The curious case of lost knowledge

April 14, 2007 at 3:00 am 5 comments

Cheetah in NamibiaI’ve been asked a couple of questions (which shows I have 2 readers at least!). The answer to the first question is yes, this blog is coming out of Australia (check out the Made in Australia cute kangaroo icon to the right). And the answer to the second question is my undergraduate degree is combined History/Philosophy, hence my tendency to indulge in historical, archaeological or philosophical wanderings. And so…to today’s post on…History and the Curious Case of Lost Knowledge.

I came across a press release, which prompted me to check out an online issue of Historical Research (subscription needed) and I came across a startling article. I say startling for two reasons: firstly, I was dismayed, as a knowledge management practitioner, to read about the intentional destruction of major historical research; and secondly, because new evidence has come to light that may cast doubt on the grand narrative of the European discovery of America.

Dr Alwyn Ruddock died in December 2005. She was a former reader in History at the University of London and spent her academic career researching Englishman John Cabot’s voyages of exploration from Bristol to North America in the 1400s. It is rumoured among historians that what she unearthed from her decades of research points to Cabot’s “discovery” of America during his 1498 voyage. Cabot’s chief supporter was the influential Italian cleric, Fr Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, an Augustinian friar who accompanied Cabot in 1498, and who may have erected the first church in North America, which could lie under the modern town of Carbonear, Newfoundland.

The intriguing question is why Dr Ruddock destroyed her research, which was apparently carried out following specific instructions in her 2003 will. What a loss of knowledge! However, letters between Dr Ruddock and her intended publisher escaped unscathed and have been studied by Dr Evan Jones of the University of Bristol. His article in Historical Research, “Alwyn Ruddock: ‘John Cabot and the Discovery of America‘”, attempts to piece together the knowledge puzzle. Most intriguing is the comment in his article that “One of her trustees was…. to be paid a substantial sum to ensure that the destruction of Ruddock’s work was carried out ‘as soon as possible’ after her death. You have to wonder why a serious researcher would wilfully destroy such a body of knowledge. Jones’ whole article reads like a plot out of a detective novel with Jones finally tracking down a 1992 book proposal of Ruddock’s – a 7 page document that seemed to point to some “revolutionary” document finds.

There are 25 extant documents concerning Cabot’s discovery voyages, but letters to the publisher seem to suggest that Dr Ruddock had found documents of immense historical value, including the first letter to report the return of the 1497 voyage; a document revealing what happened to the 1498 expedition, the fate of which is not known; and evidence to suggest Cabot explored a long section of the North American coastline.

Dr Ruddock apparently gained access to private Italian libraries and old historical families, so hopefully her book proposal can be used by other historians to trace the “knowledge gathering” path Ruddock took. There is a hint in the article that perhaps the research or book proposal did not meet Dr Ruddock’s exacting standards and so she ordered her research to be destroyed. Whatever the reason, it has me thinking: how do historians preserve the knowledge they are discovering, specifically when they are on the trail of research that may alter the history books and naturally wish to keep under wraps until they have proved their hypothesis? How do they avoid another Ruddock style loss of knowledge?


Entry filed under: Curiousity, History, Knowledge Management.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  April 14, 2007 at 4:07 am

    You are correct, there is much knowledge lost.

    I’m associated with a man who (re-)discovered a way to “energize” water using herbs which has a tremendous effect on plant growth. Then we discovered that the same water also works on people and animals, the “fall garden spray” heals burns, scars and other skin things, while the “spring garden spray” instantly heals pain. I am convinced that this was known in the past, and is the basis for us using “holy water” in churches! And the powers that be are actively surpressing this knowledge today, because of the implications to the drug companies.

    There are others who can duplicate this prcess, one of whom lives in New Zeland.

    In your article you talk of Cabot’s “discovery” of America in 1498, but Columbus “discovered America” in 1492, albet never actually found the mainland, only islands near Cuba. Also,the Vikings (Leif Erickson) described “Vineland” which was somewhere in modern-day Canada or New England sometime around the 15th century.

    Keep up the good work.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  April 14, 2007 at 7:25 am

    Hi Greg

    Thx for leaving your comments. The whole thing is very intriguing indeed. From what I’ve read, I think Dr Ruddock meant that Cabot’s explorations were more extensive than Columbus’ because of course Columbus “discovered” America in 1492 (or the Chinese stumbled upon it in 1421; or the Vikings as you say! ).

    I agree with your comments also about suppression of the natural knowledge we had in the past. Hopefully, people like the man in NZ you mention will “rediscover” lost knowledge.
    Kim Sbarcea

  • 3. John Daly  |  April 15, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Of course a lot of knowledge that is lost, was simply wrong to begin with. So too, some knowledge that was once right is discarded when it becomes wrong. Not very many people need to know how to make or operate buggy whips any more — an example of knowledge that is no longer as needed as once it was.

    I wish there was a way to screen knowledge that is being lost to know which to keep as useful or potentially useful.

    Nice blog!

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  April 16, 2007 at 12:21 am

    Hi John
    I’m very interested in this notion of when/if knowledge becomes “wrong”; and when/if it’s “right”. Watch out for a future blog post on this.

    At least in organisations, the discipline of KM is attempting to identify knowledege wealth that is important to retain for the organisation to achieve its strategic vision.

    Thx for visiting ThinkingShift!
    Kim Sbarcea

  • 5. Joseph Letourneau  |  October 15, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Not sure if this blog is still active? With regards “lost knowledge”, i’m interested in Chief Sitting Bull’s saga post 7th Cavalry massacre (aka Custer’s Last Stand). After hiding out in the Fort Walsh area of Saskatchewan (Canada, though back then it was the British North American colony known as the North West Territory) for almost five years, Sitting Bull returns to the US territories and surrenders himself to US authorities. He’s held under house arrest for just over a year before the US Fed government decides to put him on trial. Before Sitting Bull can be physically removed to Washington, he is fatally wounded in a legendary “mob scene”. The fellow who reputedly shot him was his long time friend and companion warrior Bull Head. Bull head goes on to become Great Chief Bull Head, the founder of the Sarcee Nation which today is known as Tsuu T’ina Nation, adjacent to the City of Calgary (Alberta, Canada)… when Sitting Bull first arrived in Saskatchewan he was reputed to have 8,000 travel worn followers with him. When he returns to the US to surrender, there are reportedly only eighty (80) followers remaining from the original group. I am working on a hypothesis that suggests that not all the missing 7,200 followers perished from starvation and disease, or other natural causes, although assuredly a great number of these folks did meet tragic ends.


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