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Book Review November 25, 2003
Nostalgia for the Whip-Hand
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4
But his most worshipped ancestor fought against the Maori: "Between the Indian Mutiny and the Boer War, Britain fought twenty-nine small colonial wars...My family fought and perished in a great many of them. One warrior sums up all of them. He was great-great grandfather Colonel Surgeon William Temple, who fought against the Maoris in New Zealand. In 1863, during the Waikato War on North Island [sic], Temple won a Victoria Cross, the Empire's highest military decoration for courage. This was recognition for his bravery while tending his wounded comrades under a hail of intense fire from the ramparts of Rangiriri Pa, a fort of the tattooed Maori rebels."

Hartley's reasons for choosing this particular ancestor are clear. The role of surgeon puts his ancestor in sacrificial position, tending a poor wounded comrade before the fortifications of "tattooed Maori rebels." It never ceases to amaze me, the way anyone who opposes English-speaking armies is a "rebel." How did the Maori get to be "rebels" against British invaders? And what exactly do their tattoos have to do with it? And isn't it a bit disingenuous to cut directly to the fight without mentioning why the Maori were driven to rebellion to hold onto a small part of their country?

In fact, the Maori, like the Irish who were trying to take back "Londonderry," are not human beings for Hartley. He doesn't even bother to discover that it's "the North Island," not "North Island." let along worry how the "London" got into what was once simply "Derry."

And so it goes, across the centuries. The Boer War, one of the last and most unjust of Britain's land-grab wars, enters the Hartley family album via "great-grandfather Gerhadt [sic] L'Honneur Sanders, who was to fight in the Boer War siege of Ladysmith...."

Note Hartley's fondness for ancestors who endured "sieges" by "rebels." It's a classic way of casting invaders as victims. I had to go over the book again and again to find any description of British aggression, and when I did, it was this brief allusion to a war which interests Hartley only because it launched his employer, Reuters: "In 1867, a [Reuters] correspondent journeyed with General Napier on the expedition into the mountains of Abyssinia to defeat the [Ethiopian] Emperor Theodore and sack his fort with its priceless library at Magdala." When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, it was inhuman aggression. When General Napier sacked their cities, that was simply family history.

And the Hartleys did very well in the next phase of conquest: "[W]hen the colonial peoples had been conquered, we were the rulers, the civil servants, the collectors, the engineers, the planters." Such were the concrete advantages of what Hartley elsewhere calls " ancestors[']...selfless service to monarch and country."

To be specific, Hartley's parents gained from Britain's Africa conquests the ownership of a gigantic cattle ranch in Kenya. All was bliss for the settlers until the Mau-Mau "rebellion" started--another "rebellion" by people who were there first. The dispossessed Kikuyu started out just the way my ancestors did in Cavan: by hamstringing the Squire's cattle on good dark nights. Again, only the violence committed at this point in the Imperial narrative is dramatized, with "...a [Mau-Mau] gang chop[ping] their neighbor into little pieces while he was taking his bath."

If the sacredness of the bath is to be violated, what's left? The Hartleys had to "up sticks and move to Tangyanika." Yet there too, the pesky Africans get out of hand. Nyerere comes to power, announcing a policy which "...was less a creed than a way of justifying national theft and vandalism." In other words, they wanted their country back, so the Hartleys had to "up sticks" yet again.

It's their ranchouse in the Tanzanian highlands Hartley misses most. This too is a standby of Imperial rhetoric: buildings are mourned far more intensely than people. And so, little Aidan (named for the colony, but with a timely Celtic spelling) "...grew up feeling that I had been born too late to be part of our greatest adventure." It's difficult for him to feel at home among Africans, who, as he states in one of the book's most stunning understatements, "...associated us with an imperialist past they wanted to put behind them."

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