For much of Robert Aldrich’s book Colonialism and Homosexuality, my main reaction was surprise at just how many of the famous people of the era of empire were apparently homosexual. From Rajah Brooke to Kitchener to W. Somerset Maugham, it’s clear that gay people as explorers, businessmen, writers and warriors made Britain’s Tropical empire in imagination and in reality in way that is rarely acknowledged. London may have had more gay bars in the Victorian era than today (despite homosexual acts being illegal), but still, people displaying indications of man love feature far more prominently in the life of the colonies then back home in foggy Britain.
For Aldrich, the Tropics was a site of emancipation for gay people, where metropolitan social conventions applied less strictly and gay men could find love in more tolerant societies. He argues that gay men often formed an “amicable link” between the society of the governed and the governors – that they were often those with greatest interest in local culture and could bridge the divide in the way that straight people were unable to – and were thus a force for good.
Aldrich freely intermixes the Tropics of the imagination with the Tropics of real life. They are different. The famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley wrote an obviously homoerotic novel My Kalulu: Prince, King and Slave, yet it appears he never acted on his fantasies during his Tropical adventures. The Tropics may or may not have been a site of homosexual emancipation in reality, but the fantasy of it dominates in the minds of European homosexuals looking for hope. People’s actual experience appears less benign, with a predominance of transactional relationships based on personal advantage and power.
More importantly, was the Tropics a place of empowerment particularly for gay people or is it a place of self-realisation equally for all Europeans? Is the missionary, for example, with his dream and the reality of his flock of converts different from the closet homosexual? Clearly no – in the Tropics, people with aspirations from merchants to middle class administrators could realise their fantasies of personal freedom, power, success and control.
At the same time, running parallel in Aldrich’s book with homosexual empowerment, is homosexual destruction, with stories of broken lives and official crackdowns far more common than happy endings. In this way, the story of European homosexuals in the Tropics follow what I have previously termed the two Tropical archetypes – Heart of Darkness (destruction) and Bali Ha’i (empowerment). These are recurring themes throughout the European Tropical experience – but what is real and what is imagined?