Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Sun Never Sets On The British Empire

The thing is, I don’t really care where I lay my head or how I get from point A to point Z, but while traveling I do care about how I fill my stomach. I think if you’re going to be a world traveler, you get a backpack, a good set of shoes, you walk all day seeing everything the place has to offer, and if they want to put flowers in your hair you say yes, and if they want you to undress and go inside you do it. Use your strong back and legs all day, this is the best way to see a country, but when that day is done, the second best way is to feed your stomach. This means shelling out for the best cuisine the culture has to offer, and I do.
This is what I learned in Darjeeling. The food is good, but almost as good, is watching British people eat and hang out, because they are hilarious. I’m not sure what it is about Brits, because the verdict is still out on… British couples that play cards or backgammon or cribbage together. On the one hand I think it is lame that a man and woman can think of nothing else to do together but shuffle through endless games of Gin Rummy and Go Fish, but on the other hand, they seem happy. Maybe it’s just British happy, which is another phrase for terribly miserable. I’m just not sure.
Now me, I never stop thinking about all the cool things I want to say to the woman I am with or more important, listen to all the cool things she has to say. That’s the best! Listening to the person you are in love with is incredible. Now others, maybe they prefer cards because it’s just more tolerable to sit in silence with someone than listen to them drone on.
Either way, I was surrounded by Brits in Darjeeling at the quaint Windamere Bed and Breakfast Hotel, and I’ll tell you what else I learned. Oh dear, I fear a history lesson forthcoming…
In 1612, the British made their first permanent inroad into India when they established a trading post in Gujarat. Later, the Virgin Queen herself, Lizzie granted a charter to a London Trading Company to go in there and kick butt. What was the kickback on that? Anyway, for the next 250 years, Britain dominated India in government by the dreaded East India Company, and posts were set up in Madras, 1640, Bombay, 1668, and Calcutta, 1690.
By the 19th century India was effectively under British control. To them India was mostly a place to rape and pillage for money. Ahh… sound familiar Shell and Exxon, you bastards? Any Indian culture came under the motto, “We don’t care what you believe as long as the heathens can make a good cup of tea.”
Check my facts, really. Please. You’ll see.
The British interest in trade and profit resulted in some amazing advances though, just enough to keep the honest. Things like an expansion of iron and coal mining, the development of tea, coffee, YUM!, and cotton growing, the construction of the sick and amazing Indian Railways Network, irrigation systems and civil services, which Brits excel at. The price for this was that altruism went out the window and it became all about the POUND. The Brits may have wiped out certain things, like sati, the custom of burning wives on husband’s funeral pyres, but for the most part they just worked the people to death in other ways. The Brits did establish English as the local language of administration, which is awesome today. I used to think that China was the coolest place in the world to visit, but now I get it. India is just as cool as China, just a thousand times dirtier, and they speak English.
During the latter part of the 19th century things stated to pave the way toward Indian independence. For example, democratic systems began to implement Indian locals into their high positions in their civil service, and were finally brought into the inner circle of politics. This was huge. I have seen this in a number of different situations in my life, from government, education, and international companies. It is a constant source of irritation to so many people who feel powerless to the big corporations, hint hint, America… I love you but… come on you greedy jerks… and allowing locals to step in paved the way for huge sweeping government and cultural changes.
In 1915, Mohatma (which actually means ‘great soul’ oh man, to seriously think that someday somebody would call you that, isn’t that amazing) Gandhi returned from South Africa, where he had been practicing as a lawyer standing up for the little guy. Only to return to India at the onset of terrible slaughter in Amritsar, where in 1919 a British army contingent opened fire on an unarmed crowd of Indians. Ghandhi became central to the Indian plight for freedom with his call for non-action, which greatly assisted in Britain eventually handing over power in India to the people. Tragically, a Hindu fanatic assassinated Ghandhi in 1948, just after independence.
Anyway, that was a lot to stomach and a lot to sit through for me as well. I learned a lot from hanging out with the Brits this weekend. But mainly, I learned to cut loose while they were keeping it under the collar. Half the time, while sampling the local grub beneath candle light in this picture perfect cottage, I wanted to stand up and scream, “We in India, …. ( I don’t want to finish that statement because my Mother reads this and … I don’t want my Mom thinking bad thoughts about me) But anyway… Here’s to Colonialism, and to the Sun Never Setting on the British Isle.


  1. You might like Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann it's a good book about the end of colonialism,Ghandi,Nehru and the Mountbattens.Interesting.

  2. Hey H!
    Sent you an email about my death valley trip with pics, as you requested. Looks like you're having a blast! So jealous!