What has the Study of History meant to me?

Sir Ewen Fergusson former H.M. Ambassador to South Africa (1982–3) and France (1987–92) evaluates the importance of his undergraduate studies in his subsequent career.

Sir Ewen Fergusson

Fifty-six years ago, when I passed School Certificate (ie GCSE), I forsook Maths and Physics to become a history specialist. My motives were mixed:

  • history was reputed to be a quicker passage to the enviable privileges of the VI-th form and the automatic assumption of responsibility as a prefect;
  • historians had ‘lessons out’, for private reading in their studies;
  • as far as mathematics and physics were concerned, I knew that before very long the next pages would be “too difficult”; and
  • at the age of 13 and 14, I had been taught history by some gifted teachers.

The die was cast; Johnson’s History of Europe in the Sixteenth Century was thrust in front of me and, to enliven the dreariness of innumerable wars of religion, I covertly read Benvenuto Cellini’s memoirs. By the time that, three years later, I came to leave school, I had ‘covered’ three centuries and more of English and European history.

I came straight from school to Oriel with an Open Scholarship in History. The state examination, then called Higher Certificate, was seen at school as a workaday, pedestrian, fact-dominated test. The serious intellectual challenge was a University Scholarship at Oxford or Cambridge and our school record, at least in the 1950–51 season, was impressive.

In my last term at school, after the Scholarship exams were over and I had no academic goal to concentrate on, I skipped summarily through ‘medieval history’ (drawing heavily on H.A.L. Fisher’s History of Europe); I found this so appealing that, when I arrived at Oriel, I had no hesitation in opting to become a medievalist.

The Oxford History syllabus had a carefully constructed coherence; the continuous history of Britain; a general period mostly focussed on European history (I chose the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries); a special subject, giving an introduction to original sources, where having taken Latin and French at school I was not afraid of Medieval Latin and old French and chose Richard II.

Finally, there was Political Philosophy – Aristotle, Hobbes and Rousseau; taught without a spark of life, I fear. It followed that I was not much interested in this, which I regret. In my later career questions like the moral basis for getting rid of a bad ruler came to loom large and I should have liked to be able to apply the thoughts of these philosophers to, for instance, modern Africa, whose troubles would have struck a responsive chord with them. All this led to Final Schools, nine three-hour papers – an arduous but effective test of a candidate’s ability to think clearly and cogently under pressure, qualities which present-day diplomacy confirms as being highly desirable.

A brief mention of Prelims: in those days it took the first two terms and, to a newly-arrived undergraduate, intoxicated by the discovery of all that Oxford had to offer, it was a matter of scraping through with the minimum of effort – but one wanted to get through so that one’s first summer term could be enjoyed to the full, without any but the most distant thought of the exams that would impend at the end of three years. Paradoxically, I owe much to Prelims. The earliest of the three Historical Geography choices, on the movement of peoples in the late Roman and post-Roman periods, has come, in time, to be a continuing fascination for me. For the last fourteen years, since I bought a house in Northern Provence, I have been encouraged to learn more and more about the Roman legacy in Gaul and Spain, and about the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, and different varieties of Franks, together with the complex geography of their movements, directly relevant to how Europeans of all kinds perceive themselves today.

I cannot say that I worked very hard at Oriel. There were many distractions, notably sporting. Only one of my tutors used his acerbic tongue, clarity of thought, and penetrating knowledge of his subject to goad me into serious study; the second, delightful and learned, was over tolerant: ‘I see, Fergusson, that your contribution is not to be an academic one’; of the third … I say nothing. Nevertheless, I came down from Oxford, having passed into the Foreign Service, with my passion for history enhanced and with permanent gratitude for the base which the historical syllabus, unevenly as I pursued it, gave me for the thirty-six years of my career in diplomacy, and my private enjoyment to this day.

People ask ‘Was history ever of practical use to you?’ My, not entirely facetious, answer was that practice in setting out and remembering the family trees of Edward III or Charles of Anjou was immediately what was needed to understand the interlocking family relationships in the upper echelons of society in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, my first posting abroad. More seriously, the intellectual discipline of historical studies is an excellent preparation for the day-to-day issues of current diplomacy. How does one make sense of evidence that may be inadequate, or excessive, in volume, misleading in direction? How can fable and legend be disentangled from fact? Myth, for instance, may be a ‘necessary’ cement for national cohesion but it needs to be scrutinised with a clear and unbiased eye. And all serious historians know that there is no such thing as a ‘clear and unbiased eye’. Perhaps Shakespeare was a propagandist for the Lancastrian Tudors; Macaulay and Stubbs were telling a story as they wanted it to be heard, rather like Churchill and Sir Arthur Bryant. Charlemagne has achieved historical renown as the progenitor of today’s Europe (how many weary hours of meetings did I spend in the 1970s in Brussels’ Bâtiment Charlemagne), despite the brutal, violent and intolerant treatment which he meted out to the ancestors of most of those who now live within Europe’s ever-growing boundaries. Like the Tudors, it was the Carolingians’ interest to downplay the achievement of their predecessors, the Merovingians, and to laud their own. Yet Charlemagne’s Empire fell apart in the generation of his death, leaving the same kind of disunion that had been the Merovingian experience. Charlemagne, but not yet Dagobert, has been resuscitated to become a potent myth for the supporters of European integration!

I cannot think of any posting in my career, at home or abroad, when it was not important at the start to seek to identify and understand the myths and self-images which lay behind the self-interest of those with whom I was dealing; motto: ‘First know your history’. And that applied as much to the United Kingdom’s objectives as to those with whom we might be negotiating. Successively, in my working career, I was involved with the reconstruction of our defence policy, the preservation of our then significant strategic interests in the Horn of Africa, our trading relationship with the United States, our entry into the European Communities, our bilateral relationships with Eastern and Western Europe, our historical inheritance in South Africa and, back in London, our policies towards the Middle East and Africa; this was punctuated by two periods as Private Secretary, first in the Ministry of Defence and later in the Foreign Office, which gave an unrivalled opportunity to study the interaction between party politics and the administration of government business. Much for a historian to ponder over!

Finally, I came to France, where I worked for my last five and a half years in the Diplomatic Service. What a farrago of myths complicates the management of our day-to-day and our longer term relations! How vital it is, working in the field, to be aware of sensitive points in the past, and the not-so-distant past. Most of us know of Crécy and Agincourt, of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Yet these do not strike French nerve ends as do Fashoda and Mus-el-Kebir, barely, if at all, heard of by the British man-in-the-street. How many in Britain understand the continuous thread between General de Gaulle’s war-time relationship with President Roosevelt and the suspicious attitude of today’s French Right towards ‘les Anglo-Saxons’? How important was ‘the Entente Cordiale’? Which ‘Entente Cordiale’? Why do our tabloids so enjoy baiting ‘the Frogs’? If the relationship between France and Germany is visibly more important than that of either with Britain, how can we think of being ‘at the heart of Europe’? What do the French want from us? What do we want from them? How do we get there?

My point is that we need to have as clear a historical understanding as possible of how, in our international relations, we arrived at where we are, if we are ever to have a hope of containing the problems which beset us. I do not use the word ‘solving’; most ‘problems’, whatever may seem to be the assumptions of the leaders of a certain superpower, do not have ‘solutions’ but they can be contained and mitigated, and over the years the ingredients will undoubtedly change and a different jig-saw puzzle will emerge which may – or may not – be easier to contain in the future. Although asking questions based on historical analysis will not make the problems easier to deal with, not asking these kind of questions and acting on untested assumptions and assessments will certainly make them more difficult.

In short, the study of history teaches us how to build up background knowledge, to perceive the evolution of situations over time, to test sources, to recognise significant detail, to judge biases, and to be objective – or, more accurately, sceptical – in an informed way.

- E.A.J. Fergusson

(Oriel 1951–4)

Honorary Fellow, Oriel College