Tag Archives: colonialism

Review published in Social Identities academic journal

20 Apr

My review of The Dasmariñases, Early Governors of the Spanish Philippines by the historian John Newsome Crossley is now available here.

The Siege of Somerstown Part III

5 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare

After leading an infantry charge against the recalcitrant subjects of the Empire’s outer reach – or Somerstown to use the native designation – General Sir Eugene Nicks finds himself detained by the infamous headman known only as Kev. To survive he must depend on his wits, his courage and his enormous regulation moustache. Read it here.

The Siege of Somerstown Part II

3 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare.

Having lost his master spy to assassination by scratch card, General Sir Eugene Nicks must lead the charge against the uppity indigenes of the savage and mysterious casbah known in the local lingo as Somerstown. Read it here.

The Siege of Somerstown Part I

1 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare

Sir Eugene Nicks, QC, KBE is a modest man who doesn’t normally like to discuss his highly distinguished and widely decorated military career. But as a regular columnist for Star & Crescent he is duty-bound to share his recent experiences and one of these was his appointment by the Civic-Colonial Governess to lead a detachment of troops to repress a nationalist uprising in Portsmouth’s own ‘heart of darkness’.

Read it here.

Cote d’Ivoire Country Profile (originally published in New Internationalist)

26 Sep

20150807_163225_resized

At certain times of the day in Cocody, Abidjan’s smart and leafy quarter of foreign embassies and chic eateries, Westerners – most of them French – outnumber Ivorians. The eateries serve French food, the billboards advertise French fashions and French TV blares out from opulent homes. Visiting Côte d’Ivoire today, it’s tempting to feel that, despite the upheavals of the past 50 years, the country has come full circle to the moment of its independence from France in 1960. The current president, Alassane Ouattara, is arguably emulating Côte d’Ivoire’s first ruler, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, by being France’s – and by extension the West’s – ‘man in Africa’.

In the 1960s, Houphouët sold off Côte d’Ivoire’s lucrative cocoa industry (then as now accounting for a third of the world’s yield) to foreign corporations who were allowed to retain 90 per cent of their profits. The same two US companies – ADM and Cargill – still dominate Ivorian cocoa today and Ouattara has been busy awarding vast construction tenders to French firms such as Bouyges. As with the Houphouët era, the result has been ‘growth without development’: the business elite are getting richer from new hotels, highways and other amenities, while the living standards of the poor have barely risen.

Although Ouattara is widely praised for ending a decade of horrific civil war, marginalized regional and ethnic groups continue to hold grievances about the legitimacy of his regime and the imperialistic behaviour of the French during the conflict. The first civil war broke out in 2002 against the backdrop of rapid economic decline that had begun with the collapse in global cocoa and coffee prices in the late 1970s. Elected president in 2000, the nationalist Laurent Gbagbo scapegoated immigrants who, during the Houphouët boom years, had moved from the north of the country (as well as from neighbouring nations such as Mali and Burkina Faso) to work in the plantations of the south. But Gbagbo’s real crime – in the eyes of the West at least – was to challenge French economic exploitation of Côte d’Ivoire. Gbagbo cancelled a major contract with SAUR, a French gas supplier that refused to pay taxes to the Ivorian exchequer, and handed the construction of a new bridge in Abidjan to the Chinese, who agreed to do the job for a quarter of the price demanded by the French.

France’s military assault on Côte d’Ivoire in 2004 used the same ‘humanitarian’ rhetoric as the UK and US had in their invasion of Iraq the previous year. And, as with the ‘coalition of the willing’, France’s true motives were strategic and economic. Its particular brand of ‘regime change’ resulted in the annihilation of the Ivorian Air Force and the shooting of between 20 and 57 unarmed protesters in Abidjan.

The 2010 elections contested by Gbagbo and Ouattara were blemished by fraud, intimidation and violence that led to the deaths of 3,000. Both candidates were implicated in the killing, but the French intervened on behalf of Ouattara, helped depose Gbagbo and sent him off to The Hague on war-crimes charges. His trial begins next year. To many Ivorians, victor’s justice has prevailed against a man who, while no angel himself, at least tried for a little more autonomy for his people.

While the Ivorian economy is growing at an almost Houphouët-era rate, 42 per cent of the population live below the national poverty line and Gbagbo loyalists in the east and southwest of the country continue to threaten the peace process. François, a young Ivorian first-time voter I met in Cocody, hopes that the election in October this year will ‘not cause these contradictions to explode’.

– See more at: http://newint.org/columns/country/2015/05/01/cote-divoire/#sthash.ksl8iHI3.dpuf

Mat Sellahs With Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

7 Mar

Mat Sallehs with Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

Francois Truffaut said ‘every film should say something about life and something about film.’ Since the 1930s and the golden age of B.S. Rajhans, Malaysian films have had much to say about Malaysian life. But what happens when Westerners get behind the camera? Have their portrayals of the country been positive, negative, fair-minded, inaccurate? How have such movies changed over the years?

One of the earliest offerings was Four Frightened People (1934) directed by Cecil B DeMille, Hollywood autocrat and master of the biblical epic. Four Americans wash up in the jungles of Borneo, having left their collective sense of shame on the boat. Cue plenty of close-up kisses and half-naked frolicking in waterfalls – about as racy as the movies could get back then. Four Frightened People taps into a long-held Western delusion that the East is just one big steamy, licentious free-for-all. As we’ll see later, this delusion persists today. Despite being set in Malaysia, Four Frightened People was in fact filmed in Hawaii and the native characters played by Japanese…

Film noir is a genre one usually associates with American cities, not rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. However, The Letter (1940) stars femme fatale Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the homicidal wife of a colonial administrator (Herbert Marshall) in Singapore. The opening montage – beautifully shot on location – is all cockatoos, coolies and rubber trickling from branches. Based on the play by W Somerset Maugham, The Letter climaxes with Marshall announcing his plan to buy a property in Sumatra. The problem is his wife has paid all their money to a blackmailer in possession of a letter that incriminates her…

In the 1950s and ‘60s, World War II became a favourite subject. Filmed in both Malaysia and Australia, A Town Like Alice (1956) was based on the bestselling Nevil Shute novel and starred Virginia McKenna and future Academy Award winner Peter Finch. Jean Paget (McKenna) is living and working in Kuala Lumpur when the Japanese invade. She survives the rest of the war thanks to her fluency in the Malay language and desire to engage with local ways. After the war is over, her ‘Malayophilia’ prompts her to return to the country to build a well for the orang asli.

The Camp on Blood Island (1958), made by British B-movie studio Hammer, has the politically incorrect strapline: ‘Jap War Crimes Exposed!’ That sort of sums it up really: allied POWs endure torture and humiliation in a prison camp in occupied British Malaya – not the greatest advertisement for the country! Although not a classic, The Camp on Blood Island’s graphic realism was very much ahead of its time.

Jumping ahead in time, the thriller Turtle Beach (1992) remains the most controversial Western flick to have engaged with local politics. Greta Scacchi plays a journalist investigating the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Pulau Bidong. Both the Malaysian government and elements of the Australian media lambasted the scene in which refugees are murdered by Malaysian policemen. While noting the talents of the lead actresses – Australian Greta Scacchi and Chinese-American Joan Chen – the critical reception was generally poor.

Entrapment (1999) is an altogether more light-hearted – and superficial – affair. A confused mixture of romantic comedy, Bond rip-off (apt then that Sean Connery stars) and crime caper, there is at least a gripping heist beneath the Petronas Towers and some stunning shots of attractions like KLCC, Bukit Jalil Station and the Malacca River. One wonders if Entrapment works better as a tourist information film.

Return to Paradise (1998) plays on the greatest fear of the hedonistic Western backpacker: getting busted for drugs. A suspenseful set-up is marred by poor research – the loose local women, gang violence and drinking culture make you wonder if writer Bruce Robinson has confused Malaysia with, well, somewhere else entirely. Robinson may well have brought his own interests into this script – he was, after all, responsible for the the cult British comedy Withnail & I (1986) which follows the (mis)fortunes of two alcoholic actors. Like other Western movies before it, Return to Paradise exoticises Malaysia as a sensuous land of easy thrills, yet when the protagonist (Joaquin Phoneix) falls foul of the law, we are presented with an authoritarian hell. Anyone who’s spent half an hour in Malaysia knows both conceptions are bunk!

Jungles of carnal abandon, mysterious plantations, brutal prison camps, island paradises – Western films have imagined Malaysia in many different ways over the last eighty years. But whereas Malaysian-made films have tended to say something about Malaysia, Western films about Malaysia have tended to say more about Western preoccupations.

First published in The Expat, October 2011