Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Log 352: Simon Winchester’s book on outposts of Empire throws a revealing light on the manners of imperialism

English: Location of the British Overseas Terr...
English: Location of the British Overseas Territories (red) , Crown dependencies (blue) , and Great Britain and Northern Ireland (green) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I have just finished reading an interesting book, Outposts, by the redoubtable British journalist Simon Winchester. The book was published in 1984, but reissued with some updating, in 2003. I have finished it while staying in Dubrovnik, Croatia, a curiously appropriate place, for this small city, which once was a powerful city-state with its own fleet, trade, embassies and the like, nowadays has the air of being a sort of hungover outpost of some kind of empire or other: of course once it was part of the Ottoman empire, and more recently part of the federation of Yugoslavia, which was held together by a strong leader, but which disintegrated with tragic results, when he died. Now this city is like a museum, whose main function appears to be to be looked at by tourists, who arrive in their thousands every year.
Winchester has made a name for himself by producing books in recent years on beguiling subjects: his idea for this book was to visit all of the remaining tiny dependencies of the once-great British colonial empire. Possibly my only reservation about Winchester, as an observer of the modern world, is that he betrays a certain fondness, almost a nostalgia, for the British Empire at its peak. He seems, in that sense, to be a traditional true-blue Englishman (although, I have to admit, he chose to become a naturalized American citizen later in life, when overcome with success).
The enterprise, of visiting every one of the 10 or 20 remaining outposts of Empire, was an eccentric one from the start. Many of these places exist in the middle of one or other of the huge oceans, are mere specks on the map, have few inhabitants, literally no purpose for their existence, and are of little use to anyone, including the imperial authorities who still rule over them. It is not easy to reach any of them, except Gibraltar, Bermuda and Hong Kong, which, when he wrote the book, was within 13 years of being handed over to the Chinese. The most difficult of all was Pitcairn Island, an island in the raging Pacific ocean, that was first inhabited by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers from the Bounty, but whose population by the 1980s had dwindled to a mere 44, and was reducing slowly as one  islander after another left for a more rewarding life elsewhere --- almost anywhere else, it seems. Winchester found that the island is visited by only two supply ships a year, which stay for a maximum of 10 hours, so if he should happen to miss the boat when it sailed, he would be stuck there for six months. Although it violated every rule he set for his enterprise he reluctantly decided that the 10 hours ashore would hardly be worth the cost of the operation and reluctantly decided not to go.
He went everywhere else, however: to the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat and the Caymans; to St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, and Ascension islands in the South Atlantic; he happened to be visiting the Falklands Islands when that ridiculous war broke out with Argentina; he tried to visit Diego Garcia, the sad place in the Indian ocean that Britain still administers but that is run by the United States as part of its war machine (he was ordered off); and he went to Gibraltar, Bermuda and Hong Kong.
In the Falklands he seemed to put the war, sold to the English by Mrs. Thatcher as a measure of their determination to defend the British way of life wherever it may be, into its proper perspective with this sad paragraph:
“There seemed a pathological lack of initiative and drive among the islanders. The shops were dreary, made no effort to compete with one another, never made a bid for excellence. There were no local industries --- no whisky was produced, despite the ideal conditions for growing all the ingredients. No one tried to sell fresh vegetables to the marines (when they arrived)…. There were 600,000 sheep on the islands --- yet no one tried to sell a single skin, or make a single coat, or spin a single ball of wool. There was but one restaurant in Stanley.… There was no fishing industry --- indeed, I found it hard to buy fish in any shop, or order it in any hotel. Nor was there a butcher’s shop: the meat supplies were brought in the back of a Land Rover, which called at houses only if a sign was displayed --- ‘Meat today please’…..The place was dying on its feet. Islanders were leaving --- a score or so each year, the population now well below 2,000, the ratio of young women to young men declining rapidly, the social ills of a small, introverted group --- alcoholism, divorce, depression --- increasing fast…”
He left the Falklands with this depressing sentence: “…Then I was aboard the plane again and the islands were falling away below, and had become a small green patch in the great grey ocean, with a British flag still flying, the guardian of the useless.”
Almost everywhere he went he discovered the dependencies were being administered by their remote London authorities with meanness and indifference, which had its effect in most of these tiny places of depressing the locals and making their tiny settlements shabby, from lack of funds to keep up appearances or morale.
He notes that inhabitants of only two of the outposts, Gibraltar and the Falklands Islands, have been granted by the British Parliament the right to enter Britain as full British citizens, and his conclusion is that the reason is obvious: they are the only two of the many remaining dependencies whose inhabitants are white.
Winchester deplores this as a sorry end to a great Imperial tradition that, he indicates, whatever else might be said against it, did leave behind many good things that continued to benefit the inhabitants long after Britain left.
He contrasts, in a memorable passage, the treatment given by the French to the islands of Martinique and Guadalope, by the Dutch to the Netherlands Antilles, and by the Americans to the U.S. Virgin Islands, with the niggardly attitude of the British to their contiguous islands of the British West Indies. None of their citizens, however loyal they might feel to the British connection, has been granted the right to enter Britain as a full citizen, whereas that right has been granted by the French and Dutch, who also have granted them full representation in the national Parliaments, with  mutually exchangeable citizenship, regardless of  colour or background. Moreover the laws of the metropolitan countries run in their dependencies, without exception. “To all practical intents and purposes, the  (U.S.) Virgin Islands are another American state,” Winchester remarks.
The greatest insult, he writes, is that although the people of these island dependencies “have been, and remain fiercely loyal to England and all for which it stands,” have fought and died in her wars, fly the Union flag, worship at the Church of England, “…. let them try to come to London to find work, or fly to Manchester to spend time with their relations, or take a holiday in Scotland, then all the loyalty and the feeling of privilege and good fortune counts for nothing. The law marks them out as suspect visitors….”
Winchester, who started life as a geologist working for a Canadian company, then became a leading British journalist for the Guardian and Sunday Times, finally settled into writing interesting books of non-fiction on subjects that he has discovered on the peripheries of history. This is one such book, and it is very much worth reading.

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