I fancy myself as another Simon Winchester. For not only does he have a passionate interest in dictionaries, as seen in his remarkable story The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, but Winchester is also a geography nut who likes to travel the world to the most unlikely tourist destinations. Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire is Winchester’s travel diary written over the three years he spent travelling the world, in his attempt to visit the remaining bits and pieces of the British Empire.
By 1985, though, when Winchester wrote Outposts, the empire had shrunk to only a handful of inhabited islands plus Hong Kong and Gibraltar. Not counting all the empire’s rocks, skerries, uninhabited islands, Pitcairn Island and British Antarctic Territory, Winchester visited all the remaining relics of Her Majesty’s empire. He started off with British Indian Ocean Territory, which happens to be the most tragic of all empire stories. The entire population of two thousand was forcibly evacuated from all the BIOT islands in order to convert the territory into a high-security air and naval base. Over five years and often without any advance notice, the citizens were uprooted and resettled, many to Mauritius. I had read about the forced depopulation of BIOT before, and Winchester has written the most personal account from the perspective of a tourist.
I took the greatest interest in the chapter on Tristan da Cunha. His experience there with a local family seemed pleasant, yet after he left the island and wrote about his experiences in the 1985 edition of Outposts, he discovered that there were repercussions. Winchester wrote in the introduction to the 2003 edition (which is the edition I read):
“For what I wrote in this book about the island of Tristan da Cunha I have been banned, and have never landed there since. I have been to the colony’s territorial waters a number of times, but the local police have kept me away–the islanders still vexed that I had written about the war-time romance of one of their number, now an elderly (and contentedly married) lady. Whenever I have since visited I have had to content myself with lying offshore in a boat, gazing at the black rocks and the potato fields I liked so well, from a floating vantage point half a mile away.”
His journey to Tristan is unfortunately typical of many travellers: they get so close to the island, but the ocean is so rough that they cannot land. Thank goodness my trip there this autumn is aboard a vessel that has a helicopter on board, ensuring the passengers a landing. Winchester details the ordeal his ship, the St Helena, endured in its attempt to land at Tristan:
“Bows down and shoulders hunched, St Helena rammed her way around the island, which was illuminated by sudden shafts of sunlight, instant rainbows, and over which streamed veils of cloud. We reached the southern edge–a cape where the three-masted barque Italia had been wrecked in 1892, bringing the surnames of Repetto and Lavarello to the island, where they still survive–but the wind refused to calm. In fact, as we pummelled our way further and further around, it became clear that this, unique among all islands I have known, is a place without a lee–there is nowhere to shelter. The gales either blow around the island in some devilish spiral, or else pour as a katabatic torrent up and over the mountain, striking anything below, no matter at what quarter of the compass.”
I have long been fascinated by Gibraltar’s smallness, where close to thirty thousand people are crammed into less than seven square kilometres. A good portion of this land area is dominated by an uninhabitable rock (uninhabitable for humans, not for Barbary apes). Winchester got the feeling from many that he spoke to that life on the rocky peninsula was claustrophobic, and that living there was like being in a muggy prison. He explained the history of Gibraltar and Great Britain’s ongoing dispute with Spain over the territory, and I appreciated his extensive histories in each chapter behind how these areas became colonies, such as the colony-no-longer, Hong Kong.
Upon arriving via a heart-in-throat landing at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, Winchester noted:
“It is a mesmeric, intoxicating sight, a view to make one gasp. A hundred years ago there was almost nothing: just a thin line of warehouses, a few church towers, the mansions of the taipans up on the slopes, and Government House on Upper Albert Road with the Union flag waving lazily in the steamy air. Today a vast white winding cloth of concrete, steel and glass has been bolted on to the hillsides, obscuring the contours, turning a world once dominated by the horizontal and the gentle diagonal into a pageant of the vertical.”
Winchester was in the south Atlantic in early 1982 just prior to the Falklands War. He flew to the Falklands when Argentina, at first, occupied the island of South Georgia, but was never on the Falklands themselves when war eventually broke out there. Winchester and I certainly share a love of islands; after he first set foot on East Falkland he wrote:
“Everything, so far as I was concerned, was exactly right. It was a place of islands, and I loved islands. It was cold, and I loved cold places.”
His time in the Falklands capital, Stanley, was a tense experience owing to the invasion of South Georgia to the southeast, but one without any sense of impending danger. He writes that no one was aware of the Argentine invasion, and if the stationed military did have any advance warning of it, they were keeping it top secret.
Winchester’s observations were often occasions I would want to reread. His descriptions of scenery captured a snapshot that seemed high-resolution and always panoramic:
“There may be no native trees on the Falklands, but the twentieth century’s sterling efforts to allow the colonists to talk to the outside world has left many rusting iron masts and rotting hawsers that, from a distance and in a mist, look much the same.”
Winchester ends his book as he begins, with a stinging belt to the behind to the empire for its devastating forced eviction of the citizens of British Indian Ocean Territory:
“And we deal–or rather we dealt–with horrifying callousness with the people of the Indian Ocean, when we evicted them from their homes, transported them to a foreign country against their will, and lied and evaded our responsibilities for years before a writer discovered the scandal, and told it to the world. Of all the events of post-Imperial British history, those of the late 1960s that occurred in the archipelago we customarily call Diego Garcia remain the most shabby and the most mean. No excuses can be made, by politicians of any persuasion: Diego Garcia is a monstrous blot on British honour, and shames us all, for ever.”