SKELETONS OF EMPIRE
by Mogan Selvakannu
In 1877, Hevea Brasiliensis or Para rubber seeds were introduced to Malaya by British colonists via the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London. These seeds commenced the British Empire’s dominance in the rubber industry between the late nineteenth century and mid twentieth century. During this period, high demand for workforce in rubber plantations prompted the largest migration of Indian labourers into the Malay Peninsula. After Malaya’s independence from the British in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963, the British way of systematically cultivating and commodifying natural rubber are still practiced in post-colonial Malaysia. Most of the migrant Indian labourers remained in the country and adopted an identity influenced by colonial culture and systems that are still deeply rooted in modern Malaysia.
‘Skeletons of Empire’ visually portrays the outcome of the British Empire commodifying natural resource as a capital. It investigates the skeletal structure of proven methods and systems left behind by the British Empire which made natural rubber a crucial industrial commodity in post-colonial Malaysia. The work illustrates traces of British imperial influence in shaping a former colonial territory’s economy and reality through the impact of systematic plantation and man-made landscapes moulded by former imperial industries.
‘Skeletons of Empire’ also explores the migrant Indian community that remained in Malaysia as a result of British colonisation by way of commodifying natural rubber. It portrays the enduring remnants and influence of British Imperialism and its ramifications in creating the Indian diaspora existing in post-colonial Malaysia. By depicting the lived experience and identity of this community, the work visualises the effects of colonial sociocultural systems infused with the ancestral heritage of former imperial subjects.
Rubber: A Colonial Commodity
Rubber is intricately woven in the rise of capitalism, imperialism, and modernity. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels quoted that the requirements of the expanding market would “chase the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe” (Marx & Engels, 1970, pg. 38). This is evident in the development of rubber as an industrial product during the late nineteenth century. Due to this development, the British Empire capitalised on the global demand for natural rubber and found a need for industrialising natural rubber production within its colonial territories. It also needed the expansion of industrial methods of rubber plantation to parallel the mass production industries of its industrial heartlands. The solution was creating systematic cultivation and production of natural rubber utilising Imperial British plantation methods. A crucial part of this solution involved transplanting rubber seeds from Brazil to an imperial colony in order to create and control the Empire’s own supply of natural rubber and monopolising world rubber trade.
The British Imperial administration identified Malaya as a fitting location to cultivate natural rubber in an industrial scale. The highly suitable climate of the Malay Peninsula with lands already colonised by the British made the introduction of rubber plantations inevitable. With the rapid expansion of rubber plantations in Malaya, the need for labour increased dramatically. This prompted the movement of millions of laborers from India into British Malaya. These transplanted Indian labourers or ‘coolies’ built and worked the plantations of British rubber multinationals such as Dunlop, Guthrie and Ramsden, whom at one point produced a third of the world’s rubber supply. This ultimately aided the British and international industries in producing and utilising rubber in manufacturing sectors and military industries.
Labour: The Other Colonial Commodity
“My husband worked as the driver for the estate manager, Mr Keedwell. He drove the car for Mr. Keedwell wherever the manager needed to go. The British would meet in the country club in Muar town for drinks. My husband would drive the manager to the country club and back. If there is a need to go to the capital Kuala Lumpur, they would be away for a week. Trips to Penang and Singapore took about a week too. Sometimes the trips would take up to two weeks. I did not ask any questions. That is the nature of his job. As far as I know, we were very well taken care of in the estate by Mr Keedwell and his wife. Every year during Christmas, the manager and his wife will take us to Segamat town for a Christmas meal. They would bring along as many workers as they can, family members and children included.”
“I worked as a maid for the estate manager. I cleaned and tidied up the manager’s house. I also helped the cook in the kitchen. Mr. Keedwell and his family did not eat local food like curries. Bread, eggs and potatoes were their staples. Potatoes were important to them. Mr. Keedwell had a male cook who would do all the cooking as I observed and helped when needed. The cook would boil potatoes until they were soft and then mashed them. He would then mix the mashed potatoes with eggs and place the mixture in the oven to cook. The cook would also boil vegetables like green beans and carrots. He only used salt and pepper as seasonings. The cook did not stir fry the vegetable with oil as we do. Their food is different. The manager and his family did not eat spicy food. Only their food.”
“When I was discharged from the hospital after giving birth to my first child, my husband took me and my baby to the manager’s home rather than our home. He wanted to show them our new-born son. Mr Keedwell and his wife were very happy for us. They placed my son in a baby cot and took photographs. Only after this visit did we go home. Mrs. Keedwell always took photographs of us. Especially the Tamils and the Tamil children. I still have the photographs from our trips to Segamat town and the church in Cha’ah. They took care of us very well. There’s no denying that they were very fond of us. Not like other people.”
“Mr. Keedwell returned to his home in Liverpool after retiring. When Mr. Keedwell passed away, his son travelled from Liverpool to inform us about the manager’s passing. We have already moved out of the estate by then. Mr. Keedwell’s son managed to find us from the register at the police station. He came to our house, had a chat with us and bought us food. He was a good man. If you have been good to the British people, they will take good care of you.”
“The British built houses, temples and schools. They built it all for us. They took care of the people. They were especially fond of Tamils. Ever willing to help with problems. The British during that time could not be said as bad or evil people. They were good folks. I am not sure about the current British people.”
“Some eight thousand miles from London lie the jungle of Malaya. We, the British, are the people who brought to this ancient land of tiger and jungle a common law and order, who constructed railways and roads, pushed back the jungle, built towns and cities , developed the tin mines and introduced the rubber tree. We have made it one of the most important countries in the world.
The rubber plantations of Malaya, which now supply industry with an enormous volume of cultivated rubber, were begun from the Brazilian seeds shipped to Britain towards the end of the 19th century and propagated in Kew Gardens.
Today Dunlop cultivates 80,000 acres, the largest rubber plantation property in the world under single control. It employs many thousands of Tamil, Chinese and Malays. They work for good wages and live in good houses. They have schools, hospitals, churches, crèches, laundries, bus services, entertainments and temples.
This is an age of greatly differing ways of living. We have no reason to be modest. The British way of life has brought to millions a new conception of living, a greater prosperity, a wider freedom. Whether we work alone or as colleagues in one of our great industries, we still have to finish the job we started - the creation of a common prosperity and a common wealth of work and happiness for all the peoples of the world.
Dunlop makes things better for everyone”
February 1954, Dunlop Rubber Company Ltd
Legacy: The Persistent Colonial Systems
“...Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognisable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. The discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence, in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.” (Bhabha, 1994, pg. 126)
After Malaya’s independence from the British in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963, most of the Indian laborers, who were a class of temporary migrant laborers and subjects of the Empire became permanent residents of Malaysia. Today, Malaysian Indians form the 5th largest community of Overseas Indians in the world. Within Malaysia, they represent the third largest group after the ethnic Malay and Chinese, constituting 7% of the Malaysian population. Through the process of acculturation and assimilation, this community found a sense of belonging regardless of the colonial systems and policies still imposed on them in modern Malaysia. They formed a self-identity consisting of a hybrid between colonial sociocultural systems and their own ancestral heritage. An example of this is the Malaysian Indians common aspiration of securing a better future for their children, a way out of the plantation life and achieve success. This concept of success often follows the specific need for their children to become educated professionals such as doctors, engineers or lawyers. The local education system in which this dream is realised is modelled from the British education system.
Ethnicity plays a significant role in Malaysian politics. The Malaysian system of racial categorisation stems from the expansion of British colonial administration. “Colonial officials had to formulate a set of mutually exclusive and exhaustive ethnic categorisation to classify the population.” (Hirschman, 2002, pg. 559). This system of classification ultimately shaped modern Malaysia’s method of classifying its population in order to redistribute wealth and welfare. Affirmative actions were implemented to advance the standing of bumiputera, a group of people considered as the original inhabitants of the land, over migrants such as Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians. These policies provide preferential treatment to the bumiputera group in employment, education, scholarships, business, and access to cheaper housing and assisted savings.
These factors make the modern Malaysian Indian’s fate and identity being directly or indirectly influenced by former British imperial systems. Ideas, concepts and policies that were utilised to advance the expansion of British colonisation eventually remained in the country in which the Malaysian Indians identified as home. Their lives follow the “British colonial way” yet continues to be the slippage, the excess and the recognisable other in a land that mimics colonial legacies.
“My father grew up in the estates. His mother worked very long hours in the estates, and she wore these rubber boots that were very ill-fitting, either too big or too small for her feet. As a result of this, it has now deformed her feet. Her toes have become very narrow, leaving almost no space between them. This restricts her movement in her old age and she is unable to wear normal sized shoes.
My father’s uncle lived and worked in another estate. He had two kids. My father lived with him and his family for a short time. There was no secondary school in the estate where my father came from. My father had to move to the estate where his uncle lived to attend secondary school. His uncle was a frequent visitor at thodi (palm wine) shops within the estates. It was a form of relief from hard manual labour and lack of entertainment. His habit led on to alcohol abuse. He did not know how to stop and became physically abusive towards his wife and his children. Eventually, my father’s uncle died at a very young age because of his alcohol abusing habits. Some of his organs started failing and he could not be saved, physically, mentally and emotionally. We used to visit him and it was quite sad to see his condition.”
• Jaya Martin • Jonathan Martin • Nagulan Selvakannu • Shahminee Selvakannu • Jayananda Gobee Arumugam • Arumugam Veeran • Vel Murugan • Francis Xavier • Thirukumaran Murugaya • Vairan Singaram • Bangaramma @ Pangkajam • Rajeswary Narasiman • Ganesan • Nirsheila Sham Kaur • Saravana Kumar Kuppusamy • Shaktidharan Saravana Kumar • Kamalesan Kamalakaran •
Vicknes Waran • Vinoth Raj Pillai • Mohandas Shryee • Ruby Subramaniam • Netusha Naidu • Koggelavani Muniandy •
Malaysian Rubber Board (Lembaga Getah Malaysia)
• Nuratikah Mazlan • Mohamad Yusri Mat Zain • Mega Arjuna Abang • Nurmi Rohayu Abdul Hamid •