on the move again

On the move again; my next words will probably hail from Vientiane, Luang Prabang or Hanoi.

This will be my first extended encounter with the remnants of the French colonial empire — I’ve always been much more familiar with the doings of the British Empire, and I understand its legacies almost innately: the trauma of disinherited language, the ethnic fractures, the suppressed Left, the twinned dilemmas of modernity and tradition, the inferiority complexes, the ache for history, for origins. But the French colonial empire is more of a mystery to me; Laos, especially, up until my recent resolute attempts to educate myself about it, has been a near-total black hole in my historical understanding. The shame! — I knew only that it was once Red, and that there are a lot of unexploded bombs in it.

So, there’ll be coffee and languor and immersion, of course, but also scrutiny. One of the curious things about independence movements in Southeast Asia is that the nations who were once acolytes of the British Empire — Burma, Malaya — never quite fought for their independence with remotely comparable rage and energy and bloodshed as did their French- or Dutch-owned neighbours. Malaya transitioned into Independence with benign nods from the British Royal Family, and right in the midst of a British-declared Emergency Rule. In Burma, power was transferred, not seized. But in most of the mainland, and across the Dutch-owned archipelago, the people lashed back, and there was war, revolution and bloody independence; Indonesians, especially, seemed incredibly good at roaring in unison, at the Dutch in 1948, and later at Suharto in 1998: Never again. Was it something about the differing natures of imperial rule in these countries? (Perhaps: are there books on this?) Was it something about the differing characters of the people themselves? something peculiarly feisty about the Vietnamese, and peculiarly benign about Malaysians? (Let’s hope not: I hate essentializations).

At any rate, in a few days I’ll be attempting to observe all this firsthand, preferably from some Laotian or Vietnamese sidewalk cafe, drinking thick black coffee and thinking about the oddness of empires: those strange beasts which, for a period in history, managed to make entire peoples beholden to themselves, and furthermore to convince them, for a while anyway, that it was good and right that they were so.


5 responses to “on the move again

  • Omair

    If you do find any books on the subject, do post them on here. I suppose I could just wait for your dissertation though.

  • alan

    Perhaps you’re not looking back far enough into British imperial history? The American version produced plenty of war, revolution, and bloody independence. And then, of course, there’s Ireland. A variation of your question might be, how is it that British rule led to such violence so close to home, but (comparatively speaking) less abroad? Did the Brits learn from their Irish and American experiences and apply those lessons in their Asian possessions?

    A complex problem with no simple answers; but I hope you manage to formulate a few over a cup or two of thick black coffee….

  • TF Smith

    Actually, there’s a pretty strong argument that Gascony was England’s first overseas possession…

    See “Gascony, England’s First Colony, 1204-1453” by Margaret Wade Labarge for a pretty recent synthesis of a lot of relatively new material.

  • Rachel

    thanks for the thoughts! I didn’t manage to formulate much over my numerous and unbelievably excellent cups of Vietnamese coffee, apart from a plot to build a dedicated pipeline carrying said coffee from Hanoi directly into my bathroom taps. however, I did derive some insights into the question of violence from Frantz Fanon. more on that at some later, uncertain point.

    I wonder — perhaps naively? — whether colonial powers ever compared notes, or discussed their own colonial policy with each other. it seems a logical thing to do: you have colonies, I have colonies, let’s exchange tips on e.g. how to keep the natives down? I know the Dutch and British kept each other thoroughly briefed on intelligence, especially as the perceived Communist threat loomed ever larger, but I have no idea whether they ever discussed colonial strategies ‘in the abstract’, if there even was such a thing.

  • robin

    I have posed the ultimate personality test to you, right?

    A wizard offers to install between your “hot” and “cold” faucets a third, magic tap that can dispense anything, with the stipulation that it must actually be sort of theoretically able to travel through pipes — i.e. strawberry jam is aces; tiny diamonds might work; ancient books are a no-go.

    So the essential question is: What. comes. out?

    Thick coffee, piping hot, straight from Hanoi is not a bad answer.

    So, yes, I want to see the schedule from the Colonial Powers Annual Conference.

    * 9am: Continental breakfast (Lobby)
    * 9:30am: Resource Extraction 101 (Room 115)
    * 10:30am: Best Practices in Puppet Government (Conference Room C)
    * 12pm: Keynote: “Don’t Forget Gascony!” (Ballroom A)

    Also, srsly, re: empires and violence: I just finished a repeat reading of “The Unconquerable World” by Jonathan Schell. It’s about war, nuclear weapons, nonviolence, & the long-term futility of empire. I think it’s one of the most important (certainly one of the most interesting) books written in the last ten years. Highly recommended.

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