Riccardo Orizio - Lost White Tribes

Lost White Tribes: Journeys Amongst The Forgotten - Riccardo Orizio, Avril Bardoni

‘Lost White Tribes’ seem to have two different subtitles, depending on the edition. One says: “The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia, and Guadeloupe” and the other “Journeys Among the Forgotten”.

The former subtitle brings to mind dilapidated mansions, dusty heirlooms, and old people clinging onto the colonial residues with their wrinkled hands. As far as the first story goes, this image seems to be accurate - the Dutch Burghers living in Sri Lanka, reminiscing over the good old days. If they squint their eyes they can just about imagine they were still in Ceylon, ruling the island with benevolence, Dutch and proud, even though the only thing they can still say in Dutch is Het Lieve Vaderland – the rest of the anthem had to be replaced with its English version. And likely to say things like:


"Life was good in those days. There was none of this mad civil war and everyone knew their proper place; there was work for all, and we went on picnics to the seaside."

Nonetheless, the heroes of all the following chapters could hardly be described as privileged at any point of their history. They are usually wretched souls, stuck in some cul-de-sac of history and forgotten by just about everybody. Have you heard of German peasants and poor craftsmen who thought they were going to America in search of a better life but ended up in Jamaica as quasi-slaves? Some of them are still there. Or the immigrants from the American South after the end of the Civil War, who went so far southwards they ended up in Brazil, where they still talk about the damned Yankees.

There are Poles in Haiti, who arrived there with Bonaparte but the rumour has it they rebelled and joined the slave revolt. You can find a sign of that in the first Haitian Constitution which banned the whites from owning land and stripped them of other rights, but excluded Poles from those restrictions. The descendants of those Poles live in a small, poor village of Cazales, where children with blue eyes and blond hair are born in every generation.

The Basters in Namibia are like the Boers of South Africa, only without the putrid smell of apartheid. But who would remember that?

Possibly the most interesting is the last chapter about Blancs Matignon in Guadeloupe, a weird French tribe who one day up and went into the jungle where they settled, happily cutting off contact with the rest of the population of the island. With their heads full of apocryphal tales of their aristocratic and even royal origins they had to resort to incest to keep their blood pure. This group out of all described seem to have the lightest grip on reality and was also the one most convinced of their elevated status, which was hard to see considering that they were poorer than the rest of the population of Guadeloupe. Yet, they still lived in their little racist fantasy land.

Orizio leads us through those forgotten worlds in a rather chaotic manner, which irritated me a little because I occasionally couldn’t quite organise all the facts in my head in a coherent manner. This whimsical way of telling a story would have probably worked better with a subject matter that was more familiar to an average reader. Not so with very obscure episodes of the world history. Also, I can’t help but think he might have spun the story for a better dramatic effect. I found a blog written by Polish doctors who went to Haiti around fifteen years after Orizio on some sort of Doctors without Borders program and decided to visit Casales. They found a fairly modern and well-organised little village, rather than a picture of despair painted by Orizio. Of course, it could be that the village benefited from the PR and leaped forward.

Orizio's writing is generally skilled but he does channel romance novel authors when he constantly tells us his protagonists have eyes blue like the Atlantic/Mediterranean/the sky. Yes, I get it. They are white and they live in Africa/Sri Lanka/Jamaica, etc. But this droning on about blue eyes smacks of a borderline fetish.

Also, I felt that Orizio made his attitude towards his subjects a little too clear. I’d rather if he strived for objectivity. After all, he could trust the reader to pass a correct judgement on a person who says:

"I have nothing against the black,' Constance will protest with an ever-so-lightly supercilious expression on her face. 'They're decent people, as a rule. We grew up together, so what can you expect. But we're white, we're different from them. I, for example, am in the process of selling the land on which my house stands. But I won't sell it to a black. I couldn't live cheek by jowl with black people. They might be heathen. We think differently. I know that the old times are dead and gone, but - forgive me - that's what I'm used to. No blacks ever entered my house, even if they were richer than us, while I've always had to earn my living dressmaking or cooking or working in a factory.'"