Q: Is there a connection between that and residential schools in Canada?
I think the similarities are that the goal was to break down the individual and create a new person. In residential schools, the purpose was to create a properly assimilated Canadian. But in schools in the U.K., it was for students to develop an inherent sense of superiority over those beneath them and inferiority about those above them. The schools were created as cadre for an empire, and the Raj in India. There were never more than 20,000 British people in India.
Q: What kept it together?
Mercantile zeal, severe military repression, co-optation of local elites. But most of all the sheer gall and audacity of the British. You had political officers on horseback, who were judges, executioners, tax collectors and they were boys out of Oxford in their 20s administering areas where two million people live. Part of the essence of colonialism is to persuade people of their inferiority. That’s why they maintained great palaces and public displays of power. It was all show.
The institutions of residential schools were -- whether consciously designed to do this or not -- designed to break the spirit of individuals and socialize them into something new. That’s what British public schools were all about -- though the outcomes were so different.
Q: Was Mallory a creature of this background?
Mallory exemplifies it. You insulate yourself by developing a veneer of wit and repartee and that -- together with men coming from generation not prepared to yield feelings to analysts -- creates a quality of true grit. That’s what is interesting. That’s how they could go on these expeditions. It is difficult to look back and apply our notions of what physical expenditure would have been for a task., they just don’t apply for those times. Mallory is a man with whom few could walk uphill. He was ferociously athletic and dexterous. He was a gymnast.
Q: What about the geo-politics?
One of fascinating things about Everest story is you can’t separate it from geo-politics of the Raj. Geographers knew earth wasn’t a perfect sphere but the degree of distortion was uncertain. To solve it they marched 1000-pound brass theodolites in India measuring an arc of longitude. When they got to the Himalayas, they could look into the mountains and with great accuracy measure height of the mountains. Everest continued to rise. The mathematician was only off by 60 feet using math from theodolites. The British transformed the face of India. India is a British invention brought about by the Survey of India. The maps created a rationale for occupation. Knowledge was essential. The frontiers were the razor’s edge upon which the fate of empires rise and fall. The British couldn’t reach beyond the Himalayans and couldn’t communicate with Lhasa, though it was only 250 miles from Darjeeling. The great concern of the British were the Russians, who were expanding every day in 19th century by 55 miles till it reached the gates of the Raj. Everest emerges as a new great beacon of destination. That night as they leave, where one of them looks out, he says I came to realize the price of life is death, and as long as payment is made cleanly, it doesn’t matter when you die. Without ever knowing the prospect of decay, could anyone wish a better fate. Cremation was unknown before WWI as way to deal with the dead. After war, became preferred form of dealing with dead who had seen all the rot on the western front.
Q: You are known for the Serpent and the Rainbow , about voodoo practise and Massey lectures and you’re interested in tribal culture and ethno-biology, how do you go from there to writing this book.
My philosophy has always been, If it works, it is obsolete. Just when I get good at something, I take on something else. My whole life has been like this. People would say “You’re Canadian, why Harvard?” Then “You’re at Harvard training to be lawyer, how can you study anthropology?” “You’re an anthropologist, how can you study botany”, and I got a PhD in it. In January, I’m getting biggest award in science for botanical exploration, but it’s for what I did back in 1970s. Then I became interested in voodoo. I went to Borneo and wrote two books. This is a return to my roots. The prizes I got in high school were in history. The best part of Serpent and rainbow are historical sections. I love research. I love doing archeology in a file cabinet.