Brits Abroad: Colonialism in Literature

As classics go, it’s always rather good to escape the promenading of Wordsworth’s Lake District and Austen’s heroines fussing about in middle England when you have the chance. From Greene’s beautiful depiction of Vietnam to Rhys’ lucid longing for the Caribbean, colonial literature expands classic literature beyond the back garden to the moral and social conflicts of colonialism. While some focus on morality, romance or ideology behind these brave new worlds, the comedy of Brits struggling in foreign lands is always fertile ground for entertainment.

The Tempest, Shakespeare

One of Shakespeare’s later plays, The Tempest is a tragicomedy set on a magical island. Prospero, the betrayed Duke of Milan, steals sorcery from the beleaguered local Caliban to wreak revenge on the gentry who have washed up on the island after a storm. Critics love to jump on the references to Bacon and Montaigne’s ideas of the ‘noble savage’ – pretty cutting edge stuff at the time – amidst the colonial endeavours of Renaissance England. Caliban’s enslavement to a foreign leader, despite the island being his birthright, does look a lot like Shakespeare’s two cents on colonialism from a modern perspective. The colonial aspects do add an interesting dynamic to Prospero’s fixation on power and, along with the genre-bending, make the play a lot more gripping than girl meets boy. Definitely worth a look, or, for a pretty zany film adaptation, try Derek Jarman’s.

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

Another fictional land for a Brit to visit, but hear me out: you would struggle to find a better explorer than Crusoe, or a better example of British stoicism in unseasonable climes. Crusoe’s first-hand account chronicles his voyage from England for riches and his crash into the island. He doesn’t stop to bemoan his situation, but details his methodical approach to everything from thatching his own roof to making his own flour. By the time Man Friday comes along, Crusoe rules the roost, and eventually starts setting up his own island rule as other natives arrive. Crusoe’s blithe depiction of his struggles and easy conceit as leader are a sign of the times and, still, maintain the power to draw you into the adventure.

A Passage to India, EM Forster

Set during the British Raj in the 1920s, racial relations and the Indian independence movement are brought to boil by an accusation of sexual assault by an Indian doctor on an Englishwoman. Forster draws out the prejudices and power struggles of race through the case that is eventually brought to trial – some might see the resemblance in To Kill a Mockingbird – as well as the subtle demands of polite society on educated Indian characters that want to be accepted. Just like Henry James, Forster has a great eye for English cultural anxieties and contradictions.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Set during the French war in Vietnam, Greene draws on his own days as a war correspondent in this romantic tussle between jaded British journalist, Fowler, and young idealist American, Pyle, over Fowler’s Vietnamese lover, Phuong. The issue of colonialism, as the French lose their grip on their rule, is debated with gusto among the excitement of the battlefield and Pyle’s dedication to academic solutions to the conflict. The violence of the novel is combined with the serene corners of Vietnamese countryside and Phuong’s exotic appeal to Pyle and Fowler. Also, with all the opium being smoked – who wouldn’t when there are car bombs everywhere? – Greene captures the escape from the buttoned-up sensibilities of home that foreign territories offered.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

A lot of critics like to interpret Marlow’s journey into the depths of the Congo as a metaphorical exploration of man’s suffering, or a representation of Kurtz’s insanity. However, it’s hard to really shy away from the brutal enslavement of natives by Belgian rulers that Conrad portrays. As Conrad himself experienced as a sailor, Heart of Darkness follows the mission to source more ivory for European demand, and work slaves to death as they journey down the river. The despair and shambolic nature of the mission (a boat rots on shore for want of metal rivets) takes on mystical depths as Marlow hears more of Kurtz’s insanity as he continues to look for him. Although it isn’t the happiest of reads, the vivid description of the Congo develops into an intense poetic narrative novella that never veers from its immersive journey.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

A brilliant stab at Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Rhys portrays Mrs. Rochester’s upbringing in the Caribbean before being brought over by Mr. Rochester to England (Mrs. Rochester being Jane Eyre’s crazy woman in the attic). Where Mrs. Rochester is dehumanised and considered a pain for first going mad and then hanging around to prevent Jane marrying Mr. Rochester in the original, Rhys’ Mrs. R is driven to despair by the misery of England and isolation in the Rochester manor. Rhys’ own Creole background and superb narrative, blends colonialism with the enslavement of the marriage market and goes a long way to giving Mrs. R a life away from the attic.

Burmese Days, George Orwell

Perhaps I’ve saved the best till last. Orwell was a policeman in Burma before returning to Europe to write, and this novel is a brilliant example of Orwell’s humour and formative experience. Orwell portrays the British incomprehension of Burmese life through the absurdity of a handful of British officials stationed to rule a large expanse of the country. The boredom of the officials – drinking and gossiping while getting irritated at the mosquitoes and heat – is disrupted by the rare appearance of an eligible young Englishwoman and a Burmese doctor who wants to join the official’s social club. Written with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Orwell portrays British characters, equally hopeless in opposing and integrating with the locals, with a fragile hold on their power and own sanity in the jungle.

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General fiction reviewer and generally bumbling Literature graduate. Having recently moved from London to Wellington, she’s still getting to grips with the Kiwi accent, not having to queue for everything or saying ‘sorry’ constantly. Her literary tastes sway towards modernists, novels featuring moany women (Madam Bovary) and authors with a filthy sense of humour (Henry Miller). Read more at

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