Empire-building Englishmen

Roald Dahl (describing his sea voyage to East Africa to work for Shell) describes the “Empire-building breed of Englishman”:

“I had never before encountered that peculiar Empire-building breed of Englishman who spends his whole life working in distant corners of British territory.  Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will.  I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foot-hills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct.  More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet.  For one thing, they spoke a language of their own.  If they worked in East Africa, their sentences were sprinkled with Swahili words, and if they lived in India then all manner of dialects were intermingled.  As well as this, there was a whole vocabulary of much-used words that seemed to be universal among all these people.  An evening drink, for example, was always a sundowner.  A drink at any other time was a chota peg.  One’s wife was the memsahib. … Supper was tiffin and so and and so forth. The Empire-builders’ jargon would have filled a dictionary.  All in all, it was rather wonderful for me, a conventional young lad from the suburbs, to be thrust suddenly into the middle of this pack of sinewy sunburnt gophers and their bright bony little wives, and what I liked best of all about them was their eccentricities.

“It would seem that when the British live for years in a foul and sweaty climate among foreign people they maintain their sanity by allowing themselves to go slightly dotty.  They cultivate bizarre habits that would never be tolerated back home, whereas in far-away Africa or in Ceylon of in India or in the Federated Malay States they could do as they liked. …”

-From Roald Dahl’s autobiography, “Going Solo,” first published in 1986 and available here (US) and here (UK).

“Going Solo”: a delight from start to finish.  A book I was happy to stumble upon on a mildewed rack of books passed around by expats in Zhuhai, China.  Roald Dahl was himself a young expat or “third culture kid”, as a Norwegian raised in Britain who became fully British.

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