Complicating Leonard Woolf’s Anti-Imperialism: the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend

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Although he’s more often remembered for his contributions to international relations, and of course for the fact that he was married to the legendary novelist Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf had an important literary career of his own.

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Leonard Woolf (1880-1969)

Recently I assigned his short story “Pearls and Swine,” which appears in the 1921 collection Stories of the East, for a class discussion in “English 316K: Survey of World Literature.”

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Stunning cover art by Dora Carrington; wood-cut print

In class, we talked about the short story in the context of Woolf’s political and advocacy activities following his return to England from a stint in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) from 1904-1911.  Woolf’s colonial fiction was inspired by his tenure as a colonial administrator, during which he observed the exploitation attending British economic policies aimed at “modernizing” the Ceylonese economy.  “Pearls and Swine” is based on Woolf’s experience superintending the pearl extraction industry at the Marichchukkaddi Fishery in 1906.  The story is notable for its multiple layers of narration.  It opens in the mahogany-paneled smoking room of a British club, where a character known as the Commissioner, thoroughly ambivalent about empire after his experience administering it, relates a visceral tale of the human suffering he witnessed while overseeing the pearl harvest on the north coast of Ceylon.  The unidentified narrator of the story listens silently and attentively to the Commissioner; he doesn’t speak out loud, but makes editorializing internal comments about the story and the other members of the Commissioner’s audience in the smoking room.  These characters include three men who, like the narrator and the Commissioner, remain without proper names over the course of the story.  The Colonel, the Clergyman, and the Stockjobber represent, respectively, British military, religious, and economic justifications for imperialism; collectively, they object to the anti-imperial edge of the Commissioner’s tale.

Woolf’s story takes an anti-imperial position in part by narrating pro-Empire characters in sheerly contemptuous terms.  For example, the narrator describes the Colonel as a “tubby little man” with “stupid red lips” and “kind choleric eyes bulging out on a life which he was quite content never for a moment to understand.”  Judging from his short story, it would seem that Woolf’s anti-imperialism was unequivocal.  Letters written to Woolf between 1915 and 1918 by E.W. Perera, Ceylonese lawyer and nationalist, seem to corroborate this interpretation of Woolf’s resistance to empire.  The letters, available in the Leonard Woolf Archive at the University of Sussex, indicate that Woolf participated in a media campaign Perera engineered in England to advocate civil and political rights in Ceylon.  Strikingly, the letters reveal that although Woolf’s name was in the byline of opinion pieces published in The Labour LeaderThe New Statesman, and The Manchester Guardian, Perera often dictated their content.

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E.W. Perera (1875-1953)

In class, we discussed how the portrait of Woolf that emerges from Perera’s letters squares with the ethics and politics of Woolf’s fiction.  To further enrich (or more accurately, complicate!) the discussion, I introduced Woolf’s association with the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society.  We examined the cover art of the first issue of the periodical of the Society, the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend, which has been digitized as part of the British Periodicals Collection of ProQuest’s Periodicals Archive Online.

Anti-Slavery Reporter Cover

Students compared and contrasted the cover art of Stories of the East and the cover art of the periodical above.  The class considered the ethical relationship the visuals of the Anti-Slavery cover set up between colonized subjects of Empire and sympathetic Europeans, anti-slavery advocates and self-proclaimed “Aborigines’ Friends.”  Woolf’s experience in Ceylon inspired his earnest participation in Ceylonese and Indian campaigns for independence during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, but he was not immune from the orientalism (Edward Said’s term and a key concept in E316K) that so strongly inflected even the most progressive British attitudes of the day toward colonized populations.  Indeed, the April 1918 issue of the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend includes a report that challenges assumptions that Woolf was strictly opposed to imperialism.  According to the report of an Anti-Slavery Society delegation to the Colonial Office, “Mr. Leonard Woolf referred to the importance of regaining the confidence of the people of Ceylon” (5).  This brief report of Woolf’s testimony is a reminder that in the context of late British imperialism, the progressivism of even the most politically active and articulate allies of colonial nationalists must be carefully examined for historically-specific nuance.  Is Woolf’s objection to economic exploitation and political repression in Ceylon the same thing as anti-imperialism?

Image 1: credit, Gisèle Freund/Photo Researchers; source, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/34098/Leonard-Woolf-1939

Image 2 source: Smith College Libraries, http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/rarebook/exhibitions/images/penandpress/large/3_stories_of_the_east.jpg

Image 3 source: National Archives of Sri Lanka, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:E._W._Perera.jpg

Image 4 source: The Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend, 1:1 (1909)

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