Fast-forward a hundred years. Burma was no longer a British colony, but a military dictatorship - one of the world 's most brutal and enduring. Scott's tribal stamping grounds had been ravaged by the Burmese army, and the country whose borders he helped to map was now delineated by misery. Any memory of Scott himself was buried deep beneath the rubble of Burma 's turbulent post-war history - its coups and massacres, its endless civil wars.
After months spent deciphering Scott 's diaries, I found myself embarking on an oddly obsessive quest to rescue this singular Scotsman from obscurity. How could someone who had once been a living legend in Burma be so little known today? The answer was blindingly obvious: Scott had been forgotten because Burma had been forgotten. Isolated and impoverished, Burma was trapped in a time warp. Few big countries were so little known.
Scott knew all too well that British rule was slowly eroding native traditions. The invasion of the 'Trouser People' - as white colonialists were known by the country's sarong- wearing civilians - wrought immense change, and doubled Scott's resolve to record Burma's dazzling ethnic diversity before it was lost for ever. Now, as the Burmese military finished with chilling thoroughness what the British had begun, I wanted to discover whether the traditions that Scott had meticulously documented had survived. Did the witch doctors of the Pa-O still recommend tying a lock of your grandmother's hair around your neck as cure for insanity? Were young girls of the Padaung tribe still wearing the brass neck rings that earned their mothers the nickname 'giraffe women'? Did Palaung women still don the complex tribal dress which commemorated their mythical descent from lovesick she-dragon? I was also intrigued by romantic accounts of the saophas, or 'lords of the sky' - Shan princes who took countless wives, sent their children to English public schools, and ruled their mountain fiefdoms during Scott's time with an opulence which recalled the maharajas of India. What memories of them persisted?
The only way to find out, of course, was to go. As a journalist based in Thailand for four years, I had already made several trips to Burma, posing as a tourist. While certain areas were now open to foreign visitors, war, drug lords, government restrictions and bad roads meant that much of Burma remained as remote and dangerous as it had been century before.
I began to plan a series of journeys, starting in the Burman-dominated plains and travelling up into the troubled heartland of tribal Burma, into the wilderness where Scott had his greatest adventures and closest shaves. One of those journeys would be a clandestine cross-border foray over the 'Scott Line' and into the opium-rich badlands of the Wa. The Wa were no longer headhunters, or so they claimed. Nowadays they were heavily armed drug traffickers, and responsible for much of the heroin sold on the streets of America. But in some ways it sounded as if nothing had changed. 'It's like the Stone Age there,' an American missionary told me, 'except they all carry AK-47s'. Along the way I would realize that my obsession with a long-dead Victorian explorer had a curious modern resonance. Scott was a child of the Empire, and embodied many of its ambiguities; I could imagine him agreeing with Charles Napier, the conqueror of Sind and fellow Scot, who defined empire building as 'a good thrashing first and great kindness afterwards'. I knew Burmese people who looked back on British rule with nostalgia a nostalgia they might not have felt had their present government treated them better. As for the Burmese government, it despised all things British. The 1962 military coup had ushered in a rabidly xenophobic regime bent on eradicating all Western cultural influences in the country. Foreign books were censored into extinction, Christian missionaries expelled, beauty contests outlawed; one female singer was even banned for five years for performing in hot pants. To neutralize any colonial associations in the word 'Burma', the country was renamed 'Myanmar'.
Copyright Andrew Marshall, 2002. All rights reserved.
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The Angel of Losses
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