Friday, August 31, 2012

Across the Great Divide

Art Malik as Hari Kumar, Susan Wooldridge as Daphne Manners,
and Tim Pigott-Smith as Ronald Merrick
Granada TV, 1984
I have recently finished reading The Jewel in the Crown quartet of novels by Paul Scott, which was turned into a magnificent television series in the 1980s by Granada TV. The books are a powerful portrait of the Brits in India becoming ever more British even as their white-knuckled hold on the sub-continent is slowly weakened by war and inevitability.
The core story is set in 1942 in the fictional Indian city of Mayapore and involves a relationship between an English girl, Daphne, and an Anglo-Indian boy, Hari. Daphne is also courted by the local police inspector, Ronald Merrick, whose unassailable belief in the superiority of the white race runs like a toxic stream through the whole story. One evening he tries to warn Daphne about Hari and she gets indignant.
I said... I personally didn’t care what colour people were, and it was obviously only Hari’s colour, the fact he was an Indian that got people’s goat. Ronald said, “That’s the oldest trick in the game, to say colour doesn’t matter. It does matter. It’s basic. It matters like hell.” I started getting out of the car. He tried to stop me, and took my hand. He said, “I’ve put it badly. I can’t help it. The whole idea revolts me.”
This was a reminder to me of how long the fear of miscegenation continued in Western society. Obviously segregation continued in the US South until the 1960s, but I had imagined the British as having moved beyond that earlier. But while black GIs were being welcomed in Great Britain during the World War II, at the same time in India many Brits continued to treat Indians – even those who were their social and intellectual equals – as literally untouchable.

This fear of contact between the races was also at play in the Pacific theater during the war years if James Michener is to be believed. His stories were the basis for the musical South Pacific in which good old Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas loves the French settler Emile de Becque but rejects his marriage proposal because he’d had a relationship with a Polynesian woman. According to the beliefs with which she’d been raised, this had tainted him and had put him beyond the pale (as it were) as a potential husband. Rodgers and Hammerstein included in the musical a song called You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught that addressed this learned racism.

You've got to be taught
To be Afraid
Of people whose eyes
Are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught.
When the show was on tour in the Deep South in the early 1950s, some Georgia legislators reacted by introducing a censorship bill. One of them claimed that “a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”

Yet this was an entire century after Alexander Salmon, a white Englishman, fell in love with and married a pure-bred Tahitian woman without a qualm. It made me realize anew just how remarkable that marriage was in its era. Of course Alexander understood discrimination very well himself, having been raised a Jew in London in the years when Charles Dickens was writing the grotesque character of Fagin in Oliver Twist. And he had to take some abuse in Tahiti from visiting Brits like Captain Henry Byam Martin, commander of the HMS Grampus, who called Salmon “a low swindling bankrupt Jew.”
John Brander too was familiar with discrimination because of his illegitimate origins, yet both he and Salmon were both proud to be seen strolling arm in arm with their Polynesian wives not only in Papeete but even in Sydney, San Francisco, and Paris. There were many ways in which these men were remarkable, but this absence of what we would now call racism was one of the most striking. As Paul Scott showed so well in The Jewel in the Crown, even 100 years later the same could not be said of many of their fellow countrymen living in the far flung corners of the world. 

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