Empire Of the Sun

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I am a chronicler of Empire, and for me the most vividly fateful spot in Asia, a landmark where one empire allegorically gave way to another, is an unprepossessing industrial building in the heart of Singapore island not far from the skyscrapers and tumultuous energies of the Lion City. It was once the factory of the Ford Motor Co., and in it, on the evening of Feb. 15, 1942, the commander of the British forces in Singapore, Lieut. General Arthur Ernest Percival, surrendered the city to General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Imperial Japanese Army. The moment truly prefigured the end of the British Empire in the East—and falsely suggested the arrival of a comparable successor, Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

I have not been to the spot for more than 30 years, but I clearly recall my emotions when a taxi took me there one day in 1974. It was not much of a place for the making of history. The building was a dingy single-story block, drab, dim-lit and apparently disused. But I well understood the significance of the site, for still fresh in my consciousness then was the awful shock of Singapore's fall. It had been the most calamitous military debacle in British history, a true penalty of hubris. The island fortress of Singapore had succumbed in a matter of days to Japanese forces swarming down the Malayan peninsula. The British had dismissed the dangers of an attack coming from the landward side, assuming contemptuously that the Japanese would be beaten back long before they reached the island. At the time the surrender seemed almost unbelievable. Friend and foe alike recognized it as the end of an era.

I knew from photographs and memoirs the faces and attitudes of the actors in that drama, and in my imagination, when my taxi dropped me off, I could see it all played out before me. Percival arrived with three staff officers, all looking exhausted, their faces pallid, their eyes bloodshot, wearing khaki shorts and bearing themselves more like schoolmasters or perhaps Anglican clergymen than fighting soldiers. Yamashita, on the other hand, with his attendant deputies and aides, looked the very picture of a victorious war commander: thickset, bullish, his open-necked shirt plastered with medal ribbons and his boots kicked off under the table.

Each man played his symbolical part to perfection. Yamashita was aggressive. "All I want to know is, are our terms acceptable or not? Do you or do you not surrender unconditionally? Yes or no?" Percival replied faintly, almost abjectly, with bowed head: "Yes." Within a few hours he and all his officers were in prison camps, together with 120,000 other subjects of the British Crown. Never again could Europeans be considered inherently the superiors of Asians. The signatures on that surrender document—one flamboyant, one schoolboyish—were actually to alter the relationships between branches of the human race.

It was also a poignant moment. Yamashita wanted to speak kindly to poor Percival, but, unable to speak English, found it impossible to express his sympathy through an interpreter. Yamashita would presently need pity too. Before the decade was out, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere would be no more than a bad dream, and the Japanese people, decimated in bloodshed, shattered in faith, would see in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the wreck of all their illusions. Percival survived his ignominy to witness, hardly less allegorically, the final surrender of Japan on the American battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Yamashita, on the other hand, was hanged as a war criminal.

The factory still exists, and early next year the surrender room is to be opened to the public as a museum. I would still feel sadness if I were to go back there, and I would still see in my mind's eye those joyless instruments of destiny: beefy Yamashita thumping the table, Percival with his curate's moustache and his shorts a little too long, unscrewing his fountain pen to sign. The British Empire began to die there, and as the poet Wordsworth wrote:

Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade Of that which once was great is passed away.

The local people say the factory is haunted not by ghosts of the humiliated British but by phantoms of the Japanese debacle so soon to follow. I feel pity for them all. But I feel some compensating irony, too, to think that, when both those empires were dead and gone, such old sorrows of Asia would eventually lead to the prosperity and even the happiness of nations.

Jan Morris has written some 40 books of history, travel, autobiography and fiction, including the Pax Britannica trilogy about the British Empire during the Victorian era