Attitudes of British Imperialists in Burma and the Burmese Response
The British began colonizing India and its surrounding countries during the early 1800’s and soon had several profitable colonies in the Eastern Hemisphere. The arrival of the British imperialists in the country had a profound effect on the native population. This interaction between dominators and dominated is perfectly illustrated In George Orwell’s Burmese Days. This novel highlights the imperial interactions in the country of Burma just to the east of India, which in the mid 1920’s was part of India. The British imperialists believed that they were better than the Burmese in every way and the Burmese would be nothing if they weren’t subservient to the English crown. This was the common imperialist view of the early 19th century. What Orwell points out in Burmese Days is that often the imperialists are no better than the natives, and the Burmese are not as helpless as they appear to be.
The imperialists in Burma made sure to live a life above their native subjects. They were referred to by the natives as Pukka Sahibs and lived the code: “keeping up our prestige, the firm hand (without the velvet glove), we white men must hang together, give them an inch and they’ll take an ell, and espirit de corps” (191). Imperialists made sure not to give the natives an inch by censoring press and eliminating free speech and due process (69,75). This oppression was purely on a racial basis; it was common that “when a man is black, suspicion is proof” (12). The imperialists in Burma took hold of the common justification of racism at this time based on Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. The natives were just an inferior species that were destined to fail and eventually die off. This intense oppression was fairly easy to implement for the imperialists because most of them had an intense hatred for the natives. Orwell highlights this racism through the character Ellis, who is by far the most racist of all of the British stationed in Burma. He frequently called the natives “niggers” because to him they were no better than African slaves, and he said that the British should “treat them like the dirt they are” (31). He even believed that the Burmese should not have a right to practice Christianity with him in church, which goes against basic Christian principles. This racism was ingrained in the British psyche seemingly from birth. The character Elizabeth is an example of this ingrained racism. Elizabeth moved to Burma from England after the passing of her parents (96) and embodied the typical British citizens mindset about colonization. She referred to the natives as “specimens” (123) and even likened them to Dutch dolls (87). To the British, the colonies were always to the benefit of the crown, and they looked at the natives often as a different species. The manifestation of British Imperial Power was the “European Club”, which was often in every Burmese village with British residents (17). In these clubs the British would attempt to recreate life in the mother country. They sat around, drank whiskey, debated and played tennis. But try as they might, it was never going to be exactly like the home country. Burma was a part of them whether they liked it or not, and they turned out to be just as savage as the Burmese.
Orwell utilized the main character, Mr. Flory to point out the flaws of the British imperialists. Flory came to Burma as a young man and soon was engulfed in the Burmese lifestyle. He was very friendly with the natives and even admired their simple lifestyle and culture. The British Empire, in Flory’s opinion, was weakening. He even joked with his friend Dr. Veraswami, a high-ranking native official in Burma, that the British Empire was an elderly women that was slowly dying (37), which implied that imperialism in general was dying during the early 1900’s. He despised the Pukka Sahib lifestyle and believed the imperialists were living a...
Bibliography: Orwell, George. Burmese Days. New York: Time, 1962. Print.
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