Friday, 22 January 2016

Huysmans in Damascus (Post-Colonial Reflections)

Jan Baptiste Huysmans - 
Self-portrait of the artist in Damascus

Sitting in a palm-leaf café on the foreshore of the Arabian Sea in southern Goa, the author had a fascinating conversation recently with a native born Goan man. The upshot of it was that regardless of what one might read or hear otherwise, the people of Goa never wanted to be annexed into modern India and were instead eager to remain under the administration of the Portugese. “The Portugese were great,” he said. “Whereas the Indians are corrupt.” 

“But,” the author objected, “weren’t the Portugese quite brutal as rulers?” 

“There were phases, of course,” he said, “but centuries ago. No, no. They were very good to us.”

He then described the Indian annexation of Goa in 1961 as a hostile takeover and compared the situation of the Goans to that of the people of Hong Kong wanting to remain under the British. He shrugged his shoulders. “But the Portugese were no longer in a situation to do anything about it.”

Making a more general point, he said that “people everywhere” liked their colonial rulers, especially the poor, vulnerable and the downtrodden who generally fared much worse under independence. “It’s true in India too,” he said. “Ask the widows and the untouchables.” After independence, he said, corruption ran rampant and is now a permanent state of affairs.

It is a narrative that one can hear in many places in the Third World but which runs exactly counter to the conventional wisdom of the progressive class in the First. Certainly, this author has heard versions of it before – in Indonesia, Malaysia and indeed in India. He was once sitting in a temple in Bangalore, for example, and had a conversation with a young Brahman who cheerfully related how his grandmother just loved the British. “They brought law and order… and tinned food!” he smiled, relating his grandmother’s enthusiasm. But didn’t the Indian masses rally behind Gandhi and Co. clammering for the British to leave? In Bangalore railway station there is a large post-colonial mural of “Freedom Fighters” that lists with gory glee how many British each national hero had killed. “No, no,” he said. “They represented a certain class of financiers who wanted the British gone.” Moreover, he explained – a point also reiterated by the gentleman from Goa in some rather colorful language – they (Gandhi and Co.) stirred up the Muslims, offering promises of Sharia Law and the like, to advance their anti-colonialist cause – a strategy of folly that came back to bite them at Partition and has since created an ever-present monster, an appalling outcome.

Regardless of the particular case, whether Goa, India, Hong Kong or elsewhere, it is always instructive and expansive to encounter narratives and viewpoints concerning the colonial past different to those approved in progressive orthodoxy. In his many years in academia the present author was immersed in an intellectual environment where it was utterly axiomatic – beyond any question whatsoever, beyond the slightest hint of a suggestion - that colonialism and imperalism were, and are, unmitigated evils, and that the European colonialism that shaped the modern world (including the settlement of New South Wales) was a series of crimes that count among the most heinous in the whole of human history. In the new nation states of the post-colonial era one can find this same demonology, of course – especially among educated Leftist elites (who are pretty much the same everywhere) - but in quiet conversations with ordinary people on the street you can also find very different, more honest accounts. 

The state of the world, in any case, speaks volumes against the conventional story. It is plainly, manifestly untrue – glaringly, obviously untrue - that the colonial period was as bad as the period that has followed. In many instances (anyone care to holiday in Zimbabwe these days?) the post-colonial era of squabbling strife-torn corrupt petty nation states ravaged by rogues and dictators has been utterly catastrophic, and the progressive guilt narrative that blames this fact upon the colonial powers – generations after they had gone home – is stretching nonsense to its limits.

The present author cannot help but muse on these matters whenever he casts a mournful eye on newspapers and the obscene tragedy that is the Middle East. Can anyone who has the slightest intellectual objectivity claim that this is better than what prevailed in the colonial era, whether the colonialists were the British, the French or the Ottomans? We have hundreds of detailed first-hand accounts of life in the Levant in the 18th and 19th centuries. Can anyone honestly propose that life then was worst than now? 

The author remembers the jolt it gave to his own view of these issues when he first read Marmaduke Pickthall’s Oriental Travels and Mr.Pickthall’s descriptions of the beautiful and paradisiacal Orient he encountered in the Levant in the late 1800s. More recently the author has been reading the journals of Jan Baptiste Huysman, the Belgian painter, who travelled through Syria in that same era. And yet, for progressives, these ‘Orientalists’ were merely apologists for evil Empires covering up the real narrative of the “people’s” struggle for a glorious era of self-determination. Well, that glorious era has come. We are living in it. 

Once again, the progressive narrative answers by blaming the post-colonial shambles of most of these ugly little nation states upon “neo-colonialist interference” or the like. There is no gainsaying the fact that Arab modernity has been a comprehensive disaster. This is to say nothing of Africa. The failure to take responsibility for their own affairs and a destructive indulgence in victim narratives is a disease that plagues such countries the world over. 

* * * 

Against the horrific scenes the world has seen in Syria in recent years, at the head of this page is a painting by Jan Baptiste Huysmans that depicts his arrival in Damascus in the early 1860s - just to remind us of the world we destroyed in order to be rid of the evils of colonialism. And below are several more paintings by Monseiur Huysmans - an astute, sensitive and sympathetic obsever of fabrics and architecture and people and customs and manners - made during his sojourn in Syria. 

The Interlude

The Champagne Drinkers

A Private Meeting

The Presentation of the Bride


Harper McAlpine Black

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