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Posts Tagged ‘colonialism

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”*…

Detail from the Constitution of India, 1949

Bulwer-Lytton had nothing on Indian jurists…

The English language arrived in India with the British colonists of the 17th century, giving rise to unique genres and variants, including some that characterize formal communications on the subcontinent to this day. Among these, the derogatory term “Babu English” was originally used by the British to describe the overwrought officialese of “babus” or Indian bureaucratsa style described at the British Library as “aspiring to poetic heights in vocabulary and learning, despite being full of errors.” 

“Babu English is the much caricatured flowery language of… moderately educated clerks and others who are less proficient in formal English than they realise,” wrote Rajend Mesthrie in English in Language Shift (1993). His examples include the clerk who asked his employers for leave because ‘the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket’; the job applicant “bubbling with zeal and enthusiasm to serve as a research assistant”; and a baroque acknowledgement from a PhD thesis: “I consider it to be my primordial obligation to humbly offer my deepest sense of gratitude to my most revered Garuji and untiring and illustrious guide professor . . . for the magnitude of his benevolence and eternal guidance.”

The modern form of Babu English turns up most frequently in the language of India’s legal system. 

Take for example the 2008 case of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar, who was killed, together with a housekeeper, Hemraj, in the Talwar family home in Delhi; the murder rocked the nation. In 2013, a trial court ruled that the victims had been murdered by the girl’s parents:

The cynosure of judicial determination is the fluctuating fortunes of the dentist couple who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of the murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress Ms Aarushi and hapless domestic aide Hemraj who had migrated to India from neighbouring Nepal to eke out living and attended routinely to the chores of domestic drudgery at the house of their masters.” 

Had the judge accidentally inhaled a thesaurus? With its tormented syntax and glut of polysyllabic words, the judgment is a clear descendant and example of today’s Babu prose. In May 2016, a landmark judgment on criminal defamation written by a future Chief Justice pushed into new stylistic directions with phrases such as “proponements in oppugnation” and “made paraplegic on the mercurial stance.”

“It seems that some judges have unrealised literary dreams,” one former judge told me. “Maybe it’s a colonial hangover, or the feeling that obfuscation is a sign of merit… It can then become a 300-page judgment, just pontificating.”

Judges also retain a tendency to also quote scripture, allude to legends and myths, and throw in a dash of Plato, Shakespeare or Dickens. Some trace the legacy of flowery judgments to Justice Krishna Iyer, a pioneering and influential Supreme Court judge who served a seven-year term in the seventies. (“You had to perhaps sit with a dictionary to understand some [of his] judgments,” one lawyer remarked.)

But the former judge pointed out that this isn’t just a problem bedevilling judgments written in English. Even lower court judgments written in Hindi, he said, often deploy “words that were in vogue in Mughal times… It’s a problem of formalism.”

… 

Wherefore, qua, bonum: decrypting Indian legalese“: a colonial hangover, or unrealized literary dreams? Mumbai-based @BhavyaDore explores.

* George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

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As we choose our words carefully, we might send passionate birthday greetings to Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland; she was born on this date in 1901. A paragon of prolixity, Barbara Cartland wrote biographies, plays, music, verse, drama, and operetta, as well as several health and cook books, and many magazine articles; but she is best remembered as a romance novelist, one of the most commercially successful authors worldwide of the 20th century.

Her 723 novels were translated into 38 languages. and she continues to be referenced in the Guinness World Records for the most novels published in a single year (1977). Estimates of her sales range from 750 million copies to over 2 billion.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Maps codify the miracle of existence”*…

… and almost always, something more…

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps”, says the seafaring raconteur Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). “At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.'” Of course, these “blank spaces” were anything but. The no-man’s-lands that colonial explorers like Marlow found most inviting (the Congo River basin, Tasmania, the Andaman Islands) were, in fact, richly populated, and faced devastating consequences in the name of imperial expansion.

In the same troublesome vein as Marlow, Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas painted cartographic knowledge as a candle coruscating against the void of ignorance, represented in his unique vision by a broiling mass of black cloud. Each map represents the bounds of geographical learning at a particular point in history, from a specific civilizational perspective, beginning with Eden, circa “B.C. 2348”. In the next map titled “B.C. 1491. The Exodus of the Israelites”, Armenia, Assyria, Arabia, Aram, and Egypt form an island of light, pushing back the black clouds of unknowing. As history progresses — through various Roman dynasties, the reign of Charlemagne, and the Crusades — the foul weather retreats further. In the map titled “A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America”, the transatlantic exploits of the so-called Age of Discovery force Quin to employ a shift in scale — the luminescence of his globe now extends to include Africa and most of Asia, but North America hides behind cumulus clouds, with its “unnamed” eastern shores peeking out from beneath a storm of oblivion. In the Atlas‘ last map, we find a world without darkness, not a trace of cloud. Instead, unexplored territories stretch out in the pale brown of vellum parchment, demarcating “barbarous and uncivilized countries”, as if the hinterlands of Africa and Canada are awaiting colonial inscription. 

Looking back from a contemporary vantage, the Historical Atlas remains memorable for what is not shown. Quin’s cartography inadvertently visualizes the ideology of empire: a geographic chauvinism that had little respect for the knowledge of those beyond imperial borders. And aside from depicting the reach of Kublai Khan, his focus remains narrowly European and Judeo-Christian. While Quin strives for accuracy, he admits to programmatic omission. “The colours we have used being generally meant to point out and distinguish one state or empire from another. . . were obviously inapplicable to deserts peopled by tribes having no settled form of government, or political existence, or known territorial limits”. Instead of representing these groups, Quin, like his clouds, has erased them from view.

Clouds of Unknowing: Edward Quin’s (1830) Historical Atlas. From the David Rumsey Map Collection (via the Internet Archive), where you can view it all. Via the invaluable Public Domain Review (@PublicDomainRev).

* Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet

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As we find our place, we might recall that it was on this date in 1971 that an epic mapping expedition began: NASA launched the Mariner 9 space probe, the first space craft to orbit Mars (or any other planet). Mariner 9 was designed to continue the atmospheric studies begun by Mariner 6 and 7, and to map over 70% of the Martian surface from the lowest altitude (930 mi) and at the highest resolutions (from 1,100 to 110 yards per pixel) of any Mars mission up to that point. After a spate of dust storms on the planet for several months following its arrival, the orbiter managed to send back clear pictures of the surface. Mariner 9 successfully returned 7,329 images over the course of its mission, which concluded in October 1972.

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“He who controls the spice controls the universe”*

 

Spices

 

Spices were among the first engines of globalization, not in the modern sense of a world engulfed by ever-larger corporations but in the ways that we began to become aware, desirous even, of cultures other than our own. Such desire, unchecked, once led to colonialism. After Dutch merchants nearly tripled the price of black pepper, the British countered in 1600 by founding the East India Company, a precursor to modern multinationals and the first step toward the Raj. In the following decades, the Dutch sought a monopoly on cloves, which once had grown nowhere but the tropical islands of Ternate and Tidore in what is today Indonesia, and then in 1652 introduced the scorched-earth policy known as extirpation, felling and burning tens of thousands of clove trees. This was both an ecological disaster and horribly effective: For more than a century, the Dutch kept supplies low and prices high, until a Frenchman (surnamed, in one of history’s inside jokes, Poivre, or “pepper”) arranged a commando operation to smuggle out a few clove-tree seedlings. Among their ultimate destinations were Zanzibar and Pemba, off the coast of East Africa, which until the mid-20th century dominated the world’s clove market.

The craving for spices still brings the risk of exploitation, both economically, as farmers in the developing world see only a sliver of the profits, and in the form of cultural appropriation. In the West, we’re prone to taking what isn’t ours and acting as if we discovered it, conveniently forgetting its history and context. Or else we reduce it to caricature, cooing over turmeric-stained golden lattes while invoking the mystic wisdom of the East. At the same time, a world without borrowing and learning from our neighbors would be pallid and parochial — a world, in effect, without spice…

From turmeric in Nicaragua to cardamom in Guatemala, nonnative ingredients are redefining trade routes and making unexpected connections across lands: “How Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires.”

* Frank Herbert, Dune

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As we go deep on dash, we might recall that this is National Buffet Day.  The concept of the buffet arose in mid 17th century France, when gentleman callers would arrive unexpectedly at the homes of ladies they wanted to woo.  It was popularized in 18th century France and quickly spread throughout Europe.  The all-you-can-eat buffet made its restaurant debut in 1946, when it was introduced by Vegas hotel manager Herb MacDonald.  By the mid-1960s, virtually every casino in Las Vegas sported its own variation.  Today, of course, buffets are regularly available not only in any/every Vegas casino, but also in thousands of Indian and Chinese restaurants and ubiquitous chains of “family restaurants.”

buffet source

 

 

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 2, 2020 at 1:01 am

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is”*…

 

Government

 

In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.

In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen ⁠— and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.

While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.

Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?…

More (including explanations of the methodology and categories used) at “Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government.” (For perspectives on the caution at the end of the quoted passage above, see here and here.)

* Thomas Jefferson’s harsh verdict, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson

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As we organize our thoughts about social organization, we might recall that it was on this date that President Millard Fillmore signed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One of the most controversial elements of the Compromise of 1850, it heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy” by required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law”, for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership.  In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave.  Since a suspected slave had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery. (The film 12 Years a Slave was based on one such abduction– the kidnapping and bondage of Solomon Northrup.)

170px-Slave_kidnap_post_1851_boston

An 1851 poster warned the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past”*…

 

Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, approached by a Berber on camelback; detail from <i>The Catalan Atlas</i>, attributed to the Majorcan mapmaker Abraham Cresques, 1375

Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, approached by a Berber on camelback; detail from The Catalan Atlas, attributed to the Majorcan mapmaker Abraham Cresques, 1375

 

There is a broad strain in Western thought that has long treated Africa as existing outside of history and progress; it ranges from some of our most famous thinkers to the entertainment that generations of children have grown up with. There are Disney cartoons that depict barely clothed African cannibals merrily stewing their victims in giant pots suspended above pit fires. Among intellectuals there is a wealth of appalling examples. Voltaire said of Africans, “A time will come, without a doubt, when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth well, to embellish it with houses and gardens, and to know the routes of the stars. Time is a must, for everything.” Hegel’s views of Africa were even more sweeping: “What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.” One can hear echoes of such views even today from Western politicians. Donald Trump referred to a number of African nations as “shithole countries” in 2018, and French president Emmanuel Macron said in 2017, “The challenge Africa faces is completely different and much deeper” than those faced by Europe. “It is civilizational.”

It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present…

The estimable Howard French provides an introduction to recent scholarship on “Africa’s Lost Kingdoms.”

* Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father

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As we realize that the continent’s “darkness” is our own, we might send respectful birthday greetings to Mangena Mokone; he was born on this date in 1851.  A Wesleyan minister who chafed under the implications of the Church’s (and their colonial partners’) color bar, he left to found the Ethiopian Church in 1892, starting the Ethiopian Movement, which was motivated by the desire for a more African and relevant Christianity, for the restoration of tribal life, and for political and cultural autonomy expressed in the slogan “Africa for the Africans” (and also in the word “Ethiopianism”).

Ethiopianism source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

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