The Colonial Project
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article was published in Lakbima News.
In Lakbima News, Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.
I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?
My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago, Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle). Sam later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.
I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.
As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.
Imperial service certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.
My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.
My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.
Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.
My father made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.
Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps. He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’ In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.
When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.
There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.
The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university. Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.
When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.
‘No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’
Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.
After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.
In that house I was born.
The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence. We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.
I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals” and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.