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 Singapore, waiting, or
begging, sometimes in vain, for a passage home. It was worth it for some.
Colonial service offered a step up. They enjoyed powers that were not easy to
attain in the normal run of things at home. These ‘Tuan Besars’ and ‘Tuan
Kechils’ – the ‘great gentlemen’ and ‘junior masters’ – who strutted about
their domains in stained khakis, tropical whites and solar tepees, periodically
lunging at coiled snakes with a stick, were the petty lords of all they
surveyed. A good number were unashamed racists who fervently believed in the
civilising ethos of empire and the natural inferiority of native lesser breeds.
The best and the brightest admittedly turned into decent linguists – learning
the rudiments or more of Tamil, Malay, Javanese and the Chinese dialects often
with the assistance of Asian ‘wives’ known as ‘sleeping dictionaries’. Work was
hard and most of the ‘Tuans’ had to endure recurrent bouts of debilitating

After a day on the estate, checking and rechecking the work of the
tappers, they fled to their bungalows to sip whiskey stengahs, and bitter English
beer. Who can blame them? The Dutch too were ‘tremendous soaks’ who could as
one memoir admitted ‘put away an incredible amount of beer at an incredible
pace’. An Australian journalist reported from Papua that a appropriate coat of
arms for the territory would be ‘a white man rampant, with a boy couchant,
bearing a bottle of beer proper.’ ‘Beer, Boy!’ was the most distinctive cry of
the species. Many of the French planters in Indochina were veterans of the
Foreign Legion – and some were distinctly unsavoury types. The British
recruited their planters from the ‘great’ public schools like Eton and Rugby or
‘lesser’ public schools and elite state grammar schools. Many of the Scots had
been educated at Fettes School near Edinburgh. Life was rarely comfortable. The
working day began in the cool before dawn – and no one, Tuan or Coolie, stopped
work until the setting of the hot and merciless sun. Life might be
uncomfortable. A Scot called Ian Matheson recalled that on his estate in
Sumatra he had to live in a leaking bungalow with no running water and
electricity and a ‘thunder box which needs no description’. Leopold Ainsworth, who
was sent to an estate near Penang, could not forget the ‘miserable dreary
light’ of the single oil lamp in his quarters, and a malodorous mildew ridden
mattress and rotting ‘Dutch Widow’ pillow. With the onset of the monsoon, a
‘solid, streaming, crashing wall of water’ broke through the roof. He had first
come to estate after a long journey by cart. He arrived late and his new
employer, a cantankerous old Scot, had whipped the cart driver with cruel abandon
and retired, exhausted, to bed. Supper was a ‘disgusting meal’ of tinned soup
with ants floating on its greasy surface. Coffee was strained through an old
sock. Ainsworth was woken the next morning, bowels churning, by a barrage of
hammering on his door and a cry of ‘Get up you lazy bastard!’ Strong drink was
a refuge. Not a few sodden prematurely aged and pickled ‘Tuans’ lost their wits
and ended up in the Singapore Lunatic Asylum before being shipped home if they
were lucky. The Rubber comanies actively discouraged marriage. ‘Creepers’ were
forbidden to tie the knot until the fourth year of their contracts. Lonely, far
from hearth and home, it was unusual for a young planter not to seek relief and
solace in Malay ‘kip shops’ or in the arms of Asian concubines known as ‘Keeps’
(short for ‘housekeeper’) in Malaya. Some planters treated their Asian
mistresses with respect, fathered families and sent their children to school. A
very few married their former ‘Keeps’; the majority were summarily dispensed
with when a ‘Memsahib’ finally turned up to share the planters’ ordeals. 

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