Burma’s Anti-Colonial Imperialist

No, not George Orwell. And no, (for those more familiar with Southeast Asian history) not John Furnivall. There was another more trenchant and less ambiguous critic of British imperialism in the interwar years: Bernard Houghton. Having served in the Burma branch of the Indian Civil Service from 1886 until his retirement in 1912, he began writing polemical diatribes against British colonial rule in India and Burma following the end of the Great War. In these pamphlet length publications, he drew on Freudian psychoanalysis to analyze the imperial mindset and argued passionately for the liberation of Britain’s Asian colonial possessions.

I had previously come across Bernard Houghton during my research, but only in official correspondence. I found out about his later anti-colonial writings from a fascinating recent article on psychology in the British Empire by Erik Linstrum. Houghton was an unlikely source for these unapologetically radical political tracts. During his career in Burma he wrote numerous articles on Burmese languages in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in the removed, scientific prose typical of late nineteenth-century Orientalist scholarship. These articles could not contrast more sharply with the rapid, passionate and engaging writing of his retirement works, such as The Mind of the Government of India. Using Freud, Houghton drew on an array of historical examples of human cruelty, such as slavery, witchcraft crazes, and the futile mass death of the War, to illustrate the destructive role played by ‘group suggestion’ on the unconscious of individuals. Houghton believed that this pack mentality motivated otherwise moral individuals to commit or condone horrific atrocities. Applying this to colonial societies, he argued that imperial governments were influenced by the ‘group suggestion’ of foreigners, rather than the local population. As a result of this pressure on the collective unconscious mind of the colonial government, British officials invariably perceived Indian and Burmese nationalists’ legitimate grievances and aspirations as threats motivated by envy and hatred. This he called the ‘incurable vice’ of imperialism.

I have found no hint of Houghton’s later radicalism in his earlier career. On his retirement the Bassien News reported that, ‘No head of a District or Division has ever left his charge amid such expressions of unfeigned regret from every class of the community as Mr. Bernard Houghton, B.A., I.C.S.’ The writer went on to describe him as, ‘A Man in the truest sense of the word – a most manly man at the same time that he was a most chivalrous highly-cultured gentleman. A man like Mr. Houghton, maintaining in his own person and by his own example the prestige of the English race, is of more value to the Empire than cohorts of warships.’ He was portrayed as embodying the apotheosis of imperial masculinity. So what changed?

It might be tempting to seek answers within Houghton’s biography, tracing the events in his life that led to his conversion to anti-colonial radicalism. Whilst this might be part of an answer, I think that this is limiting and belittles Houghton’s own endeavour to link individual psychology to bigger historical contexts. Instead, I would posit two more general suggestions. We might read his imperial career in the light of his later work. His exemplary performance as a colonial official might have been exactly that, a performance. In his short story ‘Shooting an Elephant’, George Orwell described a similar anxiety about performing his race, writing that a European in the colonies wears a mask of racial superiority and ‘his face grows to fit it’. For Orwell the pressure to perform this imperial Whiteness came from a ‘sea of yellow faces’. Houghton’s critique of empire instead pinpoints the psychological pressure coming from his fellow British officials, the kind of experience captured in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. The tension between liberal political values and the despotism of colonial rule in British India, it has been argued, left British officials feeling ‘not at home in empire’. Perhaps Houghton was exorcising long-held but unarticulated, or even previously unsayable, tensions and anxieties about performing imperial masculinity?

My second suggestion would be that the First World War may have been a critical turning point for imperial psychology. The historical argument that Britain’s relationship with its empire was fundamentally altered by the War, being simultaneously weaker in its capacity to hold it together and more dependent upon it, has been in circulation for some time. As has the idea that Europe’s moral authority in the eyes of colonized populations (if it ever had much) was undermined by the brutality of mechanized trench warfare. In Houghton’s case, though, the War seems to have destroyed any justifications for empire. Was there an almost imperceptible psychological shift in the interwar years that undermined the morality of imperialism? This shift was perhaps captured in Virginnia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in a conversation between the aging Aunt Helena and the jaded colonial official Peter Walsh about Burma. Aunt Helena embodied the spirit of the empire, despite being ‘Debarred by her sex’ from serving. But this was a fading spirit, one that Peter Walsh was ambivalent about:

…she had thought of Empire always at hand, and had acquired from her association with that armoured goddess her ramrod bearing, her robustness of demeanour, so that one could not figure her even in death parted from the earth or roaming territories over which, in some spiritual shape, the Union Jack had ceased to fly.

Perhaps in the post-War world, armed with psychoanalytical insight, Bernard Houghton could now express anxieties about imperialism because, for him at least, empire ‘in some spiritual shape’ was over.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Katie Taylor says:

    Interesting to read. Thank you! Bernard was my great grandfather albeit the illegitimate side. He had a liaison with a Burmese woman and the result was my grandmother Viola Ellen. I often wonder how serious this relationship was given that he went on to marry a respectable English woman whilst ensuring that Viola was educated privately in Darjeeling. I hope he always kept her in his heart. I see from his writings that he had integrity.

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Thank you Katie, glad you found it interesting. I didn’t know that he had a liaison with a Burmese woman. This was rather common in Burma, although it was strongly discouraged by the upper-echelons of the Government of India, who were particularly set against marriages across the racial divide. Thanks for commenting.

    2. Katie, we are related! Via Bernard. Check out my blog, and contact if you’d like to.

    3. Rina C. says:

      Dear Katie, please do be in contact akyabtree@gmail.com. I am archiving a whole of B. Houghton stuff.

  2. And I’m a grand-daughter. Just had your article forwarded to me and find it very interesting. Thank you indeed for your research.

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Thank you Joanna, it’s wonderful to hear from his family! He was a fascinating man, and I hope to be able find out more about his time in Burma in the future.

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