How people make the past

The great currents of history are important, but it's the individuals whose stories fascinate us most, says Margaret MacMillan...

A portrait of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty which ruled over much of India from 1526 to 1858. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Let me start with two very different stories in two very different parts of the past. In the 1790s, a young woman called Elizabeth Simcoe walked in the twilight through a forest in Upper Canada, a scarcely settled part of the British empire. A fire had recently swept through and its smoke still lingered.  Every so often, one of the smouldering trees shot out a tongue of flame. It was, she reported, “a little like Tasso’s enchanted wood”. In her copious journals, written for those she had left behind in England, we share her surprise and delight at the new world in which she found herself. Some three centuries earlier, Babur, a prince from central Asia, also decided to set down his thoughts and experiences in a journal, which somehow survived his turbulent and adventurous life. And so we can read about Babur’s complicated feelings when he first fell in love but was tongue-tied every time he encountered his adored one. We can sympathise as he gets discouraged in his quest for a kingdom of his own and muses on whether he should simply give up and go and wander around China.

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