My End of Empire
by Philip B. Williams
The British crime novel surely wouldn’t exist without some class consciousness. The British Empire was defined by it. Our author was witness to it’s end at a far away place. More of his musings to follow.
Last October I went to a Halloween costume party. I dug out an authentic mildewed solar topee, original British army long khaki shorts, and a bedraggled bush jacket that had been moldering in my basement for decades and went dressed as a dissolute British District Commissioner beached in some backwater of a Conradian tropical colony, a replica of imperial authority from 100 years ago. I think I scared Godzilla and Batman but it took an Irish friend of mine to understand. She gave me a cool look up and down and said ‘Phil, that’s not a costume, that’s you”
I had grown up in a British garrison town in the 1950’s, in the last years of the British Empire, surrounded by symbols and relics of imperial history. Every day on my way to school my bus passed decaying 19thcentury fortifications and boarded -up army barracks, then as I took the ferry across Portsmouth Harbour, the main base of the Royal Navy I could survey the condition of the fleet. I knew all the names of the warships docked there; there was HMS Ceylon, HMS Zambezi or HMS Kenya; and behind the Georgian warehouses of the dockyard I could see the mastheads of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar.
At Portsmouth Grammar School, where my classmates and I were taught by retired army and navy officers, it was assumed that we were being trained for some sort of government service, preferably the army or navy, and presumably overseas somewhere in the empire. To become a District Commissioner in a remote colony was a desirable career objective. In my early teens I thought this prospect quite exciting. I could see myself in a remote jungle clearing dispensing justice and medicine to deferential natives. Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ was not included in my English literature class.
In our geography lessons -my favourite class, the main teaching aid was a huge wall map, on which 25% of the planet’s land area was coloured British Imperial red, and our curriculum was based mainly on rote learning of what each of the colonies and dominions did. I learned that Canada did wheat, Australia wool, the Gold Coast cacao and so on.
I was surrounded by imperial history, as the school building itself was formerly the Cambridge Barracks constructed during the Crimean War to house regiments like the 104th, Bengal Fusiliers.And then I was immersed in history: our swimming lessons were held at the beach of the historic Sally Port in the Old Portsmouth fortifications, where convicts had been rowed out to the First Fleet anchored off Spithead and bound for Botany Bay in 1787. Even our spiritual life was colonized. For important civic or ecclesiastic occasions, the whole school was drafted as the choir for Portsmouth Cathedral. The only thing I remember about these endlessly boring services was trying to decipher the names of forgotten battles on the ancient battle flags of extinct regiments hanging dejected in the nave, slowly disintegrating.
World War 2 was recent history. The house I lived in in Gosport had been built on what had been the staging ground for the 3rdCanadian division that had then embarked from Stokes Bay, to land on Juno Beach on D Day. The concrete tank loading ramps were still there -I didn’t have to walk over the sharp shingle to go swimming. Because of their military importance, the town centers of Gosport and Portsmouth had been heavily bombed in the Blitz and were not rebuilt until the 1960’s. This meant I had access to a great adventure playground nearby; all those derelict bombed out buildings.
An essential part of our education was considered to be preparation for war. At the age of 13 all boys at Portsmouth Grammar School were ‘volunteered’ to join the school army cadet corps. My Tuesday and Thursday evenings were spent mindlessly drilling and learning the actual meaning of spit and polish as it related to my boots. I remember on one of our annual inspection field days lined up on the parade ground for hours in the hot sun, an ancient WW1 Lee-Enfield rifle heavy on my shoulder, waiting to exchange a vacant stare with Field Marshall Montgomery.
Many of the boys in my class came from Navy, Army or Civil Service families and I was no different. My father was Royal Navy, and my grandfather and great-grandfather had been privates in Queen Victoria’s, or rather, Kipling’s, army that had been barracked in India, Burma, Ireland and the Cape Colony.
In the 1930’s my father had sailed the world on battleships and cruisers, to Labrador, Trinidad, South Africa and Australia, but had spent most of his sea time in what was called the China Station. After spending much of WW2 at sea on convoy duty in the Indian Ocean, he was given a respite in the form of shore duty. In 1952 he was assigned as purser to HMS Tamar, the Royal Navy base in Hong Kong, and as a newly promoted officer he was allowed to bring his family with him. It was in Hong Kong, at the ages of 7 and 8, that I would directly experience colonial life.
Getting there required a voyage through the last days of the British Empire.
With my mother and two brothers I took a troop train to Liverpool and embarked on MV Georgic, a battered old White Star ocean liner that had been chartered to carry British troops to the Korean war. [Battered because the Georgic had been bombed and sunk in the Suez Canal during WW2. I remember the corridors still buckled and bent out of shape to peculiar trapezoids.]
I vomited for three stormy days crossing the Bay of Biscay until we entered the Mediterranean, passing the Rock and British colony of Gibraltar in sunshine. Then onwards past the British colony of Malta (independent 8 years later in 1960) and British Colony of Cyprus (1960) to dock at Port Said, Egypt. Here we witnessed the first signs of imperial disintegration. Instead of being allowed ashore, as promised, we were told the Canal Zone was no longer safe for British families. Nor for British ships, because the next day when we sailed south through the Suez Canal both banks were lined with thousands of Egyptian demonstrators shouting insults at me. They had strung a cable across the canal in a futile attempt to block our passage.
Although Egypt was still painted red on the map at Portsmouth Grammar School and there were British troops patrolling the docks, in a few months Colonel Nasser was to seize control of the country, declare full independence and demand the evacuation of all British forces.
Our next stop was the British colony of Aden (1967), here we dropped off some garrison troops -it was too hot to go ashore; then past the British Protectorate of Somaliland (1960), past the British Protectorate of The Maldives (1965) and on to Trincomalee in what was then still called Ceylon. Here we anchored in the harbour and motor boats took us ashore to my first experience of the tropics. Palm trees, heat, verandahsand rickshaws. Ceylon had gained independence 4 years before, but we were not aware of it because Trincomalee dockyard had been retained as a Royal Navy base. [That school geography map had never been updated to show that India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma and Palestine had already dropped out of the empire by 1948. Also, inexplicably, Eire was still shown imperial red even though it had left the commonwealth in 1949.]
Our next tropical shore visit was British colony of Singapore (1963, although Malaya, in which it had been situated got independence in 1957). The only thing I remember about it is the damp heat, the trees on the seafront taller than the buildings, and the regular 6pm rain deluge at dusk.
On the last reach of our month-long voyage, through the South China Sea, we sailed past the colonies of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (all 1963). I remember we watched newsreels of the French fighting around Hanoi, two years before their far eastern empire became extinct. Then we docked and disembarked in Kowloon.
For the next 2 years, my family lived in a small colonial world completely different than our semidetached suburban existence in Gosport -and completely different from the world outside on the streets of Hong Kong. This peculiar life as a ‘gweilo’ – a Cantonese pejorative for ‘ghost boy’ – in those years is vividly described by my exact contemporary navy brat, the author Martin Booth in his autobiography ‘Golden Boy’. We had servants, my parents drank iced pink gin, and I didn’t have to walk to school -I was picked up every morning by a British army truck.
As we drove through Kowloon to St George’s Barracks School there was destitution everywhere. Over a million people had fled across the border from China two years before to escape the communist takeover. Most had to abandon all their possessions and were living in shanty towns on the hillsides or on the sidewalks downtown. In contrast, we eventually moved in to brand new officers’ quarters, a block of flats at the top of the Peak far away from the chaos of downtown Kowloon and Victoria. Here I loved to explore the surrounding jungle and the bombed-out ruins of Mount Austin Barracks that had been garrisoned by Japanese soldiers only 8 years before -there were still Japanese signs painted on the ruined walls.
Apart from it’s cool breezes, the reason why the Peak now has the most expensive real estate in Hong Kong is its spectacular location; it overlooks the Harbour on one side and the South China Sea on the other.
As well as supporting a large British garrison to protect against communist invasion, Hong Kong had become a major support and R&R base for the Korean war. My brothers and I had developed a keen interest in identifying all the visiting warships anchored below. But after a while I noticed something that wasn’t quite right. On a typical day, I could identify say, a British cruiser and a couple of destroyers, but irritatingly, clogging up the harbour, there would also be two American cruisers, four destroyers, and an aircraft carrier. It gradually dawned on me -at 8 years old, that something was wrong, the Royal Navy was no longer the biggest or best in the world, and maybe the USA now had the biggest empire. And then at weekends the family would take the Peak tram down to the to the swimming pool and recreation center at HMS Tamar. Here, to keep us kids quiet, while the grown-ups drank their gin, we were given Coca Cola, American comics and shown Tom and Jerry cartoons.
The seeds were planted. During my childhood, I had been completely oblivious to the history that surrounded me; by adolescence, the mindless rote school teaching of the depressing progression of Norman, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch and German kings and queens of England had instilled in me a positive dislike for stultifying British history. This was even before I had found out for myself the true stories of genocide, brutality, greed and hypocrisy that built much of the foundation of the Empire. By the age of 16 I sought an escape from reactionary teachers and had become fascinated with the history of the place that had revolted against the British Empire -the land of Scrooge McDuck, Joe Hill and Robert E. Lee.
I travelled to San Francisco before the summer of love and by 1970, with a newly minted Ph.D., I had become a landed immigrant in my beloved city and adopted country.
Ten years had passed, and I was now 35 years old, running my own business and holding an American green card. I had come a long way physically, philosophically and politically from those days in the geography class at Portsmouth Grammar School. Then I happened to be browsing in my local bookstore; it might have been City Lights; when I came across James [Jan] Morris’ book ‘Farewell the Trumpets’: the third part of her Pax Britannica trilogy. It was about the last days of the British empire. Somehow, her stories evoked in me a peculiar nostalgia. I started to get the feeling that long ago I had been learning lines for a part in a performance that was now closing, but I had never had a chance to audition for.
In my childhood, I had been immersed in the theatre of empire, the stories, the flags and marching bands. I knew that one thing the British were good at, was putting on a good show: particularly for formal state ceremonies like a colonial Independence Day. By 1980 there was a well-worn script for this; in the previous two decades, there had been 32 of them. Most had the same acts and scenes: visitation by minor member of the royal family, formal reception for nearby heads of state, arrival of British warship, last military parade, church service in the local Anglican Cathedral, and then the climax: the hauling down of the union jack to the sounds of ‘the last post’ at Government House precisely at midnight, and then the raising of the flag of the new nation.
I developed an impulse to go and witness this ritual before it was too late. By 1980, Britain was running out of colonies to grant independence to. Only the difficult ones remained like Rhodesia, whose white colonists had declared their own independence to pre-empt black rule -and who would want to go there; and the New Hebrides in the South Pacific. The New Hebrides, now renamed Vanuatu, intrigued me because it was a most peculiar imperial relict. It was governed jointly by France and Great Britain, who maintained two separate governments on the same islands; a compromise made in the Victorian era scramble for empire -regardless whether it made any sense even for the imperialists.
Eventually, after WW2 ended and Britain realized that the cost of maintaining the imperial façade in the face of escalating fights for independence was not worth it. From 1960 onwards, it usually tried to divest itself of colonies as quickly as possible. But France was slower to recognize these ‘winds of change’ and was determined, for matters of national prestige and resource extraction, to hang on to its south pacific island colonies as long as possible. Fortunately for my travel plans this conflict of interest had stalled Independence Day for Vanuatu. Sometime in May 1980 I learned from British newspapers that some sort of agreement had been reached and the date been set for July 30th.Not only were we going to get a complete performance overseen by the Duke of Gloucester, and the Royal Marines, but a special guest appearance of French paratroopers singing the Marseilles.
Then, just as I was about to buy my plane tickets -and I had found that Vanuatu was very hard to get to, I started to see some confusing and disturbing snippets of news in the Guardian newspaper. It seemed that a rebellion was brewing on some of the islands. This broke out into the so called ‘coconut war’ later that summer. Although independence was going to proceed on schedule all the usual ceremonies were going to be cancelled. I decided to look for other options.
By 1981 there were only four colonies left -excluding miniscule ones that refused to be independent and the special case of the colony of Hong Kong.
Next one up was Belize, formerly named British Honduras, whose Independence Day was set for September 20th1981. This was fortunate as it was not so remote, only about 3000 miles from San Francisco and by this time my consulting business was busy and I could only take a few days off.
This is how Jan Morris described Belize City where most of the intermixed population of Blacks, Mayans, Europeans and Hispanics lived. “Belize was everyone’s idea of a tropical port, fretted, woody, shabby, jolly, cheek-by-jowl, smelling of rum and fermenting fruit, loud with car horns and market cries”. Exactly the setting I was looking for.
Infrequent visitors to British Honduras characterized it as being off the beaten track, or as Aldous Huxley, who was one of them, said ‘if the world has any ends, this would be one of them’. Even in 1981 when I was planning my trip I found the only overland access from neighboring Mexico was a dirt road.
WW2 had provided an opportunity for many Belizeans to experience a larger world through working in the US and other Caribbean territories. Returning home, they started to agitate for independence as a way out of poverty. George Price, who had originally intended to become a Jesuit priest, instead became the leader of this movement. Price was an enigmatic, austere, incorruptible and intimidating leader. When he was eventually appointed British Honduras’ first minister after it gained internal self-government in 1961, he immediately started preparing for full independence, changing the countries name to Belize, adopting a national anthem and national flag-with no union jack on it. By 1964 he was ready, and Britain was ready, but there was a problem.
Spain had conquered Central America in the 16thcentury, but because its main interests were gold, silver and the cross, it had little interest in the inaccessible swamps of the Belizean coast that are sheltered by treacherous coral reefs. No pueblos, presidios or missions were founded there. Eventually in the 18thcentury English and Scottish wood cutters established some logging camps and these logging rights were recognized by Spain as part of the treaty of Versailles, that ended the American war of independence in 1783 and restored Florida to Spain. This deal encouraged the importation of slaves from British Caribbean islands to do the hard work cutting mahogany trees. In the meantime, it was an ungoverned zone that had become a melting pot and place of refuge: for Huguenot refugees, Mayans fleeing forcible conversion in the Yucatan, reformed pirates, deported Caribs from the Windward islands, and later, even Confederate soldiers fleeing Reconstruction. Then in 1821 Guatemala declared independence from Spain and Britain used the opportunity to claim ownership of the territory.
For the next 160 years, neighboring Guatemala had never recognized British sovereignty, claiming that ‘Belice’ was a province of their country. After a CIA created mercenary army overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Ardenz Guzman in 1954, successor military dictators grew increasingly bellicose, using this territorial dispute to divert attention from their brutal war against Mayan and indigenous rebels. Guatemala’s rulers had declared that on the day Belize was granted independence its tanks would cross the border -regardless of the wishes of its inhabitants. This was not an idle threat. Belize’s population of 120,000 made it 1% the size of Guatemala’s 12 million. Attempts to negotiate a settlement had failed and Britain was forced to maintain a permanent military garrison to deter a possible Guatemalan invasion.
Eventually, after 17 years of fruitless negotiations, Premier Price decided it was time to call Guatemala’s bluff and declare independence. When I landed at the Belize airfield I could see there were soldiers manning antiaircraft guns along the runway. The British troops were on high alert and no-one knew what the Guatemalan generals were going to do.
On the flight there from New Orleans I had got into an interesting conversation with my neighbor. He was a journalist for the Economist and had been sent from London to cover Independence Day and the Guatemalan invasion threat. Unfortunately I don’t recall his name and for good reason the Economist shields the identity of its foreign correspondents, so let’s call him Mr. Boot. I think he was impressed by my well researched knowledge of the history and sociology of Belize, but then he asked me a question whose answer I should have figured out before I got on the plane. What I was going to do when I got there?
What was I going to do? Stand in the crowd on the side of the road and wave a flag? -like I did as a 6-year-old when Princess Elizabeth visited the High Street of Gosport in 1951? I hadn’t even figured out where I was going to stay for 3 nights. Boot was amused at my naivety and suggested a mutually beneficial solution. I would help him write his story. In return he would get me a press pass accrediting me as a journalist for the Economist that would give me full access to all the Independence Day events -and a hotel room.
After he took me to the improvised Belizean press office and I got my badge and press releases, I never saw Boot again. I still feel guilty that I didn’t contribute to his 700-word piece.
When I looked at the press package I could not believe my luck: invitations to all the ceremonial events, front row seats in the press box. The room in the Fort George Hotel was another matter.
These were the days before Belize had become a tourist destination. The Fort George Hotel had been built as a British aid project in the 60’s when Britain was confused over its role and responsibilities for economic development in these twilight years of the Empire. You got the feeling that most of the time it was more than half empty. Now suddenly about 400 people had shown up in Belize City from other countries, including journalists, rubber- neckers [like myself], and visiting dignitaries. The accommodation solution was to convert the hotel rooms into dorms. I found myself sharing a bunk-bed room with 3 real journalists. I recall the one from the Guardian had flown in from London the day before; another worked for the Christian Science Monitor and had just arrived from El Salvador where he had been covering the vicious civil war there between US supported death squads and leftist guerillas. I was the only imposter.
My first journalistic assignment on Friday was covering the arrival of the Dignitaries at the airport. The Queen’s representative, her cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, had already shown up, now it was the foreigners turn. The problem was that most of Belize’s central American neighbors refused to participate, expressing solidarity with their Guatemalan military colleagues. By this time, Bill Casey’s new regime at the CIA had decided to support regimes like Guatemala’s to get their assistance in fighting what he imagined as the growing Soviet threat in Central America. This meant that President Reagan’s representative was relegated to a first term republican congressman from Miami.
Casey’s opponents, in contrast, pulled out all the stops. Daniel Ortega came from Nicaragua, Maurice Bishop came from Grenada, Fidel Castro didn’t come but sent his economics minister Hector Rodriguez, and Colonel Torrijos was scheduled to come from Panama but had been assassinated by a CIA planted bomb in his plane three weeks before.
On Saturday we were invited to: ‘The Ceremony of BEATING RETREAT by the drums and pipes and military band of the 1stBattalion the Gordon Highlanders. In the presence of Their Royal Highnesses Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and on the occasion of the visit of HMS Ariadne’.
Growing up in Portsmouth I had witnessed marching and military music ceremonies before, but not what I saw here, on a dusty field in a scrubby jungle clearing as a tropical sun set in a golden haze. This was the experience I had come to witness. I may now be a cynical San Francisco lefty, but when the band started playing Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco, and the bagpipers marched off playing Cock o’ the North, I did get a lump in my throat. 13 years later the Gordon Highlanders regiment was disbanded. No more empire left to garrison.
Sunday was the big day, the last day. We started with the Thanksgiving service at St John’s Anglican Cathedral. Built in 1820 in a familiar Georgian style using London bricks brought in as ballast on the British logging schooners, this church would not be out of place in an English country town. It had been constructed by slaves as the ‘Cathedral of British Honduras and Mosquito Coast’ at a time when Britain asserted rule over much of the English-speaking Caribbean shore of central America. Here the last of the Mosquito Kings were crowned in 1860.
For some reason, maybe because not many press attended, I was ushered into the front pew, which I had always understood to be a place of honour. The church service ritual was familiar from my childhood. The difference was, instead of the damp cold mildew smell of my village church, it was suffocating hot and humid. Right in front of me, Prince Michael gave the lesson, something from Ephesians that made no sense. Then the minister led us through the litany: “For our fellowship in the British Commonwealth of Nations; for the strong ties of affection and loyalty to the Crown… Praise ye the Lord”
We all say, ‘The Lord’s Name be praised’, and then I thought, whose service is this? It seemed to me the Commonwealth idea was invented primarily to ease the British trauma of Britain’s loss of empire. But even now in 2017, Elizabeth 2ndis still head of state of Belize.
It is about this point in the service that I became aware of some hostile glances from members of the congregation. I wondered whether I had been discovered as an imposter. Then belatedly I understood. Because of the heat, I had taken off my jacket and rolled up my shirt sleeves. Everyone else was sweltering in formal clothes. I had committed a major faux-pas, but I decided to hell with it and continued in my role as gauche reporter. After the service finished I rushed out, and then had the VIP’s pose for me as I photographed them leaving the nave.
Next up were series of press conferences. By this time, I was taking my new role a bit too seriously. I was familiar with the drama of press conferences having once volunteered in the newsroom at KPFA and at one point had gone to Washington during the Watergate hearings. I found myself in a crowded room with all the media paraphernalia listening to a statement from the Sandinista delegation. Then it was time for questions. For some reason, Daniel Ortega caught my eye and pointed at me -but just in time I got a flash of self-awareness. What was I doing here, wasting these professional reporters time? I hesitated and waved him off, my moment to alter the course of history had passed.
The rest of the afternoon was free before the big event that night. Somehow, I don’t remember how it happened, I struck up a conversation with two young English women backpackers who were travelling the world. We explored the Belize City waterfront together and checked out the street parties. Then they told me about some Belizeans they had met who had invited them to a party that evening in Cinderella Town and that I should come along.
This sounded good to me; I was single at the time; and the formal Independence Reception and Flag Lowering at Government House would not start until 10 that night. We took a cab to Cinderella Town, which we now discovered was a seedier district of Belize City, and the address turned out to be a neon red lit bar on the second floor of a ramshackle wooden building. We went up the stairs into the bar room. Loud ska music was playing but there was not much of a party going on. Just some bored looking young women talking to each other and a few guys propping up the bar. We ordered drinks and gave our glaring red lit surroundings a closer look. It was a brothel.
We decided we should leave and tried to call a cab -but they were all busy on the biggest night in Belizean history. We had no idea where we are. I approached the guy who seems to be the boss of the place. I don’t remember his name, let’s call him Marley, but I do remember he had a horrific diagonal scar across his face. We struck up a conversation and I got the idea that Marley was impressed that I was a journalist for the Economist. He asked me lots of questions about the outside world. I suggested to him ‘Why don’t we continue this conversation over drinks at the Fort George Hotel bar’ guessing that this would appeal to him as it was the most prestigious high class drinking spot in Belize City. I got it right and Marley led us back to the hotel, a long walk through ill lit streets. When we finally got to the hotel the security guards didn’t want to let Marley in. It seemed they knew who he was. I had some journalistic clout because after I said he is with me, they let him through, probably figuring I was interviewing him for a local story, and as promised I bought him a G&T and our conversation continued.
I suddenly realized I was running out of time because I noticed everyone in the foyer was leaving to go to Government House. I shook Marley’s hand and dashed back to my room to change into smart clothes. When I got back to the lobby it was deserted. I had missed the press bus. I couldn’t believe it, I have come all this way and I am not going to see the climax of it all -the flag lowered at midnight?
Then I saw two other guys dressed in black in the driveway looking as bewildered and abandoned as me. They were having a problem because they didn’t speak English and couldn’t explain their predicament. I communicated enough to figure out they were Cubans but I don’t speak Spanish. We eventually realized we were in the same predicament, and then just at the right time, a cab pulled up. I urgently explain we have got to get to Government House as quickly as possible.
The cab screeched to a halt outside the main entrance and we piled out. Then, I suddenly realized I was in the wrong place. The press entrance was down an alley off to the side somewhere, but what was facing me was an avenue of majestic camphor trees lined by British sailors in full regalia, leading to a flood lit podium. The Cubans went on ahead while I hesitated, but it was too late for me to turn back. As I solemnly advanced down the avenue the sailors clicked their heels and presented arms to me while a band played.
I stepped up the podium and shook hands with Prime Minister Price. I couldn’t think of what to say so blurted out what I really thought: ‘Good show’.
And yes, I did get to see the union jack lowered at midnight, and true to form it got stuck halfway down the flagpole.
Later I learned from the memoirs of Andrew Stuart, the last Resident Commissioner of the New Hebrides that this rebellion, suppressed largely without bloodshed by troops from neighboring Papua -New Guinea [independent 1975], had been promoted by a curious combination of interests: including funding by right wing libertarians from Nevada; the French secret service hoping to maintain influence in francophone parts of the islands; and several Melanesian cargo cults. One of the cargo cults believed that the Duke of Edinburgh was the pilot of John Frum’s cargo plane, and they were pacified by the timely dispatch of a signed portrait from Buckingham Palace.
More to come …
Copyright: Philip B. Williams, 4/24/18.
Phil Williams was born in Chatham U.K in 1945. After completing a Ph.D. in hydraulics engineering at University College London, he emigrated to Canada and then the USA in 1970, where he has had a varied career as engineer, environmental activist, entrepreneur, CEO and academic. Now retired, he lives in San Francisco and is writing his memoirs.
For contacting the author please write us: CrimeMag at gmx.de
All pictures: by the author. Only Portsmouth, Georgic and Price are taken from Wikipedia Commons.