Ha! A funny (but nice) comment on a talk I gave recently in Southampton:

Check out Jon Beasley-Murray’s talk here. Proof that you can turn up straight from the airport with too many bright yellow, text only slides and a low key presentation style and still carry an audience through lots of well grounded theorising accessible to non academics like me. If you want to explore why there is so much more to Wikipedia than meets the eye while side-stepping the cliched debates about its worth (reliability etc etc), then get a cup of tea and and enjoy this. (Paul Sweeney, “Southampton E-Learning Symposium 2011”)

I was rather pleased with the yellow background for my Powerpoint slides; as you can see from this blog, I generally like yellow as a background for text. Oh well.

It’s true that the trip was a little crazy: after a transatlantic flight we turned up at Heathrow and were met by a man with a hired car who drove us straight to the conference pretty much just in time for my talk. And then we took a lift back into London, only to be swallowed up for hours by rush-hour traffic, inching along somewhere in the environs of Barnes when we were hoping to be going to New Cross. Thirty-six hours later, we flew back.


Panama City feels like a cross between Havana and Hong Kong. Like Havana, its downtown “Casco Viejo” displays the faded elegance of dilapidated balconied buildings alongside ruined colonial churches. Though gentrification is driving out the working class families who lounge in living rooms that open right on to the street, for the time being the area is still edgy and cheap enough to be a backpacker’s dream. Like Hong Kong, on the other hand, on the other side of the bay the Panamanian capital is a city of high rises and unabated construction. Soon it is due to be home of nine of the ten tallest buildings in Latin America, and the speed at which the towers go up seems hardly to have been affected by the global financial crisis which elsewhere has hit property especially hard.

Panama spans the various epochs of colonialism that shaped first Havana, as one of the fortified cities shepherding silver and gold bullion from South American mines to Spanish ports, and then Hong Kong, as a vital node in a global network of free trade. Even now, Panama is shaped mostly by the wealth the flows through it, whether that be thanks to its new-found prominence at the end of the Central American gringo trail, or the combination of speculation and money-laundering that have fuelled its real estate boom.

Above all, Panama is still shaped by the canal without which it would never have existed as an independent country. You can sit and watch the container ships pass through the locks at either Miraflores (at the Pacific end of the transit) or Gatún (at the Caribbean). Each is carrying perhaps millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise, and paying hundreds of thousands for the privilege of taking its goods through the isthmus rather than the long way around South America, via Cape Horn. In turn, the size of the canal locks has long determined the breadth and length of the majority of the world’s ocean-going container fleet. Only now, with a new breed of “post-Panamax” ships, is the canal to be widened and deepened, at a cost of up to $5 billion.

Panama has always flourished by siphoning off some of the capital that flows through its borders. In turn, however, it has always been vulnerable to those who wish to prey on its own parasitism. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, these were pirates, most notably the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan who destroyed the first incarnation of Panama City and repeatedly attacked the fortresses (such as San Lorenzo and Portobelo) that guarded its Caribbean flanks. Today the profiteers are the more anonymous and decidedly less romantic figures of the bankers, real estate agents, and construction interests, as well of course as the usual litany of corrupt official in the public sector.

For the spoils of Panama’s fortune have hardly been divided equally, and indeed have been the ruin of many. The canal itself, and the railway that preceded it, was only built at the cost of tens of thousands of lives from among the labor force that flocked from around the Caribbean and across the world. Some of the survivors’ descendants now live in cities such as Colón, which is essentially one large (and rather dangerous) slum, avoided by backpackers and speculators alike.

When I was in Colón, in a city-center mall with plenty of vacant store lots that had rather over-optimistically been built to attract cruise passengers, hundreds of senior citizens were patiently sitting in line. They were there to register with a scheme promulgated by the new president, Ricardo Martinelli, whose government has pledged them a pension of $100 a month. This handout is no doubt a populist gesture, but for those who aren’t in a position to start sailing under a black flag or Jolly Roger, such gestures are welcome.


Guyane, I was told, makes Europeans go crazy. Or maybe it just attracts the ones who are crazy already. It’s like a mental asylum for white people.

Officially an integral part of France (the only place on the South American mainland where the currency is the Euro), Guyane attracts legions of fonctionnaires–civil servants and public sector workers–from Europe. They work in administration and in the schools, in customs and in the police; there is also a sizeable contingent from the armed forces, plus the Guiana Space Center in Kourou draws technicians and scientists.

French workers in Guyane are paid a premium–i.e., more than they would be earning back home–both, again I was told, to compensate for the discomfort and sacrifice of life in the tropics, and in recognition of the fact that the cost of living in Guyane is (perhaps surprisingly) higher than that in Paris.

But still the métropolitains complain. They are bored and easily distracted; they lament their distance from the metropolis, their confinement in this “enfer vert” or green hell; they turn to drink, to drugs, to sex. They go a little bit crazy.

Same as it ever was. Guyane is a reminder that colonialism, at least as experienced by the colonizer, was always as much about boredom and minor debauchery as it was about the exercise of power. It involved a few too many gin and tonics at the club in the afternoon, perhaps followed by a drunken trip to the local brothel. Or as Carolyn Fick puts it of eighteenth-century Haiti, “for the colonial planter, life was generally one of monotony and isolation, compensated by sheer dissipation and indulgence” (The Making of Haiti 16).

Of course, Guyane is not an exact incarnation of traditional colonialism, but then it never was: it was above all a penal colony, rather than the site of agricultural production and exploitation; indeed, even now, compared to Suriname and Guyana there is for instance very little sugar processed or rum distilled. Its economy is dependent upon subsidies, and the people draw welfare from the French state. Unemployment is a particular problem.

If anything, Guyane is an instance of colonialism inverted: where the plantation system depended on black slaves who were forced to work without pay, contemporary welfare colonialism involves paying people to compensate for the fact that they can’t work. And yet, strangely, everything else remains the same.


The Guianas don’t fit well within our conception of Latin America. For instance, at the last Latin American Studies Association congress (in Rio de Janeiro earlier this summer), there wasn’t a single paper on this part of the world among 1,270 panels. Guyana, Suriname, and Guyane are a geographical oddity: in South America but not of it.

In fact, it’s surprisingly difficult even to travel to the Guianas from elsewhere in Latin America: there are no road links between Guyana and its neighbor Venezuela, for instance, while from Brazil the only overland links are to Guyana connecting with the difficult road from Lethem, and to Guyane via a boat across the Oyapock river to the rather lonely outpost of Saint-Georges de l’Oyapock. Meanwhile, air services are limited to a fairly intermittent schedule by small plane between the northern Brazilian cities of Boa Vista and Belém to Georgetown and Paramaribo. The Guianas are much better connected to North America and Europe (with direct flights for instance to Toronto and Amsterdam), and to the Caribbean via Trinidad and Tobago.

Guyana, or its populated coastal strip at least, is Caribbean in culture and outlook even though in fact it borders the Atlantic Ocean directly. Guyane has probably a fair amount in common with other French overseas departments such as Martinique and Réunion. Suriname, however, appears to be a case apart.

Compared to Guyana, the first thing to strike you is how orderly and even tidy Suriname is. In part, this is a consequence of the fact that the population is much smaller (less than half a million compared to Guyana’s 750,000) and that more than half live in the capital, Paramaribo. Here, there is not the same profusion of people strung out along the coastal road. But even in Paramaribo itself, especially the historic core near the Suriname river, there is a marked absence of litter along the narrow streets that are flanked by often impressively-restored colonial-era wooden buildings. It’s all very… well, Dutch. There are even blond-haired youths dashing around on bicycles (though to be fair these seem to be tourists).

On the riverfront there is a delightful open-air food market with stalls selling creole and Javanese dishes, music playing, and people hanging out, drinking beer, taking a stroll, or (while I was there at least, during the Confederations Cup) watching football on television. Nearby are some fairly fancy bars and restaurants, as well as all the major public buildings: the national palace, the Treasury and other ministries, and the impressively huge wooden Cathedral.

Not far away, also by the river, is Fort Zeelandia, well preserved and immaculately restored with permanent and temporary exhibitions devoted to the former colony’s history. Everything’s beautifully and professionally arrayed. By contrast, in Georgetown, Guyana, when I went looking for the former fort nobody knew where it was and I found myself straying through a decidedly ramshackle area full of weeds and rusted old vehicles.

Yet there’s a darker underside to Suriname, too, for all its polished and cultivated sheen. For Fort Zeelandia was, not all that long ago, the site of the so-called “December murders” in which on December 8, 1982, fifteen opponents of the military government then in power were killed in circumstances that have still to be fully clarified. Suriname is not so far distant from the rest of Latin America in that in the 1980s it, like much of the rest of the continent, was also subject to a succession of coups and military leaders. And though these regimes were not particularly bloody, the transition from dictatorship was messy to say the least, with a rebellion by former maroons from the interior and east of the country, and a short but fairly brutal civil war.

As so often, a country that is apparently set apart from the region in fact has more in common with the rest of Latin America than its inhabitants (and its tourist office) might want to acknowledge. There are few, if any, real exceptions in the history of the Americas.

Link: OAS Report on the Human Rights Situation in Suriname (1983), including discussion of the “December murders.”


Evelyn Waugh’s 92 Days is an account of a trip, in 1933, through what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) and the far north of Brazil. Last month I covered some of the same territory, traveling from Boa Vista via Lethem to Georgetown overland, and then on to New Amsterdam. Our means of transportation, however, were rather different: I felt that the sixteen-hour bone-shaking ride in a minibus to the Caribbean coast was bad enough; but for Waugh it was a question of several weeks on horseback, on foot, and in a succession of riverboats. Each stage of the journey in the 1930s involved organizing a small expedition, taking in supplies, hiring horses and porters, or waiting days for the uncertain arrival of mailboats.

Waugh goes out of his way to underline the discomforts of travel, from the sheer physical exertion (not least when he is half-lame thanks to an inflamed foot) to the hordes of biting insects, or from the poor food to the often even poorer company. As he says, “There are a hundred excellent reasons for rough travelling, but good living is not one of them” (135). The book is a catalogue of frustration, delay, deprivation, and discomfort to which Waugh only gradually becomes inured.

It is the fact that Waugh becomes (at least relatively) inured to these daily discomforts that prevents the book from ever becoming a tale of high adventure. And after all, the author is seldom in great danger; the one point at which his expedition is truly at risk of disaster, when he becomes totally lost, he is supremely unaware of the fact until fortuitously meeting the man who will set him back on the right track. Hence there is little in the way of tension or drama in Waugh’s rather stately progress through jungle and savannah. Indeed, the atmosphere is rather one of some tedium in which obstacles are rendered merely disagreeable inconveniences.

We might even begin to wonder what are the “hundred excellent reasons” for such a trip. To the extent that his voyage is not completely aimless, Waugh fails in its ostensible goal: he hopes to go to Manaus, but after a fruitless week or two hanging around in Boa Vista, he turns tail and goes back the way he came.

Boa Vista itself, which by default then becomes his ultimate destination, proves a vast disappointment. He had heard mainly tales of the town’s magnificence: “I had come to regard it as Middle Western Americans look on Paris, as Chekhov peasants on St Petersburg. In the discomforts of the journey there, I had looked forward to the soft living of Boa Vista” (99). And yet when he finally arrives, Waugh soon finds the place miserable and squalid and that “all that extravagant and highly improbable expectation had been obliterated like a sandcastle beneath the encroaching tide” (103). Even the place’s one distinguishing feature, its remarkably high rate of homicide, turns out to be shabby and unremarkable: “It was the first time in my life that I found myself in contact with a society in which murder was regarded as being as common and mildly regrettable as divorce in England; there was no glamour in it; I found it neither heroic nor horrifying” (107).

Throughout, indeed, Waugh deflates any sense of cultural difference, however much he also indicates that the Europeans stranded in this vast landscape are all slightly insane while the indigenous and the blacks are invariably sullen and ugly. They are no more so than his compatriots back home: “In fact the more I saw of Indians the greater I was struck by their similarity to the English. The like living with their families at great distances from their neighbours; they regard strangers with suspicion and despair; they are unprogressive and unambitious, fond of pets, hunting, and fishing” (41) and so on.

Obviously, Waugh does also seek to exploit the comic value in these determinedly unexotic comparisons. And yet the book rather falls between two stools, as it is not on the whole a comic memoir. Enough sense of discomfort and frustration comes through that cannot quite be laughed ironically away. Nor is the voyage ever quite redeemed by any soul-searching or other forms of enlightenment, however much so many of the people he meets are in one way or another obsessed with religion and metaphysics.

As Pauline Melville points out in her thoughtful afterword, the key is no doubt in “what the author chose not to reveal”:

Waugh states that the journey was undertaken for reasons of adventure and to collect material for a book. This is not the whole truth. He was in despair. His marriage had broken down after the bitter discovery that he had been betrayed and cuckolded. Humiliation drove Waugh to seek solace in what he describes as the “most far-flung and wild region of the British Empire.” (211)

In this light, the apparently trivializing comparison of murder in northern Brazil to divorce in the home counties takes on new significance. Perhaps, in fact, for Waugh the emphasis was the other way around: that as far as he was concerned, divorce was like murder, however unglamorous it may also have been.

Link: Nicholas Lezard’s review of the book for The Guardian.


Boa Vista is not far from the site of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World,” and at times it feels that way. The capital of Roraima State in Brazil’s far north, near the border with Venezuela and Guayana, is a tropical backwater.

Down by the Rio Branco, the river on whose banks the city sits, there is a small complex of restaurants, bars, and cafes, but even on Saturday night half of them were closed and the other half were almost empty. Two solo guitarists, singing Brazilian popular hits, competed for what little attention that there was. A few couples lounged around, either at the outside tables or on the benches of the park alongside. A small child running around provided what little life that there was.

Earlier in the day there had been some kind of festivities on the other side of town, part the “Festa Junina,” celebrated throughout Brazil in honor of the Summer Solstice and the Saints Anthony and John. Stalls and playgrounds had been set out, and loud music blared. But by five o’clock things had already wound down, tables were being cleared and chairs stacked.

The architecture, and the history that that architecture reflects, probably doesn’t help. Boa Vista is quite clearly a planned town, with wide avenues radiating from a large (but quite unfrequented) central park. From above, or rather from Google Maps, it looks rather like the “arched window” from Play School.

Though there are a few older buildings down by the waterfront, mostly (with the exception of a beautiful church, painted in strident yellow) in a state of some disrepair, the town is now characterized by broad expanses dotted with the occasional modernist monument. The cathedral, for instance, is composed of sweeping concrete curves. A stadium further out shows similar attempts to make an architectural statement. The tallest structure in town (and no doubt the only one from which a “good view” can be found) is a concrete tube whose purpose is not immediately evident. Overall, it’s as though Boa Vista had been envisaged as some kind of mini-Brasilia, a means to impose order on an otherwise dauntingly vast landscape of forest and plains.

But Boa Vista’s history goes back further than Brasilia’s. The small cluster of older buildings has been supplemented by a concrete, three-dimensional mural commemorating the pioneers and their “courage and hope” that founded the city back in the early to mid nineteenth century. It depicts a mounted settler who is leaping out of a canoe, his arm thrusting forwards, only to land on the shoulder of an oversized, naked indigenous youth.

For this is also the territory of Macunaíma, and so in some ways of some of Brazil’s founding mythology. Macunaíma, here represented as the first inhabitant of the Rio Branco, is the eponymous subject of Mário de Andrade’s 1928 novel, which traces the young man’s journey from the jungle to Rio and São Paulo and back again, in the process uniting ancient and modern, indigenous and white, interior and coast in the image of a single if diverse national culture.

In such narratives (and there are many other similar ones–the successful film Central Station comes to mind, for instance) backwaters such as Boa Vista are recreated less as the site of a lost world than as the place where Brazil finally finds itself.

Perhaps no more. When I asked at my hotel’s reception how to get to the town center, I was directed neither to the historic nor to the modern centers, but to what turned out to be a huge supermarket some blocks from either. Are Brazilians, too, now lost in the supermarket?