Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Open Salon

The Boy-Men of Sri Lanka

I posted my first article on Open Salon in August 2008. Kerry Lauerman himself made the first comment.He said: “Thanks for such an interesting piece, a vivid little look into SL culture.”


In his 1996 novel ‘The Road to Notown’, Michael Foley described ‘the Terrible Grey-haired Boy-Men of Ireland, a group of fortyish men who live with their mothers and spend their days in armchairs playing cards and talking sport’


The Sri Lankan boy-men are not grey. Fashionable young men fight ageing by shaving their skulls completely but the more conservative resort to a Japanese product called Bigen, which comes in two shades, black and black/brown, to enhance nature and sustain an illusion of everlasting youth.


In Sri Lanka, one sees more ill-fitting wigs on men than in other countries. The wigs are always jet-black but sometimes the bearer’s eyebrows are of a different hue. When Professor Mohan Munasinghe shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, Sri Lanka was proud enough of the native son to publish endless pictures of him in which he seemed to be carrying a dead animal on his intellectual dome. One paper accompanied its picture with the caption ‘Munasinghe wears many hats.’


The womenfolk of the boy-men are extremely indulgent to their brats. As the fat lump sits helplessly at the table, his mother or wife will proudly tell visitors that he would have no idea how to make himself a cup of coffee or butter a slice of bread. The son/husband will smile smugly at this compliment.

In Ireland there has been a tradition of boy-men remaining bachelors into old age or forever. Their Sri Lankan equivalents tend to marry young but do not change their ways. Often it will be the mother who finds a spouse for the son. This is not quite the western concept of arranged Asian marriages. The happy couple will have some choice in the matter. Sometimes people will refer to a marriage as ‘a love match’, which suggests that there is some element of coercion in the usual arrangements.



The normal situation is probably more to do with the passivity and indolence and the general  immaturity of the male of the species and the assertiveness and protectiveness of the Sri Lankan materfamilias. You do not find many middle class Sri Lankan women who conform to the western male fantasy of the submissive Asian babe but that subject is potential fodder for another article. ‘Bossy women in saris’ would be a more accurate stereotype. Do not forget that the world’s first woman prime minister was Mrs Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka and her daughter later became president.




You see schoolboys in the streets with uniforms whiter than the soul of the Immaculate Conception. You can bet your sweet bippy that these young men played no part in achieving that crisply ironed whiteness. In addition to being mammy’s boys, Sri Lankan males have servants to cater to their whims and to bully.



I have personally witnessed boy-men bellowing for servants to rush from distant rooms where they are immersed in some awful drudgery to come and pass a glass of water, which is just beyond the reach of the podgy boy-man arm.



There is a species of boy-men even in the lowest of classes. Poor village women and tea pluckers talk about their sons as if they have some kind of physical or mental disability when the truth seems to be that they would rather not work if their mothers or wives can support them.



Many village men sit around all day drinking kasippu and smoking bidis while the wives and mothers pluck tea or break rocks. One often sees women doing backbreaking work quarrying rock or mending roads while men stand by ‘supervising’.



Most village and plantation households cook on fires and it is the women who scrabble around in the hot sun or torrential rain for kindling and firewood.



A woman who works for us supports her own family and several families of relatives of her husband on what we pay her. The husband works spasmodically because he falls out with everybody.



Men of his mentality are somewhat torn because they would like the wives to stay at home all the time to cater for their every whim but are not prepared to go out and earn money for themselves.



There is a huge problem of alcoholism and domestic violence. Again, there is scope for a separate article on this subject.



Foley wrote: ‘Although the English caste system has been slavishly copied, dislike of the English and the illusion of independence make it impossible to acknowledge class distinctions in Ireland.’  In Sri Lanka, social distinctions are based on school, often a parody of the English upper class schools, or International Schools, or influential contacts.



Employment very often depends on social and political contacts or sporting prowess rather than ability, which does not help the efficient running of the government or the economy.



Some of the Sri Lankan boy-men have influential fathers who have become rich through commerce or inheritance or grubbing in the trough of politics. These boy-men do not just have maids to feed them and clothe them and wipe their bottoms, they have bodyguards with guns paid for by the taxpayer.



One former cabinet minister and party-political yo-yo, has an errant son who booked the huge Royal Suite at the Galle Face Hotel on the Colombo Indian Ocean sea front for a New Year’s Eve party. Although he was fondling the current girl friend, when he saw a former girl friend dancing with another man, all hell broke loose. The girls fought each other, Junior beat the ex-girl friend and his goons waded in firing their weapons. Then about 20 police arrived waving T-56 automatic assault rifles to protect the VIPs.



The son of another cabinet minister was asked to leave a Colombo nightclub. He took out a pistol and placed a single bullet from the magazine on a waiter’s tray and said ‘Ask your manager if he would prefer to have this inside him.’



Another minister still in the government, despite universal loathing  (whose own exploits will be recounted elsewhere- they include squeezing the testicles of a fellow MP, who also happened to be a Buddhist monk, so hard that the poor saddhu had to go to hospital), has a son who is a boy-man but not grey. He has been described as bleached-blond, muscle-bound and tattooed, a typical member of the pseudo-aristocracy of mammy-daddy boys. At Colombo’s Irish pub, Clancy’s, the bouncers frisked him and told him he could not come in with his handgun.


The next night he returned accompanied by government SUVs and three-wheelers full of men with firearms, clubs and knives. Some say daddy was along for the ride. The mob trashed the club, Sopranos, next door to Clancy’s and went through the place stealing mobile phones from customers.



There is a dynastic element to Sri Lankan politics. This could be the future talent that the nation can look forward to as its rulers. Will one of these Prince Hals transform himself into a Henry V? Will one of these delinquents achieve the statesmanlike qualities we all admire so much in George W Bush, who similarly had a troubled youth?


Vanishing Veddahs

I posted this on Open Salon on October 31 2008.

Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo

Earlier in 2008, the Sri Lanka Daily Mirror reported that Veddah Chief, Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo, would be attending the Sri Lankan parliament. He sat in the gallery in Parliament in his traditional dress and carrying the keteriya (axe) which is his symbol of his authority.

Photographs of this “Stone-Age man” alongside the elite of Sri Lankan politics provoked much merriment. Many could not resist comparing him to ‘Dr’ Mervyn Silva, a member of the government who once proudly boasted to the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga of squeezing the testicles of a monk parliamentarian so hard that the poor man had to be hospitalised. Most of the comments to the Daily Mirror were humorous but sympathetic to the Chief along the lines of “Please don’t spoil his mind by exposing it to the politicians.”

My friend, Champa Fernando, found the tenor of some remarks offensive and wrote to the papers. She objected to some people describing the Veddahs as “primitive” and “uncivilised”. She met the Chief when visiting his community with veterinarians to care for their dogs. She regards the chief as a friend.

“I consider Chief Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo to be a civilised and sober leader of a group of people who respect all living beings and the environment in which they live. I find them to be a highly considerate and gentle group of people, extremely hospitable to their visitors. They believe in preserving the environment for future generations. In fact I feel there are many civilized things we could learn from them and their life ways. Thousands of people visit Dambane, especially to meet Chief Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo, talk with him and learn about the lifestyle and culture of these people who are an integral part of the Sri Lankan social and cultural heritage”.

Knox and Spittel 


Richard Lionel Spittel, according to his daughter, Christine Wilson, once said, “If I die give me a Veddah funeral. Bury me between two slates of bark in the jungle. I can think of nothing better.” Spittel was a doctor who, as a child, glimpsed a “wild man” with a bow and arrows emerge from the forest in Tangalle, and then disappear. Spittel had a lifelong fascination with the Veddahs and wrote many books about them, including Savage Sanctuary. He befriended a previous Tissahamy who was jailed in Badulla (the nearest large town to our home and the capital of Uva province) for being rebellious. Tissahamy died in Badulla General Hospital in 1952. Spittel erected a tomb over Tissahamy’s mortal remains with a fitting epitaph etched on the stone tomb lying there to say “Here lies outlaw Tissahamy of Savage Sanctuary by Dr. R. L. Spittel at the Badulla Cemetery.” That does not sound much like being buried between two slates of bark in the jungle.


Wanniyala-Aetto means forest people, more commonly known as Veddahs. They are thought by many to be the original indigenous inhabitants of Sri Lanka (human remains dated from 18,000 BC show a genetic continuum with present day Veddahs). DNA studies suggest that the Wanniyala-Aetto may have been the ancestors of most Sinhalese before the Indo-Aryans arrived from North India. Both Sinhala and Veddah folklore says that the two races shared common ancestors

Robert Knox mentions Veddahs in his account of his captivity by the King of Kandy in the 17th century. He describes them as “wild men” Ramba-Väddahs or hairy Veddahs who, as children of nature, “never shew themselves.” Knox said there was a “tamer sort” which sometimes served in the king’s army or owed service obligations to the king, especially providing tusks, honey and wax and deer’s flesh which they bring to the gabadage or royal store-house.


Professor Obeysekere

Professor Gananath Obeysekere, suggests that Knox invented this portrait of the wild man from his fertile imagination because he is unlikely to have seen one up close; he described them in this way because his late 17th century English audience wanted to hear it. After the imperial expansion romanticized as “voyages of discovery”, the concept of the human monsters and wild men of the European middle-ages was being transferred onto the “savage”, the concept of cannibalism was developed, all to provide a rationale for the extermination of native peoples and to steal their land and natural resources.

Pseudo-science came up with all kinds of bizarre notions that the European mind was receptive to accepting. Perhaps because of early pseudo-scientific studies the Veddahs achieved a kind of popular notoriety. Many Europeans wanted to see the Veddah, from the comfort of a Government Rest House,  as a specimen of the wild man, or a copy of the primitive Australian aborigine, for it was widely believed, on the flimsiest evidence, according to Professor Obeysekere, that the Veddahs were culturally, genetically and physiologically related to the Australian aborigines.


Henry Parker, in his 1909 book, Ancient Ceylon: An Account of the Aborigines and of Part of the Early Civilization, was dubious about the Australoid connection: he wrote that the wild Veddahs he knew had hair “no more frizzly than that of ordinary Sinhalese. … [It] is tied in a knot at the back of the head, exactly like that of all Sinhalese. … There is nothing in the figure (except the smaller height), the features, or the ordinary coiffure, and very little in the average color of the skin, to distinguish the Veddah from many low-caste Kandians found in the northern and north-west Sinhalese districts”.

The Seligmanns, observing east coast Veddahs in the late 19th century, reported that their “life differs but little from that of the poor and low-caste Tamils who are their neighbors …they generally resemble low caste Tamils after whose fashion they dress”.


Professor Obeysekere writes: “Let me emphasize that as far as Sri Lanka was concerned there were no ‘indigenous peoples,’ no ‘aborigines,’ no ‘wild men’ and ‘tribes’ of the Western imagination. Unlike in many parts of the world colonized by Europeans, there was no forcible extermination of Veddahs by Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Nor, until recently, when Sinhalese have mimicked colonial practice, were the Veddahs seen as an inferior group.”

Reduced Numbers

Professor Obeysekere may be correct in saying there was no planned genocide but numbers did reduce as a result of meeting western civilisation. When the British arrived, Veddahs who lived mostly by hunting and gathering were confined mainly to the plains of the Wanni and Bintenne. Numbers were severely reduced by an epidemic, possibly of influenza, around 1809. Many died or fled after a rebellion in 1818 and became absorbed into the Tamil communities at Batticaloa in the east. The British cultivated for coffee and tea most of the wild country where the Veddahs especially the area of Namunukula (where I live) right down to Passara.

Today, Veddahs living in Bintenne in Uva province and near Anuradhapura in North Central province, speak Sinhala, while a distinct group, called East Coast Veddahs living between Batticaloa and Trincomalee speak Tamil. Much of the vocabulary of Veddahs (especially terms associated with the forest and their lifestyle) cannot be traced to Sinhala or Tamil and may be from a language spoken before the development of the Sinhalese language. One example is the Veddah word ruhang for friend, while the Sinhala word is yaluva.

Spiritual Beliefs

The spiritual beliefs of most Veddahs include an element of animism. Those in the interior mix animism with certain elements of Buddhism, while the East coast Veddah mix it with what anthropologists call ‘folk Hinduism’. A distinctive feature of Veddah religion is ancestor worship. The ancestors are called yaku and a deity unique to Veddahs is called Kande Yakka.  Veddahs venerate the temple complex at Kataragama, which is also a special place of pilgrimage for mainstream Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Legend has it that the site of Kataragama was where the Hindu god Skanda married a Veddah girl, Valli.

Losing Battle

The Veddah people are fighting a losing battle to survive as a distinct entity. The community has been buffeted by successive waves of immigration and colonisation that began with the arrival of the Sinhalese from North India in the 5th century BC. Colonisation and rural development schemes have caused a dwindling to a couple of thousand as they have lost their ancestral lands and forest homes and intermarried with the larger groups.

Tissahamy was disappointed that cultural and other influences were forced by other ‘civilized’ communities upon his community. “The new civilizations arrived, changing the country and the world in its wake. But it is my belief that a Veddah shall be a Veddah always”.  He said that the jungle was their soul. “We were born there and will die there one day. My people prefer hunting, collecting bee-honey, or chasing an iguana”.


Modern Progress

Tissahamy vehemently refused to obey the order to leave his traditional habitat to make way for the Mahaweli Project, although a majority of his tribesmen opted to move out to their new settlement area in Hennanigala South, which had been exclusively reserved for them. He had several clashes with the officials of the Wild Life Department and those of the Mahaweli Development Authority. A few years later, some of the Veddah families who had migrated to their new settlement in Mahaweli System C began to return to Bintenne.

A report in the Daily News of 16 March 2006 said that the Veddah community in Monaragala in Uva province has become the latest target for religious conversion at the hands of Christian fundamentalists. Conversion is a very contentious topic in Sri Lanka. Monaragala is the poorest district in Sri Lanka and the Veddahs are the poorest people in that poor district. Twelve out of 60 families in the village of Ratugala have already surrendered themselves to funds offered by them and accepted their Agam pojja (religious faith) in return.

Veddahs have mostly adopted the lifestyle of the dominant culture but this is not through choice. Most no longer live by hunting, but instead cultivate a small plot of jungle land using the chena method (slash-and-burn, swidden-fallow cultivation). Most Veddahs now wear sarongs rather the traditional loincloth.  Most have abandoned the long, unkempt hair that was for centuries an identifying characteristic. Some will revert to the loincloth; carry a bow and arrow and put a short axe over their shoulders to provide photo opportunities for visitors.

Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo is on Facebook.

Giving the Tourist What He Wants

Even in 1911, the Seligmanns were writing of their uneasy encounter with these “primitive” people: “Naturally the Veddahs felt uncomfortable and shy at first, but when they found that they had only to look gruff and grunt replies in order to receive presents they were quite clever enough to keep up the pose. In this they were aided by the always-agreeable villagers ever ready to give the white man exactly what he wanted. The white man appeared to be immensely anxious to see a true Veddah, a wild man of the woods, clad only in a scanty loin cloth, carrying his bow and arrows on which he depended for his subsistence, simple and untrained, indeed, little removed from the very animals he hunted.” The Seligmanns referred to “show Veddahs”

Professor Obeysekere, coined the term “self-primitivization.”  He has written: “Soon this image was being perpetuated for those Sinhala middle class people who, in their own mimesis of colonialism, have imbibed much of the Veddah mythology created by the European. I have seen Dambane Veddahs during the 1950s and 1960s line the road to Mahiyanganaya carrying their bows and arrows waiting to perform their act of wildness, at which they were now past-masters.” Nature conservationist Dr. Ranjen Fernando said he had vivid memories of Veddahs going about on mopeds but the moment they heard that tourists were arriving, changed from their usual clothes to Veddah “garb”.

Address to the UN

In 1996, Warige Wanniya addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous People. This is an abridged version of his address:

“On November 9, 1983 the government of Sri Lanka turned the last of our forest territory into a national park. The Maduru Oya National Park, and thereby transformed us from being hunters and gatherers into poachers. Our traditional way of life, became a criminal offence in the eyes of the English Common Law, a law from a foreign country that we do not understand.

Our last hunting grounds comprised about 51,468 hectares was designated a combined ‘catchment area’ for a gigantic hydroelectric cum irrigation project, the Mahaweli Development Project and a Forest and Wildlife Reserve.

We were expected to move from the tropical forest to the ‘rehabilitation villages’ by free will. The government says no one was forced. If ‘force’ is armed forces, the statement cannot be argued. We had the choice to stay on, in the remaining land bordering the dams. The risk however of flooding during the monsoon rains was a threat to consider. We were not allowed to live off the land. Furthermore, no person is allowed to enter the National Park, except for the purpose of observing the fauna and flora, according to the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. We are arrested, imprisoned and brought to courts if we go inside. There is electric fencing, barriers, and national park guards armed to shoot if we trespass the borders.

We the Wanniyala-Aetto, which means forest-beings, are not allowed to remain in the forest. The national park regulations proscribe people from hunting, picking flowers, collecting honey, lighting a camp fire, much less allowing anyone to live in the park. Our relationship with our environment is changing. We were the custodians of the jungle throughout generations. Now the jungle is no longer ours and we do not feel responsible for its maintenance. A ‘Grab and Run’ philosophy has developed. We sneak inside, kill what we can get and then run outside again. We would not do that before. We were taught not to kill an animal drinking water, because we all need to drink water. We would not kill a pregnant mother; a deer a sambhur or another pregnant animal. We would not kill a four-legged mother giving milk to her small ones. The very land we, the Wanniyala-Aetto, shared with other beings (-aetto) is also shared by our ancestor forefathers, gods and goddesses and forest spirits. We are now alienated from them. Our very name, the Wanniyala-Aetto has no meaning if we cannot live in the forest.

Because of the 1983 prohibition of maintaining our traditional subsistence, new diseases appear. Since we cannot collect honey we have to add sugar to our diet. My own son is one of the first cases of diabetes in our community. Obesity, is another problem, and with that, high blood pressure. Since foraging is forbidden, we cannot track game for days and days as we did before. We cannot exercise the same physical hard work as we did before 1983. Alcoholism is also gradually penetrated into our society.

Instead, development programme villages awaited us with schools, shops, health clinics, ‘proper’ clothes, (i.e. English school uniforms for our children to go to Sinhalese schools) Buddhist temples and modem means of communication. Two and a half acres of irrigable land were allocated to each family. Two acres for cash cropping and the remaining half acre was for domestic consumption. We were expected to learn to become agriculturalists and live in a ‘civilized’ way, have a ‘civilized’ language and religion.”

The man said his brother should have been with him but he was the worse for drink.

Corruption and the Environment

Those that survive as distinctively Veddah live in isolated pockets near Mahiyanganaya and Gal Oya in the central and eastern portion of the island. Many have been resettled in new villages within the Mahaweli Irrigation Scheme.

It is interesting to note that the Mahaweli Project, which displaced so many people from their natural environment, has become a byword for corruption and ecological damage. Between 1970 and 1998, the World Bank extended six credits to the Mahaweli programme, totalling about US$ 450 million. The objective of the project was to improve rural livelihoods through a settlement programme involving irrigated farming and its supporting infrastructure, with a view to boosting incomes and boosting rice production to substitute for imports.

The World Bank did not consider the project a success though it made fortunes for many of those involved, including politicians who are revered by some, (probably mainly because they were assassinated before they could do any more damage). “The reassessment rates the outcome as highly unsatisfactory, based on the modest relevance of the project’s development objectives, modest progress in achieving those objectives and negligible efficiency. Relevance was limited by the project’s failure to address distortions in the agriculture incentives regime, the lack of consideration given to organizing water users for cost recovery, the failure to provide settlers with secure land rights, and the absence of provisions for sound management of natural resources”.

Professor Obeysekere is investigating whatever happened to the Veddahs in the Uva Vellassa region. The tea-growing area of Namunukula was traditionally known as a Veddah stronghold but there is no trace of them now.

I live in the foothills of the Namunukula range, which gazes down, like a mother with open welcoming arms, protectively on my house. Were those strange rocks in my garden trodden on by Veddahs in ancient times? Did they play some part in their bandÄra cult, worshipping the conglomerate of twelve major gods known as dolaha deviyo?

In the light of what I have written previously about nationalism, one might ask whether one should mourn the extinction of a distinctive cultural group such as the Veddahs, when conflicts between ethnic groups cause so much heartache in the world. In any case, with only 2,000 Veddahs left it is probably too late, without delusional tourist inspired myth making, to prevent their continuing assimilation.

Veddah Community Upliftment

Perhaps we should reflect on the hybrid nature of humanity in general. In Sri Lanka, as in many places such as the Middle East, identities are so shifting and arbitrary but are asserted so aggressively and so violently. Ceaseless cultural and genetic interchange between communities should prevent us from stereotyping identities that have evolved over an unimaginably long time.







Jihad on Baltimore

Muslim terrorists attack Baltimore and kidnap citizens into slavery.

What’s Bogie got to do with it? 



Sailing on the ferry to Sherkin Island in the Atlantic off the coast of West Cork, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see a pirate vessel from North Africa appear over the horizon and sail into Roaring Water Bay.

Murat Reis

Around two in the morning on Sunday 19 June 1631, the inhabitants of the town of Baltimore, West Cork, Ireland woke up screaming as their doors were splintered by iron bars and their thatched roofs set alight. As they ran into the streets they were confronted by Janissaries waving curved sabres and screaming like demons.

“A stifled gasp, a dreamy noise! ‘The roof is in a flame!’

From out their beds and to their doors rush maid and sire and dame,

And meet upon the threshold stone the gleaming sabre’s fall,

And o’er each black and bearded face the white or crimson shawl.

The yell of “Allah!” breaks above the prayer, and shriek, and roar:

O blessed God! the Algerine is lord of Baltimore!”

Thomas Davis thomas davis

230 musketeers divided themselves into 26 attack squads – one for each homestead. Timothy Curlew put up a brave resistance and was hacked to death, as was John Davis. However, the basic aim was to take as many alive as possible. Within a very short time 109 villagers, four-fifths of them women and children, 50 of them children, were being herded onto waiting boats. Two were released because they were too infirm to be profitable.

Why did this particular ship turn up at this particular time on the coast of County Cork? This European raid by Barbary pirates was not as unusual as one might have thought. Barbary pirates operated from the time of the crusades until the 19th century. They were based along the stretch of North Africa known as the Barbary Coast after the Berber inhabitants. The Ottoman Pashas were little more than figureheads in North Africa. Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were independent bases for pirates in the business of capturing and trading in slaves. They carried out razzias or predatory raids throughout the Mediterranean and as far north as Iceland, capturing Christians to sell in the slave markets of Algeria and Morocco.  From the 16th to the 19th century, it is estimated that as many as 1.25 million Christians were kidnapped.

It would not have been a pleasant cruise on the Algerian ship. The dark, dank warren would have been home to rats and cockroaches and everyone crawled with lice. Arrival in Algiers would have been a great shock to the systems of simple villagers who had never been outside their own parish. A contingent of established Christian slaves got entertainment from jeering at new arrivals. The captors did not recognise Europeans as full human beings and did not worry about breaking up families. They were put on sale in the Bedistan market.

A French priest, Father Pierre Dan reported how “they sold on the one hand the husbands, on the other the wives, ripping their daughters from their arms, leaving them no hope of ever seeing each other again.” Buyers would have been interested in three classes of females: virgin girls, skilled craft workers and the outstandingly beautiful, meaning of ample proportions and fair-skinned. An English slave, Joseph Pitts reported that buyers would stick their fingers in the women’s mouths, squeeze their bosoms and check their virginity ‘in a modest way’. They made them walk up and down to check ‘the bounciness of their breasts’.


Of the Baltimore women, Ellen Hawkins was worth about six horses and Joane Broadbrook about eight oxen. Joane Broadbrook would have been sold for the price today of a ten-year-old hatchback. The profits from the sale of the captives would have been shared out. Half of the proceeds would go to the investors in the kidnapping mission including the ship’s captain. The other half was divided up amongst the ship’s company. Each seaman would get three parts and each Janissary got half a seaman’s cut because they were already on salary. The captain got 40 parts bringing his total take to around  $73,000 in today’s money.

The imperial harem would normally be a sedate place and there were periods when the royal palace was ruled by females. Unfortunately, the period when the Baltimore women arrived coincided with the reigns of the two most debauched sultans in history. Murad was only in his twenties but the entire nation feared his unpredictable rages. He executed a cook on the spot when he was dissatisfied with dinner. He sat on the sea shore randomly shooting his subjects as they passed by. He once, on a whim, ordered a whole boatload of women to be sunk. He died at the age of 28 when he had a seizure following a gargantuan drunken spree which coincided with a solar eclipse.


A skilled oarsman like Tom Paine, one of the Baltimore captives, would have been highly valued as a galley slave, but the value would not reduce the brutality with which he was treated. The life of a galley slave was described as being like ‘a species of hell’, chained three to an oar, constantly lashed and prodded. Their heads were shaved and they had nothing to cover them but a filthy cape. Their only lodging was to lie on a bare board and they had to subsist on bread soaked with a little wine.

Other slaves were put to work on state farms. Captain John Smith (of Virginia fame) was once a slave and described being ‘treated like a dog’ threshing corn. There are reports of men pulling ploughs like horses with metal bits in their teeth. Some worked in quarries pulling 40-ton rocks for two miles on sleds. Others worked in the blazing sun on construction sites.

There were methods of escaping from slavery. You could be ransomed by family or friends. You could save the pittances gleaned from working and buy yourself out. You could be ransomed through charity. Your release could be negotiated by treaty by your home government. Your patron might release you, usually because you had converted to Islam. You might try to escape.

Fifteen years after the raid on Baltimore, in September 1646, an English ship, the Charles, appeared in the bay of Algiers. On board was Edward Cason an envoy dispatched by Parliament to negotiate the release of hundreds of English and Irish slaves. Cason compiled a register and calculated that there were 650 in Algiers and another 100 in the Turkish fleet at Crete. There was an acceptance that he could not recover those who had converted to Islam ‘through beating and hard usage’, those children being raised in local households and those who had converted and been spirited away to other ports in the east. The patrons drove a hard bargain, citing the increase in value of some of the slaves who had been taught crafts and skills. Cason reckoned that he only had funds to ransom 250 slaves. In the end 264 were ‘redeemed and sent home’.

There were captives from all over the British Isles but only two from Baltimore – Joane Broadbrook and Ellen Hawkins. What had happened to the other 105? The average post-infancy life expectancy in the 17th century was about 60 and Algiers at that time was one of the world’s more healthy locations. In London bedpans were tipped into the street. In Algiers, there was piped sewage and clean running water. The streets were kept clean by an army of workers.

One of the authorities on this subject, John de Courcy Ireland, said that few showed any enthusiasm for returning. There may have been elements of the Stockholm syndrome. Slavery might have been an improvement on the drudgery they had been snatched from in the fish factory back home. Many may have been successfully integrated into Algiers society. Life may have been more pleasant and social mobility more possible in this ancient sunny town than in rainy, windy West Cork.

A greedy and corrupt English navy had failed to protect them and failed to pursue the pirates. Some may have felt betrayed and abandoned and resistant to returning to their former home. Looking back to the circumstances of the raid, the details become even more bizarre.

My friend, Richard Boyle, is editor of Travel Sri Lanka, author of the books Knox’s Words and Sinbad in Serendib and a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. His namesake was Joint Administrator of Ireland and Great Earl of Cork in 1631 and he owned great chunks of the county (stolen from the natives of course) including Midleton where I lived before coming to live in Sri Lanka. His son, Robert Boyle, was a noted scientist, author of Boyle’s Law and The Sceptical Chymist. The Earl was a prime target himself and had previously narrowly avoided capture by pirates. After this, he had placed spies among them and knew that the price on his head was around 390,000 GBP. He received a tip-off that there was going to be a raid but did not know where and could not persuade the government to take precautions.


Boyle had many enemies and did not want to dig too deeply lest his own financial shenanigans would be exposed. John Hackett (see below for his part in the episode) was chosen as a scapegoat and was dragged across country behind a galloping horse and hanged on a high cliff.

Boyle could have done more to effect the release of the Baltimore slaves. The amount he spent on a single present for his daughter could have paid the ransom for all the Baltimore women.

 Other aspects are surprising: the pirate captain was not a Berber; the captives were not Irish. A list of the names of the 107 Baltimore residents who were taken to Algiers is in the archives. A strange coincidence that  one of them was called Tom Paine. They were all descended from English Protestants who settled in Ireland after leaving Devon and Cornwall.

jan janzsoon

The captain of the pirate ship was known as Murat Reis the Younger but he was born in Haarlem in the Netherlands and was formerly called Jan Janszoon.    Janszoon married a Moorish woman of African Berber origin, by whom he fathered several children.

The captives were of English Protestant origin but they were not aggressive usurpers like the Presbyterians in Ulster. They were refugees who had fled to Ireland to escape the oppressive rule of Elizabeth I. Their leader was Thomas Crooke who found the Irish Anglican hierarchy more sympathetic than the established church in England. In 1624 he was knighted. At the time of the raid their settlement had been established for 30 years and their children had known no other home than Baltimore.

They had paid a substantial rental to lease the land from a local chieftain, Fineen O’Driscoll. Why did these particular ships turn up at this particular time on the coast of County Cork? They were piloted by John Hackett from Dungarvan in Waterford whose 12-ton fishing boat had been captured by the corsairs at the Old Head of Kinsale. It may be that Hackett helped them willingly in order to guide them away from his home town.

There was considerable tension between Catholics and Protestants in the area at the time. Hackett, a Catholic, guided the fighting forces of Islam towards the Protestant English community at Baltimore. They anchored at the entrance to the Eastern Hole, concealed by a rocky outcrop out of view of the main port at the seaward base of a narrow triangular inlet bounded by treacherous rocks and cliffs. Murat carried out a full reconnaissance before the full attack. He went in a small boat with deadened oars accompanied by ten musketeers.

The small boat was piloted by one Captain Fawlett, who seemed to have had an intimate knowledge of the village, including the occupancy of individual houses. Fawlett was from Dartmouth in Devon and had been captured by the corsairs in the St George’s Channel, 60 miles from Cornwall. He became an active supporter of the Barbary slavers volunteering his detailed knowledge of the ports of southern Ireland.

It is unlikely that he had been coerced because he was released after the raid. Was his encounter with the corsairs pre-arranged? The settlers were being harassed by a lawyer called Walter Coppinger who wanted to expel the settlers and take over the port of Baltimore for himself. As well as being a shyster lawyer and a money lender Coppinger seems like a character from a Hammer horror movie. Legend has it that he started his career as page boy to Sir Walter Raleigh on Raleigh’s estate at Youghal (stolen from the Irish people). He made a fortune through cheating and intimidation. It was said that he had a yard arm fixed to the gable of his house ‘a gallows wherewith to hang the victims of his unlicensed power.’

Coppinger gave his fourteen-year old niece, Jeanette, in marriage to the wealthy Walter Grant, who was almost eighty. Grant soon died and Coppinger managed the estate, putting his name on all the documents leaving Jeanette penniless. She knew she could not get justice in Cork because uncle was well known for knobbling juries, so she took her case to Dublin. The furious Coppinger punched her in the mouth and knocked out all her teeth and got her sent to gaol for four years. One of his clients, Ellen ni Driscoll, discovered that he had tampered with her deeds and put her estate in his own name. Heavily pregnant, she begged for funds from him. ‘He did batter her in a most cruel manner and threw her over a cliff into the sea’. She survived but lost the baby.

After years of intense wrangling through the courts plus harassment and intimidation, Coppinger secured ownership of Baltimore, confirmed by Chancery and upheld by the Lords Justices. However, the courts had decreed that the settlers had invested too much in the settlement at Baltimore to be evicted even after the lease expired in 1631. Coppinger had won his long battle but his victory was tainted by the fact that he was stuck with recalcitrant sitting tenants.


Coppinger was the only man in Ireland to benefit from the pirate raid. He was rich enough and vicious enough to pay any price to settle a grudge. He had a history of hiring musclemen to do his bidding. It would not be beyond him to hire Mussulmen.

Murat had offered to renounce his Muslim faith and serve King Charles but he had been rebuffed. He hated the English. Baltimore had been a haven for pirates but the English settlers had frozen them out. He had two heavily armed warships and 280 elite fighting troops, which suggests he was on a serious mission. He tootled around the English coast for a long time attacking small merchantmen and fishing boats before sailing 50 miles west to attack a small village that depended on pilchards.

On June 20 1610, an agreement was signed to hand over Baltimore to Coppinger in 21 years’ time. Twenty-one years to the day from the date that agreement was signed, Murat’s corsairs arrived and removed the English settlers from Baltimore. Was Murat on a contract with Coppinger to cleanse Baltimore of the English Protestant settlers? Bad Karma got Coppinger soon enough though – the vast pilchard shoals which made Baltimore profitable suddenly stopped coming and in 1636 Coppinger leased out the village.

There is another implication arising from the story. Historian WJ Kingston has suggested that the raid may have been a major factor in the execution of Charles I. The Ship Money tax was normally imposed on coastal towns in order to equip warships. Charles, fearing a repetition of the corsair raid, extended the tax to inland communities in order to strengthen the navy. He did this without the consent of Parliament which produced such opposition that civil war and regicide followed. From then on no autocrat in Europe was safe.

What’s Bogart got to do with it?

Murat Reis aka Janszoon fathered several children by his Berber wife. Two of them, Abraham Jansz (a common Burgher name in Sri Lanka) and Anthony Jansen van Salee, took up the family trade of piracy. They were among the early settlers of New Amsterdam, settling in what is now Coney Island and Brooklyn. Among van Salee’s descendants were Humphrey Bogart, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jackie Kennedy, John Hammond (producer of Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan) and John Hammond Jr (blues singer).

Des Ekin

Most of the information in this article came from a wonderful book by an Irish journalist called Des Ekin called ‘The Stolen Village’, published by the O’Brien Press, Dublin http://www.o’ There is even more fascinating material in the book, available from Amazon.

It’s a Jungle in Here!



Sir Thaddeus O’Grouch

 I wrote this on Open Salon back in 2009 under yet another of my multiple identities.

A despatch from our correspondent in Sri Lanka.


My dear wife, Lady Tourette O’Grouch, is engaged in philanthropic work like distributing potato peelings to the serfs, thrashing the minions, or, like that Jane Seymour character on the electric television thingy, bandaging the indigent. I do not hear any screams of terror, which is the usual indication that she is carrying out a job appraisal review.

I see my faithful manservant, Kotte (Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer) asleep in a heap exuding kasippu fumes and on the point of spontaneous combustion.

Little Dobbie Driblette, the maid of all work, “shod in shoes of silence”, is gainfully employed pilfering items from the stores under the mistaken belief that because her own eyesight is poor, I cannot see her. Not only see but smell – there is an indescribable fetor surrounding her like a miasma and one can register her presence at several hundred yards.

The Buddhists have a concept of merit arising from good works – they call it ping – and we have long tried to inculcate the idea of the merit of good works into Dobbie but the idea of any kind of work is anathema to her. No ping but plenty of pong.

I am in the kitchen attempting to make myself a restorative koppe (I am quite the new man, you see. Not like these Sri Lankan boy-men or Irishmen who are proud that they cannot make themselves a beverage without the assistance of some female)

It rather disconcerting to observe that the sugar is on the move. Huge red ants are trying to make their escape from the jar.

In an ancient comedy show on the steam wireless thingy, the English comedian, Tony Hancock, complained to his housekeeper, Griselda Pugh (played by Hattie Jacques, a huge, mountainous woman who wobbled when she breathed) about her lack of culinary skills. “My mother was a rotten cook but at least her gravy used to move about a bit.”

Personally, I prefer my food to be immobile, meat to have been already slaughtered before it arrives on my plate. After a night on the ould arrack, I can cope with the tremors of my hands (Lady Tourette chaffs me that the tremors are my notion of foreplay!) but I would like the sugar to keep still while I am making a strong coffee in the morning.

I don’t much like the way, in another jar, evil little weevils are reducing the chick peas to gram flour.


Later, when I am on the old Thunder Box, taking a relaxing constitutional, scanning the newspaper in vain for cheerful tidings, mosquitoes the size of small helicopters emerge from the toilet bowl and swarms of wasps land on my head.

In the shower, a small frog, the size of a mung bean, with big bulging eyes like Ray Bans, glares at me. A larger frog, warty as Robert Redford, leaps around the tiles.

Taking an improving tome from the extensive O’Grouch library, I discover that I am holding only the spine in my hand and a pile of dust; armies of white ants are hurtling about the shelves carrying their eggs. The library ate my books.

There was a small hole in the plaster in the baronial hallway of O’Grouch Towers. Without my bleary eyes noticing, it had got bigger and bigger. I steeled myself to peer into the hole and – the horror, the horror; begorrah the horror- there was something moving in there! During the daily downpour which refused to stay outside but came tumbling through the roof and ceiling and flooded the floor, the creatures emerged, huge flying ants that soon formed a foul fog that obscured the whole interior from sight.

Similar creatures are eating away at the brand new wooden frame of the window in the master bedroom.

Outside, the rains flushed out numerous scorpions like prehistoric humvees and centipedes like malevolent moustaches.

Opening the hood of the newly acquired Grouchmobile, I find that some hooligan elements of the rodent domain have set up home as squatters therein and have been eating various bits of foam and plastic. No doubt, they will soon set to work on something important like the brake cables.

During the day a serpent eagle rides the thermals looking for snakes full of frogs which are full of ants and flies. I think it may have its eye on the cat, which is full of geckoes.

Huge skrawking crows circle doomily around the Muslim slaughterhouse next door.

Relaxing in the crepuscule surveying the O’Grouch estate with a bumper of claret in my hand, eye-flies laying eggs on my long lashes, beetles like Stukas (or is it Fokkers?) diving into my hairy ears, I helplessly watch several leeches attached to my ankles rapidly taking on a corpulence the colour of the claret. Lady Tourette was recently severely discombobulated to discover one of the little buggers securely attached to her left buttock.

Small, but probably rabid, bats fly dangerously close to my face. Much larger sinister bats, hang like innumerable Christopher Lees from the Sapu trees.

Large frogs hop about eating the flying ants. Coucals and snakes carry away the frogs for supper.

At night, sleep is impossible because of frogs and crickets chirupping away cacophonously throughout the night and unidentifiable creatures (polecats, mongooses, elephants?)  wandering around in the roof space. I am unable to move because the family cat, Minnie the Merciless, sits on my groin like a broody grumpy hen trying to hatch my family jewels. What sounds like something rather large arrives in the ceiling at the same time every night and applies itself assiduously to gnawing away in a determined fashion at the timberwork. I think it may possess a drill. Soon it will consume the electric cable. I am afraid to sleep on my back with my mouth open for fear of what might fall therein. Once there was a frightful clatter and squawking and I found that two huge rats had fallen from the ceiling and were fighting in the kitchen sink.

Frequently there is the patter of tiny feet in the ceiling accompanied by frenzied eeking and a ponderous slithering followed by silence. One day, the shower area was populated by tiny mousicles, each the size of a thumbnail.

True darkness never descends on the bedroom. Fireflies blazon the night, roosting in my hair like stars. It is like trying to get to sleep inside a fully lit Christmas tree.

One of our hounds, Cerberus, I think it was, or maybe Fang, Zoltan or Gnasher, I am not sure, was kicking up an awful row last night. This morning there was a small, chewed-up civet cat on the driveway, by its mouth was a small chewed-up mouse. What did that Irish fellow – Swift was it? – say about ad infinitum?

Dawn breaks with an ecumenical decibelling from various denominations. I think it is the Mosque that starts the competitive cacophony with a call to prayer. Next, the Hindu Kovil joins in with some wailing followed closely by pirith from the Buddhist temple. Bringing up the rear, we have bells from the Anglican Church. All of these are on tape so they can all crank up the volume in their attempts to outdo each other.

Red in tooth and claw, or what?

It is a jungle in here!

 Who is in charge here?



Dawn and Disillusion: the Bathetic Blair and Brown Era

I published this on Open Salon in the days of hope shortly after Obama’s first  presidential election victory.


“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

William Wordsworth: The Prelude. Book xi.

I remember another election victory. It was another time, another country. I remember the new hope that many of us living in the United Kingdom felt when the Labour Party won the 1997 general election and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair became prime minister.

On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.  He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions.


May 2 1997 at the Imperial War Museum

 On the bright morning of 2 May 1997, I wandered down to the Imperial War Museum. A complete stranger, a very tall man conducting a poll for MORI embraced me, shouting “Isn’t it great”. I was as enthralled as he was. This was like a new dawn after so many years of Tory rule. I only once (tactical voting) voted for any party but Labour. I have never voted for the Conservative Party. My father had been a staunch Labour supporter for the whole of his too-short life. I voted for Labour in that 1997 election and felt that I had personally achieved something. Many of us were drunk with joy.

It was sobering experience to walk around the Imperial War Museum and to see the remembrance of so many lost lives. The reconstruction of a Great War trench was particularly sobering. My grandfather had fought in that war. I wonder if  my father’s experience in the Second World had helped to truncate his life so cruelly.

Eighteen Years of Tory Misrule

 The Conservative party had been in power since 1979, first under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and then under John Major. Thatcher’s radical approach had led to the death of manufacturing industry, which in turn helped her to annihilate the unions and destroy all vestiges of working class power. The north of England became a wasteland. There were record levels of unemployment and  homelessness; there were beggars in the streets of every city and increased rates of suicide, particularly amongst young men.

Nationalised industries were dismantled and sold off at a loss with the taxpayer footing the bill. The health service, long the pride of the nation, was fragmented and subjected to mad concepts of ‘quasi markets’.

In 1981, there were riots all over the country, fuelled by racial and social discord. Later, The Poll Tax Riots were mass disturbances, arising out of opposition to the Community Charge (commonly known as the poll tax).

Whatever positive changes Thatcherism achieved, the social costs to the British population were severe. The poverty rate doubled. Britain’s childhood-poverty rate in 1997 was the highest in Europe.  Industrial production fell sharply and unemployment tripled during her premiership. When she resigned in 1990, 28% of children in Great Britain were considered to be below the poverty line, reaching a peak of 30% in 1994 during the Conservative government of John Major, who succeeded Thatcher.

The Major Years: a Nation Ill-at-Ease with Itself

Major abolished the poll tax but otherwise things got no better. Major’s slim majority proved to be unmanageable, particularly after the  UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September 1992, Black Wednesday, when billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was wasted in a futile attempt to prop up the currency’s value.

In its dying years, the Conservative administration lost none of its arrogance, despite its ineffectuality. John Major is often described as mild-mannered and decent, if ineffectual. Tony Banks (a politician, not the member of Genesis) was noted as an MP for his irreverent wit. He had known Major when he they were both on Lambeth Council. Banks said of Major in 1994 that “He was a fairly competent chairman of Housing. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking, ‘What on earth is Councilor Major doing?’ I can’t believe he’s here and sometimes I think he can’t either.”

Major’s greatest crime was destroying the rail network.

Destroying the integrated network and selling it off to private companies caused immense difficulties. Nobody wanted it except Tory ideologues and those who stood to make a fat profit at the taxpayers’ expense. After a series of rail disasters with many fatalities, there was a growing consensus that maintenance work was not being done properly and the complex plan to split the railways into 25 different companies was a horrendous mistake. After the Paddington rail crash, in October 1999, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 73% of all voters would support renationalizing Railtrack. The megalomania of nice, decent, grey, boring John Major was killing taxpayers who had paid out their hard-earned money to make rich people richer when he sold off the nation’s railways for the sake of profit and political dogma.

The Conservative Secretary of State for Health, Kenneth Clarke, (he later made a bid for the party leadership but was hampered by the fact that he was in Vietnam peddling cigarettes to the third world on a retainer of 100,000 GBP a year from British American Tobacco) had set about dismantling and fragmenting the National Health Service in the same way that the railways had been smashed.

How naïve could we be?!

So on that day in May many of us were overjoyed that the scoundrels were out of office and a bright, shiny, clean, new team could put things right.


During the Blair years Britain was less bleak than in the days of Thatcher. There was rising individual prosperity but it was all based on bubble of credit from unsustainably high house prices.

The Blair government introduced some social policies seen by the left of the Labour Party as progressive, such as the minimum wage and measures to reduce child poverty and money has been pumped into public services. The effort has been undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism which have undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit?

New Boss- Old Boss

Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One of Blair’s “triumphs” had been to abolish Clause IV of the party constitution. This dealt with nationalization of the commanding peaks of the economy. By getting rid of this central pillar of Old Labour principle, the party became New Labour. On attaining power there would be no attempt to re-nationalize privatised industries, like the railways or water, even though 73% of the population wanted that. New Labour brought further privatization by stealth. Blair and his finance minister, and later successor, Gordon Brown, pursued with great zeal the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), using private capital to fund public projects.

Private Finance Initiative

In practice this is a bad deal for taxpayers and involves a hidden privatisation of public services. The UK Accounting Standards Board has called PFI an “an off-balance-sheet fiddle” because the government can move the cost of public works out of the public sector borrowing requirement. PFI can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process which inevitably leads to corruption. The big corporations wouldn’t be interested if it were otherwise. For a small investment, companies can be sure of long-term profit guaranteed by the taxpayer.

The financial pressures of PFI directly caused 93 deaths at Maidstone and Stoke Mandeville hospitals. Clostridium difficile is spread by poor hygiene – basically patients were eating traces of other patients’ faeces. The official report said both hospitals were “preoccupied with finances”, instead of being preoccupied with faeces and were seriously impeded by the PFI. Nurse numbers were slashed and patients were constantly moved around; the combination of these two factors was a foolproof way of spreading infection.

Profits (as high as 58%) for the private companies comes from the budgets of the hospitals, so less is available for direct care. Beds reduced by 30% with the first wave and budgets for clinical staff reduced by 25%. Most National Health Trusts are in serious financial difficulty and many will become insolvent.

New Labour continued and extended ‘reform’ of the health service which had been one institution that united, whatever their grumbles, the entire nation in pride. Perry Anderson once remarked: “the very term ‘reform’ now means, virtually always, the opposite of what it denoted fifty years ago; not the creation but the contraction of welfare arrangements once prized by their recipients”.

Bribery and Corruption

 Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of what became known as the “sleaze factor”. There was what seemed like an endless succession of sex scandals. It was later revealed that boring old Major himself had had a four-year affair with health minister Edwina Currie.

New Labour had profited from all this but soon became bemired in sleaze itself. Julian Glover wrote: “If the Tories gave birth to modern sleaze, we now know that New Labour educated it into adulthood.”

There was the “cash for honors” investigation. It was alleged that Lord Levy (formerly a pop music entrepreneur) was tasked with raising funds for the party and was offering knighthoods and peerages in return. Levy became known as Lord Cashpoint.

Blair himself was interviewed by police. He and the Labour party were not exonerated from acting illegally. The decision of the Crown Prosecution Service was made solely on the basis of a lack of evidence and an assessment of the likelihood of a conviction. Some of the police officers involved in the inquiry claim there was political pressure applied to them and that some of the politicians interviewed were less than helpful.

In 1997, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone was involved in a political controversy over the Labour Party’s policy on tobacco sponsorship. Labour had pledged to ban tobacco advertising. Health minister Tessa Jowell was said to be fiercely anti-tobacco but was forced to argue the case for exempting Formula One from the tobacco advertising restrictions. Ecclestone had donated a million pounds to the Labour Party. Blair apologized and the money was returned but it was later proved that he lied about the timing of decisions in this matter. Jowell herself was forced to resign when she displayed alarming levels of ignorance about large bribes her husband had received from Silvio Berlusconi.

The government stopped an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office which seemed to be leading to prosecutions of senior executives at British Aerospace over bribes to Saudi princes in relation to arms deals.

Blair’s Philosophy

Rick Lowry described John McCain as a conviction politician without any convictions. Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

Blair liked to portray himself as “a straight kind of guy” and was a committed Christian who eventually became a Catholic. He could have joined any political party. The historian, Tony Judt, wrote of him: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.”


Blairism incorporated most of the political and social tenets of Thatcherism. Peter Mandelson was often thought of as New Labour’s Prince of Darkness. It was his media savvy that helped to make the party electable. He famously declared, “We are all Thatcherites now”. The curtailing and large-scale dismantling of elements of the welfare state under Thatcher largely remained under New Labour and the privatization of state-owned enterprises was not reversed by any programme of nationalization.

Iraq and Afghanistan

In December 2006, John Major led calls for an independent inquiry into Tony Blair’s decision to join the USA in the invasion of Iraq. Blair’s reputation for honesty and integrity, already damaged by allegations of excessive “spin” because of his reliance on the dark arts of Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, was dealt a severe blow.

His defenders argue that he sincerely believed before the war that the intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMDs was accurate; that the dossiers informing his decision were not dishonest in their presentation of the intelligence evidence. Nevertheless, Blair continues to be condemned internationally as a proven liar and a war criminal.

The second Lancet study published on in October 2006 estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5% of the population, through the end of June 2006.

I could never have imagined on that day in May at the Imperial War Museum that Blair could do this.

There has been a strong feeling in the British military that they are unappreciated. There have been stories of soldiers being advised not to wear their uniforms when they have been home on leave because some have been physically attacked.

There have been many complaints about inadequate equipment and inefficiency in the Iraq and Afghan theatres. In 2006, the household cavalry in Helmand were expected to operate in Scimitar light tanks without air-conditioning. Soldiers have been killed wearing inadequate protective gear. An SAS commander in Afghanistan recently  resigned blaming a lack of adequate resources for the deaths of four service personnel, including Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first British female soldier to die in Afghanistan. They were killed on 17 June when their Snatch Land Rover struck a roadside bomb in Helmand Province earlier this year. In his resignation letter, he is understood to have accused ministers of “gross negligence” in allowing soldiers to go into battle without adequate resources.

Coroner Andrew Walker, criticizing a lack of military equipment at the inquest of Cpl Mark Wright, who died after the wrong helicopter was sent to rescue him from a minefield in Afghanistan, said, “Those responsible should hang their heads in shame”.

Many British soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. An article marking the 25th anniversary of the Falklands campaign claimed that 300 veterans had since committed suicide: 50 more than died in the conflict itself. Far greater numbers can be expected as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Britain’s jails are overcrowded.  Nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, where about 147 people per 100,000 are in prison. A National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) study showed that one in 11 prisoners- 8,500 people—are former members of the armed forces: double the proportion just five years ago. The vast majority are guilty of drink or drug-related offences.

A Man of Peace

That decent Christian gentleman Blair is now trying to bring peace to the Middle East after sending British troops to Iraq and Afghanistan against the wishes of most of the British people. Lord Levy, who has been described as “a leading international Zionist”, has praised Blair for his “solid and committed support of the State of Israel”. In 2004, Blair was heavily criticized by 50 former diplomats, including ambassadors to Baghdad and Tel Aviv for his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war.

Hope Springs Eternal

It is ironic that Gordon Brown was so desperate to get Blair’s job and when he did it all turned to shit in his hands. His popularity ratings plummeted to the lowest of any prime minister. He was only saved by the financial crisis. New Nobel laureate Paul Krugman praised him. His stock soared. How did he achieve this? He achieved it by abandoning the policies he had always pursued and turned to nationalization. The banks in their greed had caused the crisis. After screaming for de-regulation for so long they were now coming to the government to be bailed out. Gordon Brown in effect nationalised the British banking system – with taxpayers’ money of course.

Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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