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The Planter’s Life

For the British or French or Dutch planter the rubber estate was a world within a world. ‘He hadn’t much to talk about but rubber and games, tennis, you know, and golf and shooting…’ Somerset Maugham wrote of a planter called Bronson: ‘he had the mind of a boy of eighteen. You know how many fellows when they come out east seem to stop growing.’ Many of the young Europeans employed on the rubber estates of Southeast Asia worked as assistant planters or ‘creepers’. They were the backbone of estate operations because a colour bar prevented Coolies rising above the level of clerk. The creepers were an odd bunch. James Mill said that the main purpose of Empire was to ‘provide out door relief for the British upper classes’. Many were misfits or black sheep exiled by their families. Others were restless fellows who had fled enervating office jobs in the City. In Malaya, at least a third of the assistant planters were Scottish. The Ramsden company archive is chockfull of reports of assistants sacked because they were alcoholic, prone to violence, mentally ill or just bone idle time wasters. A surprising number ended up destitute on the streets of […]
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The Jews of the Orient

European prejudices can take root among Asian elites. Take for example the short book ‘The Jews of the Orient’. Its author was Vajiravudh, King Rama VI of Siam who succeeded King Chulalongkorn in 1910. Vajiravudh had been educated at Sandhurst and Oxford. He was a passionate Anglophile and a prolific author: he translated both Agatha Christie and three plays of Shakespeare, including ‘The Merchant of Venice’.  In ‘The Jews of the Orient’, which had a powerful impact on the development of chauvinist Siamese/Thai nationalism, the King claimed that the Chinese exhibited all the notorious (and mythological) traits of European Jews: they cultivated clannish international networks; were reluctant to assimilate; they were clever and greedy financiers; they despised their hosts…   ‘The Jews of the Orient’ invested Asian anti-Sinitic tropes with European stereotypes of Jews.  A century after the Siamese King published his poisonous tract, and six decades after the European Holocaust, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad addressed the Islamic Conference on 16 October 2003: Jews, he proclaimed, ‘ruled the world by proxy’: he called for a ‘final victory’ by the world’s 1.3 million Muslims – we cannot, he told the Conference, be defeated ‘by a few million Jews’. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed […]
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