By Brendan O’Neill
A century ago, Rudyard Kipling implored Brits to take up ‘The White Man’s Burden’, to venture forth to the dark continents and liberate the natives from sickness, famine and stupidity.
Today, if the over-the-top media coverage of Joanna Lumley’s visit to Nepal is anything to go by, we have The White Woman’s Burden.
The newspaper splashes on Lumley’s visit – featuring photos of the actress being showered with garlands under headlines such as ‘VICTORY TRIP’ and ‘GODDESS JOANNA’ – have eerie echoes of Britain’s colonial past, with Lumley depicted as the embodiment of the Mother Nation and the Gurkhas as her happy, appreciative children.
“The use of Lumley’s trip as a symbol of caring post-colonial Britain is nauseating”
It’s worth remembering that a central part of Kipling’s infamous poem was his view of foreign peoples as “children” who needed our help. They were “half-devil and half-child”, he said, and colonialists should “serve [their] needs”.
So it is today, it seems, with newspapermen and politicians holding up St Joanna as the deliverer of happiness and liberty to the little brown people ‘over there’. Of course, no one can challenge Miss Lumley’s motives or deny the genuine bond of affection that has linked the Gurkhas with many British army officers and their families.
And, of course, the actress’s campaigning on behalf of the retired soldiers has forced through some beneficial changes. The Gurkhas have always been treated shoddily by the Ministry of Defence, which has paid them lower wages than British-born squaddies and given them fewer pension rights.
New Labour ruled, in typical mean-spirited fashion, that only Gurkhas who left military service after 1997 would be allowed to settle in the UK. But following a pro-Gurkha motion in the Commons and Lumley’s vocal campaigning, the government backtracked: now, Gurkhas who left the military before 1997 after completing at least four years’ service can apply to settle here.
Yet there is something unmistakably nauseating in the transformation of Lumley’s trip into a symbol of modern, caring, post-colonial Britain which now helps brown people rather than oppressing them.
The Gurkhas have long been the playthings of the British elite, but where in the past they were pushed forward as evidence of Britain’s fighting spirit and its ability to create ‘loyal savages’, today they are pushed forward as evidence of Britain’s superior emotional intelligence and its ability to empathise with Third World victims.
For all the discussion today of Gurkhas as good friends of Britain, we should remember that these soldiers have long been viewed by the British officer classes as a ‘race apart’ from white Europeans.
Named after the eighth-century Hindu warrior saint Guru Gorakhnath, the Gurkhas were first recruited into the British Army following the Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814-1816, when British forces defeated the Nepalese but were impressed by the Gurkhas’ tenacity.
British military leaders treated Gurkhas as effectively their pet Asians – less intelligent and feeling than the average white man, but more trustworthy than the average native. In the 1860s, one British officer said Gurkhas were different to ordinary “Asiatic soldiers”, who do not have “the same pluck or moral courage as the European… unless drugged and maddened by opiates beforehand”.
Another British observer said that, where most south Asians “live in a different stage of civilisation and intellectual development [to Europeans]”, the Gurkhas were different.
However, while they were of better stock than madder Asians, the Gurkhas were nothing like the white man; indeed, it was their alleged lack of emotion that was most valued by the British military.
In the Victorian era, a writer said Gurkhas do not have “a very high estimate of the value of human life” and are “less encumbered by the mental doubts or humanitarian sentiment [of Europeans], and thus not so moved by slaughter and mutilation”.
This image of the Gurkhas as peculiarly fearless persisted into the modern era, and tended, said one critical author, Lionel Caplan, in 1995, to “deny the humanity of these soldiers”.
Today, the Gurkhas are still effectively seen as a ‘race apart’ – but in a new politically correct way.
They are no longer spoken of as unfeeling fighting machines, at least not in public, but rather as victims of the system. They’re no longer the attack dogs of British colonialism, but rather the victims of new attitudes to the military, who must be rescued anew by enlightened Westerners like Lumley and her political supporters.
The most enduring image of a Gurkha now is not as the knife-wielding defender of British imperial values who has been well-trained by white officers to use his savage instincts for good, but as the frail wheelchair user who needs white celebrities to push him around and argue his corner in court and parliament.
The Gurkhas have gone from being a ‘Martial Race’ to a ‘Victim Race’, from the obedient charges of British officers to the mascot victims of British hacks and officials.
The media’s moralisation of the Lumley trip confirms that the Gurkhas are still being used as a proxy army – only this time not to defend British imperialism, but rather to project a new Blair-style image of a Britain That Cares.