At the start of the summer I visited the British Library to take a look at some Japanese propaganda leaflets that had been dropped over British Burma during Second World War. They accompanied the diary of John Biggs-Davison, who served as a Forward Liaison Officer on the Arakan front in 1943 (India Office Records Mss Eur D844/4). This was the place where the British Empire met the Japanese Empire, and this was the year that the balance shifted in the favor of the Allies. It was also a complex frontier in its religious and ethnic make-up, one ridden with tensions. Not only were local Muslim, Buddhist, Bama, Rakhine and Rohingya populations living there, but there were the various ethnic groups from India who served in the Indian Army, as well as allied troops consisting of Brits, Americans and Chinese soldiers and officials. As Biggs-Davison’s candid diary reveals, it was a fraught nascent border between two empires that were both on the edge. As this 1943 British Pathé new footage put it, “on the Arakan front, you’ll find a strange collection of men.”
Biggs-Davison’s diary captures the chaos and tension of the border at war. He shifts between a formal reporting of his movements, to descriptions of a bawdy, often drunken social life, and to banal snippets of his domestic life. The entries lurch from recording gruesome discoveries of the bodies of informers washing up on the banks of the river Naf, which separated the two powers, to describing the books he is reading—which was pretty eclectic, including Maurice Collis’ Siamese White, Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, and H.G. Wells’ The Fate of Homo Sapiens. He jumps from lamenting outbreaks of cholera, to observing the shenanigans of his pet dog Dinah. Some of his writing is bluntly crude. At one point he refers to one station down the river as “Fuckingham Palace”. At places, it is difficult to follow. A sentence that puzzled me, which followed a straightforward entry about some colleagues visiting him, was, “Fish and humanity oppressive.” I have no idea what this means, but the animal historian in me is intrigued. Is this a obtuse reference to an exchange between fishermen in Shakespeare’s play Pericles (2:1): “‘Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.’ ‘Why, as men do a-land—the great ones eat up the little ones'”? Whatever was meant by the comment, it helps us get a sense of Biggs-Davison’s mental state. He was on the edge.
This was an edge between two collapsing empires. It was an embryonic edge between emergent nation-states, an edge that remains contested, blurred and unfinished. It was also a psychological and social extreme. Famine, disease, violence were commonplace. Communities were tense, fractured and fractious. The diary captures a man trying to orient himself in this moment of profound global change. In 1943, on the westerly banks of the Naf, the future looked radically uncertain.