James's Reviews > Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire

Outposts by Simon Winchester
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Apr 02, 2008

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Read in July, 2006

Back in 1997, a volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat blew its top, killing 19 people and burying half the island in ash. After the dust had settled, residents of the British protectorate begged London for more aid to rebuild their homes. The UK development minister famously retorted: "They'll be wanting golden elephants next."

Britain's indifference and sometimes outright hostility to its remaining overseas territories is a recurring theme in Simon Winchester's book. His journey to what Ronald Reagan might have called "little bunches of rocks" around the world says as much about the UK as it does about its imperial relics.

Winchester's travels took him from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific, the Rock of Gibraltar to the Caribbean. His visit to Montserrat is especially affecting. Arriving some 15 years before the volcano wreaks its devastation, the author describes a place at ease with itself. Its residents, many of them of Irish descent, welcome him warmly, and one of them lends the author his car. Plymouth, the capital of this "Ireland in the sun" is described as a well-cared for, little Georgian-style town with a handsome clock tower.

Heartbreakingly, Plymouth is no more, its defaced clock now peeking out from a mountain of volcanic ash.

But, as Winchester illustrates, the former colonies have as much to fear from the mother country as from Mother Nature. In an episode that should make all involved hang their heads, he describes the transfer of the Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia to the US for use as a military base. Over 2000 residents were uprooted to Mauritius, with barely time to gather a few belongings together. Now bristling with military hardware, the island is a no-go area – Winchester was refused entry. The residents can never again return to the place that for two centuries was a peace-loving community's homeland.

Occasionally, London does spring into action to defend its interests, but with mixed results. In Anguilla, another Caribbean dependency, Winchester recounts the farcical tale of a British military operation intended to quell a reported uprising. But the natives weren't so much revolting as quietly requesting return to British rule instead of being managed by their hated neighbours in St Kitts. The paratroopers' lamentable excuse for an invasion was lampooned in the press as "the bay of piglets."

Jorge Luis Borges referred to the conflict between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands as "two bald men fighting over a comb", and when the time came to read Winchester's account of his visit there one expected a rehash of the old arguments. But his story of the South Atlantic war turns out to be one of the book's best sections, mainly because he was in Port Stanley only days before the Argentine invasion.

Even twenty years ago, the Falklands were behind the times, a situation that the author appeared to relish, as he described the islanders' reliance on their antiquated radios.

"It was customary to keep it switched on all the time – the Box in the Upland Goose hotel was always burbling away in the background, a combination of Muzak and a pictureless telescreen that I half suspected would bring me news of increased chocolate rations and successes against Oceania…….The usual fare was music, very much from the Fifties, with interleaved snippets of news read by a man named Patrick Watts: who had flown in on the afternoon flight from Comodoro, what His Excellency the Governor was doing for the remainder of the week. 'And now – Edmundo Ros…" But as they listen to the Governor's sombre broadcast announcing imminent invasion, the islanders' mood swings from breezy optimism to grave foreboding.

The final sections of the book are disappointing. Transportation difficulties mean he's unable to reach Pitcairn Island, a place made a famous by the mutineers on the Bounty, and still containing descendants of Fletcher Christian. Then, after a long explanation as to why he hasn't included the Channel Islands or Isle of Man in his journey (they're not foreign enough, it seems) he makes a
short and inconsequential visit to Hillsborough in Northern Ireland. The Ulster visit seems out of synch with his other trips, leaving the reader with an oddly empty feeling.

Finally, frustrated at the indifference of the motherland to her dependents, Winchester calls for all of them to be integrated into the UK – as the French have done with their former colonies. For instance the British West Indies, he says, could become an extended county of the UK, with their own Member of Parliament at Westminster.

In the years following the book's publication, some things have changed in Britain's overseas territories: Hong Kong has been returned to China; the hated British Nationality Act has been repealed by a law granting UK citizenship to all residents of its overseas territories; and construction of a new capital for Montserrat is under way. Meanwhile, despite a High Court ruling, the British government - a Labour government - continues to bar the former residents of Diego Garcia from returning home.
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