The Last Pink Bits: Travels Through the Remnants of the British Empire, by Harry Ritchie, is distributed in the United States by Trafalgar Square, North Pomfret, Vermont. Tel: 800-423-4525, $13.95, paperback, 1999.
On the verge of the new Millennium, Britain is poised to look both nervously ahead to its uncertain future and nostalgically back at its glorious past. With the advent of the European Union, Britain’s position as a world power is even more uncertain and, at times like these, the country could use a reminder of its once unrivalled position as a world leader.
The British Empire at one time included 20 per cent of the world’s land and 25 per cent of its population. The famously dubbed “Empire on which the sun never sets” covered the globe–usually marked by map-makers in red. With the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997, the population of Britain’s overseas possessions dropped from over six million to just over 150,000, and all that remains of Britain’s once-glorious empire is a collection of far-flung territories–still designated on most maps by their traditional colour–scattered around the globe.
Harry Ritchie alludes to this cartographic representation of the former empire in the title of his delightful The Last Pink Bits: Travels Through the Remnants of the British Empire.
In his succinct introduction, Ritchie traces the downfall of the British Empire back to the point at which things began to fall apart. He quotes Lord Curzon: “As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straightaway to a third-rate power.” Little did he know the truth of those words. Precisely 50 years after the loss of India, the handover of Hong Kong completed the process and cemented Britain’s status as a “former” colonial power.
Although their fathers and grand-fathers may have worked as civil servants in the vast bureaucracy that maintained it, most Britons’ knowledge of the former British empire comes only from history books. Ritchie himself admits that “Like a lot of people, I used to assume that Britain had lost or deliberately mislaid all its last imperial territories by about the time the Beatles were splitting up.” It took a chance glimpse at the back of the Pears Cyclopaedia to teach him otherwise. What he learned amazed him–the list of “Members of the Commonwealth” comprised 17 countries, including Hong Kong, as well as Anguilla, Ascension Island, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St. Helena, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, Tristan da Cunha, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The list also included several uninhabited places, and dependencies of those dependencies.
What had become of these tiny little pieces of the former empire? How had their people evolved in the fading shadow of the Crown? Ritchie decided that he wanted to find out. He chose a number of the more accessible locales on the list and packed his bags. Before he left, he mused about what he might find:
“I thought that what I’d find in these outposts would be an odd, touching, and farcically inappropriate Britishness, or what the natives mistakenly thought of as Britishness–gin-swilling nobs toasting Charles and Diana, pith-helmeted exiles who pined for farthings and Arthur Askey, EIIR pillar boxes in the middle of the tropics, cricketing Falkland Islanders shivering in five layers of whites, bekilted folk tossing cabers along Bermudian beaches, Tristanian cottages wallpapered with the Picture Post.”
The reality he discovered was quite different. Each of the book’s seven chapters is devoted to an individual locale. In the course of his travels, Ritchie visited Bermuda, Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Tristan da Cunha, and St. Helena.
In an elegant and engaging writing style that befits his former position as Literary Editor of The Sunday Times, Ritchie takes his readers to each of these places and lets them discover, right along with him, the truth about the remnants of the British Empire. What he discovered surprised and even amazed him. He recounts his tales with humour and the self-effacing wit peculiar to the British.
All in all, Ritchie’s seven pilgrimages make for a delightful tour of British history. They also provide a refreshing reality check for those who think of the legacy of the Empire as dead and gone.
Leigh Ann Berry