Author: Mohsin Aziz
“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”.
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).