Orwell a true anti-imperialist?

Most critics see “Burmese Days” as Orwell’s reaction against the atrocities he witnessed in Burma and thus are quick to categorize “Burmese Days” as an anti-imperialist text. While the anti-imperialist elements in the text are obvious – Flory’s discourses on the ills of imperialism etc, Orwell seemed to have failed in dissociating himself completely from imperialist discourse. This is especially so in his portrayal of natives. The novel does not have a single fully respectable native character. U Po Kyin is a scheming native, Dr V. is a imperialist parrot, mindlessly extolling the values of imperialism. Even Ma Kin, U Po Kyin’s wife who initially seemed like a potential check against the greediness of her husband was eventually enticed by the idea of gaining club membership. As for the Nationalist movement in Burma, Orwell seemed to be belittling its work altogether. In “Burmese Days”, the final rebellion is less of a nationalist movement, and more of a revenge against Ellis. Thus, it seemed odd that in an anti-imperialist text, native characters are portrayed as poorly as they are in earlier pro-imeperialist text.

I think the discrepancy really points to how Orwell is unable to disentangle himself from earlier discourses. While he removes himself from the ideals of imperialism, he has yet to find a new discourse that can effectively represent his new ideas. Specifically, Orwell has not found a new discourse the natives. Indeed, this is the most positive way to see Orwell, the anti-imperialist. If it is not a problem of representation, then Orwell falls back into the category of writers/thinkers who are anti-imperialist but racist. My own position probably falls in the middle of these two extremes. I think that Orwell has not sufficiently considered the position of the natives and is primarily concerned with the white man’s position in the colonized land. Therefore, he is unable to find a new discourse to talk about the natives. Yet, his lack of consideration for the native position is essentially a self-centred (white, male self) and therefore a racist attitude.

Dyaks and Peacocks

Wallace describes the Dyaks as people of higher morality, intelligence compared to the other Malayan races. He assumes a moral and intellectual high ground by putting himself in the position of a judge. He sees himself and the white man is superior and capable of judging and ranking other races. Yet, while he takes the moral high ground, he fails to realize his own hypocrisy. He equates the Dyak’s participation in head-hunting as something “which no more implies a bad moral character than did the custom of the slave-trade a hundred years ago imply a general morality in all who participated in it” (68). Here, he excused all (in the west) who participated in the slave trade, absolving them of any individual fault. Yet, Wallace condemns the Malay traders for oppressing the Dyaks through slavery (71). Wallace’s own moral judgement is prejudiced, revealing his hypocrisy.

It seems to be that despite the praises that Wallace plies on the Dyaks, he does not really regard them as fellow men. They perhaps comes closest to being a human being, but still closer to a savage. Perhaps, to Wallace, the Dyak and the various Malayan races to him are no more than a specimen of birds/insects etc which he so assiduously collects information on. Just like how he praises the peacock to the most superior of all birds, the Dyaks in this case becomes the most superior of its specimen (the Malayan races). I do not think it is far fetched to argue that Wallace see the Dyaks and the various Malayan races as ‘specimens’. In his description of his journey out of Buitenzorg, he writes, “I had coolies to carry my baggage and a horse for myself, both to be changed after every six or seven miles.” In a single line, he puts coolies and horses in the same category. Animals, coolies, birds and Dyaks all belong to one same category of inferior beings to Wallace!

Bloody Racists.

I have to admit that when I read the introduction to Wallace’s essay on the Dyaks, I was thoroughly disgusted by the sheer presumptuousness of the man. Wallace systematically and unabashedly relegates the natives to savages in his chapter on Borneo, comparing the Dyaks with Malays and Chinese, and trying to rank them in order of superiority. He enters Borneo and Java with the intention of searching for a potential new commodity that he could exploit, and repeatedly quantifies nature.

I don’t know why I’m so indignant, this is not something we haven’t seen before. Wallace is the quintessential colonist with a typical imperialist mindset.

Wallace has absolutely no idea that he is being derogatory, and here I am reminded of Edward Said and his statement that all western texts are inherently racist. Certainly, to the Victorian civilian in England, Wallace may seem to be providing an impartial account of his experiences in Borneo and Java. I can see that Wallace did not write this text with the intent of belittling the natives,  but I do feel that no matter how hard the colonizers strive to appear objective (as Wallace is so nobly trying to achieve in “The Malay Archipelago”), by the mere virtue of their race and the time period in which these writers lived, the zeitgeist inadvertently trickles down to their writing and reveals their latent imperial mindsets.

In all fairness, I may also be guilty of occidentalism, where we automatically single out the western in the text and vilify them. By pointing my finger at them, there are also three more fingers pointing back at myself. Perhaps, as a former colony, we are particularly sensitive to the portrayal our own, and have become trained to read colonialism into all the texts that we study, be it overtly racist or not.

The Existence of Savages and Stereotypes

After reading both Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s article, I feel that I can sympathy with the anguish that Achebe is experiencing. However, I feel that he might have misread the intentions of Conrad, as seen from Achebe’s naming of Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist”. As described in Achebe’s anecdote, he is obviously not pleased with the ‘under-recognition’ of African history and culture in America. But my main point is, how did that lead him to scrutinize and focus on deciphering Conrad’s short novel, one that was written 100 years ago?

Personally, I feel that it lies with Conrad’s strikingly vivid description of Africans or in Conrad’s words – “savages”. His almost larger than life portrayal of the Africans would reel readers (especially during Conrad’s time) in and convince them of the ‘reality’ of the description. I suppose this would probably be the stereotype that readers of Conrad’s time have in their mind. In other words, the stereotypes would be the very truth for the Western civilization, more than a hundred years ago. And I think it is this stereotype that Conrad is trying to play on, perhaps, somewhat out of control. It does illuminate the complicity of the English people – who are feeding on this stereotype and would therefore colour the imagination of those who sail to Africa in their ‘quests’, and this is illustrated by the ending quote of the novel: “The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed … into the heart of an immense darkness”.

Nonetheless, it still seems straightforward to Achebe that Conrad’s portrayal of Africans in such a negative light led to a continual impression that Africa is backward and remains outside the realm of knowledge even till his time. If not, why Heart of Darkness?

Ridiculing Western Civilisation

Even though Achebe claims that Conrad is a “thoroughgoing racist” and that Heart of Darkness happily ignores the deep-seated racism that the text exercises against the Africans, I feel less inclined to take such a harsh stance towards Conrad’s position as a colonist. Yes, I agree to a large extent that he objectifies, silences and mis/un-represents the Natives yet, I feel that because he is also equally scathing of the Europeans situated in the Congo that perhaps his position is more ambivalent. I understand the contention Achebe has with Conrad isn’t that Conrad is valorizing of the Europeans – but that Conrad has effectively dehumanized and ignored the Africans in his meditation of the downfall of the European male.

However, I prefer to read the Africans as representative of an older, fiercer “humanity” that is “wild and passionate” (Conrad91) and in a way akin to the Europeans. This humanity, although described by a disgusted Marlow as “ugly”, manages to – on many silent occasions even, to prove how ridiculous the institutions of Western civilization like money (“So unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don’t see what good their extravagant salary could be to them” [59]) really are when taken out of the pretentious western contexts. In times like this, even though the Africans are still silenced, the fact that even their silence can reflect the stupidity of Western ideals, to me, is enough to mediate my stance towards Conrad’s racism and take Achebe’s reading with a little bit more salt.

 That being said, I realise too that Achebe is writing in a period where the teething pains of decolonisation are starting to appear, and I can see why he would, in his position, be so adamant about writing against a whole tradition of Conradian scholarship that has effectively contributed to the continual “reduc[tion] of Africa to the role of props.” (Achebe 344)

The Voiceless Savage.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I was most struck by his allusion to the concept of a “voice”, a kind of tool for empowerment. To Conrad, the ability to speak and more importantly, to be understood is affirmation of one’s place and power. This is why Marlow describes his impression of Kurtz as being primarily one of “voice… of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression” (107). Kurtz is most powerful to Marlow as far as he is able (and certainly at this point in the novel merely imagined) to communicate. By contrast, Conrad reduces the native to a series of grunts, and in his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe makes this point most strongly: “It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa.” (341) 

If the means to communicate is of such importance in according status to characters in Conrad’s novel, then by extension the inability to communicate (as portrayed in the “savages”) is ultimately demeaning to their position in relation to the Western “adventurers”. Conrad then does not merely participate in effectively silencing the native voice since only speakers of English receive any measure of merit in the plot, he is an active promulgator of such a message. The native is thus a victim of the silencing of his own voice since he is unable to communicate in a way that Conrad believes is necessary for any measure of status to be accorded to him. He will always be inferior to the Western narrator because he is excluded from being heard.

Some thoughts on Passage

Some thoughts on ‘A Passage to India’:

1. The nature of racism in the book is interesting. In the opening chapters, the English characters often emphasized the difference between an Englishman who has just arrived in India and one who has been in India for some time. It is accepted that after one lives in India for some time, one stops being friendly or polite to Indian and all initial idealism dies. Soon, they would realize that the Indians deserve to be treated in the way they are, as they are indeed untrustworthy etc etc. Characters like Ronny realize their hypocritical attitudes but blame it on situation (and the natives). In fact, he explicitly says that he did not come to India to be unpleasant but somehow all the experiences he had thus far has forced him into his particular attitude. I think this is a very interesting, yet highly subtle and potentially more powerful form of racism. Racism is being explained away, and rationalized. Most importantly, the Englishman need not be held responsible – after all it is the Indians’ own fault that they are being treated meanly.

2. The English characters often use the native tongue to express their own ideas. In some sense, colonialism goes beyond conquering of lands. It actually colonizes language and culture as well. The English takes the native words and pulls them out of their native contexts, to use them in the English context. In using the Indian tongue, the English is not assimilating Indian culture – instead he tyrannically ‘takes over’ the language for he has no real understanding of the language and culture but simply uses the foreign words in the way he thinks them to mean.

Is the concept of Racism a new thing?

As we talked about racism/racist opinions of the colonials masters in the Gikandi reading, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I recognised the racism immediately the way the colonial masters did not.  When I was reading Passage to India, I found several similar moments again in the text when I felt that the British racism is beyond acute; and yet disturbingly enough, the British (once again) manages to naturalize the racism – as if it’s only natural that the Indians are lesser beings because they weren’t white. Such moments include, “ Most of the inhabitants of India do not mind how India is governed. Nor are the lower animals of England concerned about England” (Forster, 104) and “when an Indian goes bad, he goes not only very bad, but very queer” (158) when Fielding is trying to argue for Aziz’s innocence and McBryde suggests Indians have no sensibilities to hide evidence even when they’re guilty of the crime.


All these things made me wonder subsequently, if our concept of ‘racism’ and the values we attach to ‘racism’ – i.e. that it is not a desirable thing, is really a result of post-colonialism; in that, I’m wondering if indeed it’s because we have come a long way from treating the subaltern as sub-human to a point where we see the need to see them as equals that we have become so aware of the racism inherent in such texts. It certainly cannot be that the British recognized their own racism in the colonial times but chose to ignore it. Rather, I believe that the concept of racism, and by extension – the ability to recognize racism, is possibly therefore still a rather new thing – one that is borne out of a changed consciousness in modernity.