The Legacies of Empire

I am neither historian nor sociologist enough to comment definitively on the legacies of empire but it’s obvious even to the most superficially observant traveller that affection and resentment jostle uncomfortably for dominance in the relationship between former colony and former colonial power.

Around fifteen years ago I visited Zimbabwe. Even then it was an unhappy country, ruled by a man in whose mind the battle for independence still raged, even though the real war had been won many years earlier. The white population, resented, increasingly uncomfortable, ever less prosperous and ever more insecure, was dwindling as the black population gained possession, rightly or wrongly, by decree, of the country’s agricultural and industrial infrastructure. And yet…at the Leopard Rock Hotel, somewhere in the Eastern Highlands, an institution resembling an English country house hotel, I played squash, a British Public School game, with one of the country’s ambassadors, presumably a man dancing to Mugabe’s ideological tune. Affection for some of the habits of the colonial past and resentment at the same time, a damaging, impossible, hypocritical, confusing, psychological condition.

Malaysia is another former colony but a different case in point. It was the extravagance of the affection for the old ways that surprised me, not resentment (of which, I think, there is little). This advertisement, below, for a ‘British Boarding School’ caught my eye at the airport. It’s Harry Potter in the tropics, at least judging by the lower half of the picture.


Have a look at the Prince of Wales Island International Independent School website. It’s an uncritical anthem of anglophilia, and a paean of praise to a school system that throughout its illustrious career has been more often brutal and damaging than beneficial.

The fabric of the school certainly  looks impressive. Its architectural, as well as its educational values, are overtly colonial, though perhaps the building is actually more New England than England.


In its Welcome on the website the school claims ‘The school was designed, equipped and built to bring the very best of the British education system into an authentic Malaysian context.’ If that isn’t squaring the circle, then what it? Surely you can’t be both authentically Malaysian and British at the same time. As for ‘best of the British education system,’ it seems to be assumed that what they’re peddling must be a very good thing indeed.

On the topic of boarding, which is generally what made British boarding schools the awful places that they were, the school states, ‘We know that children who board become more self-sufficient and independent...’ Does anyone stop for a moment to consider if that is a good thing?

There’s another cringe-making sentence that reads: ‘The Principal makes new boarders promise to sound miserable when they ring home for the first time; some parents are disappointed that they are not missed as much as they would hope.‘ As well they might be.  When a child is not missing his or her parents, something has gone badly wrong.

Education is big business, and, properly regulated, I suppose there’s no harm in attracting private finance for the construction and operation of schools such as this one. This school, for 800 pupils, has been going only since 2010, and must have cost millions to build..

But it seems odd to me that admiration for the British boarding school tradition should be so blatant and so unqualified. It’s surely memories of colonialism that have inspired this wish of the local elite that their children should acquire the talents of ruthless leadership that their former masters possessed?

I went to British Boarding Schools myself between the ages of 7 and 18. I concur with much of what the POWIIS claims for the system, except that I don’t agree it’s good that children should learn independence too early, that they should be denied the comforts and affections of home, that they should become distant from their parents, and eventually so deracinated that they can pop up anywhere in the world and rule.

If the British Boarding School is now a thing to be admired, it certainly wasn’t always so. Although during my time the excessive brutalities of Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall were a thing of the past, unchecked paedophilia, bullying, whimsical corporal punishment, discomfort and atrocious food still prevailed. I wouldn’t do it to a dog!

It has been said that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ And vast populations within the Empire were subjugated by a handful of braying schoolboys. But I see neither of these claims as any kind of recommendation.


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