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MAP: unrest in Southeast Asia


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MAP: 19th Century Malaya


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MAP: Areas of Malaya under communist control 1948-1952


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A Conversation with Neal Ascherson, former Royal Marine

It’s a year since I attended the Batang Kali trial in London and I am sitting in a kitchen in north London on a dull and rainy winter’s day talking to Neal Ascherson about Malaya. I had always admired Neal as an historian and journalist but until earlier this year had no idea that he did his national service with 42 Commando Royal Marines in Malaya. I discovered this fact when I read his obituary of the great historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Guardian. Neal had finished doing national service in 1953 and headed for Cambridge to study history. Here’s an extract from the obit: Eric inspected me. A specimen, indeed. “What’s that medal affair you’re wearing?” “It’s my national service campaign medal. For active service in the Malayan emergency.” Eric pulled back and took another look at me. Then he said, very sharply but without violence: “Malaya? You should be ashamed to be wearing that.” I don’t think I said anything at all. I remember noticing the students around us, round-eyed with shock. Then I left the room, stumbling back down the dusky stairs, and out into the huge court where it was beginning to rain. After a time […]
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Alfred Russell Wallace climbs Mount Ophir, near Malacca

Alfred Russell Wallace, the co discover with Charles Darwin of evolution by means of natural selection, spent many years hacking his way through the jungles and sailing between the far flung islands of what is now modern Indonesia. He visited Singapore and Malacca on the Malay Peninsula only for brief excursions. But his wonderful account of climbing Mount Ophir (Gunung Ledang) in the Malay state of Johor gives us a vivid snap shot of a near pristine Peninsula landscape: We passed through extensive forests, along paths often up to our knees in mud, and were much annoyed by the leeches for which this district is famous. These little creatures infest the leaves and herbage by the side of the paths, and when a passenger comes along they stretch themselves out at full length, and if they touch any part of his dress or body, quit their leaf and adhere to it. They then creep on to his feet, legs, or other part of his body and suck their fill, the first puncture being rarely felt during the excitement of walking…Early in the afternoon we reached the foot of the mountain, and encamped by the side of a fine stream, whose […]
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The Battle of Surabaya

Following the Japanese surrender at the beginning of September, 1945 British forces were in action in French Indochina and the former Dutch East Indies, Indonesia. One empire was collapsing – another was struggling to be born… By September Mountbatten could no longer put off tackling the tumult in Indonesia. Although the SOE was being wound down, SEAC was receiving misleading reports from Dutch agents, known as ‘Flying Dutchmen’, that the situation in Java was calm. SEAC had set up RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) to locate the POW and internment camps in Java and Sumatra and provide assistance and support to the prisoners. An agreement had been hammered out with the Dutch on 24 August that handed responsibility for Java and Sumatra to the British and the outer islands to the Australians. They would work towards the ‘Netherlands Indies Civil Affair Administration’, the NICA, that had been established in Australia by the Dutch colonial government in exile. In the Netherlands Queen Wilhelmina was under pressure from the Dutch business elite to ‘sort out the Indonesians’. The Queen obliged by insisting that her kingdom was ‘indivisible’. With an eye on the Americans the Dutch government made a […]
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Britain’s War in Vietnam

THE BRITISH VIETNAM WAR The modern nations of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos occupy the former imperial realm of Indochine. The French had first taken an interest in the bulbous peninsula that lies wrapped around the Siamese border east of India and southeast of China when the British had begun squeezing them out of India at the end of the eighteenth century. French Catholic missionaries were the vanguard of conquest and from the mid-nineteenth century Gallic colonisers chipped away at the local kingdoms under the pretext of protecting its missionary expeditions. Saigon, the main city of Cochin China (Southern Vietnam), was captured early in 1859 and, with British connivance, the French carved out an eastern empire. Following war with China in the 1880s French Indochina was formally established in October 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochin China, which occupied the territory of modern Vietnam, and the Kingdom of Cambodia. Laos was added after a war with Siam. The building of ‘Indochine’ was a very nasty business. According to Governor-General Albert Sarraut, ‘Indochina is from all points of view, the most important, the most developed and the most prosperous of our colonies…’ Although the French maintained a façade of Annamite sovereignty by coercing […]
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The Spark, June 1948

That morning Arthur ‘Wally’ Walker, the manager of the Elphil Estate, had started work before sunrise inspecting the long rows of silvery rubber trees with his dog, and talking to his estate workers. Just before 8 a.m., he returned to his office where he met the estate clerk A.H. Kumaran. Both men then began work. Walker would take breakfast two hours later. Such was the custom of the British rubber estates. Walker was in his mid 40s. Born in Moffat in Scotland, he had come out to Malaya in the 1920s. In 1942, he had been captured by the Japanese and imprisoned at Changi jail in Singapore. Earlier that morning, his wife had left the estate to go shopping in the royal town of Kuala Kangsar. They would meet later to discuss their planned holiday in England. At about 8.30 a.m., three young Chinese men rode up to the office on bicycles. They jumped off, carefully parked their machines, then walked unhurriedly into Walker’s office. The dog began barking. Next door, the clerk Mr Kumaran heard a Chinese voice greet Walker: ‘Tabek, tuan!’ Salutations, sir. He heard Walker reply. Then two shots rang out loudly in the small office. Next […]
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Empire builders

Kwasi Karteng argues in his book ‘Ghosts of Empire’ (2011) that British imperialism was driven not by a moralistic desire to export liberal democracy but by ‘anarchic individualism and paternalism’. The grand moralistic sentiment of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Hands all Round’ (dedicated to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her sixty third birthday in 1882) was merely childish blather: ‘We’ve sailed wherever a ship could sail We’ve planted many a mighty state; Pray God our greatness may not fail Through craven fears of being great.’ As a declining post imperial nation, Britain remains preoccupied with Empire – and whether, to adopt the terms set by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in ‘1066 and all that’, ‘the Empire’ was a good thing or a bad thing – or perhaps ‘Right but Repulsive’ as they judged the English Civil War. That kind of debate, which has become sterile and polarised, presupposes that the Empire was ‘a thing’ at all – that is to say a coherent consequence of intent. It has been argued that the British Empire was to some degree accidental: the initiatives of colonial administrators, the ‘men on the spot’ had equal if not greater impact than any master imperial […]
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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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