On Paddington Bear and “Darkest Britain”: Rethinking Peru-UK Relations

On Paddington Bear and “Darkest Britain”: Rethinking Peru-UK Relations

Unbeknownst to most Britons, UK-Peru relations are experiencing an unprecedented boon. Only last month, Boris Johnson addressed the Peruvian people through a video statement on Twitter – the first ever such message by a sitting British Prime Minister in Peru’s near-200-year history – highlighting the execution of a so-called “Government to Government (G2G) Agreement” to have British firms rebuild key Peruvian infrastructure destroyed by the El Niño phenomenon in 2017. The G2G is a new iteration of what is rapidly becoming a much closer relationship, involving billions of pounds, and dozens of new investment projects. A few years back, they signed a similar agreement whereby the UK committed to deliver infrastructure and oversee preparations for the 2019 Pan-American Games in Peru.

Amidst this momentum, it was only natural for British diplomacy to try and celebrate its close ties to Peru, especially in July, when Peru celebrates its independence from Spain. The British Embassy’s chosen celebratory symbol, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Paddington Bear – a kind and naïve bear from Peru that stars in a popular children’s book almost universally read in British homes. As a Peruvian currently living in the UK, this choice felt personal, and compelled me to write these lines. 

After all, while Paddington himself may be Peruvian, his story is most certainly not. It was written and created by a British man and meant to be read and discussed by British people. In fact, outside the tourism industry and those educated in the country’s elite British schools, very few Peruvians actually know who Paddington is. This is no wonder. Paddington’s “Peruvianness” plays no real role in developing the character other than to convey both a kind of fish-out-of-water naiveté and a sense of otherworldly strangeness. This is a bear, you see, that comes from one of the trendiest culinary centres in the world, but whose favourite delicacy is English marmalade. Not ceviche, not quinoa, not chicha morada – plain and simple marmalade.

Michael Bond, Paddington’s creator, was not looking to write a book about a Peruvian bear. He wanted to write a children’s book about British kindness to others. The object of such kindness was an arbitrary choice. Paddington could have been a bear, a horse, or a dog. And he could have been Latin American, Middle Eastern or African. In fact, he nearly was. As the story goes, Bond’s editor changed Paddington’s initial birthplace from “Darkest Africa” to “Darkest Peru”, allegedly under the excuse that there were no bears in Africa. Never mind if Peruvian bears are black with white spectacles and not brown with black ears. The only thing that mattered was that the place sounded exotic and foreign enough so that British readers would accept that he was indeed oh-so-different from them and that his peculiarities should be met with British kindness and understanding.

This makes Paddington an awkward choice for British diplomats to use in their pro-Peru campaign. More than a symbol of UK-Peru relations, Paddington Bear is a symbol of how a British person perceives Peru – and, perhaps even more importantly, how they expect a Peruvian migrant to act. Paddington, after all, is a convenient non-threatening visitor. He is always eager to assimilate as much British culture as possible, to the detriment of his own Peruvian identity. He has a Peruvian name, but nobody can pronounce it, so he submissively adopts a British identity instead. The Browns – Paddington’s adopted British family – learn next to nothing about Peru throughout the original tale, despite the fact that, frustratingly, Paddington keeps repeating that he has loads to share with them. The book literally ends with Paddington unable to tell his stories because he is exhausted and falls asleep. The most Peruvian thing he does is draw a map of Peru with shaving foam while exploring the bathroom. Tellingly, the map “soon turned into a sea of foam” as he struggled to manage a British tub, something that, we are meant to think, a bear from Peru would have never encountered before in his life!

Incidents like this are the only kind of issue the Browns are expected to deal with when adopting Paddington. Paddington’s exoticism and noble-savage naiveté make him do silly things we are expected to laugh at. It’s supposed to be “cute” that the bear from Peru does not know what a tub is or that he devours as many British pastries as he can because he has never seen this much food in his life. While the underlying message of “be kind to immigrants” is a welcomed trait and a valuable lesson, particularly in these post-Brexit times, it still remains a rather Eurocentric and paternalistic vision of immigration, premised on exoticism, rather than a relationship of mutual cultural exchange.

Indeed, nobody travels to another country with full intention of leaving every bit of their prior identity (even their name!) behind. In fact, despite never being colonised by the UK, Lima, Peru’s capital, is filled with fully bilingual British schools precisely because of this: British immigrants wishing to educate their own children in the British way. One of the reasons why immigration produces visceral and xenophobic reactions in some sectors of society is precisely because it requires them to accept and embrace cultural differences, not just cute faux pas. Instead of hiding their culture as something exotic they have to learn to leave behind, immigrants carry their culture with them, in the open, at all times, diversifying and enriching the societies they adopt. The story of Paddington is not a story of one such cultural exchange, but rather the story of how a Peruvian bear became a British gent. Hardly the kind of message a government would want to convey to a proud country with a millenary culture going as far back in time as Stonehenge.        

This is not, I should say, an exclusively British flaw. Peru and other countries like it are frequently portrayed in Western media as the home of naïve and/or wild savages whose stereotyped exoticism is their most noticeable trait. In the 1949 comic book “Prisoners of the Sun”, by Belgian author Hergé, adventurer Tin Tin and his offensively-named indigenous Peruvian sidekick “Zorrino” (i.e. “Skunk”), discover a secret Inca civilization that immediately condemns him to death for barging into the Sun God’s temple. He escapes by timing his execution to coincide with an eclipse, something that terrifies the gullible Incas, who seem to think Tin Tin can control the Sun God. These Incas, avid astronomers in the real world, had apparently never seen an eclipse in their one-thousand-year history.

Instead of turning to idealized and stereotyped versions of British-Peruvian relations, the UK government would do well to revisit the actual shared history, which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, spotted at best. Yes, the UK was one of the first states to formally recognize Peruvian independence, in 1823. But this recognition came at a price. British creditors financed the independentist war effort through loans that, by 1825, had already been defaulted. Peru was therefore born indebted to UK capitals.

In the 1840s, Peru found a way to pay for these loans in the form of guano – bird droppings that could be used as fertilizer and were in extremely high demand by British farmers and industrialists. The government set up a state monopoly over guano resources and signed unfavourable contracts to distribute the unprocessed droppings to British consignees in the UK. Peru squandered most of this wealth in the repayment of old debt and had to continuously rely on an odious system of debt settlement and loan taking to finance its economy: “Guano profits enabled Peru to arrange for the settlement of old debts in 1848, 1849 and 1853, and to borrow afresh in 1853, 1862, 1865, 1870 and 1872” (Mathew, 126).

By the 1870s, British interest in guano began to decrease, in favour of salpeter – a nitrate replacement found in the contested borderlands of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. In 1879, war between Chile and a Peruvian-Bolivian alliance broke out over control of these resource-rich lands. At the time, the financial battle between Peru and its British bondholders was as important to the war-effort as the number of bullets and cannons in each side. While the actual level of involvement by the British government is subject to scholarly debate (see here and here), the British bondholders themselves would often play a silent, yet key role, in the war. Early on, for instance, they made the Foreign Office intervene against Peruvian attempts at securing loans with French company Dreyfus to acquire armaments for the war, as it would endanger repayment of their debts (Sobrevilla, 401).

The bondholders allegiance, predictably, changed with the winds of war. As Chilean forces took over Peruvian guano producing areas, some began negotiating guano concessions with Chile in the occupied territories (Kiernan, 15). A financially weakened and politically divided Peru was simply unable to stop the Chilean advance, and the bondholders picked their side (Sobrevilla, 402), getting the British Foreign Office to encourage Chile to agree to these dealings (Sobrevilla, 403). When the war ended and Chilean terms were unsatisfactory, the British bondholders returned to Peru to try and negotiate a new deal. This enraged many Peruvians, who remained furious at them for their support of Chile during the war. Under the terms of the resulting contract (known in Peru as the “Grace Contract”), the British bondholders agreed to cancel all of Peru’s debt in exchange for receiving all of Peru’s railroads in concession for 66 years (railroads that had been built with guano loans!), the right to export up to 3 million tons of guano, and an annual rent of 80 thousand pounds for 33 years.

Writing in 1928, Jose Carlos Mariátegui, a widely respected Peruvian socialist intellectual, argued that the experience with the guano bondholders defined Peru’s position in the world for decades to come, by creating a bankrupted system that focused solely on the attraction of foreign capital, laying the foundations of a neo-colonial economy. For Mariátegui:

“Spain wanted and kept Peru as a producer of precious metals. England preferred Peru as a producer of guano and nitrates. But the motive remained the same; only the times changed. (…) This trade placed its economy under the control of British capital. Later, as a result of debts guaranteed by both products, Peru was forced to hand over to England the administration of its railroads; that is, the very key to the exploitation of its resources”.

This is what Peruvians know about their ties with the UK. This is the history that young Peruvians read about in school, not books about a bear that likes marmalade sandwiches and his endearingly odd clumsiness. Mariátegui’s quote above, in fact, comes from a book frequently glossed with the phrase “the book that every Peruvian must read”. If the British Government wishes to re-ignite its ties with Peru, then it is this image of a “Darkest Britain” and the role its companies played at a key moment of Peru’s history, that it should address.

Consider the aforementioned G2G Agreement. Like before, British companies are coming to Peru in growing numbers, and will likely continue to do so after the Agreement is fulfilled. This is a positive development for Peru (and for a good cause). But genuine gestures to signal that lessons were learned from our past shared experience do seem to be lacking. Until a new post-Brexit treaty can be negotiated, British companies in Peru will continue to benefit from the Peru-EU Free Trade Agreement and the Peru-UK BIT, including its investment arbitration provisions. This is a gesture of good faith by Peru – a developing nation very frequently burdened with unfounded investment claims (and a solid 80% success rate). Awareness of Peru’s shared history with the UK would require concrete action to make sure that future British investors comply with human rights and environmental regulations. As an equal gesture of good faith, the UK could agree to renegotiate the outdated 1993 Peru-UK BIT (that does not mention human rights or the environment even once) or announce that a future UK-Peru FTA would include stronger provisions to this regard. The UK has not done this, and nothing indicates it will. In other words, while Peru is giving assurances that British companies can invest in Peru, the UK is not giving similar assurances that these investments will prevent, mitigate and remedy any possible environmental damage or human rights violation they may cause.  

This is not the only example. Consider the irony of the British Government choosing Paddington – a migrant – as its symbol for Peru-UK integration, when Peruvians wishing to visit the many Paddington statues that colour the streets of London are subjected to an extremely complicated process to secure any kind of visa (even if just for tourism!), whereas Britons wishing to visit Paddington’s statue in the Lima Boardwalk need only book an airplane ticket.

A new and closer bond between Peru and the UK is possible. As a Peruvian immigrant in the UK, this is something I fully support, but this will require more than what is being done to date. Please, take care of this bond. Thank you.

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Business & Human Rights, Europe, Foreign Relations Law, Latin & South America, Trade & Economic Law
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