Some facets of British colonialism

The son (a man of about my vintage) of a former colonial administrator in an African territory refuses to talk to me. Why? Because I had told him that my ancestors and I had objected most strenuously to British control; that we had not needed to be shown how to govern ourselves (as taught in British schools); and that we, with a proud heritage going back thousands of years, did not appreciate the pejorative view directed at us by white administrators and missionaries.

His surprising response to my comments – which had been honestly made because he had not been a colonial administrator – was “You are biased.” To that, I said, “Bloody oath! How would like a Chinese gun-boat arriving at the port of London, and treating your people the way we had been treated?” He actually looked offended. We parted.

I had not got around to telling him how a young engineer from Britain had insisted that his Asian technicians, many much older and experienced, address him as ‘Sir’ at all times.

Then there was the nurse from a fishing village in England, the head of the Eye Clinic in the hospital in Singapore, who refused to talk with my Anglo-Australian wife and me. Her husband, a sergeant in the RAAF, chatted with us each night; he had grown up in Jamaica, as the son of an English employee in a sugar plantation. Each couple rented a room, sharing the house with our Chinese landlady.

This nurse had to be the head of the Clinic, controlling a few better-qualified Asian staff trained in Britain (so said the husband). She was paid as much as an Asian GP (medico); the husband was paid twice as much. We will retire rich, said the husband to me.

What irked the RAAF sergeant was the class distinction within the armed forces, and between the forces and the administrators (the latter doing rather well, with lots of low-paid Asian help), while both groups kept away socially from the locals, the Asians. Yet, senior military officers and high-ranking colonial administrators were often seen travelling with wealthy Asians in the latter’s cars; there seemed to be no colour bar at that level.

Wealth and power do go together; a bond (weak it may be) stronger than that which bind human beings. Alas! The Buddha’s guidance remains veiled (like Christian charity?)

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