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On the Front-lines of Empire, the Picture isn't Pretty,
This review is from: Burmese Days: A Novel (Paperback)British vs. native, ruler vs. ruled, exploiter vs. exploited, white vs. black - these are all manifestations of the same relationship, played out for centuries against the backdrop of an unforgiving climate and described in relentless and unapologetic detail by one of Great Britain's most enduring political novelists and essayists, George Orwell. Orwell's own experiences on the front-lines of the British Empire are chronicled in several of his works, but in Burmese Days one gets a true picture of Empire's dualism. In typical Orwellian style, the novel does not end happily, as his hero finally succumbs to the many antagonisms set against him. Many characters within the novel are static archetypes (Elizabeth Lackersteen, the classic British princess; Ellis, the insecure and cowardly racist; U Po Kyin, the devious local "boss,") but these portrayals are necessary, and arguably beneficial, to the historical perspective of the novel.
Orwell is showing us the European "types" that populated the front-lines of Empire. Stationed deep in the jungle, so far away from the familiar vistas and weather-patterns of Great Britain, they plied themselves with alcohol to dull their senses, and were either consumed by a seething native-hatred developed, perhaps, as a defense mechanism, or eaten alive by a duplicitous existence where their righteous indignation of racial injustice could never be adequately expressed. Orwell writes: "even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable."
There are two aspects of Empire which, if proper credit is given to common sense, should be taken as true. One is that imperialism in this world is a natural phenomenon, spurred on by a country's understandable economic impulses. Except for a few rare instances (Nazi Germany), imperialism is not a sadistic enterprise whereby the powerful fulfill an inherent need to dominate the weak; this is only one of its by-products, not, generally, an impetus. Secondly, the list of casualties of Empire are not only members of the colonized, but also contain members of the colonizers, who must govern on the front-lines. Orwell's Flory becomes one of these casualties, but so does Ellis, by his unquenchable and irrational hatred, and Elizabeth, by her ignorant social pretenses and her denial of the beauty of diversity. Orwell writes that "[t]here is a rather large number of suicides among the Europeans in Burma, and they occasion very little surprise." When we incorporate the fact that Empire is a natural and understandable phenomenon with its casualties from both sides of the relationship, we get a picture that becomes tragic, but certainly not pointless.
Righteous Imperialists of the times like Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Chamberlain believed that it was a European obligation -- the "White Man's Burden" -- to uplift the populations of the "topical climes," to bring them within the fold of civilization, and I would argue that the spread of social and political evolution deserves recognition, even if it rides the coattails of economic exploitation, class conflict, and racial injustice. But Orwell shows us in Burmese Days the application of this idealistic policy, and the picture is not pretty. Chamberlain wrote in 1897: "you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs ... you cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition ... without the use of force." Orwell, in stark language and imagery, portrays the harsh reality of breaking those eggs.
The British Empire can be both defended from afar and condemned from up close. This is the essential dilemma of imperialism. The British Empire was most decidedly not benign, but we must never forget that the March of Progress is never painless, much less bloodless. The movement for independence in India was begun by Indian nationals (journalists, teachers, and lawyers) who had either studied in London, or read voraciously the ideas of Western political and social thought. We should never be remiss, when debating about British imperialism, to stipulate Chamberlain while arguing on the side of Orwell. And vise-versa.