Culture and Civilisations

The obliteration of memory

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The obliteration of memory

(Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As my old friend, eight times World Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien has often pointed out to me, once you deprive a person of their memories , they cease to exist as a human being. The same can apply to societies and nations.

In 1533, Atahualpa, supreme ruler of the vast Inca imperium, was surprised, seized and taken prisoner by the Spanish Conquistador Pizarro and his cohort of Hidalgos. This coup took place, even though Pizarro commanded at most 200 troops, while the Incan legions numbered 80,000.

Legend has it that his captors taught Atahualpa how to play chess, using the newly fashionable version, with enhanced powers of the queen and bishop, which was being popularised in Spain around that time. Presumably this pastime helped to occupy those tense few days, while Atahualpa’s minions were collecting sufficient gold to pay for their emperor’s release. One can imagine that extraordinary scene. Droves of Inca menials, hauling sacks of all corrupting gold into their lord’s place of incarceration, a humiliating scenario, eerily predictive of the captivity of Alberich by Wotan in Wagner’s Rheingold, the prostrate Nibelung’s freedom solely contingent on surrendering his entire cache of gold to the treacherous gods of Valhalla.

The primary source referenced for the claim that Atahualpa was taught to play chess by his captors is said to come from the Relación de Inca Atahualpa y de don Francisco Pizarro, a partially lost manuscript, written around 1535 by Juan de Betanzos, a Spanish explorer who accompanied Pizarro on his conquest of the Incas. De Betanzos did, indeed, conduct many interviews with surviving Incas, and ended up marrying a widow of Atahualpa, whom I presume to have been polygamous.

The sad outcome of this legend, whether true or a dramatic fiction, is that learning chess may, ironically, have sealed Atahualpa’s death warrant. Apparently he had suggested a winning move (the rook rather than the knight) in a game he had been watching, between the Conquistadors de Soto and Riquelme, which resulted in the latter losing, when he had expected to win.

According to the narrative, a vote was later taken to decide Atahualpa’s fate, and it was Riquelme who cast the decisive ballot in favour of garrotting the Inca leader.

In any case, one thing is clear. If a small group of heavily outnumbered activists, who, for whatever reason, and by whatever means, can exert sufficient control, then resolve to eradicate a nation’s history, abolish its memories and traditions in order to sabotage its morale, then assassinating the opposing chief, confiscating all its wealth and enslaving the entire population, represents a most effective start to the process.

Other methods of destroying a nation’s identity — by undermining its cohesion, subverting its moral strength, obliterating its traditions and rewriting its history — might also be considered by those who have an interest in so doing.

Over the past year, for example, it would seem that some organised groups have been expending considerable effort and energy on toppling, or trying to topple, ‎monuments to long dead, if controversial, figures of the past. Such include Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the US, or the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and its subsequent dumping in the harbour.

In the case of Rhodes, such gestures appear doubly pointless, or at best paradoxical. The would-be revisionists are not only refighting ‎old battles, long since won or lost, but were, themselves, in some cases, actual beneficiaries of the internationally prestigious Oxford scholarships, which Rhodes himself had originally both funded and founded! If the statue goes, do the scholarships go with it?

Much as one might prefer to dismiss such apparent vandalism as a modern aberration, there is in fact a deep rooted psychological desire, manifest throughout the centuries, to eradicate the symbols of supposed opponents, however irrelevant that might seem to prevailing contemporary conditions.

The Pharaoh Rameses II was routinely accused of replacing the cartouches of previous rulers of Egypt with his own, while the first Emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, in his ambitious endeavour to redefine space and restart time, according to his own parameters, set about burning all the books of previous Chinese philosophers and historians. The future of China would be a product of his exclusive vision, or so he intended.

During the heyday of the Roman Empire, bad emperors — Caligula and Nero spring to mind — were subject to the sanction of Damnatio Memoriae, where all references and evidence of existence were officially purged. In contrast, good emperors, such as Augustus and Vespasian, received the significant bonus of deification by the worthies of the Roman Senate.

Meanwhile, during the thousand year hegemony of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, movements arose to annihilate all visual icons of Christ and the saints. Naturally enough, they were known as iconoclasts, or the destructors of icons. One Emperor who resisted the iconoclasts was Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), also noted in The Alexiad of his daughter Anna Comnena, as an enthusiastic chess-player. On one occasion he was surprised in his private chambers by conspirators, but as any good strategist would have foreseen, he had provided himself with a secret escape route.

Alexius returned with a vengeance, reinforced by his Varangian bodyguards. He apprehended the conspirators and had them paraded through the streets of Constantinople, seated backwards on asses, with cows entrails placed on their heads, signifying mock crowns. Alexius Comnenus is still commemorated as a chess-player on the 250 Franc Senegalese postage stamp, where the anti iconoclastic emperor shares the limelight with a king from an Isle of Lewis style Scandinavian chess set. This would make perfect realistic sense, since the Imperial Varangian Guard was composed entirely of elite Nordic warriors, who would have had easy access to such artefacts.

The suppression of memory goes hand in hand alongside the destruction of symbols, and, in parallel, Islamic conquest was notoriously hostile to images of human, divine or animal life. The followers of The Prophet famously preferred to decorate their places of worship with holy text or abstract illustration. In such cases the imperative towards abstraction was propelled by the ancient Mosaic injunction, prohibiting the worship of graven images.

Just over half a century or so after the Byzantine Empire itself fell to Islam (with the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II Al Fatih, breaching the walls of Constantinople in 1453, using giant artillery created by Urban, the Transylvanian Christian arms designer), the most celebrated Spanish military adventurer, Hernan Cortes, on the other side of the world, conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. In August 1521, that quintessential Conquistador, and role model for Pizarro, installed himself as governor of the former Altepetl, or the Aztec Imperial hub. Subsequently, in spite of the new Spanish rulers being hugely outnumbered by the Aztec population, Cortes instigated a process of proconsular colonial restructuring, which forcibly imposed Spanish institutions on the indigenous inhabitants. A key element of the Spanish strategy involved the deliberate obliteration of the vast majority of pre-conquest Nahua language documents.

Cortes’ actions, of course, had profound implications for the collective memory of all native societies across the whole of Mesoamerica. This annihilation of Aztec religious, historical and practical records was specifically designed to remould the character of the entire enormous conquered territory, thereby robbing the original inhabitants of any recollection of their alternative and genuine past.

Throughout England, in the years immediately following the extensive Spanish conquests in the New World, the reforms of Henry VIII resulted in the immolation of relics, books, architecture, art and even vestments associated with the recently demonised Pope in Rome.

In parallel, across Europe, such antipathy towards Catholic images reached a peak with the rise of Protestantism and Puritanism in the sixteenth century. Indeed, it may well be that the efflorescence ‎of Dutch landscape painting in the seventeenth century was a subconscious effort to replace the Catholic based art which had been annihilated by the godly.

Perhaps the surreal nadir of destruction was achieved during the riots instigated by fanatical Puritans in Riga 1524, when a violent crowd uprooted a statue of The Virgin Mary and hurled it into a nearby river. Being made of wood, the statue naturally floated, so the godly, drawing the appropriate logical conclusions, hauled it back from the roaring torrent, in order to dry it out and then burn it as a witch!

I see the same busy impetus in the arguments over the singing of Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms. The patriotic tenor of the Elgar, or of Arne’s Rule Britannia, are no more an accurate historical statement than the rousing fantasy of Queen’s “We are the Champions”. Imagination, myth and legend, can be an equally potent reinforcement of identity as genuine historical record.

A further topical casus belli centres around the relocation of the bust of Sir Hans Sloane within the British Museum, from its more prominent public plinth, to an exhibit on slavery. And this, in spite of the inconvenient truth that Sloane’s collection helped to found that selfsame British Museum. I trust that the Isle of Lewis chessmen will not now be dragged from the safety of their British Museum cabinets and incinerated, on the grounds that the Vikings, who made them, used them, and almost certainly provided playing samples for Alexius Comnenus, were very naughty boys, prone to pillage, looting and the periodic enslavement of their victims.

Trying to excise history would find a chess parallel in the obliteration of the brilliant games of Paul Morphy, because he supported the Confederate cause in the US Civil War, in the suppression of Alekhine’s masterpieces, as a result of his participation in Nazi-organised chess tournaments, or consigning the entire Soviet school of chess to the dustbin of history, as a consequence of their Grandmasters’ overt support for Stalin.

As the respected chess historian Richard Eales writes in his authoritative Chess: The History of a Game, Soviet masters could not fail to sense the powerful supportive breathing of the great motherland, from the most remote corners to the towers of the Kremlin, but in circumstances of failure, such as the serial defeats by Soviet champions against Bobby Fischer, the powerful breathing of the authorities down the necks of their representatives, could be less than welcome. Sometimes even success was not enough for the commissars. As Eales points out, the USSR Gold medal winning Olympiad team for 1952 came under criticism for winning by too narrow a margin.

Airbrushing rivals out of history was, of course, a Soviet speciality, and it was amusing to observe the way in which official photos of Stalin gradually evolved to progressively eliminate unwanted former colleagues. But Damnatio Memoriae cuts both ways. After achieving independence, Ukraine demolished 1,320 statues of Lenin, a clear indication of the subtle nuances and varying takes at different times on historical ovation or censure. Do we deplore the fall of Colston, yet applaud that of Lenin, or vice versa? Or are both misguided? As the old Soviet joke, very popular with my Russian chess playing friends, went: “under capitalism man exploits man, but under communism it is exactly the other way round.”

Professor Howard Zinn of Boston University adds: “History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history —while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance — might make you sceptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

For “government” I would substitute: any body claiming superior knowledge, insight or authority, in any field, be it environmental science, climatology, museum management, national broadcasting and even chess. As Voltaire once said: “dare to think for yourself.”

What our modern iconoclasts clearly lack is an awareness of the nuances of history, that there can be many contradictory narratives woven into the character of one person. As Mr Spock explains in Star Trek, only Nixon could negotiate a rapprochement with China.

I do trust that our modern iconoclasts, and would-be obliterators of memory, realise what dubious intellectual company they are keeping, when striving so determinedly to expunge the ancient symbols, reminders and memorial relics of their own history — and ours. No amount of toppling of statues, sequestration of busts, or suppression of popular songs, can succeed in righting the injustices of the past. Surely it is better to embrace history, learn from all its variegated angles and multifarious refractions, and strive to do better in the future, rather than try to cancel the past and vainly pretend that it never existed.

The oldest recorded game of modern chess, though it would appear that the castling rule had not yet been introduced. Here is the game between Francesco di Castellvi vs Narciso Vinyoles (1475) as an example of the type of chess which the Spanish Conquistadors would have taught Atahualpa.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 86%
  • Interesting points: 90%
  • Agree with arguments: 83%
117 ratings - view all

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