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|'Lost White Tribes' by Riccardo Orizio
|Sunday, July 22, 2001; Page BW02
|The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials In Sri Lanka,
Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia and Guadeloupe
One of the odder legacies of imperialism and colonialism is the enduring fascination
with which many of us look upon agents of colonial power who went semi-native: adopting
many of the customs and attitudes of the people whose lands they colonized, yet clinging
all the while to customs and attitudes of the countries they left behind. The lives of
these people have been explored by many notable writers - E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh,
Graham Greene, Isak Dinesen, Paul Scott, Paul Theroux, William Boyd - and during the 1980s
the subject made a big splash in upmarket television with "The Jewel in the
Crown," the BBC adaptation of Scott's Raj Quartet.
The subtitle of Riccardo Orizio's book - "The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials
..." - suggests a venture into the same territory, and it was with precisely this
expectation that I picked it up. But the subtitle is seriously misleading, for few members
of the "lost white tribes" about who Orizio writes are "privileged,' and
not many of them (or their forebears) were even "colonials" as the word is
commonly understood. The Dutch of Sri Lanka (Ceylon, as it was called in imperial days)
fit that description in some respects, but the others in this tale are mostly people whose
communal histories are more complex and ambiguous than those of, say, the cricket-playing
British clubmen and their wives who brought the Raj to India.
Orizio begins the book by describing an unexpected encounter at a small hotel in Sri Lanka
with a young white waiter who doesn't look local but actually is. Orizio's Sinhalese
friend explained this anomaly: He's only a Dutch Burgher ... Strange people. Dutch, or
something of the sort. Maybe Portuguese. Some of them live in crumbling old houses.
Nothing to cook with, roof failing in, but that's where they like to live. As if this were
still the 18th century. Perhaps, though they're trash, they think they're better than we
are." Orizio writes:
"That was how I found my first White Tribe: by the side of a tropical road, more
exotic than all the exotica around me. Like other tribes I would meet in the next few
years, walking a thin line between privilege and discrimination. Poor. 'Lost' because
reduced to being a historical fossil, little more than a generic anomaly for whom no one
wants to claim paternity. Too white for some. Too native for others. Their society a
closed, incestuous microcosm."
These little enclaves of voluntary or involuntary outcasts can be found in many places -
Orizio mentions, among others, South Africa, Malaysia, Belize, Afghanistan, Eritrea,
Somalia and Ethiopia - but the focus here is on the six countries mentioned in the
subtitle. "Focus" is not exactly the word, for Lost White
Tribes is a strangely unfocused and elliptical book. It is indicative of
Orizio's haphazard approach to structure that although the first chapter is about the
Dutch Burghers of Sri Lanka, it is not until the last chapter - about the Blancs Matignon
of Guadeloupe - that we are given a satisfactory explanation of who, exactly, they are:
"The Dutch had a name for these people in search of adventure and land. They called
them Burghers ... The Burghers, whether in Kaapstadt (Capetown) at the southern tip of
Africa, or in Borneo or Ceylon, were first and foremost rebels and misfits and possibly,
at heart, entrepreneurs."
The descendants of today's Dutch Burghers went to Ceylon during the 17th and 18th
centuries, in "what would come to called the Hollandese Tijul, the period of Dutch
rule" there. They were, as indicated, entrepreneurial types, but over the years the
country changed and the the blood began to thin. One old woman told Orizio" We
Burghers have become strangers in our own land. We have given so much, created so much.
And now that I'm old, it sometimes happens at a reception that someone will ask me where I
come from and how long have I lived in their beautiful country. They take me for a
tourist, or missionary. I tell them that my ancestors have probably been here longer than
theirs. But the old times are gone forever. My parents and their friends would go
horse-racing, then on to diner, then dance until dawn. Then they would jump in their cars
and dash down to the beach for a swim...."
That turns out to be one of the precocious few passages in this book that suggests an
end-of-the-empire nostalgia. For the most part the people whom Orizio found in other
countries have little to look back upon with fondness and much in the present to regret.
The Germans of Jamaica are the descendants of people who " found themselves in
Jamaica in the winter of 1834 working as slaves in one of the harshest, most intractable
woodland regions," apparently having been tricked into believing that they were
coming to America as free men and ending up in Jamaica as indentured workers. The Poles of
Haiti originally were hired to put down the island's famous slave rebellion in the early
19th century; in the subsequent massacre of whites, they were spared by Jean-Jacques
Dessalines, the rebel leader, because the Poles "were brave people whom despotism had
armed against liberty, but ... in their own country they had fought long and hard against
tyranny," according to Thomas Madious's history of Haiti.
No doubt it reflects an American bias, but to my mind the most interesting "white
tribe that Orizio describes is the outpost of descendants of Confederate diehards who fled
to Brazil at the end of the Civil War. They left the South "between 1865 and
1885" in "self-inflicted exile, rediscovering their pioneering instincts and
setting out in search of a rural Eden even further south than the South they knew, rather
than become subject to those 'damned Yankees.' "Their descendants think of themselves
as true to their forebears ("We've got nothing against anyone, not even the
blacks," one told Orizio. "We're honest citizens. But we've got this history
behind us and, in our hearts, we'll always be rebels"), yet they are also culturally
divided. As one put it, "I don't really feel American and I don't feel as Brazilian
as I should."
That sentiment is echoed, with variations, by named of those whose voices are heard
herein. The strangest by far are the Blancs Matignon of Guadeloupe. "Two centuries
ago," Orizio writes, "when Napoleon was ruling Europe, a small group of French
colonists decided to abandon the ports and farms of this wealthy colony and wide away in
the furthest corner of the island, a prey to hunger and disease." Why they did so is
a mystery, though Orizio suggests two alternatives: that they were
"aristocrats fleeing the guillotine, or smalltime slave-owning farmers clinging to a
traditional way of life." whatever the explanation, their descendants are wholly
isolated, afflicted with racism, and so thoroughly inbred that "everyone ... is a
cousin if not brother." In search of some fresh blood to inject into the veins of our
children," they have begun to intermarry with nonwhites, but the lasting damage
probably already has been done.
There are, perhaps, morals to be drawn from these stories -- "All of us, beneath our
apparent normality, belong to a lost tribe," Orizio somewhat portentously suggests.
"We can all become minorities. We are all potentially irrelevant" -- but the
temptation probably should be resisted. Best to read Lost White
Tribes as a collection of snapshots, and to wish that
the lens had been in sharper focus.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp..com
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