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Britain and Malaya : imperialism as the mystification of self-image Pechey, Ann

Abstract

Heraclitus said, "Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar." Which is to say, himself. Man, as imperialist, is particularly estranged from his true self. This, then, is the "problem" confronted in the following pages - the processes, bred of his alienation from himself, by which man distorts his perception of his human and physical environments so as to bring them into accordance with his own mystified self-image. Mid-nineteenth century England, like Heraclitus' Greece, turned out an impressive array of imperialists, among them the "Residents", to whom the administration of Her Majesty's Further Indian Empire was entrusted. Victorian England was also for the most part lacking in that quality, as Keats understood it, of Negative Capability - "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." It was a quality which, by their own confession, the Residents found amply present in the Malays. Given a remarkable opportunity to "learn" this quality in the Malayan setting however, the British, as purveyors of law and order and the scientific method, by setting about making over the Malays in the image of the Victorian gentleman, almost without exception conspired to destroy precisely what might have been their salvation from the dilemmas of imperialism. I have attempted to understand how and why the British adapted their image of Malaya and the Malays to their own reality - a reality determined (for all that they might have been condemned in some circles for "going native") by their own experience as Victorian imperialists, and conceived in essential ignorance of the country and its people. Moreover, I have hypothesized that since people are to a certain extent what others make them, the Malays came to accept and to act out, in varying degrees, the British image of them. Finally, I would conclude with Charles Olsen that history itself can be shown to be of two kinds. One is negatively capable - a function of any one of us, and as such can be taken quietly and usefully. The other is power. Men can and do wilfully set in motion egotistical, sublime events. They have effect which looks like use. These are power, and history as primordial and prospective is seen to demand the recognition that the other history - which I would call ‘anti-history’ – is not good enough.

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