Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten
by Riccardo Orizio, translated by Avril Bardoni
Non-fiction, Free Press, 288 pp, $25
People can't get lost anymore, what with modern maps, satellites and cell phones. But they surely could in the past.
When I was 16, I accompanied a philanthropic aunt into the Blue Ridge Mountains to visit some poor Appalachian parishes. It was like that long, long dog at the end of that long, long house at the end of that long, long road that used to put us to sleep. This trip, however, was a wake-up call.
At the end of a highway was a paved road at the end of which was a dirt road at the end of which was a rutted track at the end of which was a path in the woods. The path led to dirt-floored cabins in a kind of Munchkin-land where the barefooted white natives spoke with a heavy 17th century Somerset English dialect. And that was giving their tongue a modern twist!
It was as if this community had set out west in wagons, the wagons had broken down, the wheels had rotted away, and the people hadn't budged an inch for three centuries. They were a lost people, entirely without 20th century amenities, and in the whole village there were only three last names. It was L'il Abner without the sophistication.
The children could have watched the top of my aunt's convertible go up and down, up and down for hours. In the tiny church we left a portable radio — but there was no local postal address to which we could send batteries.
These people didn't have a clue as to where they were. Yet, on a clear day one could just make out the tip of the Washington Monument in the capital of a nation which stretched thousands of miles north, south and west. Some mission is still advertising for charitable donations for this Lost Tribe.
Black islands, red islands, even yellow islands are commonplace in the pale-faced demographics of America, of Russia and of Europe — the Chinatowns, ghettos, Vietnamese fishing villages, barrios and so forth.
But there also are many islands and islets of whites — such as the Ainu of Japan, Portagees in Goa and now Anglos in Hong Kong — scattered about the world. I'm referring not to the "English at Leghorn," the "American Colony" in Peking or "continentals in the Virgin Islands," but to abandoned colonies, as it were, which remained behind as their worlds moved on or simply ceased to exist.
When our GI's pulled out of Viet Nam, they left a lot of genes behind them, but nothing like an American cultural enclave. Culture is more than scattered seed. Often it is defined by a clinging to the "old ways," by not keeping up with the times.
There are the Natumarayo of Sri Lanka, "the dancers" — descendants of 900 families of the Dutch East India Co. who stayed on when the English took over Ceylon in 1802. Today some poor descendents hang on in a boarding house outside Colombo; the rest have been absorbed into the Ceylonese population.
Descendents of Confederate soldiers who settled in Brazil after the U.S. War Between the States in 1861-65 still fly the Stars and Bars and name their sons Robert E.
In "Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten," Italian foreign correspondent Riccardo Orizio takes readers on a tour of some of these ethnic enclaves. It makes for whimsical reading to see how colorless people have fared in more colorful lands. Answer: not much better than colorful people in colorless lands. There are several such "white tribes" in the Caribbean.
On Guadeloupe are the blanc va nu pieds or "barefoot whites," whose ancestors fled France in 1789 and set up a Utopia with their slaves in a remote reach of the island. Today, they hide from the outside world, plagued by malformation and debilitation as a result of inbreeding.
When the black slaves were freed in Jamaica, Germans were recruited to work the banana and sugar plantations there, arriving by the hundreds in 1834. Their descendents are still there. The cultivation lifestyle gone, they survive destitute in delapidated housing. The last money they earned was portraying starving prison inmates in the film "Papillon." According to reviews, they were entirely convincing.
On Haiti, two regiments of Poles sent by Napoléon Bonaparte to quash a rebellion defected to the Haitians and settled on Hispaniola. They appear as "extras" in Varick Vanardy's "Boner Boys on Bay Rum" — that mystical principality of Mystique off St. John. Today, these descendents have retreated to a remote mountain, where they live in a desolate village of African huts, illiterate, with no modern amenities or health care whatsoever. Their appeals to Poland have gone virtually unrewarded, although globe-trotting Pope John Paul II visited them once.
What these various "lost white tribes" have in common is a deep concern with colorlessness. Orizio informs us that even the Baster Boers of Namibia, who took Hottentot wives, are concerned with the relative color of their skins. What an odd preoccupation when a segment of society is dying out by starvation or cultural attenuation!
The lesson? That any of us can become a minority if we want to, and that none of us need remain a minority if we want to get up and find our majority. But why? It's so much easier to arm-chair these curiosities and anomalies with a good writer who has done his field work.
Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten