Book Introduction: Lost White Tribes: The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia, and Guadeloupe – Riccardo Orizio

We can all become minorities. We are all potentially irrelevant” – Riccardo Orizio.

It was almost 400 years ago that first European Colonialists set foot in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Over next 100 years these places were converted into permanent colonial outposts serving their colonial masters in far off lands. It also meant loss of sovereignty for locals and a life of second-class citizenship for the natives. This process continued till the WWII when one by one these colonial outposts crumbled giving way to independence to the suppressed. At this point the European colonizers were either forced to leave or stayed back because they had no choice. In some cases, they decided to stay back and cling to old system such as in Zimbabwe or even further tighten their hold like in South Africa.

Almost everywhere they have lost the privileges of the past. Today many of them are in neither land. They hang out to their past weaving myth with reality blaming everybody for their fall. Mostly they marry amongst themselves for the purity of race and purity of fair skin. They are torn between the memories and pride of past privileges and the need of the present to accept their fate and integrate with the wider community around them. It is this dilemma of being a member of a fast vanishing post-colonial tribe that Lost White Tribes captures very well. The book covers white Colonizers, Settlers, and Slaves in six different countries.

Sri Lanka: Dutch Burghers of Ceylon

The first chapter takes Orizio to Sri Lanka where he contacted the descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese community. First the Portuguese arrived in Ceylon some 400 hundred years ago due to the possession of world map. a community that arrived in Sri Lanka about 400 years ago with Dutch East India Company, VOC and with Portuguese before that. They are called Burghers.

Ceylon was known all over the world for Nutmeg, Pepper and Cloves. The Portuguese used to trade in these commodities before the Dutch ended their supremacy in the trade in 1602 by forming VOC or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Vompagnie. By 1670 VOC became the richest company that the world had seen by that time. It had 50000 employees and an army of 30000 to safeguard the 200 VOC ships plying in the high seas. For years VOC paid its shareholders annual dividend equal to almost 40 percent of their investment. This supremacy continued for close to 200 years before new colonial power, England, took reigns from them.

At the end of colonialism when Sri Lanka gained independence the most Burghers decided to stay back. However, soon Sinhalese replaced English as the language on radio and government records and the Burghers suddenly started losing out. While they lost their language, they did not learn the Sinhalese, the National language of Sri Lanka. Rather they continued converse in English. Today many of them live in dilapidated mansions which their forefathers built during good days. So many of them survive on small time jobs but they fiercely cling to their proud memories. The burghers were called by the Persian word parangi which means “ugly, disfiguring infection of the skin”. There are many other derogatory terms reserved for them in all the languages spoken in Sri Lanka – English, Sinhalese and Tamil. Despite most of them living a penury and just able to eek out a living for themselves, they are still divided into high class and low class. As the author says that “sometimes the game of insults in played inside the Burgher community, where to define different shades of skin color is essential for denoting social status”.

For me reading the chapter on Burghers settled a few things. Some of the exotic Sri Lankan names always amazed me. Now I know their Dutch origin.

Jamaica: German Slaves

In the second chapter of the book, the author introduces us to Germans in Jamaica. This was most surprising for me. I never thought in my life that Germans were taken as workers from Germany to Jamaica to work on plantations. But here also the common theme is the skin color. Alas how much we are obsessed with skin colour. As somebody points out that Jamaica is “the most ethnically diverse nation in the world. For centuries we’ve been a mixture of white, black, Chinese, Arab. Yet class distinction still persists, and how! All based on the color of your skin….Do you know we have seventeen different definitions for at least twelve different shades of skin, from white white to black black. Each color has its name: Quadroon, Quintroon, Octoroon etcetera. And the destiny of each is predetermined”.

When slavery was abolished in Jamaica, there was a shortage of labour. One Gentleman, Lord Seaford who owned farms established a European settlement by bringing Germans to fill the gap. Today most of Jamaicans with German ancestry do not speak German. However German words have found their way in the language. Similarly, German surnames such as Bunnaman, Gardner, Somers, Wedemeyer etc. have found their usage in Jamaica.

The condition of Germans who first arrived in Jamaica is depicted in a letter published in Germany in 1835 according to which Germans “immediately saw that the firewood was unusable and the water was undrinkable. Over the following weeks we realized that if would be impossible to grow food on these mountains, But we were ordered, nevertheless, to build our huts on that poor, infertile soil. Now we never have enough food to eat. And we continue to suffer”.

However, with passage of time, many traveled further to USA and Canada. Those who were left in Jamaica are today part of the society.

Brazil: Confederates in Deepest Brazil

Third chapter takes the author to Brazil. These days we are hearing news everyday of confederate flags being banned or confederate statues and other confederate signs being brought down all over USA. It all started during American Civil War. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, quite a large number of families in the Southern States decided to move other parts of America. However, there were a number of families which decided to leave America for good. They found the abolition of slavery bothersome. Many Americans from Southern states of Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama migrated further south to Brazil rather than being subject to “damned Yankees”. Brazil was an ideal place. It was prospering under the leadership of Dom Pedro. It had abundance of Cotton, Sugarcane, Coffee and Slaves. Slavery was still legal in Brazil. They sailed from New Orleans to Rio de Janeiro (the river of January). They were welcomed in Brazil. These migrants are called Confederates or Confederados in Portuguese. Confederates mostly settled in Santa Barbara d’Oeste, Americana and Nova Odessa.

Even today in the countryside around Santa Barbara, Confederados still come once a year to celebrate the epopeia norte americana (the epic adventure that bought them from North America). It was reading this chapter that I realised that the word Pao roti or Pao in Urdu comes from Portuguese word Pao which means loaf. One of the most famous mountains in Brazil is Pao de Acucar i.e. Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Haiti: Papa Doc’s Poles

Chapter four deals with the poles who were sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to quell rebellion in Haiti. In 1794 the plantation owners in the French colony refused to accept the decision to abolish slavery in Saint Domingue. On the other hand, black slaves rebelled hoping that France would support them. However, it was too important an asset for France to lose. Half of France’s sea trade was with her colony of Saint-Domingue. Saint-Domingue is what is Haiti now. Many ports in France depended on the cargoes of Coffee, indigo, cocoa, cotton and sugar that came from Saint-Domingue. Because of its riches it was called “Pearl of the Antilles”. France would not let go of this profitable trade so easily. It was to quell this rebellion that soldiers were sent from France by Napoleon Bonaparte which included Poles also. However, as the story goes, the Poles sided with the Haitians. For their help in supporting the locals against colonialists, the Poles were given Haitian Nationality after its Independence. The poles are often referred as Europe’s White Negros. There cannot be any talk of Haiti without Voodoo. This chapter gives numerous examples of how people believe in magic and how voodoo magic has been used by several rulers of Haiti to influence the population.

The author starts his journey from Port-au-Prince in search of Poles in Haiti in August 1996. . His search takes him to Casales. A number of Poles who came to quell rebellion settled in Casales away from the Capital city. On reaching there the found that Haiti’s “Little Lost Poland” is a “village similar to hundreds of others on top of a bare mountain”. There is no road, no electricity, no phone, no running water, no nurse, no cars, no school and no Church. The only Church which was dedicated to St. Michel had fallen by that time. Walls of the houses are made of dried mud or plaited straw while the roofs are made of banana leaves. The author wonders as to “how on earth hundreds of European officers and men with origins in the sophisticated culture of early eighteenth-century Poland were apparently incapable of forming a more advanced rural society”. Still the author found that the villagers were hopeful that one day somebody from Poland would come and help the “Papa Doc’s white negroes”.

It was in 1803 that the French were defeated at the hands of the slaves and many were killed. However, the Poles were sparred. Not only sparred, they were offered citizenship of Haiti. A few requested permissions to go back to Poland which was granted. Overall, the chapter is full of personal details and stories of Poles in Haiti and gives an overview of Polish presence in Haiti.

Namibia: How the Basters Lost the Promised Land

In chapter five, the author takes us to Namibia. The only Namibian names that I knew as child were Sam Nujoma and SWAPO. Beyond this my knowledge of Namibia was next to nothing. Lately when Namibia started playing cricket, names of two cricketers caught my attention. The reason being that they did not sound like typical Namibian names. They are Bernard Scholtz and Nicolaas Scholtz. After reading this chapter, I understand that are German Namibians.

The name Baster is derived from the Dutch word Baster which means Bastard. However, it is taken as a badge of honour by basters and not as a shame. The name was given to highlight the crossbreeding between white Male Europeans and Black Female form South Africa. Basters migrated from South Africa and speak Afrikaans.

The author goes to Rehoboth, the main Baster settlement in Namibia. Rehoboth means “street” in Hebrew. The chapter is full of details of how Germans settled in Rehoboth. Baster’s in Rehoboth established their own governance system with the chief being called Kaptein as early as 1870’s before the Germans came in and established their colonial rule over Namibia in 1885. The German government even entered into an agreement with the Baster’s. The rest of the details are about how the Basters moved from the South Africa and how they established Rehoboth. There are fairly detailed accounts of the various fights that took place and the important tribes such as Herero and Hottentots and accounts of important players such as Abraham Swartbooi and Hermanus Van Wyk, I don’t know why but reading about Basters reminded me of Anglo Indians.

Guadeloupe: Blancs Matignon, the Sugarcane Dukes

In the last chapter, chapter six, the author takes us to the Caribbeans. The Blancs Matignon are descendants of settlers in the Grands Fonds, Guadeloupe. It is difficult for anybody to tell accurately as to why their ancestors came from France. As one of the Matignon says “I know they were escaping from something or someone, but no more than that”. With the passage of time, the Blancs Matignon have moved upwards in the mountains cutting off contact with the rest of the world. In order to maintain their supposedly high society blood purity, they have even resorted to incestuous relationships which puts them at odds with the wider society. The stigma also results in discrimination against them. Orizio finds a group of people who live the past and are presently poor. A group of people who have strict codes of marriage and anybody who dares to marry outside is out caste and may lose all rights to inheritance. They live in their own make-believe world and talk of Aristocracy and high class and do not marry even other whites on the island believing them to be lesser in class. Still Orizio is able to find examples of shackles being broken and slowly but surely change coming their way as the story of Emile clearly shows. It is also true that Matignon’s face discrimination from the wider society as Emile conforms the discrimination he faced as a child.

In the past they used to grow sugarcane but with passage of time land holdings have become small due to inheritance being divided into children and thus the poverty. They are among the poorest on the island but cling to their make-believe world of Aristocratic fantasy. The reality is entirely different. According to Orizio “they create nothing, they possess nothing, not even the colour of their skin. They are happy waking up every morning in the knowledge that they are still children of the high plateau”.

Conclusion:

This is one of the better books that I have read in a while. The narration keeps the reader engaged. It is part anthropology, part history, part travelogue, part sociology all in one. There are places where the explanation is bit prolonged but that often happens in well researched books. Except for the Burghers of Sri Lanka, I found it difficult to agree with the title of the book. The rest of the tribes described do not fit the typical framework of Colonials. Overall a well-researched and well written book. After reading the book one realizes how little we know about this world.

Hardcover: 270 pages

Publisher: The Free Press / Simon & Schuster, First Edition 2001. ISBN 0-7432-1197-9.

Language: English. (Translated by Avril Bardoni).

Book Introduction: Animal Farm – Eric Arthur Blair (Pen Name: George Orwell)

This work was strictly voluntary, but any animal who absented himself from it would have his rations reduced by half.”

Animal Farm has fascinated me for a long time. I first read it in high school. Since then I have read it twice more. And how many times I have read passages from here and there, I don’t know. It was written in another time when the world was very different from today. Still it sells like a hot cake because the central theme of the book resonates with the reader.

Animal Farm is an allegorical novella which uses animal characters to describe the power structure of a society. It tells us how power can be manipulated by those in position. The structure of Animal Farm revolved around the events of Russian revolution as they unfolded between 1917 and 1944. The novel was first published in 1945. In my opinion it is one the best as well as one of the most popular fictional political satire to be ever written.

Although the novel allegorically mirrors what was happening in Russian communism and relates specific events with the help of animal characters, the satire takes aim at totalitarianism in all its forms, be it communism, fascism or capitalism. Maybe that is the secret of the books longevity. It tells us that people are basically gullible. They can be easily tricked into believing anything if the information is presented in a palatable way and frequently.

The plot of the novella is very tight with hardly any loose ends. Orwell hits the ground running and holds the control over the plot till the very last. That makes the story a compelling read. The main character of the story is a pig called Major who calls a meeting of all the animals living on a farm called Manor Farm. Major shares a dream which he had previous night about all the animals on the farm living peacefully together. The pièce de résistance was that the farm was managed by animals without any human presence or interference. The Old Major passes away after three days of sharing his dream but three other pigs, namely: Napoleon, Snowball and Squeler use the death of Old Major as a rallying point for animals. The rest of the novella is about how the farm owner, Mr. Jones, is thrown out by the animals and they rename the Manor Farm to Animal Farm and run it themselves. Animals are constantly told how man is bad and how animals are good to rally them around the cause and to keep them committed. Some examples are:

 The only good human being is a dead one”

“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself””

“Man serves the interest of no creature except himself”

“Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever. “

 

After successfully getting rid of Mr. Jones, meetings are called and rules are agreed upon as to how the farm will be run. In the beginning the rules are not only fair but also implemented honestly. However, slowly Napoleon starts taking over the decision making process. Bit by bit the rights giving to the animals are chipped away without them realizing what was happening. By chance if any animal realised what was happening and protested, the argument given in reply is a masterclass in how communism worked:

No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourself. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

As the story progresses the slogan “All animals are equal” is changed to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than other

This is a classic example of how fascists come to power by promising the moon to the citizens and how slowly they change the rules of the game to improve their grip over the power structure. In the process the privileges for the ruling class are slowly increased at the cost of the citizens. By the time the people realise what has hit them, it’s too late. The damage is already done.

Whenever anything wrong goes on the farm, some or the other animal is blamed. Napoleon cannot do any wrong. He is always right. Napoleon and other pigs start wearing cloths and living inside the house. The pigs even start walking on their hind legs like humans. One by one the old animals who had seen the farm before the revolution die mostly due to overwork or age. Finally, a day comes when Napoleon invites a neighboring farmer to dinner to discuss possible business alliance. The proposal was to change the name of the farm back to Manor Farm. The most powerful image for me in the whole novel is when Pigs are talking to the farmer at the dinner table. Some animals manage to peer inside the house through the window and are unable to differentiate the two because the pigs have become too much like their former oppressor i.e. human beings.

The creatures from outside looks from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”

 

 

 

 

 

Book Introduction: 1984: A Novel – Eric Arthur Blair (Pen Name: George Orwell)

My political science teacher during bachelor second year suggested a list of books to read to better understand political thought. Most of the books in the list of recommended books were about political system and political thought of England, USA and India. But there was also a novel in that list. That novel was 1984: A Novel. It caught my attention. I immediately went to the central library and got hold of the only novel in that list. To me reading a novel seemed like far more interesting than reading textbooks on political thought and political philosophy. That was my first introduction to and interaction with 1984: A Novel. That was year 1994.

However, I could not complete it. Probably it was my lack of comprehension that prompted me to give up after reading maybe about 15 pages. The same novel was suddenly in news with its sales skyrocketing after the election of Donald Trump as the President of The United States of America. The Trump team made certain false claims about the number of people attending his oath taking ceremony. When confronted with facts, Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway said it was ‘Alternative Fact’. The social media was immediately abuzz and people started connecting the catchphrase ‘Alternative Fact’ with the word ‘Doublethink’ used by George Orwell in his novel 1984. The sales of 1984 suddenly picked up and it was in the top selling books on Amazon in USA. The jump in sale was astronomical 9500%. The only other time when there was such a huge interest in the novel was in 1984. The reason at that time was very simple: it was 1984. I read the news and forgot about it. Sometimes back while travelling to India from Muscat, I saw the novel at Airport. I don’t know why I just went ahead and bought it.

Once I started reading the novel I couldn’t keep it down. I kept reading the book while waiting to board the plane. I kept reading the book during my entire journey. I continued reading the book while in taxi from airport to home. By the time I finished the book I was home.

1984 is a classical dystopian masterpiece by George Orwell. Since its publication in June 1949 by Secker & Warburg, it has been regularly included in the list of best novels and must read books. It’s a cold war period novel that still evokes interest and fear among readers in equal measure. Although it is a cold war novel, unlike other books of its genre (a good example could be Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon” written in 1940 describing life under communism), it does not describe what was happening at that time but rather what modern day liberal democracies can do with the freedom of their citizens in the name of saving democracy. 1984 tells us how liberal democracies can take away the freedom of their citizens disregarding all the rules of law in the name of saving democracy by trampling the very freedom given by the same democracy.

While reading the novel the first feel you get is that yes I know what Orwell is talking about. Words like Doublethink, Ministry of Peace (in the novel it actually wages war against everybody including its own citizens), Ministry of Love (deals in pain and despair. Its job is to annihilate any dissident in the country), Ministry of Truth, Thought Crime, Thought Police, Unperson, Memory Hole, Big Brother etc. And yes it talks about novel writing machines which dish out pornography to buy off the masses by keeping them busy in trivial pursuits. The novel actually tells us how regimes work. It opens our eyes to the modus operandi of regimes.

Regimes work by juxtaposing perception over reality and constantly lying until the lie becomes the truth. This is also done by systematically stripping the meaning out of language. The regimes eradicate ideas and meaning from the words unless they are out of dictionary or their meaning is changed. States real enemy is reality itself. Regimes do everything in their control to make it impossible to understand the real world. Reality is replaced with phantoms and lies. If anyone gets caught saying or believing the truth, he should be ready for torture unless he agrees with the regimes version of reality. The protagonist in the novel finds out that after torture the state could actually “get inside you” and “something was killed in your breast; burnt out, cauterized out” until you agree that two plus two is five.

Another all-time favorite method adopted by regimes to control power is by shifting blame to a designated scapegoat. Every effort is put to make people hate and channelise the anger, hatred and violence towards the designated enemy. Toward achieving this objective is the Ministry of Truth which is responsible for constant updation of history to suit modern circumstances and shifting alliances (doesn’t it sound chillingly familiar with history being rewritten all over the world today). In the novel it is Winston Smith, the protagonist, who works as a censor in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to suitably update history. To make sure he and others do their job properly, they are always watched and controlled by the all-knowing and all-seeing Big Brother.

The most bone chilling and hair raising aspect of this is the Two Minute Hate. It is the daily public period during which all the members of the Outer Party (ruling party) of Oceania (imaginary country) must watch a film. The film depicts the enemies of the state. Party members are required to openly and loudly express hate for the enemy shown in the movie. The purpose of the daily regime of Two Minute Hate was to allow party members to vent their existential anger and hate at the state enemy shown in the movie. Orwell has beautifully described two minute hate. Just read the passage and enjoy and feel worried at the same time.

“The horrible thing about the Two Minute Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in…A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current”.

This also shows how the state deals with the so called subversive people. “People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, and your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word

Over the decades since it was written, 1984 has been dismissed many times over as past its sell by date. Yes, things have not gone bad to the extent as discussed in 1984. Did Orwell really get it all wrong. As very beautifully described by Lynskey (2019) By definition, a country in which you are free to read Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the country described in Nineteen Eighty-Four,”. However, the darker tendencies detailed in the novel about the state and the pupil come to the fore again and again in some form or the other. The way regimes try to mould public opinion using media is no secret. Similarly, the use of internet and mobile technology, particularly social media, to spread fake news and ‘Alternate Facts’ is a reality. Yes, there is no Big Boss directly watching us but the technology makes it possible for the powers that be to monitor each and every move that we make. Still it is not entirely correct to blame the state. People are equally guilty of falling prey to the base instincts. We regularly hear news about discrimination against refugees, people of colour or women from different parts of the world. However, there is no denying the fact that reading 1984 decades after it was first published still sends chill up one’s spine and makes the hair stand on the back of the neck. Whatever way we look at it, without doubt, 1984 is one of the best 20th century literary work which will continue to amaze readers for a long time to come.

 

Interesting Quotes from the novel

  • “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command”
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”
  • “Big brother is watching you”
  • “War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength”
  • “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic”
  • “The past was dead, the future was unimaginable.”
  • “Who controls the past”, ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”
  • “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
  • “A nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same face”
  • “Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me: There lie they, and here lie we under the spreading chestnut tree”
  • “She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead, that from the moment of declaring war on the Party it was better to think of yourself as a corpse”
  • “The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention … It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant … the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being non-existent persons”
  • “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s”
  • “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows”

References and for more details see:

CNBC (2017)’1984′ Sales soar after Trump claims, ‘alternative facts’, CNBC, Janaury 25, 2017. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/25/1984-sales-soar-after-trump-claims-alternative-facts.html. Accessed on 5 October 2019

Freytas-Tamura, K. de (2017) George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller. New York Times, January 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/books/1984-george-orwell-donald-trump.html. Accessed on 6 October 2019.

Lynskey, D. (2019) The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. Doubleday.

The Gaurdian (2009) The masterpiece that killed George Orwell. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell. Accessed on 25 August 2019