White Woman's Burden

Take up the White Man's burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

from The White Man's Burden
-Rudyard Kipling

This poem, of which I have only reprinted the first verse, was written in 1899, a year after the USA took the Philippines from Spain and began the slaughter of Filipino people in order to bring the survivors a "perfect justice" as US General William Shafter put it at the time. Shafter thought that goal might require killing half the population. Kipling’s poem reflects the attitude of empire, whether of Victorian England, the USA, or any other empire that pretends to be doing good as they subjugate other nations and peoples to serve their own economic and strategic ends. It is the patronizing attitude that Europeans had a solemn duty to impart their "superior" culture to the wild heathens which occuped the rest of the planet - even if it killed them.

I have just started reading a rather amazing book of this period, published in 1907. It is about Fiji and other island nations, the author having been hired by Cunard Steamship Line to write travel brochures for South Pacific destinations as well as an investment prospectus for British entrepreneurs who might wish to invest and settle in Fiji. Those islands had been ruled by Britain since 1874, having been signed over to them by Ratu Sera Espenisa Cakobau, the King of Fiji, to avoid possible military action by the USA due to Fiji's default on debts to American businesses.

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Fiji Post Card from 1905 (courtesy Jane's Fiji Home Page)

A striking attribute of the author of the book I am reading is that she is, well, a "she". Beatrice Grimshaw was born in Ireland in 1870. She became a journalist in Dublin and then worked for a series of steamship companies. She traveled the South Pacific, wrote a lot of books, both non-fiction and novels, and lived twenty-seven of her years in New Guinea. She never married. The biographies I have found about here are mostly dry and factual and don't delve into her thoughts or personal life, which is a shame. What she did with her life is so interesting and unusual for a woman of that time (I think) that it would be fascinating to know more about what her motivations were.

The book, titled "Fiji and Its Possibilities", first appeared in England as "From Fiji to the Cannibal Islands", for in addition to Fiji, she also wrote about the New Hebrides Islands (now Vanuatu).

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Photo of Beatrice Grimshaw (1870 - 1953) from frontispiece of the book.

Her voyage to Fiji in 1904 was arranged by Union Steamship Line of New Zealand. Grimshaw spent a good deal of time in Fiji and visited Viti Levu, where her ship ported at the capital city, Suva. She took another ship to Labasa on Vanua Levu and spent six weeks exploring that island. I was delighted to see that she also visited Taveuni. You'll forgive me if I've peeked ahead a bit in the book. My copy is literally falling apart, which is to be expected from a book that is ninety-nine years old. I have put a plain cover over it to hold it together and just leaf through it at the dining table where I don't have to put undue stress on it. I'd like to get one in better shape, but they come rather dear on the used book market. An interesting aside - my copy is stamped on the copyright page with the seal of the Kansas State Library, Topeka, Kansas with the date July 30, 1908.

It promises to be interesting reading. The colonial attitude is a bit hard to take I'll admit. At times she is downright racist, such as this line which came after her description of an incident on Vanua Levu. She felt slighted by some Fijians who didn't stop to remove their headbands in respect as she passed: "A Fijian, at best, is only outwardly submissive to the white race. He is a craven at heart, and therefore easily kept down by the British rule; but loyalty to an employer is not one of his virtures." Whoa! Obviously both the lands and the people of acquired nations were there for sole purpose of serving the empire, of which she evidently felt she was a representative by birth. The white woman's burden I suppose.

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(click map for a larger more detailed one)

At the same time, I find it remarkable that a woman who grew up in Victorian England was so independent as a journalist and writer and so adventuresome as to travel to the other side of the globe and experience undeveloped countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea and run a plantation for several years. I am not sure whether the case is that she was a remarkable woman for the time, or, perhaps rather that the accomplishments of women are largely ignored by historians, so when I do read about one, I assume she was an aberration. Food for thought.

The history books we get in school - including many at university - are at the very least watered down, and more often than not entirely biased. Reading contemporaneous accounts of events is a good antidote.

Grimshaw also has a religious bent that is not lost on the reader. (I'm not knocking anyone's religion here, just the condescending attitude that a person of one faith might have for a person of a different one.) Though born into a protestant family, she converted to Catholicism at age 23, the act of which itself indicates a level of dedication regardless of the specific religions involved. She says that she found strength in the church where ever she went. That fits into the colonial mind set as well. As they say in Hawaii, the missionaries came to do good, and did very well. Not that money was the motivation of the missionaries - it certainly was not in Hawaii's case, but colonialism is a kind of package deal in which most of conquering people believe they are doing the new subjects a favor by blessing them with a better economic system, medicine, education, modernization, religion, "spreading democracy", etc. Whatever benefits, real or imagined, accrue to the conquered, the bottom line is that the empire profits in commerce and influence.

In future posts, I'll share some of Grimshaw's observations and experiences, along with some photo illustrations from the book and some of my own photos of the same areas as they appear today.


Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Thanks for the informative post. Yes, Beatrice and her like did explore the islands but didn't give much away about themselves except inadvertently revealing a few prejudices but most of all a kind of fascination with the new culture. I've read some of her writing and somewhere, I have photocopies of her take on Naduri and Labasa.
Another woman who wandered through Fiji was Constance Gordon-Cummings or some name like that. She illustrated her stories with fine drawings. In another book of the time - someone observed that she was a really tough old bird - or words to that effect. Single women having adventures - way to go!

FH2O said...

What an interesting story and thanks for digging this up!

Compared to beatrice we really lived sucn an unadventurous life. Looking forward to reading more from you on her.

Pandabonium said...

Wendy, thanks for the additional info. It is interesting to see the world through another lens at a different time.

FH2O, I am always impressed whenn I read about the travels of people who explored the world when it was not a simple thing to do. Today we go onine, make a reservation, are whisked away to anywhere we like at close to the speed of sound. In 1904 it took eight months to get from London to Suva!

Martin J Frid said...

I'm reminded of Karen Blixen, a woman from Denmark, born 1885 who went to Africa and wrote a number of books about her adventures: she was a pioneer coffee farmer in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. But perhaps that is a generation later, when some Europeans were attracted to the African way of life or the "orient". In her writings, not just in Out of Africa, she glorifies the primitive and it seems she believed the native was wiser than industrial man... Beatrice Grimshaw seems not to have shared this view!

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

There are wannabe adventurers today such as the tribewanted volunteers for whatever is ahead of them in Vorovoro. I found some critical articles though (such as The Jem Report) about the project. One of the guys in charge of tribewanted changed his name and had some dodgy projects before. Now I'm a bit worried that the people of Mali Island won't get the wonderful development that is promised. One article said that transport to the island (from Nadi) will be provided and free. Now that is hard to believe. It is very expensive by plane!

Pandabonium said...

Martin - Thanks for that. She makes an interesting contrast. I've not read about Karen Blixen, just saw the movie "Out of Africa". In every era there are people with views that go against the prevelant ideas. It is interesting to contrast the commentary of Mark Twain, for example, with that poem by Kipling. Twain was highly critical of US emperialism.

Wendy - that is worrisome, especially that fellow's background being questionable. On the website Q&A page, at tribewanted.com, they say you need to fly from Nadi to a local airport (presumably Lambasa) and transportation will be provided from there. I hope the local people have some hand in the project so they can keep an eye on the accounting end of things.