two sections;  Rickshaws in Singapore and The Rickshawmen of Singapore:  the structure of life.  In the first part he discusses the owners, the pullers, the Department set up to oversee them and their resistance to conditions in Singapore as expressed through strike action.  He also details the reasons why Chinese peasants flocked to Singapore and how they tried to maintain family and village networks once there.  In part two he concentrates on their life and struggle in Singapore itself;  what it was like to be a coolie, the struggle for food, clean water, lodgings and the leisure available, including prostitution, gambling and above all, opium.  The reaction of the public and their indifference to the pullers is vividly portrayed, as is the struggle to support and raise a family for those pullers unfortunate enough to have incurred these onerous responsibilities.  Finally, he charts the dangers of the occupation, the violence and the active hostility from the authorities as they tried to wind back rickshaw operations as the motorcar encroached and finally overran the streets of Singapore.

Warren’s greatest achievement is portraying in excruciating and graphic detail the lives of these previously forgotten people.  For example;  “Pulling a rickshaw with two passengers for hours in temperatures of up to 100 0 F could kill a puller.  The strain was etched on Ling Ah Thui’s face as he started back on his return leg of a 14-mile run from Kranji.  Every muscle in his body ached under the scorching sun, as perspiration rolled down his face in beads, burning his eyes. ... Only last week a fellow lodger fell down dead on a long run when his heart failed, weakened by a decade of tuberculosis, opium smoking, whoring and a poor diet.  He summed up the misfortune of his deceased friend in a Chinese saying:  ‘the legs of a bull would not go as far as the heart of a chicken’”[16]
In so doing he has recorded for all time, in an accessible format, the struggles of an essential group of Singaporean society that otherwise would have gone unrecorded and eventually forgotten in the new, modern Singapore.  In doing this he written a classical history from below, one where the ordinary man is given centre stage and is allowed to speak in a way that Europeans of the time would never have considered possible and probably would not have cared anyway.  By allowing this Warren has illuminated a vital part of Singapore’s ethnic history, one that allows present day Singaporeans to reclaim and have ownership and pride in the history of their city and the role of the Chinese in building it into the metropolis it now is.  Reading past histories of Singapore, written from the colonial perspective, one would have imagined that it was the British alone who built Singapore.  This history rebuts that by showing how significant the role of the Chinese were and that the city was built on their blood and sweat.  As such this book is very similar to the reading I analysed on Malaysia.  It is said that history is written by the victors on their terms and these two works demonstrate this.

Warren is aware of this, devoting the whole of chapter 1 to this.  He has deliberately set out to write a history from below noting that “This approach to the history writing of the subject people of Singapore enables the historian to confront fundamental questions about the nature of migration, colonial urbanisation and labour, and to trace how and why a city like Singapore has developed”[17]   He strongly believes in the need for “a new history of Singapore [where] the Chinese labourers should be visibly present, part of the changing environment of a coolie town under colonial rule.  The fundamental problems encountered in the daily lives of ordinary urban dwellers -making their lives and losing them- is the real stuff of urban social history”[18]  This work is testament to his beliefs.

Warren asserts that his book “has attempted to integrate the experience of rickshaw coolies into the larger history of Singapore in the period 1880-1940”[19]  This is questionable.    He probably comes closest in the negative by sadly portraying that the function they performed was very important but as individuals and groups they were irrelevant.  Proof of this is the failure of their infrequent strikes and that throughout the 60 years of rickshaws in Singapore their conditions never improved.  Indeed, if anything they deteriorated.  Warren has written a superb history of how the Rickshaw Coolies lived, worked, survived and died in Singapore, but this is not a history that demonstrates how they fitted into the wider Singapore society.  Roche[20] has eloquently and convincingly demonstrated this, pointing out that he has not provided evidence of their importance to colonial development, their cultural integration into Singaporean life, their role in relation to the richer and more influential Chinese living in the city, nor has he provided a context for the pullers and other Chinese Coolies as well as Malay and Indian workers.  However he has produced a fascinating and detailed history of the Rickshaw pullers in Singapore even if their lives and struggles are somewhat isolated from the life and development of the rest of the city, the colony, its citizens and masters.  This text demonstrates all that is good and bad about the history from below approach.  Narrow in scope but broad in focus, focussing on the ordinary worker to the exclusion of all else!

Gangsters and Revolutionaries
The second book to be examined is Gangsters and Revolutionaries:  The Jakarta People’s Militia and the Indonesian Revolution, 1945-1949, by Robert Cribb.  This text analyses the Indonesian revolution from the perspective of the Jakarta underworld, comprising gangsters and criminals.  The book is organised into four chronological chapters and an epilogue.  He first introduces the Jakarta underworld before 1945, then the role of gangsters and revolutionaries during the five months after Indonesian Independence was proclaimed in August 1945, eventually followed by an enforced exile, decay into social banditry and a path towards extinction [21]

Cribb analyses the relationship between the gangsters and the various players of the time (Dutch, Japanese, British, American and Indonesian nationalists).  The Indonesian revolution has been written about extensively[22],  but Cribb analyses it from a fresh angle, unearthing for the first time the convoluted links between the nationalists and the underworld as well as how all sides to the various conflicts used and abused each other according to their native self interest.  He attempts to trace how the gangsters were used by both the Japanese and the nationalists to further their own ends but eventually they became dispensable and were crushed by the emergent national state[23]  They were at their most powerful when the imminent Japanese defeat created a power vacuum allowing gangsters respectability in their fight with radical youth for Independence.  The Nationalists used the gangsters because through them they had a link to the peasants and the gangsters benefited from this alliance as it gave them relative freedom to conduct their activities.  Once Independence was achieved the gangsters were no longer required.  They were again seen as outlaws and persecuted.  The gangsters were unable to resist this trend nor able to become relevant to the new order because of the nature of their groups, relying on individual leaders and loose structures designed for hit and run activities.  The very factors that made them so useful to the Japanese and the nationalists eventually proved their undoing.

I found the book interesting but confusing and very convoluted.  He has written a history of the Indonesian revolution from the perspective of the underworld’s links with the overall national revolutionary experience in Jakarta.  To do this he has extensively consulted relevant archival material, contemporary newspapers  and conducted interviews with surviving former gangsters.  I found the text easier to follow up until the Indonesian revolution and then the book appeared to become very confusing as events became far more complicated.  Perhaps the author assumes too high a degree of familiarity with the ins and outs of the Indonesian revolution from his readers.

Is this work an example of a history from below?  While having elements its is more a political history of the Indonesian revolution.  It is less a history of gangsters that a history of Indonesian nationalism in which the gangsters were involved.  To my mind the history from below approach is not only who is written about but also how the work is written.  If Cribb had written his study on the rickshaw pullers of Singapore in the same way as Cribb did with his Jakarta gangsters then we would have had a chronological history of Singapore and the role played by the pullers in its development.  Despite the extensive use of oral history and archival and contemporary resources Cribb is criticised  by Mrazek[24] for not letting the protagonists speak more in their own language.  As he notes;  “One would like to hear more about Cribb’s heroes own logic in the illogical, about their sense of order in the random and about their norms in the unusual.  In this respect Robert Cribb proved not to be brigand enough”[25]

In conclusion this is an interesting text on the Indonesian revolution and the role played by the Jakarta underworld.  It falls under the type of history defined as history from below but it also could as easily be considered a political history.  If it had been written from a different perspective, one where the lives of the gangsters and their aims were paramount and the Indonesian revolution portrayed as an opportunity to advance their own ends, then it would more properly rank in the first tier of history from below works.

Philippine Social History
The final text to be analysed in Philippine Social History:  Global Trade and Local transformations.  This is a collection of papers dealing with Philippine social history over the past two centuries.  The thirteen papers are arranged by locality, namely Luzon, The Visayas and Mindanao.  There is an introduction to the social history of the Archipelago and a conclusion on an agenda for Philippine studies.  The thirteen papers cover a variety of topics including The Social history of a Central Luzon Barrio, The provincial and Municipal elites of Luzon during the revolution, 1898-1902 and Frontier Society on the Bukidnon Plateau, 1870-1941.  The common theme of this social history is that the emphasis is on regional and local histories rather than the traditional Manilla-centred approach.

Rather than focus on the papers themselves and associated discussions on the roles of social history in the study of the Philippines and the relevance of a Philippine history that emphasises the regions over the capital Manila, I will instead analyse the book from the viewpoint of history from below.  This book was a culmination of a decade of research into regional, provincial and local history in the Philippines.  Access became available to the extensive archival colonial records and scholars flocked to Manila to access these and unearth new findings on the country and its component parts from a social history perspective.  Perhaps this occurred because with the introduction of martial law it was considered somewhat foolhardy and dangerous to research provocative topics to close to the era of the Marcos dynasty and their cronies.  The other reason was an ambivalence on the creation of the Philippines as a nation state of colonial construction.[26]  Faced with this ambivalence it is easier to focus on local rather than national histories.  De Jesus also points out that many of these histories are too confrontational and that studies approached from a different perspective would produce different conclusions.  It may well be that many of these studies are a product of their times, seeing events in the Philippines from an anti-colonial perspective and writing accordingly.[27]    This is what  Samuel warned against  when writing about “the indulgence which social historians extend towards their subjects and the desire to establish empathy, seeing the past in terms of its own values rather than those of today can also serve to flatter our self-esteem, making history a field in which, at no great cost to ourselves, we can demonstrate our enlarged sympathies and benevolence”[28]

These criticisms notwithstanding, with the publication of this and associated volumes there now exists a substantial body of literature on Philippine social history.  These essays certainly fall under the rubric of history from below, in that they focus on the ordinary man, often in a local or regional setting, struggling to eke out an existence in an often hostile environment.  The merits or criticism that can be levelled at these papers in their own way demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to history as discussed in the introduction to this assignment.  Certainly the study and documentation of Philippine social history  has been greatly enriched.

In conclusion I will discuss the relevance of the social history approach to an understanding of South-east Asian history and whether this approach is relevant to a historian writing on South-east Asian history.

The history from below approach appears tom have great applicability to south east  Asian history.  Traditionally the countries of this region have been written from the perspective of the colonisers, with a focus on the big picture and the development of these countries and their governance from the perspective of the colonial powers and the value and utility of their colonies to them.  The only exception seemed to be the ancient history of these South east Asian countries.  The period prior to the colonial period was seen to be one where peasants toiled in subsistence agriculture and nothing much happened beyond petty disputes between them and minor overlords who were constrained through their power and reach having natural limitations by virtue of their technological and bureaucratic inefficiencies.

The use of history from below allows these nations to now claim their history back as their own and provides new perspective’s on their lives and struggles during the colonial era.  It allows their endeavours during this era to be put in perspective and engenders pride in their achievements and sacrifices as ends in themselves rather than merely as cogs in the development of empires.  While there are dangers in this approach, for example, the pitfalls raised by Samuel in my introduction, relating to extolling the ordinary man out of all proportion to his achievements and the use of detail of the mundane to obscure reality and empirical investigation; if used judiciously and with an understanding of the pitfalls, this approach has a lot to commend itself in the study of south east Asian history


Gardner, Juliet, Ed.  What is history today ...?.  London:  MacMillan, 1988,

McCoy, Alfred and C. De Jesus, eds. Philippine Social History:  Global Trade and Local Transformations.  Sydney:  Allen and Unwin, 1982,

R. McVey. Southeast Asian transitions:  Approaches through Social History.  New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1978,

Mrazek, Rudolf.  Book review.  Journal of Asian Studies  Vol 51 No 4, November 1992, p. 979

Rimmer, Manderson and Barlow. The underside of Malaysian History:  Pullers, Prostitutes, Plantation Workers....  Singapore:  Singapore University Press, 1990,

Roches, Mina,  57011. Approaches to Southeast Asian History,  Rockhampton:  CQU, 1996

Warren, James. Rickshaw Coolie:  a People’s history of Singapore, 1880-1940.  Singapore:  Oxford University Press, 1986,

[1] Roches, Mina, Approaches to Southeast Asian History, p. 4-3
[2] David Cannadine in Gardner, Juliet, Ed.  What is history today ...?.  London:  MacMillan, 1988, p. 54
[3] Raphael Samuel in Gardner, Juliet, Ed.  What is history today ...?.  London:  MacMillan, 1988, p. 42
[4] Ibid., p. 43
[5] Cannadine, p. 54-6
[6] Samuel p.46-48
[7] In Ibid., p. 48
[8] Breuilly, John, in, Gardner, Juliet, Ed.  What is history today ...?.  London:  MacMillan, 1988, p. 51
[9] McVey, R.  Introduction:  Local voices, central power.  R. McVey. Southeast Asian transitions:  Approaches through Social History.  New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1978, p. 6
[10] Ibid., p. 14
[11] Rimmer, Manderson and Barlow. The underside of Malaysian History:  Pullers, Prostitutes, Plantation Workers....  Singapore:  Singapore University Press, 1990, p. 8
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., p. 9
[14] Ibid., p. 22
[15] Roches, p. 4-8
[16] Warren, James. Rickshaw Coolie:  a People’s history of Singapore, 1880-1940.  Singapore:  Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 273
[17] Ibid.,  p. 3
[18] Ibid., p. 4
[19] Ibid., p. 316
[20] Roche, P. 4-10 - 4-11
[21] Mrazek, Rudolf.  Book review.  Journal of Asian Studies  Vol 51 No 4, November 1992, p. 979
[22]Ibid, p. 978
[23] Roche, p. 4-11
[24] Mrazek, p. 979
[25] Ibid.
[26] McCoy, Alfred and C. De Jesus, eds. Philippine Social History:  Global Trade and Local Transformations.  Sydney:  Allen and Unwin, 1982, p. 448
[27] Ibid, p. 449
[28] Samuel, p. 47