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Book Review November 25, 2003
Nostalgia for the Whip-Hand
By John Dolan Browse author Email
"The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands", by Aidan Hartley, New York, 2003

"The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands", by Aidan Hartley, New York, 2003

You have to hand it to the Tories. If you don't, they'll take it from you.

The first thing you notice about Aidan Hartley's memoir, The Zanzibar Chest, is the skill with which Hartley moves from stories of his ancestors' colonial exploits to episodes in his own pinball trajectory through contemporary African war zones. It's not easy to switch centuries and keep the reader with you, and Hartley does it well.

The second thing you notice is that Hartley barely bothers to disguise his Tory nostalgia for Britain's Imperial past. It irks him that he can only observe and describe Africa's many wars, when his fathers for generations past played such an enthusiastic role in starting, stoking and stifling the conflicts of their eras.

There is only the slightest vestige of guilt over his family's participation in the rape of the Tropics here. Actually, I can be much more specific: there is exactly one paragraph in which Hartley bows stiffly to the notion of post-colonial guilt. (It's on page 71, if you're interested.)

This is strange. After all, other peoples have learned how to fake, if not feel, remorse for their sins. The Germans and French never stop flagellating themselves over their relatively brief spasms of conquest. Even the Americans hang their heads on cue when slavery or the Indian Wars come up. But for a Tory like Hartley, there is nothing but self-pity over his lost birthright, the power of life and death over half the world. It's dazzling, this utter lack of shame, And it's worked for them. Their ex-victims just love them. It's conclusive proof that the saying, "Never apologize, never explain" is absolutely right.

One result of Hartley's Empire-envy is sentimental worship of the father. Hartley is frank, at least, about his sense of awed inferiority before his dad, stating in the first sentence of the book that his father "...was the closest thing I knew to an immortal." His reasoning is simple and familiar: "What I admired about my father...and those like [him] is that they were men of action, where I was ever the observer."

Musing on the dead, glorious dad leads Hartley to ask the portentous question, "What is a man's legacy?" And that in turns leads back to the great past, when a few British men controlled most of the tropics.

If you're familiar with this strain of neo-Imperial Tory writing, you could guess that Hartley would use the term "tribe" to describe his forefathers. This "tribe" is a very handy word, allowing the colonizer to blur the distinction between himself and the peoples he conquered. Sure enough, a dozen pages into his story, Hartley drags out the "tribe" label when listing some of the far-flung battle-lines in which his family bravely slaughtered lesser breeds: "[We]were from a tribe absorbed by loyal duty, like my soldier forefather who, starving in the 1688-89 Catholic siege of Londonderry, held off eating his last tallow candle in order to use it to seal military dispatches. We were indigo planters along the Ganges at the time of the Indian Mutiny. We fled for our lives down the river, but sailed into ambush on the banks. In a hail of musket fire the women and children threw themselves into the flood because they preferred to drown than be captured by their 'inhuman enemies.'"

Hartley's deference to post-colonial sensibilities extends just far enough to place that last phrase, "inhuman enemies," in quotes. Everything else about the passage is unashamed settler rhetoric. He dramatizes the rare occasions when the natives got lucky and managed to kill a few of their occupiers. So for Hartley the only moment that matters is that in which great-granddad skipped his candle banger in favor of creating Protestant apartheid in Ulster -- not the innumerable British atrocities which preceded and followed it. In the same way, he dramatizes the one all-too-brief period in which the Indians, enraged beyond endurance, turned on their oppressors.

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