On Golliwogs and Flit Pumps:
How the Empire Stays With Us in Strange Remembrances
Klaus de Albuquerque
College of Charleston
Copyright (c) 1998 by Klaus de Albuquerque, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
- We were not exactly favoured sons and daughters of the British Empire, more like wards to whom certain minimal colonial obligations were extended--health care and schooling. But given dismal conditions of these services, local communities, especially wealthy diaspora communities, transported across the oceans to provide compliant labour for some Imperial project or another, organised their own systems of welfare, health care, and education. Forced self-reliance and ethnic and racial differences kept us apart in separate communities, our only contacts being through different school sports. So we saw ourselves as rivals and borrowed the colonial stereotypes of each other, unwittingly assisting in the creation of a genuine Furnivallian plural society with different groups meeting in the market place but not combining since we had no "common social will."
- Yet we were somehow inextricably linked despite our different birthplaces and hues. The colonial system of education, grudgingly extended through mission schools and other religious and racial/ethnic schools, had the insidious effect of transforming us into British school children steeped in British literature, history and geography, and drilled in the Queens's English. But our various accents betrayed our ethnic/racial/national origins. Some of us would eventually shed these accents as we embarked on the second diaspora--this time abandoning our respective colonies on bursaries and scholarships that would take us to the UK, Canada, the U.S., Australia and other Western Nations. No Patrice Lumumba University for us--we had been taught to parse in Latin and had this superior veneer of British learning that ruled out any revolutionary ethos.
- Discovering each other was a radicalizing experience in political terms, but infinitely more sobering in cultural terms. Expecting to revel in our cultural differences, and learn about different music, dance, art forms, dress, language, diet, and so on, I discovered that we had far more in common culturally than I could have ever imagined, and not just in the nonmaterial culture that had been drilled into us by legions of local teachers--English men and women in black or brown face. Unlike this earlier generation of Naipaulian mimic men, we were not Anglophiles, being post-World War II babies coming of age in the heady period of decolonization--a juggernaut that would progressively strip Britain of the last vestiges of her Empire. Our heroes were Gandhi, Kenyatta, Nasser, Nkrumah, Nyerere and Nehru, but those of us who were part of marginal communities, felt somewhat uncomfortable claiming these heroes as our own.
- Yes we could talk on at length about how our teachers were virtually interchangeable, the colonial curriculum, GCE "O" level and "A" level exams, and our various school boy pranks, but it was the insidiousness of British material culture that made us post-colonials adept anywhere in the Empire. We were after all middle class experiments of a colonial society--the assimiladoes. And as we met abroad, full of youthful idealism, in those formative pre- and post-independence periods, I could not help notice that in any conversation or recollection there was always a link we could find to some aspect of our shared material culture--nostalgic or not so nostalgic. Remembrances of a favourite school boy read, a British classic (Ivanhoe or Wuthering Heights), a favourite pair of Clark shoes, a chemistry set, the family Britannia set, the prized possessions of childhood. Few of us would admit that as children we devoured Enid Blyton books--the Famous Five, Secret 7, and primers about those rather odd characters, Noddy and Big Ears (Off to Goblin Village!). There were of course the standard British toys, dolls, stuffed animals, games, sports, puzzles--the kinds we had less attachment to and would pass on to siblings or donate to jumble sales. One stuffed doll, the Golliwog,
became quite fashionable in the Empire, with legions of black and brown elite children clinging to their golliwogs quite unsuspecting that these rag dolls with black face and wiry hair were rather unflattering imitations of themselves. One could of course look to find grand imperial design here. But how could the doll makers anticipate that golliwogs would provide racist Brits (the Enoch Powell crowd)a convenient invective to hurl at our parents and relatives clamouring to enter Britain to take up all those menial jobs the Brits no longer wanted?
- Us "wogs" discovered instant kinship in small things and not in grandiose ideas about the post-colonial condition. Yes we came from the tradition of genteel sports, but enough has been written on cricket as a metaphor of our acculturation. What intrigues me more is how British capitalism foisted on us a whole range of goods, services, tastes, and styles that would linger with us and provide us endless hours of inane conversation once we had exhausted impressing each other with how clever we were.
- Take something so mundane as the Flit pump. We all remember those pumps that invariably leaked but were indispensable in the lowland tropics. Flit was the brand name insecticide we poured into those pumps before our nocturnal rounds to flush out hidden mosquitoes. It was one of my chores that I relished, fancying myself the best flitter in the house. Surely all that flit flitting in and around our dwelling could not have been good for our health.
- Irrespective of the locales where we grew up, Antigua, Jamaica, Kenya, Kerala, if your family was of moderate means you had a flit pump or two. Now we have Baygon and other aerosol propelled insecticides--not quite so personal or memory evoking as whole generations pouring in the Flit, priming the pump, and flitting away in the Empire.
- Britain was all around us in the everyday products we consumed. They were the daily products we were surrounded by, to be distinguished from those that were treats held out for special occasions. British capitalism made us consumers of all the Empire could produce. We spread New Zealand butter on our dreadful white bread along with marmite or bovril. I would observe the same rituals in the Caribbean, other parts of Africa (I grew up in Kenya), and in the furthest reaches of the Empire. Why would this non-white incipient colonial middle class contribute to its gastronomic denouement by taking to something as unappetizing as marmite?
- Our tables were first transformed with different types of British breakfast and afternoon tea foods. One was (is) always assured when visiting other marginalised ex-colonials all over the world that breakfast and afternoon tea would (will) be familiar. British marmalade (Robertson's of course but Dundee's or Rose's would do in a pinch), along with an assortment of other jams to accompany the toast, tea (the beverage of the Empire), eggs, bacon , sausage, Milo or Ovaltine, and perhaps as an afterthought to the local economy, some fresh fruit in season. If I am in the mood for the exotic, my friends can always find some kippers and watch me painstakingly dissect them. Afternoon tea, likewise, had its assemblage of proscribed foods--scones and clotted cream, marie biscuits, McVities biscuits (a chocolatey mess in the tropics), shortbread (Walker's), and finger sandwiches, the most recognisable being cucumber. However, our afternoon tea rituals were more proletarian--dunking marie biscuits in tea, and sometimes bread with golden syrup, the latter a product of Tate and Lyle, "sweeteners to the world" and for decades exploiters of third world sugar workers. No clotted cream for us, that being only available in British enclaves like the Kenya "white highlands."
- I hated the accompanying breakfast beverages like Milo and Ovaltine and yet they were supposed to be somehow good for us. As a contract teacher to Jamaica in the early 1970s, we masters (Jamaicans, other assorted ex-Colonials, and Brits) were often served Milo at dinner as a special treat, but I could never bring myself to drink it, a subject of some early discussion at the dining table. However, my intransigence flushed out two other Milo haters and I found comfort in their coming out. To this day in Jamaica, my friends offer me a choice between a regular (English) breakfast or a Jamaican breakfast (boiled bananas, ackee and salt fish, cocoa tea) but without the Milo.
- On our post dinner sojourns to our favourite bar to while away the evening on Appleton rum and juke box reggae, one of our number would invariably order Stone's Ginger Wine, or Wincarnis. Having tasted some of these products of the Empire that had for decades adorned bar shelves in the colonies, I had long ago realised why they were the dustiest bottles around. But few bars lacked them. Scotch Whiskey was the drink of choice of us mid- level colonials that made the system work. Gin and tonic had too strong an association with the master and the kind of dissolution that seemed to afflict whites in the tropics. We favoured Johnnie Walker Red and Cutty Sark, and on special occasions we would break out the Black Label.
- Other British foods and beverages were no less memory evoking. Many forced us to recall some of the things we were expected to eat at boarding schools or University dining rooms. Pork pies, steak and kidney pies, insipid over cooked vegetables, British rice and curry with all those condiment dishes for garnish. My diet fortunately contains no traces of this unimaginative cuisine, but sometimes we lost souls of the Empire enjoy New Zealand lamb, plum pudding, English custard (Bird's),or a trifle liberally steeped in sherry, and all those other delights that were held out for special occasions.
- I remember the biscuit tins (Peak Freans Assorted, etc.) which had to be opened with a tin cutter. My father would invariably cut a finger opening a sealed tin. But the ginger crisp, shortbread, or water biscuits (Carr's) were well worth it, and doled out sparingly, they made us aficionados of British biscuits. Even the most rabid hater of British cuisine can be observed at Heathrow spiriting a few boxes of British biscuits to take back home and ration sparingly, with an occasional titbit to spouse and children. Not to forget the Cadbury and Rowntree chocolates, the Smarties and fruit gums, and of course the ultimate Christmas gift for one's mother--the box of Black Magic chocolates.
- The Empire seduced us not with ideas, but with biscuits, sweets, chocolates, beverages, and consumer products. It made brand loyalists of us long before Benetton, the Gap, and Nike. But our consumer tastes were less trendy, tending towards the sturdy and the staid made by all those "Purveyors to the Crown." We all wanted Raleigh bicycles. Our cricket bats had to be made of genuine English willow and preferably "signed" by Sir Malcolm Cowdrey. Our tents, for the boy scouts among us, had to be from Blacks of London. Yes there was the occasional sweater from Marks and Sparks and the Bata shoe sandals. But we wanted long wearing quality over style. Suits and dresses had to be tailored--poplin, cotton, terylene and other blends were concessions to the tropics. Some of us remember ourselves as gangly youth going to be measured by the tailor for that first suit--often the one we would travel overseas with on our first unaccompanied foray out of the colony.
- And of course there were the school uniforms and ties to promote school spirit and a sense of decorousness. We clung to those old school ties and those old boys and girls' associations long after we had departed and refashioned new lives for ourselves abroad. Meeting an old boy or old girl became an occasion for both nostalgia and selective amnesia. The latter because we conveniently forgot the few sadistic teachers, the ideological laden curriculum, the hours in the burning sun holding small Union Jacks waiting to wave at the passing motorcade of one of the royal family, and our positions of privilege yet marginality, among a majority mired in squalor and with little hope for the future. We would excitedly talk about old school chums, our respective school houses, the inter-school rivalries, the debate teams, the long weeks spent swotting for exams. This was our real world--privileged and yet not privileged, confused over identity, mired in nostalgia for a system we would as adults condemn as exploitative and dehumanizing.
- Some of us became peripatetic lecturers at third world universities. Others found employment working for international aid agencies as specialist consultants--preferred staff because of our linguistic abilities and also probably because as ex-colonials we were more sensitive to "local conditions." But we always paid close attention to our emoluments--home leave, passages for our children, our gratuities--and kept our eyes and ears open for the next assignment.
- Unfortunately, the post-colonial literature has not sufficiently addressed how the Empire transformed us into third world sophisticates adept in any colony or ex-colony--familiar with the British system of education, capable of ministering all manner of development projects, comfortable signing chits at club bars, acquainted with Rose's Lime Juice and Angostura Bitters, occasionally coopted to run with the Hash Haus Harriers, but, still on the margins of the larger expatriate community, finding comfort and fellowship in other wayward non-white sons and daughters of the Empire.
- Our writings reflect our cultural and class ambivalences--not an authentic voice of the people but a window into a narrow interstitial world of privilege combined with relative powerlessness. In this little privileged space, even though the themes of our writings may be bolder and nobler, we talk to each other invoking familiar tropes, and occasionally dropping little snippets about this world we shared--whispered secrets of our ambivalent roles as benign purveyors/consumers of colonial ideology, policy, and capitalism. Few of us took to the streets, joined political movements or actively sought to jettison our psychologically confusing cultural baggage. Many of us found refuge in the professions and in Western Universities--providing various disciplines and studies the obligatory third world spin--the counter hegemonic discourse. We got feted and acclaimed by colleagues we had more in common with than the people we were writing about and championing. And on the occasions we lost souls could meet without having to posture, we would find embarrassing kinship in all those vestiges of the Empire--Noddy and Big Ears, Golliwogs, Flit pumps, Brasso silver polish--that had embedded themselves in our psyches and had made us such ambivalent post-colonials. Not that anyone could fatuously claim that golliwogs or Flit pumps were important in the larger scheme of things--only that they were part of a shared material culture, and along with all those other more heady colonising influences (British schools, cricket, afternoon tea parties)--they provided/provide us common ground. Apatrides of our ilk like nothing better, after the intellectual discourse is exhausted, and the Black Label is broken out, then to wax nostalgic about our golliwogs and flit pumps, and Enid Blyton readers (Noddy Meets Father Christmas). The Empire lingers on with us in the strange remembrances of childhood.
J.S. Furnivall writing about Burma and Java noted that economic forces generated by colonialism tended to transform these societies into "plural societies" where the various racial/ethnic groups "mix but do not combine," each group holding to its own religion, language, and ideas. As individuals, members of these groups meet, but only in the market place. See John S. Furnivall,1948. Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India. London: Cambridge University Press, pg. 304.
(Klaus de Albuquerque is Professor of Sociology at the College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina, 29424, USA)