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 malaria. 
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.