Last Shards of Its Empire Jab At Modern, Downsized Britain

Britain's Foreign Office calls them "the pink bits" - and they're posing a dilemma for bowler-hatted mandarins there.

When Hong Kong is handed back to China June 30, there will still be 13 British colonial dependencies, stretching from the south Atlantic to Antarctica, colored pink on Foreign Office maps.

The "mother country" doesn't seem to know what to do with these relics of an empire that, at full bloom in the 19th century, covered a quarter of the globe and included one-fifth of the human race.

Today, the population of Britain's remaining dependencies is less than 200,000. And not all their inhabitants are happy.

Britain was reminded just how angry they can get when the 6,000 residents of the remote island of St. Helena, site of Napoleon Bonaparte's exile, wrote to Queen Elizabeth II in early April condemning the "dictatorial tendencies" of Gov. David Smallman. The islanders complained about unemployment running at 18 percent, cutbacks in London's 8 million ($13 million) annual subsidy, and Britain's refusal to let St. Helenians travel to Britain to find work.

They also said Mr. Smallman was deaf to their grievances and had blocked the appointment of local officials who disagreed with him. While Smallman put aside his plumed hat and ceremonial uniform and sailed back to Britain on leave, trouble threatened in two other "pink bits."

In Buenos Aires, Defense Minister Jorge Dominguez said April 22 that Argentina looked forward to the expected election of a Labour government in Britain May 1 because it expected Labour to be sympathetic to the return to Argentina of the Falkland Islands. In 1982, Britain went to war with Argentina when it made a grab for the islands, known there as the Malvinas.

Labour Party leader Tony Blair swiftly rejected any idea that a British government led by him would allow the Falklands and their 2,100 inhabitants to return to Argentina, whose president, Carlos Menem, has sworn to get them back by 1999. In its 1994 Constitution, Argentina lays claim to the Malvinas.

Earlier this year, word came from Britain's ambassador in Madrid that the Spanish government, also anticipating political changes in Britain, was preparing to demand once again the "repatriation" of the Rock of Gibraltar.

The tiny peninsula (2.5 square miles), with a population of 30,000, was ceded by Spain to Britain in 1714. It has been a bone of contention between Madrid and London for the past 30 years. In the 1960s, in a bid to force Britain to hand back "the Rock," Madrid mounted a blockade of the land frontier between Spain and Gibraltar. The pressure failed to impress the Gibraltarians, the vast majority of whom insist that they are flag-waving Britons to the core.

Insistence by most of the dependencies that they don't want to go it alone poses a problem: Most of them require propping up with cash from London. For example, St. Helen's exports last year earned it a mere $245,000. Its inhabitants could not exist without subsidies from Britain.

Also, every year Britain is hammered at the United Nations by third-world countries accusing it of perpetuating imperialism. The fact that Britain would like to rid itself of most of its remaining possessions, but cannot, fails to impress its critics.

In 1995, voters in Bermuda, Britain's oldest colony founded in 1609, were asked to decide in a referendum the future of Britain's oldest colony. They voted to stay tied to the mother country's apron strings.

In some territories, there are no votes because there are no voters. They are virtually uninhabited. The British Antarctic Territory, with a land mass of 656,000 square miles, is temporary home to about 70 scientists, whose only company is penguins.

The British Indian Ocean Territory is uninhabited except for the naval base of Diego Garcia, which has been leased to the US Navy since 1966.

Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, settled by mutineers from the famed ship Bounty in 1790, has a population of 53. The island's main income is from postage stamps.

Tensions on St. Helena are likely to come to a head July 9, when islanders vote for a new local council. Corinda Essex, St. Helena's representative in Britain, says Smallman is likely to be challenged by "hard-line candidates demanding change." Meanwhile, she says, everyday life continues.

On St. Helena there is no TV, no airport. One local diversion is reading the results of English cricket matches reported in newspapers that arrive by boat a month or so after publication.

WHAT'S LEFT of British Empire



British Antarctic Territory

British Indian Ocean Territory

British Virgin Islands

Cayman Islands

Falkland Islands


Hong Kong (until June 30)


Pitcairn Islands

St. Helena

South Georgia Island

Turks and Caicos Islands

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