Burmese Days Essay, Research Paper
Throughout the course of history, the acquisition and retention of both power and wealth
have been the greatest priorities of mankind, that which has been surpassed by no other.
However unwarranted or immoral it may seem, the power of the greatest nations of the
world has always been drawn from the rape, pillage, and plunder of foreign lands deemed
to be weaker and thus obsolete. Without the procurement of the wealth of others, some
of history?s greatest nations would have ceased to exist. Every nation which exists today
was built upon the blood and sweat of those conquered. To those who wish to retain
their wealth and power, the use of murder and injustice are of no consequence. It is a
simple yet horrifying fact that there are those who simply love power and who will go to
any lengths to assert it and to continue asserting it. The Egyptians conquered the
Hebrews and forced them to build the pyramids of the pharaohs as slaves. The Romans
decimated Greece and their wealth and labor were assimilated to aid in the creation of
the Roman Empire. Throughout history, the same tale unfolds time and time again: a
great nation arises, and then an even greater one brings about the downfall of the first,
only to later fall itself, by an outside force or internally through the mutiny of its own
people or of the people it has oppressed. Thus, it is also evident that when one society
attempts to press its beliefs upon another, a certain amount of resentment is to be
expected from those being oppressed. When two societies meld together the outcome is
always the same: the oppressing society builds up a certain amount of racism and cultural
rejection against the oppressed, the oppressed society builds an equal amount of
rejections towards the oppressors, and ultimately the oppressed build up resentment and
rejection towards their own people as they are forced to take sides. It appears that no
nation has ever been excluded from this trend, least of all Great Britain.
Over a period of hundreds of years, England was able to slowly, yet forcefully,
take complete control of Scotland, Ireland, and Upper Wails, ultimately forming Great
Britain. Over the following centuries, the British Empire was spread the world over,
inhabiting portions of such rustic, untamed lands as North America, Central America,
South America, Europe, Australia, and small parts of Asia, including India.
The British presence in India began in the times of Elizabeth I in the sixteenth
century with a few trading centers at Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. As the years
progressed however, India became a much more important fixture in the British Empire.
As the nineteenth century drew forward towards the twentieth century, India became the
jewel of the British Empire, which had dwindled to a fraction of its former size and
power. During the mid-eighteenth century, the French decided to challenge the
pre-eminence of the British East India Company, and incited some of the states of the
Mogul Empire to attack the British. At this time, India was the place where many of the
second sons of titled families went as Army officers and officials to make their fortunes.
One such officer was a man by the name of George Orwell.
George Orwell began his career as a member of the Burmese Imperial Police in
1922 and later went on to become one of the most renowned English authors of all time.
During his time as an Imperial Police Officer in India, Orwell became saturated with the
country?s history and customs. It is indeed no wonder that when Orwell returned to
England in 1927 he began work on his first novel, Burmese Days. Published in 1934,
Burmese Days has been characterized by Edmund Wilson as ?certainly one of the few
first-hand and really excellent pieces of fiction that have been written about India since
Kipling… The author, who was born in Bengal and served in the Burmese police, is
saturated with his subject… Distinguished as a work of literature.? Although not quite so
famous as some of Orwell?s other novels, such as 1984 and Animal Farm, Burmese Days
is an instant classic written by a truly gifted author whom is an authority on the subject.
The novel presents a bitter and satirical picture of the white man?s rule in Upper Burma.
One thread of the story is a corrupt native politician?s attempt to win membership in the
white man?s club, and the other is an Englishman?s courtship of Elizabeth, a girl from
England. Although satirical, many of the events which take place in the novel are drawn
from Orwell?s personal experiences while stationed in India and may be taken as a matter
of historical fact.
At the beginning of British rein in India, the British were more or less welcome in
their newly acquired land. However, by the time Orwell began his service in the Imperial
Police in 1922, the relations between the British and the Indians had dwindled to a mere
shadow of its former self. Relations had been steady until the Mutiny of 1857, in which
the Hindus and Moslems drew up against the British in a bloody, one-year battle. The
deepest causes of the Mutiny were resentment over the Westernization of India and fear
that native customs, religions, and social structures would be lost. The Indians felt that
over the years the British had begun to become more of an oppressive force than a
beneficial one. The Indians were outraged at some of the events which had occurred
during the centuries of British stay. Amhed Ali, a prominent Indian author, put the views
of the Indians well in his novel Twilight in Deli when he was found to say,
?Yesterday, we were the owners of horses and elephants, slaves and territories.
But they [the British] usurped our throne, banished the king, killed hundreds of
princes before unfortunate eyes which could not even go blind, drank their blood,
and we could do nothing. The city was dyed red with the blood of these princes
and nobles, the poor and rich alike, who had happened to be Mussalmans. When
the Mughal kings used to give out rupees and gold mohurs were showered by the
handfuls. What could these good-as-dead Farangis give? Dust and stones! May
they be destroyed for what they have done to the Hindustan. May God?s scourge
fall on them all? (Ali 102).
This is a depiction of the British coup of the Hindustan, occurring shortly before the
Mutiny of 1857. Although the rebellion was subdued, the stigma of the incident
remained. A certain animosity had formed, not only between the Indians and the British,
but between the British and the Indians, for the British felt betrayed as well. Thus began
the breach in society between the British and the Indians that would ultimately lead to
years of turmoil, murder, and ultimately the cessation of the British presence in India.
The racism and cultural rejection of a particular society between the British and
the Indians had been apparent even before the Mutiny of 1857, stemming primarily from
the feelings of superiority found from one society finding cultural domination over
another. The occurrence of the Mutiny further caused the British to pursue their role as
?Big Brother? over the Indians. At the time, the British actually seemed to believe that
their presence in India was not intended for financial gain but more for a cultural
uplifting of the ?primitive? Indian people. The British view upon the Indians was that
they should be pitied for their lack of intelligence and culture. The pity of the British
came not from any actual ?compassion? that they had for the well-being of the Indians
and their society, but more from an almost literal interpretation of Rudyard Kipling?s
anti-imperialistic poem ?The White Man?s Burden.? Kipling is able to accurately portray
the position and ideals of the British when he states,
?Take up the White Man?s burden,/ And reap his old reward–/ The blame of
those ye better/ The hate of those ye guard–/ Take up the White Man?s burden–/
In patience to abide,/ To veil the threat of terror/ And check the show of pride;/
By open speech and simple,/ An hundred times made plain,/ To seek another?s
profit/ And work another?s gain? (Kipling).
As Kipling states, by taking up the ?White Man?s burden? the British were able to
disguise their rape and pillage of a foreign land as ?good intentions.? However, these
actions and ideals did nothing more than cause the British to be of the opinion that the
Indians were even more inferior than they had formerly believed. Thus they regarded the
Indians almost the way a parent regards a child: one to be watched over and disciplined,
but whose opinions deserve no real merit due to a lack of intelligence and experience.
The British feelings of cultural superiority also caused an air of not only
dominance but racism towards the Indians on the part of the British. The British began to
eventually regard the Indians as less than human, often giving them orders and forcing
them to perform the most hazardous and inane work that the British were too
sophisticated to undertake. In George Orwell?s Burmese Days the Indians are plagued
with stereotypes and are never fully allowed to enter into a society established in their
own country by men from a native land. When it is suggested by a wealthy European
character named Flory that a native of high stature be allowed to enter into their club,
Ellis, another wealthy European, summarizes the basic attitude of all of the Europeans
towards the natives by stating,
?You oily swine! You Nigger?s Nancy Boy! You crawling, sneaking, bloody
bastard!… Look at him, look at him! Letting us all down for the sake of a pot-
bellied nigger! After all we?ve said to him! When we?ve only got to hang
together and we can keep the stink of garlic out of this club forever. My God,
wouldn?t it make you spew your guts up…?? (Orwell 235).
Through his ignorant use of racist remarks and stereotypes, Ellis expresses the common
British belief that the white-men are superior to the natives and that the natives are not
even good enough to associate with their ?saviors.? Also found in the novel are
examples of how the Indians were often used by the British as scapegoats whenever a
situation of blame or punishment arose. In one part of the novel, a British officer of
relative respect is murdered by an unknown party. Rather than conduct an actual
investigation to find out who the real killer is, several Indians are picked out and
immediately charged with the crime. The chief British officer, General McGregor, is
found to say to his fellow British officers, ?These may not be the natives who murdered
the man, but they?ll do… We need a nigger, any nigger, and these are just as good as any.
They will most definitely be found guilty and executed for the crime? (Orwell 242). The
fact of the injustice is terrible, but the ease with which such orders were commanded is
even more so. The fact is that the British had segregated the Indian to such a point that it
no longer seemed immoral to them to perform seditious acts which they would not have
dared to perform against their own people. For years the Indian people were regarded
merely as those who had been conquered, and it was just a matter of time before they
would begin to form a cultural rejection of their own.
The racism and cultural rejection of a particular society between the Indians and
the British became widely apparent briefly after the crushing of the Mutiny of 1857.
Although the Indians had been relatively passive towards the British before this time,
after the mutiny they became mistrustful of a people they had once regarded as their
friends and protectors. The opinions of the Indians towards the British had dropped from
those of high regard to those of mockery and disdain. The Indians began to more closely
watch the actions of the British, whereas earlier they had accepted British actions solely
as a matter of fact and necessity. As time wore on however, the Indians began to
challenge even the most minute of the British actions. In George Orwell?s novel The
Orwell Reader, a non-fiction novel about Orwell?s experiences while serving in the
Imperial Police, Orwell is found to say,
?One day while serving in the Imperial Police an Indian-native was trampled by
an elephant which had gone wild. I stood with my rifle in my hands and
thousands of natives watching me. I was afraid that if I did not kill the elephant
my superiors would become angry, but I also feared that shooting the elephant
might cause the natives to mock me or stampede me in a rage over killing the
elephant of a damn coolie (native). In the end I killed the damn thing, and the
owner was furious at me for it, but then again I was in my legal right and he was
just a coolie. It frightened me nevertheless, because I knew that if the natives had
become angry and forced a stampede, there was nothing I would have been able
to do? (Orwell 9).
Such fears had formerly been unheard of on the part of the British, but the opinions and
ideals of both sides had changed in a short period of time. Orwell?s fears of mockery
represent the fears of the Imperialists of a loss of control. While the British could control
the economics and politics of their colonies, they could not control the mockery and
disdain of the Indians. Where once the British had been hailed by many as gods and
saviors they were now spit upon and made the targets of stones and mud. The natives
became more and more aware that they were no represented fairly in the British courts
and began to take matters of law into their own hands. It was common for a group of
thousands of rioting Indians to form a squad to bring about their own form of justice. An
example of this may be found in Orwell?s Burmese Days when the aforementioned Ellis
strikes a native boy in the eyes hard enough to blind him. Knowing that they cannot find
justice in the British courts, a group of thousands of natives form outside Ellis?s house
and the leader of the riot states,
?Mr. Flory! Ah, Mr. Flory… Please, return yourself to the building… We have no
problem with you. You are a good man and we do not wish to harm you.
However, we do require that you deliver Ellit (Indian mispronunciation for the
name Ellis) to us. He has struck one of the boys in the face and blinded him. You
had better be quick, min gyi (sir). We know that there is no justice for us here in
the courts, so we must punish Ellit ourselves? (Orwell 247).
Courtney T. Wemyss, author of the novel George Orwell, helps to further express this
idea when she says, ?In India, justice was one of the ?essential attributes of handing
down humanity,? and yet it was consistently ignored? (Wemyss 146). The disdain and
mistrust of the Indians towards the British was indeed great, but it could in no way rival
the disdain of the Indians towards their own people.
The racism and cultural rejection of the Indians towards their own people began
primarily at the beginning of the twentieth century. At this time, the relations between
the British and the Indians were worse than they had ever been during the history of
British rule in India. It had become undeniably clear that the British were no longer
welcome in India by many of the Indians, however there were some who still looked
upon the British as friends, causing a huge rift in the Indian society. Fighting occurred
amongst the Indians as they were forced to choose sides. Although the former tyranny of
British rule had been made clear to most of the Indians, a large portion of the population
still chose to side with the British. The reasons for this are expressed well in Orwell?s
Throughout the novel many of the Indians go about their lives attempting to
impress and appease the British, even at a time when society is split on what should be
done with the British. This is so because these Indians have been brought up under the
influence of their British oppressors and have been made to believe that a person of white
skin is superior to one of dark skin. In almost all situations these Indians were to believe
the British to be correct in their beliefs and were willing to sacrifice even their own pride
to be praised. Dr. Veraswami, a native doctor and man of high intelligence and stature,
puts the subservience of the natives into perspective when Flory attempts to argue that
the Europeans are only in India to rape and pillage the land. Dr. Veraswami argues in
favor of the position of the Europeans, stating,
?My friend, it is pathetic to me to hear you talk so. It is truly pathetic… You
are forgetting the Oriental character. How is it possible to have developed us,
with our apathy and superstition? At least you have brought to us law and
order… Consider that there are also other achievements of your countrymen.
They constructed roads, they irrigate deserts, they conquer famines, they
build schools, they set up hospitals, they combat plague, cholera, leprosy,
smallpox, venereal disease… Your people are truly the better… Behold the
degeneracy of the East without the Europeans!? (Orwell 42).
Dr. Veraswami is so disillusioned that he actually believes that his people owe a debt to
their oppressors and wishes to stay loyal to the British in hopes that he will be rewarded.
Many of the other Indians behave in much the same way, always going out of their way
to make the British feel welcome and share with them what little they have. In extreme
examples the Indians even believe the British to be something more than men. Such is
the case of Mo?Sla, Flory?s servant, who not only devotes his life to caring for his master
but also refers to Flory as ?The God.?
For as common as it was for the Indians to continue their subservience towards
the British, it was even more common for them to act out against not only the British but
those who sided with the British. India was in a state of complete uproar and turmoil. It
appeared that there was not a time in which some people were not fighting another. As
battles continued between the British and the Indians, great leaders began to arise.