History is much more than keeping careful records of how humans in the past have lived and acted. Understanding history is to figure out how we behaved and worked in groups. The purpose of history isn’t simply to present facts and figures, but to search for an interpretation of the past. Historians attempt to find patterns and establish meaning through the rigorous study of documents and artifacts left by people of other times and places. Ultimately, what we want is to stop repeating the painful and stupid mistakes. George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher and writer, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is certainly not that history repeats itself, but we who do.
Interestingly, history is the discipline most concerned about understanding change. Historians not only seek to clarify historical causality—how and why change occurs within societies and cultures—but they also try to account for the endurance of tradition, understand the complex interplay between continuity and change, and explain the origins, evolution, and decline of institutions and ideas. Eventually, history shows how little we have changed as human beings.
History can be an extremely powerful tool. Besides names and dates, it doesn’t only make us understand about our past and heritage but also influences the choices we make in the present and the future. Historians may have their perspectives, agendas, and biases. History textbooks turn history to its advantage for patriotism. The past can be used in PR for propaganda and building nationalism. Among all nations, Thailand has also been built through actual histories and the myths surrounding us. The mythology about Thais’ uniqueness and greatness of the country has encouraged us to accept sacrifices today. Every story about our kingdoms through war and peace tells us about who we are as a race and what we are capable of with both our honourable and despicable aspects.
Like in many countries, Thai history textbooks are sponsored by the government and are written to put the national heritage in the most favourable light. Academic historians often fight against the politicization of the textbooks, with or without success. As history can also be seen through different perspectives, either from the victorious or the defeated, one of the most interesting accounts in Thai history books is the elephant duel between King Naresuan and Crown Prince Mingyi Swa in 1593 during the Ayutthaya Period. What we learnt in most textbooks is that this epic battle took place in Nhong Sarai, Suphanburi, and we also learnt of its outcome.
According to Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, the “Father of Thai History,” the scene was reconstructed as the war elephants of King Naresuan and Prince Ekathotsarot, his younger brother, were “in musth” and charged into the midst of the Burmese army. Only a handful of Siamese soldiers were able to follow them in and protect the embattling monarch. King Naresuan then dared Crown Prince Mingyi Swa into a formal duel in which the Ayutthayan King killed the Burmese Prince with his glaive.
After the war, King Naresuan had a stupa built as a victory monument at the battle ground and the Burmese didn’t bother to wage war again until the fall of Ayutthaya between 1765 and 1767. This became a highly romanticized historical scene known as Songkhram Yuddhahatthi or the “Elephant Battle” in many history books and blockbuster movies.
However, most accounts of the era from either Siamese or foreign mention an elephant battle but not a formal duel. The Burmese chronicles do not remark this combat at all. According to European accounts, King Naresuan took advantage when Swa’s elephant was attacked by a Burmese war elephant that went musth. He closed in, fired a gun, and mortally wounded the crown prince. King Naresuan was seen as lucky to escape this very dangerous situation and win the battle. Although the triumph looms large in many Thai history books, this should be relegated to a legendary tale. So what may actually have happened can vary from different points of view.
Through the eyes of others, we can develop a sense of context and coherence while recognizing complexity and ambiguity. Historical records don’t only present human achievements but also human failures, barbarity, and cruelty. History offers us rich, textured, and substantive context for understanding the human condition and grappling with moral questions and problems. History is vital in the quest for wisdom and virtue.
Therefore, understanding the past is fundamental to understanding the present. History provides unique insight to human nature and civilization. The analysis and interpretation of history provide an essential context for evaluating contemporary institutions, politics, and cultures. Great politicians and military personnel study history so that they can conduct diplomacy with other countries and understand how others got to be who they are. History, thus, reflects the sense of our selves.