“Me, I am a MIX!” Olive Gordon shouts this word, sitting in her north London home. She is “a great big mix-up” and, at 103 years old, bright as a button, with smooth dark skin and delicate features. “My father was a mixture, his parents were mixed and, um, his father was from Scotland and his mother from India. He was born in Guyana. My moder, she was a mixture too. She was half aboriginal and black too.” Olive’s extraordinary ethnic heritage gives bite to the phrase “living history”.
I sought out Olive for my book Century Girls, which profiled women who have experienced the last 100 years. I wanted to know how that felt for someone coming in from the empire… and Olive delivered in spades. She felt British from birth, and I was struck by the passion she felt for the “mother country”. When she arrived in October 1952, however, she was shocked by “dismal England” and the Great Smog of London compounded her initial impression.
Despite these disappointments, Olive is the very embodiment of the four vital points in Britain’s imperial equation. Take her father, Mr Higgins. “A businessman,” says Olive proudly, “with rice and a mill.” The two sides of his family tree – Scottish and Indian – underline the empire’s most important export: manpower. It is well known that Scots – educated, hardworking and with fewer homegrown opportunities than the English – were the mother country’s great empire-builders. Across the West Indies, Scotsmen alongside their fellow Europeans ran colonial plantations. This was a lucrative business that depended on a sinister factor – the arrival of black slaves from the African continent.
In 1834, the end of Britain’s trade in human lives brought Guyana’s most profitable industry to an abrupt halt. Imperial economics demanded a cheap alternative workforce, though, and one was found. Between 1838 and 1917 (when the practice was banned), 240,000 indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent duly arrived in Guyana. Displaced, dispossessed and obliged to work for five years in return for their “freedom”, Olive’s Indian ancestors were part of a much larger trend. From the 1820s onwards, nearly 1.6 million Indians left to work elsewhere in the empire. Britain’s imperial arm had once more picked up the globe and given it a shake: the mass movement of whites and blacks and then Asians founded and consolidated Britain’s overseas brand. The world was never the same again. To quote Olive again, it was “a great big mix-up.”
Indentured Indians don’t interest Olive – too far in the past. Rather she focuses on her father’s success. In him, a plantation owner and Indian servant became entwined, leaving this pale-skinned, fine-looking man well-placed to move from the stigma of plantation work to the cultivation of rice. Mr Higgins was an “overseer”, a man of status, who shot wild animals with his brother, and took a bullet of his own in the leg. “After that, his foot was straight, so he looked after his rice fields on a horse.” Broad savannas, mangrove swamps, the dark snaking Essequibo River, these are the hallmarks of Olive’s very early childhood.
But the union between Mr Higgins and her mother Rosalind didn’t last. Olive doesn’t dwell on the split, preferring the original love story. Her mother Rosalind was a natural beauty, with an ancestral heritage that touched two more points in the imperial paradigm – the trade in slaves and the dislodged native. Rosalind’s lineage went beyond the story of European arrival and exploitation: not only was she half black, courtesy of her slave ancestors, but also half Amerindian, tying Olive to the first inhabitants of Guyana. It was this dark, alluring woman who turned Mr Higgins’s head, leading to a union that bucked and blended the distinct racial strata led by the ruling whites in British Guiana. “Tis so. And why not an Indian man with a black woman? Huh? So an Indian man would not fall in love cos she is black?!” Olive shakes her head knowing well love and attraction don’t work like that. “Dat doesn’t stop a man loving a woman, and when they are young, you know what dey do!” More laughter, and the arrival of baby Olive on 1 May 1915.
The following is an extract from The Century Girls by Tessa Dunlop, which tells the stories of women who have lived the past 100 years of British history. Tessa is speaking at HistFest on Friday 7 December at the National Archives in London with 103-year old Olive Gordon. Tickets available here. HistFest is a three-day history festival taking place in London and around the UK. Tickets and event information can be found via www.HistFest.com.