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Harkening to the last, faint echoes of "Rule Britannia"
on 13 April 2006
In 1914, the globe was spanned by the British Empire, on which the sun truly never set. As a boy, I collected stamps, and I was in awe of the number of faraway and exotic places that featured the likeness of the British monarch on their issues. It was, perhaps, these colorful bits of paper, along with the tales of Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, and King Arthur that engendered in me a lasting love for and fascination with Great Britain. I've visited the mother island on more than a dozen occasions; I long to be there now. Simon Winchester's OUTPOSTS took me in a different direction - outward to the last vestiges of Empire.
British Indian Ocean Territory, Tristan da Cunha, Gibraltar, Ascension Island, St. Helena, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, and the Pitcairn Islands. These, minus Hong Kong - OUTPOSTS was published in 1985 - are now all that are left of the once proud imperial possessions. Simon visited them over a three year period, except the inaccessible Pitcairn, and tells us about his odyssey in this sterling travel narrative.
Winchester, a Brit himself, is ambiguous about the Empire. On one hand, he apparently feels that the Crown's dominions, protectorates, trustee states, mandated territories and colonies were better left to go their separate ways, if only for the sake of political correctness. On the other hand, he maintains that, of all the European colonial empires, Britain's was the one administered with the greatest degree of good intentions. And, Simon isn't above becoming sentimental, as on Tristan da Cunha, a dependency of St. Helena, during a visit by the Colonial Governor:
"A bugle was blown, a banner was raised, a salute was made, an anthem was played - and the Colonial Governor of St. Helena was formally welcomed on to the tiniest and loneliest dependency in the remanent British Empire. I found I was watching it through a strange golden haze, which cleared if I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand: the children looked so proud, so eager to please, so keen to touch the hand from England, from the wellspring of their official existence."
The volume contains a rudimentary map of each colony visited, but no photographs - a deplorable deficiency in any travel essay, I think. I had to go onto the Web to satisfy my curiosity for visuals; the Tristan de Cunha, St.Helena, and Falkland Islands websites are particularly helpful in this regard.
OUTPOSTS is, of course, dated; Hong Kong has long since reverted to the mandarins in Peking. Luckily, I was able to visit the place in 1994 when it was still a jewel in the British crown. Oddly, the chapter on HK is surprisingly short considering the size and importance of the place at the time the book was written. Winchester didn't even mention one of the best E-rides in the world, the short Star Ferry trip from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island.
One of the best reasons to read OUTPOSTS, if your interested in the subject, is the history of each colony that the author shares. And then there's the occasional trivia. Did you know, for example, that during the Falkland Islands War a team of Argentine frogman arrived in Spain with plans to blow up Royal Navy ships anchored off Gibraltar? They were arrested by the Spanish police on a tip from British Intelligence. And, do you know the location of the only land border between Holland and France? It's not where you might think.
OUTPOSTS grandly took me to places I shall likely never visit, and I'm indebted to Winchester for that.