I once did a history degree. These days a history degree isn’t all about teaching you about 1066 and all that. Its about teaching you to take a critical approach to reading history, and indeed to reading anything, and to not accept things at face value. As such I’ve become fascinated over the years at how history is presented.
Yesterday we went to Hoa Lo Prison, a small compound in central Hanoi which was once used as a POW camp, first by the French to hold Vietnamese and later by the Vietnamese to hold Americans. Since the early-1990s it has become a museum cataloguing the prison’s 100 year history.
Broadly, prisons aren’t pleasant places. Some of humanity’s most shameful moments have been played out between their walls. We seem to have this sickening knack of forgetting our humanity when it comes to detaining one another. I vividly remember visiting the slave prisons on the Cape Coast in Ghana, where British and Portuguese slave traders brutally imprisoned thousands of captured slaves. There was one room in particular, small and damp with no light, where errant slaves would simply be locked and left until they were dead. I also visited the KGB museum when I was in Vilnius, in Lithuania – another low point of human history where rebel Lithuanians were taken and brutally interned by the KGB during the Soviet occupation.
My point is that prisons, historically, are horrific places. Hoa Lo prison was no different. Yesterday we read about how hundreds of prisoners were kept in tiny confined cells, ankles shackled to cold concrete floors. We were told about a room where 200 women at a time had to share one small tap for all their sanitary needs. A large guillotine recalled how the French colonialists – who first set up the prison and ran it for the first half of the 20th century – brought disruptive captors to the briefest of ends. There can be no doubt that the French treated the inmates horrendously.
But what really interested me was how the history of the prison was presented. After the French were chased out of Hanoi in the mid-1950s, the Vietnamese continued to operate the prison. They went on to use it as a POW camp for captured American pilots.
But its ok. According to the very helpful information boards, despite the ‘difficult’ national economy the Vietnamese were faced with during the war, the Vietnamese Government ‘had created the best living conditions to US pilots for they had a stable life during the temporary detention period’ [sic].
I guess that’s why the prisoners called it The Hanoi Hilton…
I mean, take your pick. The French colonialists were obviously pretty brutal when operating this prison. But is it fair to believe that the Vietnamese, when it was their turn to run the prison, gave their captors cups of tea and blankets? I’m not so sure. Throughout our history, we’ve never been good at being humane to our enemies. That Vietnamese prisoners were extremely poorly treated at Hoa Lo is beyond doubt. But the idea that any other prisoners suffered any less, despite what the information boards say, is a little too far fetched for me to buy.
Hoa Lo Prison, on the face of it, is an interesting couple of hours learning about an important part of Vietnamese history. It does indeed bear similarities to other historical prisons I’ve visited in the past. But what really struck me yesterday was the way the history of the prison was presented. Perhaps there is more to learn from that, than from any of the artifacts the prison has on display.