GREAT FIGURES OF MISSIONARY WORK – Christian Pioneers in Burma (26)

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

In the village of Kan Yue we had lunch in one of those restaurants that served Chinese food but only in name. The cook used and abused the bittersweet flavour, even in the soup that always precedes the main course in Burma. The Mandalay beers were very fresh, though our priests friends, either by decorum or simple maintenance of appearances, opted for mineral water.

“Look at everything we eat, and I paid just over 300 kyats,” said my good friend Patrick.

At a nearby table, a green-eyed man, one of those urban “bayingyis,” was eating lunch. He was an employee of the railways and had Brito as surname. In the cities, perhaps due to the colonial administration, many of the Catholics retained the family name, hence the abundance of Sousas, Castros and Abreus in southern Myanmar.

In one of the passages of George Orwell’s novel The Days of Burma – a scathing portrait of the decline of the British Empire, whose plot dates back to the time of the Third Anglo-Burman War in 1885 – Ellis, one of the characters, a prototype of the Eurocentric and deeply racist colonial man, mentions someone called Maxwell, “who spends his life chasing the Euro-Asian whores.” This is the tone: “Do not deny it, Maxwell, I heard about your wanderings through Mandalay with a scabby whore named Molly Pereira. I bet you’d marry her if they did not transfer you here, would you? You all seem to like those grimy and stinking pudding-heads.”

These “grimy and stinking” were, still in Ellis’s words, “some Catholic natives,” who were “all at ease in our church,” guys such as Samuel and Francis, called “yellow snouts.”

This paragraph makes clear the British position vis-à-vis the Portuguese one in terms of colonial policy. The latter, open to miscegenation; the first one, totally exclusive.

Further on, Flory, the main character in Orwell s work, a man struggling to maintain his dignity in the face of the pettiness of the expatriate society, responds in the following way to a newcomer Englishwoman who was surprised by the presence of “bizarre creatures” in the church at the Sunday Mass, one of which seemed almost white: “They are Euro-Asians, daughters of white parents and native mothers. We gave them the friendly nickname of Yellow Bellies.”

A few paragraphs later, the writer, by Flory’s voice, traces the portrait of the “bayingyi” reality from that time: “Europeans do not touch them even with a stick and bar them from the access to subaltern government services. They have nothing left but to beg, unless they give up altogether to pretend to be European. And to be honest, we cannot expect the poor devils to do so. Their fair share of white blood is the only ‘existence’ they have.”

As can be seen from this passage, the claim of this very special caste of Portuguese-descendants comes from afar.

In Ellis’ view, Euro-Asians “use those huge colonial helmets to remind us that they have European skulls. A kind of coat of arms.” Then, noting that Flory sympathizes with them, he adds: “They look terribly degenerate, do not they? So skinny, so ragged, so flattering. And their faces, they are by no means honest. I think these Euro-Asians are very degenerate. Not you? I have heard that the mestizos always inherit the worst of both races.”

Flory responds that this might have to do with how they were raised and educated, reminding him that whites were responsible for their existence.

The racist Ellis then cries out his outrage: “But, after all, you are not responsible. I mean, only a man with very low instincts would be … um … capable of having relations with native women, would not he?”

Flory, sarcastically replies: “I entirely agree. But their parents were clergymen, I guess.”

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