The trademark adage of the Victorian era proudly (and accurately) declared that the sun never set on the British Empire. Turn of the century maps designated British territory by using the color pink, and pink bits could indeed be found littered across the globe. However, given Britain's imperial decline and notable retreats from former prize possessions such as India and Hong Kong, at the start of the new millennium the adage is regarded (wistfully by some) as yet another testament to faded grandeur. It may strike readers as shocking therefore, to discover as Ritchie did, that Britain still has some sixteen dependencies, and that... wait for it... the sun still doesn't set on the British empire!
Intrigued by a list of these last remaining "pink bits", Ritchie sets out in this slim and compelling travelogue to asses the status of the empire by visiting a selection of them. Restricting himself to only inhabited territories, striking Pitcairn Island as being too inaccessible, and limiting himself to only one of the Caribbean territories, he sets out on a grand tour of Bermuda, Ascension Island, The Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, The Turks and Caicos Islands, Tristan da Cunha, and St. Helena. Each of the chapters contains a chatty pocket history of the territory along with an overview of the current political, social, and economic climate. Of course, woven amidst this information are Ritchie's own adventures amidst the natives, recounted in a amusing self-deprecating style reminiscent of Bill Bryson.
The chapter on Bermuda describes a lovely economic powerhouse beset with few social problems and a brilliant climate. It is essential readering for anyone planning to visit. Ascension Island gets short treatment as it is essentially a 35 square mile airbase, famous for about two seconds as a staging area during the Falklands War. Still, Ritchie manages to wring some humor out of the military types surrounding him there. Then it's on to the Falklands, which gets the lengthiest and most complex treatment in the book. Although the war was about 15 years past at the time of Ritchie's writing, the islanders are still in recovery from it, especially psychologically. It's a war that tends to be thought of as a bit of a joke (much like the US invasion of Grenada), but anyone reading this chapter will quickly learn that even the most minor of conflicts with minimal casualties are traumatic in the extreme to the non-combantants in the area.
Next is a tour of Gibraltar, which reveals its population as wildly diverse and deeply segregated. Again, there is some very interesting history here, especially the tension between "the rock" and mainland Spain. In the Caribbean, Ritchie visits the beautiful and deserted backwater that is the Turks and Caicos Islands. Struggling to develop, the islands languish out of sight and out of mind but are the equal in natural splendor of any other part of the Caribbean The next stop is Tristan da Cunha, which is probably the most interesting of any of the places Ritche visits. Originally a naval base, its civilian population began in 1817 with a British couple who produced 16 children, and almost two centuries later, one finds there are only eight surnames in use. Ritchie's five hour visit unearths an incredible 300 person utopia�a cooperative, sustainable, and happy community. Interestingly, due to its homogeneity, Canadian researchers have found it a perfect place to try and isolate the gene responsible for asthma. It's a territory that begs for further study.
Finally, Ritchie stops at St. Helena�the famous prison island of Napoleon. Here is perhaps the greatest example of woe and imperial neglect. Indeed, it's the capstone to a book whose somewhat bitter running theme is that Britain's few remaining imperial outposts (total population around 150,000) are being utterly neglected by their imperial owners. All in all, this is an excellent piece of travel writing, filled with good humor ("Ritchie's First Law of Colonial Life�which states that, whichever pink bit I visited, I would have a better than evens chance of meeting an expert on Scottish football), nuggets of history, and pointedly detailing problems and injustices in the last "pink bits."