George Orwell’s Burmese Days

It is no exaggeration to say that, without his experience as an imperial police officer in Burma, the man the world now knows as George Orwell, the 20th century’s greatest opponent of totalitarianism, would have remained Eric Arthur Blair, a talented writer and celebrated essayist, no doubt, but not a political and cultural force unto himself. Living and working in Burma, as an agent of British colonialism, gave him – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say strengthened in him – three unshakeable convictions: first, a hatred of injustice and bigotry, together with the belief that neither oppressor nor oppressed escaped the relationship unscarred; second, an appreciation for the wide gap between events as they are experienced and as they are reported; and finally, a first-hand experience of totalitarianism, and the ways in which it infects every aspect of being, from language to friendship. Burmese Days, published in 1934, offers readers an insightful early look into the corruptions of totalitarianism, and a damning indictment of the British colonial regime that so few British men and women knew first-hand.

Our protagonist is John Flory, an Englishman making a living in Burma as a teak merchant. Like Orwell, Flory attended “a cheap, third-rate public school” (a private high school), and, like Orwell, failed to distinguish himself academically; his parents, sensing Flory has no future in academia, secure him a job working for a lumber company in Burma. His early years abroad are marked by heavy drinking, whoring, hunting and the other pleasures enjoyed by the pukka sahib (white Europeans living in Burma). “He was too young to realize what this life was preparing him for,” our narrator tells us. “He did not see the years stretching out ahead, lonely, eventless, corrupting.” By the time we are introduced to Flory, he has spent some 15 years in Burma, and the experience has alienated him. He is too honest not to notice the depredations of the British – their tyranny of the natives, and theft of their natural resources – and yet too cowardly to speak against the injustice. His fellow Europeans view him as a traitor, or at least a political radical, and he returns their disdain, viewing them as bullies and petty oppressors. He has but one genuine friendship, with a brilliant native, Dr. Veraswami, with whom he can discuss politics, literature and British rule, but even this kinship of like minds is corrupted by the inequalities imposed on the relationship by the larger colonial system. Though he is too cowardly to do much about the injustices of this system, Flory is not a hypocrite, and so his awareness of them gradually poisons him. Here is Orwell’s description of life under colonial rule, and I ask you to consider how interchangeable it is with his later descriptions of the Soviet Union, or 1984‘s fictional Oceania:

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahib’s code.

Ordinary morality counts for little in a system that places greater value on some people and less value on others; what counts, in other words, is not what you do, but who you are. Flory is a drunkard, a coward and a fornicator, but he commands respect and power among the natives on the basis of the colour of his skin; Dr. Veraswami is intelligent, loyal, and impervious to bribery – otherwise standard operating procedure in Burma – and yet he is vulnerable because of the colour of his skin.

A system built on lies punishes the truth, and the people who dare to speak it, and so the Burmese prisons are filled with “nationalists,” brave natives who have dared to voice a criticism of British rule. Orwell gives us a snippet of a nationalist article that is Swiftian in its bite:

In these happy times, when we poor blacks are being uplifted by the mighty western civilisation, with its manifold blessings such as the cinematograph, machine-guns, syphilis, etc., what subject could be more inspiring than the private lives of our European benefactors? We think therefore that it may interest our readers to hear something of events in the up-country district of Kyuaktada. And especially of Mr Macgregor, honoured Deputy Commissioner of said district.

Mr Macgregor is of the type of the Fine Old English Gentleman, such as, in these happy days, we have so many examples before our eyes. He is ‘a family man’ as our dear English cousins say. Very much a family man is Mr Macgregor. So much so that he has already three children in the district of Kyauktada, where he has been a year, and in his last district of Shwemyo he left six young progenies behind him. Perhaps it is an oversight on Mr Macgregor’s part that he has left these young infants quite unprovided for, and that some of their mothers are in danger of starvation, etc. etc etc.

The British men hold the whip, and keep the native Burmese in line through terror and the threat of violence, but Orwell is equally unsparing towards the British women, whom he describes as not only active participants in colonialism, but deeply enamoured of the easy lifestyle it affords them. Mrs. Lackersteen, a manipulative, gossiping “lady” who spends her days drinking and playing tennis, waited on hand and foot by Burmese servants, has no more patience for Burmese independence than her husband, but for vastly different reasons: “To her mind, the words ‘sedition,’ ‘Nationalism,’ ‘rebellion,’ ‘Home Rule,’ conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs.” As in the American South, the fear of rape and “miscegenation” provided a powerful psychological excuse for the most inhuman treatment of the powerless.

Burmese Days is both a powerful portrait of colonial Burma, encompassing the natives and the colonialists alike, and a searing early indictment of totalitarianism, and in that respect it anticipates Orwell’s more famous novels, particularly 1984. For my part, it was yet another confirmation of Orwell’s incredible genius, and I marvel not only at what the man said – or that he had the bravery to say it – but also, and in fact most particularly, at what he saw. He possessed that special ability, reserved for only the greatest writers and thinkers, of seeing beyond what others can or would see; he forced himself to look, and was continually disturbed at what he saw.