Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten review

Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten

Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten
Pages: ‘Lost White Tribes’ seem to have two different subtitles, depending on the edition. One says: “The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia, and Guadeloupe” and the other “Journeys Among the Forgotten”.

The former subtitle brings to mind dilapidated mansions, dusty heirlooms, and old people clinging onto the colonial residues with their wrinkled hands. As far as the first story goes, this image seems to be accurate - the Dutch Burghers living in Sri Lanka, reminiscing over the good old days. If they squint their eyes they can just about imagine they are still in Ceylon, ruling the island with benevolence, Dutch and proud, even though the only thing they can still say in Dutch is Het Lieve Vaderland – the rest of the anthem had to be replaced with its English version. They would say things like:
"Life was good in those days. There was none of this mad civil war and everyone knew their proper place; there was work for all, and we went on picnics to the seaside."

Nonetheless, the heroes of all the following chapters could hardly be described as privileged at any point of their history. They are usually wretched souls, stuck in some cul-de-sac of history and forgotten by just about everybody. Have you heard of German peasants and poor craftsmen who thought they were going to America in search of a better life but ended up in Jamaica as quasi-slaves? Some of them are still there. Or the immigrants from the American South after the end of the Civil War, who went so far southwards they ended up in Brazil, where they still talk about the damned Yankees.

There are Poles in Haiti, who arrived there with Bonaparte but the rumour has it they rebelled and joined the slave revolt. You can find a sign of that in the first Haitian Constitution which banned the whites from owning land and stripped them of other rights, but excluded Poles from those restrictions. The descendants of those Poles live in a small, poor village of Cazales, where children with blue eyes and blond hair are born in every generation.

The Basters in Namibia are like the Boers of South Africa, only without the putrid smell of apartheid. But who would remember that?

Possibly the most interesting is the last chapter about Blancs Matignon in Guadeloupe, a weird French tribe who one day up and went into the jungle where they settled, happily cutting off contact with the rest of the population of the island. With their heads full of apocryphal tales of their aristocratic and even royal origins they had to resort to incest to keep their blood pure. This group out of all described seemed to have the lightest grip on reality and was also the one most convinced of their elevated status, which was hard to see considering that they were poorer than the rest of the population of Guadeloupe. Yet, they still lived in their little racist fantasy land.

Orizio leads us through those forgotten worlds in a rather chaotic manner, which irritated me a little because I occasionally couldn’t quite organise all the facts in my head in a coherent manner. This whimsical way of telling a story would have probably worked better with a subject matter that was more familiar to an average reader. Not so with very obscure episodes of the world history. Also, I can’t help but think he might have spun the story for a better dramatic effect. I found a blog written by Polish doctors who went to Haiti around fifteen years after Orizio on some sort of Doctors without Borders program and decided to visit Casales. They found a fairly modern and well-organised little village, rather than a picture of despair painted by Orizio. Of course, it could be that the village benefited from the PR and leaped forward.

Orizio's writing is generally skilled but he does channel romance novel authors when he constantly tells us his protagonists have eyes blue like the Atlantic/Mediterranean/the sky. Yes, I get it. They are white and they live in Africa/Sri Lanka/Jamaica, etc. But this droning on about blue eyes smacks of a borderline fetish.

Also, I felt that Orizio made his attitude towards his subjects a little too clear. I’d rather if he strived for objectivity. After all, he could trust the reader to pass a correct judgement on a person who says:
"I have nothing against the black,' Constance will protest with an ever-so-lightly supercilious expression on her face. 'They're decent people, as a rule. We grew up together, so what can you expect. But we're white, we're different from them. I, for example, am in the process of selling the land on which my house stands. But I won't sell it to a black. I couldn't live cheek by jowl with black people. They might be heathen. We think differently. I know that the old times are dead and gone, but - forgive me - that's what I'm used to. No blacks ever entered my house, even if they were richer than us, while I've always had to earn my living dressmaking or cooking or working in a factory.'"

ISBN: Over three hundred years ago the first European colonialists set foot in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean to found permanent outposts of the great empires. This epic migration continued until after World War II when these tropical outposts became independent black nations, and the white colonials were forced, or chose, to return home. Some of these colonial descendants, however, had become outcasts in the poorest stratas of the society of which they were now a part. Ignored by both the former slaves and the modern privileged white immigrants, and unable to afford the long journey home, they still hold out today, hiding in remote valleys and hills, 'lost white tribes' living in poverty with the proud myth of their colonial ancestors. Forced to marry within the tribe to retain their fair-skinned 'purity' they are torn between the memory of past privileges and the present need to integrate into the surrounding society.The tribes investigated in this book share much besides the colour of their skin: all are decreasing in number, many are on the verge of extinction, fighting to survive in countries that alienate them because of the colour of their skin. Riccardo Orizio investigates: the Blancs Matignon of Guadeloupe; the Burghers of Sri Lanka; the Poles of Haiti; the Basters of Namibia; the Germans of Seaford Town, Jamaica; the Confederados of Brazil.
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I should warn readers at the outset that the title of this book is probably the most interesting thing about it. The idea that there might be such as a lost white tribe subtly subverts our sense of the natural order of things. As provocative notions go, it offers the promise of a good read, and it certainly persuaded me to go tagging along with Orizio, an Italian journalist who is now a senior editor at CNN, as he travels to exotic climes to rediscover the descendents of white people abandoned like flotsam on the beach by the great ebb tide of European colonialism.

Among them, we meet descendents of the Dutch East India Company in their crumbling mansions in Sri Lanka. They made their peace with the British when that country seized control of the island but were not so lucky when it reverted to the native Sinhalese, who wanted nothing to do with any white presence on their island, however far back it dated and however highly it regarded itself.

Then there are the Germans whose ancestors were tricked into emigrating to Jamaica when slavery ended and skilled workers were needed to work the sugarcane fields; the impoverished, egregiously inbred Frenchmen in Guadaloupe who trace their ancestry back to the pre-Revolution French aristocracy; the tiny clutch of Poles deep in the mountains of Haiti, descendents of mercenaries brought to help crush that country's struggle for independence but spared by the victorious leaders of the slave revolt from the otherwise merciless slaughter of whites -- because Poland, too, was a country struggling for freedom.

Less hapless, perhaps, but no more successful are the two remaining groups. One is made up of descendents of Southerners who migrated to Brazil at the invitation of that country's emperor after the Civil War in hopes of reestablishing the Confederacy not only south of the Mason-Dixon Line but south of the equator as well. The other is a group of Dutch settlers in South Africa who kept heading north into the Transvaal in search of a place where they could found their own nation, only to discover that history had the habit of catching up with them and spoiling their plans at the last minute.

"Too poor to leave; too proud to assimilate" might be the motto for all of these groups, certainly at this point in time, and one wonders if Orizio expected to keep uncovering this dismal truth over and over again. Each of these enclaves, however otherwise unique, proves to be similarly pathetic and energetically offputting, clinging fiercely to racist notions about themselves and fantasies about their importance in the natural scheme of things, while waiting for rescue -- by the Pope, the United Nations, the governments of their former homeland -- from a life of misery that is pretty much of their own making.

In fact, a careful reading of these pages soon reveals that anyone born into one of these communities who possessed any gumption and native intelligence left for another life somewhere else as soon as possible. This means that natural selection has left behind a bunch of -- how can one say this politely? -- incurably self-delusionary racists, who blame everybody for their troubles but themselves. The most interesting person in the book is one of the Blancs Matignon in Guadaloupe who found in the Jehovah's Witnesses a belief system powerful enough to replace the illusions he grew up believing and so was able to marry a black woman and raise a family of very healthy, normal-seeming children. It is one of the rare times in the book when you can feel the presence of happiness, even laughter.

Lost, yes, but least of all in the way that Orizio means; we haven't lost them or they us — they've just somehow lost themselves, and that from looking in all the wrong places. What kept me reading the book is that these forays take us into parts of the world where few travel writers ever venture -- down the backroads of nowhere to visit no place at all. For example, the Confederados do Campo (and what an unappealing lot they are) live in a part of Brazil that is treated by the Brazilians themselves as if it doesn't exist.

[T]he territory that wavered before us seemed monotonous and inaccessible. This is what Brazilians refer to, with bored indifference, as the Interior Paulista. The term has come to indicate an attitude as much as a geographical location, because although the state of São Paulo has great natural diversity -- from mountains to plains, alpine firs to banana palms -- it is as if, beyond the skyscrapers of São Paulo's avenidas, beyond the illusion of this poor man's Manhattan, lay only a dreary wasteland, its towns and cities unworthy of being identified by name and hence anonymous. And they say that for a Brazilian anonymity is worse than prison.

But these places are far from anonymous to those who live there, however resigned they may be -- even embarrassed about -- that fact, and for the attentive visitor there is much to surprise, inform, and even delight. In Lost White Tribes, an island the size of Haiti or Guadaloupe is transformed into huge and an amazingly complicated universe where each valley and hill possesses its own fiercely guarded story. The book left me reeling from a newfound awareness of the depths of my ignorance about the world. From that perspective at least, what Riccardo Orizio has revealed is how much each of us unwittingly belongs to our own lost tribe.

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