The British Empire and Us

Growing up in the days of the British Empire, perforce it left its imprint on many of us, especially those who came to be associated with it directly or indirectly, often unwittingly or through force of circumstances.

The celebration of the Queen of England’s 90th birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare give me this opportunity to share a few reflections about some aspects of our relationship with the erstwhile British Empire. 

In my own case, my earliest recollections came from my father’s stories about his time in the British military in World War II. I don’t know how long he served as a pionnier, which is the term that he used about himself and others who had been enlisted. But he was proud of the paraphernalia that he had brought back – his military stockings and some of the badges, his hat resembling that worn by Boy Scouts as I was later to find out, and an army whistle which he used to polish from time to time. He mentioned about being in Kenya, and one night sleeping in a cemetery. He used to demonstrate some of the military drills that he had to perform along with his companions, and he was impressed by the discipline and organisation of the British army. He referred to the Britishers as banne Anglais.

C.E.A School, Curepipe Road; Boy Scout

I attended the Church of England Aided school at Curepipe-Road, better known as l’Ecole Baichoo (am not too sure whether this was the spelling), and which later became the Hugh Otter Barry School after Bishop Otter Barry: every August holiday he used to be present daily in the evening when there was ‘cinema’ at the school, lasting a few days. That was the showing of colour slides of the story of the Bible, projected on the lime-washed white wall at one end, with schoolchildren and their parents in the neighbourhood sitting on the wooden benches in the hall, converted into such after the cardboard partitions which bounded the makeshift classrooms had been removed.

On Empire Day on 24th of May, we were asked to put on our best clothes (no school uniforms then), pin a circular red-blue-white badge on our shirts or dresses for the girls, and wave a mini Union Jack flag as we were marched – well, almost! – by our teachers to the Curepipe town hall, where we joined many other schoolchildren, and sang the British National Anthem. Afterwards we were treated to lemonade and gâteau francais – and I guess any true-blue Britishers present must have raised their eyebrows! And then return home to enjoy our holiday.

When I was in Standard VI, I joined the Boy Scouts movement, first at Vacoas and later the St. Clement troop in Curepipe. Of course as Boy Scouts we owed allegiance to the Queen and swore by everything British, what with Lord Baden-Powell being the founder of the Boy Scouts movement. When we went camping, we received the visit of Reverend Bagnall who lived in Vacoas. Our troop was part of the Mauritian Diocesan Boy Scouts Association, and I presume that he was responsible at the level of the diocese to oversee the Association.

As a Boy Scout, we had our annual ‘bob-a-job’ week, that is, fund-raising for the troop by going from door to door and requesting to perform any odd job for ‘a bob’, which in the UK meant one shilling. Here of course that notion was unfamiliar, so we used to accept anything, from one cent to 50 cents (which was rare!). I discovered a better source: the British officers who used to live in government quarters at Floreal, at walking distance from where I stayed in Farquhar Street. Of course, they knew about bob-a-job, and I remember collecting all of five rupees one late evening for washing a guy’s car! He looked perplexed when I replied in the negative to his query as to whether I had ever lived in England or spoke English at home.

On the other hand, the 5 rupees were a fortune in those days, and my scoutmaster was naturally overjoyed at this bonanza.

RCC: Much Britishness

I was admitted in Form I to the bastion of Britishness in our school system, Royal College Curepipe (RCC), in 1957, when a good many of the teaching staff were Britishers, starting with the Rector Mr Sims. He was what I afterwards came to recognize as a ‘black midlander’ – that is, from the coal-mining English Midlands. He had a stern look, which was aggravated by his thick bushy eyebrows and crop of dark greying hair. And he spoke with a rather thick accent, a sharp contrast to that of the Rector who succeeded him, the upper-lip Mr Herbert Bullen, who spoke with the squeaky Southern England accent, the lips hardly moving. Queen’s English, he told us, that’s what it was, coming as he did from Oxford with his BA Honours, and had spent a year at the Sorbonne studying linguistics.

He was a strict disciplinarian, instituted the morning assembly, and launched the idea of school societies in which practically all students were active according to their inclinations. He would wait outside the hall till the first sound of the bell (rung by faithful Appaya) at exactly 9 am, when he would make his entry towards the stage. He gave up trying to impress us with his spoken French, and instead concentrated on his efforts to make us speak ‘propa’ English à la Queen’s. Not ‘dorn’t’ – which sounded like the French dompte – he would repeatedly say, ‘dow-n’t’. It is difficult to put this across, but I think readers must be getting the sense. He did try very hard, did Mr Bullen. I can’t say he was too successful though. However, he and our other teachers of English, such as Messrs White, Regis Fanchette, Camille Nairac, Bhardwaj Gopaul, Yves Lefebure, Georges Espitalier Noel, did inculcate in us a love for the language of Shakespeare as we discovered its richness in the literature textbooks and the ever fresh Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Poetry.

There were several ‘banne Anglais’ teachers, and to us as they were from Britain they were all English. Of course we did not know anything about their regional origins there and even Mr Low, history teacher who was Scottish, was for us an Englishman. It was much later, when I had spent time first in Dublin then in England that I came to understand and discern the variations and social gradations, as well as the nuances of ‘English as she is spake’ amongst the peoples of the country known as Britain that comprised England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Looking back later, suddenly Mr Low rolling his “r’s” made sense, as did the cockney of Mr Steel the sports master. And why Herbert-ji considered himself way above. Novelist PG Wodehouse’s famous character Bertram Wooster and his butler Jeeves did much to further our understanding of British social life and relations.

‘Long live our noble Queen’

This was one line in the British national anthem that we sang, and it was repeated in a few stanzas, but we usually were made to sing only the first one. At some stage we had seen pictures of her coronation in 1952, but when we were singing as school kids I had no idea that she would really live so long, or that I would meet her one day.

That was in 1992, when as a Commonwealth Fellow (nominated by the Commonwealth Medical Association) I and my eleven other Fellows from different professions, along with the Director General of the Commonwealth Foundation and two staff, accompanied by the Chairman of the Foundation, were received by her at Buckingham Palace, for nearly 45 minutes. I recall my immediate reaction of seeing her: oh, she’s rather short, and her face is so wrinkled!

But it was a very pleasant meeting, and she met us in small groups and chatted freely about several things as we sipped champagne. And she remembered her trip to Mauritius in 1971 I think, the picnic they enjoyed on the beach in the north of the island, and that it was very hot.

As I watched the BBC channel showing some of the celebrations on her 90th birthday, I thought she looked rather fit despite her age, but obviously had slowed down. The reactions recorded among viewers randomly confirm that she is still generally held in high regard by her subjects in England, but apparently there are some who think otherwise about the monarchy and its future.

The Independent UK Online reports that ‘The republican movement in Britain has announced it will campaign to make the case for holding a referendum on the future of the British monarchy after the Queen’s death’.

Rather drastically, the grassroots movement, that has over 5,000 members and 35,000 supporters, ‘claims the British monarchy is not the “harmless tourist attraction some people think” – rather, it has a history of abusing public money and meddling in politics’.

‘Speaking to The Independent Graham Smith, chief executive of Republic, said the organisation’s view is to have a referendum as soon as possible. He believes the period of time in between the Queen’s funeral and Prince Charles’s coronation will provide an opportune moment’.

Given her pedigree, her mother having made it to over a hundred, I guess the Republicans will have to be patient.

For my part, I have enjoyed my contacts and interactions with ‘Britishdom’ in its different facets and at different levels. In due course, little will remain of that as Europe and together with it the UK changes, which is happening already. And that is inevitable.

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016

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