Was George Orwell, as commonly held and as he usually portrayed himself, a staunch anti-imperialist? And are the sources of that attitude best found in his experience as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma? That is the main claim of this short but sharp and perceptive book by Douglas Kerr. “The five years spent in Burma would be a lifelong point of reference, and became the paradigm for his idea of political injustice” – of which, says Kerr, empire was for Orwell the leading contemporary specimen.
There can be no dispute about the importance of the British Empire in Orwell’s life and thought. He was born in northern India of a father who worked in the Indian Civil Service – at a modest level in the Opium Department – and of a half-French mother whose family were timber merchants in Burma (at that time joined with India in the British Raj). His father’s family, the Blairs, had originally prospered from ownership of slave plantations in the British Caribbean, but after the abolition of slavery had fallen on hard times, leading Richard Blair, Orwell’s father, to seek his fortune elsewhere in the Empire.
As was common with Anglo-Indian families, at an early age Orwell was sent “home” to prep school in England, from which he won a scholarship to Eton, where he incurred the snobbery of boys “whose parents were richer than mine and who took care to let me know it”, and where, according to him, he developed his hatred of the “hoggishly rich”. The lure of the East was strong with him, and ideally he would have liked to join the Indian Civil Service. But too poor to afford Oxford, and so lacking the university degree that was necessary for admission to the top-ranked ICS, he settled for the Indian Imperial Police and asked to be posted to Burma, where for five years, from 1922 to 1927, he served as an assistant superintendent of police. That, we should note, was the full extent of Orwell’s direct experience of the British Empire. (He left India at the age of one and never went back.)
Returning to England on leave in 1927, he abruptly resigned from the Indian police, for reasons that are still unclear to his biographers. Orwell later said, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), that after those five years in Burma “I hated the imperialism I was served with a bitterness I probably cannot make clear”, and that “one sniff of English air decided me: I was not going to be part of that evil despotism.” But Kerr notes that when he went on leave he did not resign from the police, and that “people who knew him in Burma seem to have regarded his opinions as blamelessly orthodox”. He further observes that Orwell never wrote an autobiography, and it is often impossible to verify objectively the things he said about himself. Nevertheless, this does not deter Kerr from arguing that the key to Orwell’s anti-imperialism is his Burmese experience, and that incidents and impressions from his five years in Burma continued to color much of his life’s work, up to and including Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
It is true that two of Orwell’s best essays, “A Hanging” (1931), and “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), draw directly on his time in Burma, doing, as he put it, “the dirty work of empire” . In the former, small incidents – a dog running playfully around the condemned man, the Hindu prisoner stepping carefully aside to avoid a puddle – humanize and particularize the otherwise anonymous mass of brown Orientals who crowd the prisons of the empire. The latter essay, in which Orwell recounts an episode when against his better judgment he found himself forced to shoot an otherwise harmless elephant in “must”, in order not to be mocked by the watching Burmese, contains the famous declaration that “I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”
But it is noted that here, as in most of his writing on empire, it is the effects of empire on the white rulers, not on their black and brown subjects, that most concern Orwell. The colonial subjects remain mostly a vague teeming mass – the Burmese “a sea of yellow faces” in “Shooting” – who are the passive victims of their condition and incapable of understanding it, let alone doing much about it. This view comes out especially strongly in Burmese Days (1934), Orwell’s first novel and the only one that deals systematically with the subject of the colonial empire, specifically through the lens of his Burmese experience (and so a main, perhaps overworked, source for Kerr’s account). There are Indian and Burmese characters in the novel – Dr Veraswami, U Po Kyin, Ma Hla May – but they are cardboard cutout figures who exist only to highlight the English characters who dominate the action. These too are, to an extent, stereotypes – Flory the timber merchant denouncing the British Empire, but nevertheless profiting from it, the narrow-minded husband-seeker Elizabeth Lackersteen, the grotesquely prejudiced and racist members of the whites-only Club in Kyauktada – but they at least think and act, however boorishly and callously. The Indians and Burmese who mostly make up the population feature as a faceless backdrop, their main function being to provoke and drive to fury the white protagonists, as when Ellis lashes out at a group of jeering schoolboys, blinding one and so inciting a riot ( heroically put down by Flory).
“Orwell is not our contemporary”, Kerr insists a number of times, resisting what has become a standard line in the flourishing Orwell industry of today (not least in the face of what is seen as a global threat to democracy and “decency”, Orwell’s favorite virtue). We ought not to judge him, or appeal to him, in any of our contemporary concerns, whether empire, race, or class. Kerr wishes to “historicize” Orwell, to see him as a creature of his time and of his class. He quotes more than once Orwell’s observation that “it is in fact very difficult to escape, culturally, from the class into which you have been born”. Thus we should not be surprised that, as a member of the imperial service class, he had what might seem a patronizing attitude towards Britain’s colonial subjects, and the British working class, much as he tried to sympathize with them. Frequently in fact, as Kerr shows in an illuminating chapter, Orwell compares both groups to animals – patient, long-suffering, deserving care and affection, but fundamentally incapable of thinking and acting for themselves. Orwell had little hope that the working class could achieve their own liberation, any more than that the colonial “natives” would achieve national independence by themselves.
All this might seem to qualify Orwell’s “anti-imperialism” (and socialism), at least as it is usually understood today. It might also be true to say that Orwell as an emblem of “quintessential Englishness” is equally off the mark, and that Kerr is right to insist that Orwell was “really a lifelong immigrant, reporting on England, like Kipling, as on a foreigner.” land”. But, as Kerr shows well, Orwell still, like Kipling, carried the marks of his Anglo-Indian ancestry and the attitudes of many of the imperial service class. He had few working-class friends, and virtually no Indian or Burmese ones, while he continued to have many from his Eton days. He had an affection for the Anglican church and a distrust of intellectuals, especially left-wing ones. Like most of his class, he loved Kipling – “a sort of household god” to his class, he said – and, though rejecting his “jingoism”, defended his imperialism as belonging to an earlier, pre-1914 era that accepted responsibility and offered a true degree of security for all. Kipling’s line, “makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep”, was for Orwell the perfect and just riposte to the “one-eyed pacifism of the English”.
Kerr hints that there may be one further reason why Orwell’s anti-imperialism might have been less than outright: he feared what might come after empire. The spirit of nationalism was only too clamorously abroad, not least among the subject populations of the European empires. Orwell hated and feared nationalism. He was particularly concerned about the fate of minorities in national states. In the year before Burma gained its independence, he worried about what would become of the Karen, the Kachin, the Shan, not to mention the numerous Indians, in an independent Burma (he did not mention the Rohingya). He quoted a Karen remarking to him, “’I hope the British will stay in Burma for two hundred years’. Why? ‘Because we do not wish to be ruled by Burmese'”. “The fact is,” he continues, “that the question of minorities is literally insoluble so long as nationalism remains a real force.” Orwell once admitted that his political predictions were often wrong. Here he seems to have been spot-on. intellectual and methodical, Orwell and Empire is a good guide to his complex and not always consistent imperial attitudes – though whether Burma was the crystallizing and compelling experience in forming them remains tantalizingly unclear, both in Orwell’s writing and in Douglas Kerr’s book.
Krishan Kumar is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is Empires: A historical and political sociology2021
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