- Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786–1941 by Lynn Hollen Lees
Anthropologists and historians of Southeast Asia have in recent decades explored the contributions that small, mobile, and often peripheral groups made to the political development of the region during the colonial era. These studies have described the shifting allegiances of Arab-Malay individuals and communities, the emergence of hybrid identities from the arrival of Chinese and Indian laborers, and the constellation of ideas and practices associated with the trading world of the Indian Ocean.
In Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786–1941, Lynn Hollen Lees draws on this body of scholarship and sets it to work on a grand scale. In her deeply researched history of colonial Malaya, Lees argues that it is a mistake to “imply one hierarchy and structure of power in territories of multiple, divided sovereignties and mixed populations.” “Empires are spaces of flows,” not just of labor and capital, but also of power (6). Because the colonial state was not an all-powerful monolith, Lees frames her study in terms of the complicated interactions between different groups within the plantation society created by European capital and control. Although the colonial state was the paramount power in Malaya, Lees argues, it was obliged to negotiate with various constituencies: Malay royals, Chinese bosses, plantation staff, international organizations, and a nascent civil society made up of educated locals.
The book is divided into two parts, each devoted to aspects of social and political life in the colony in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Lees’s account, two commodities—sugar in the nineteenth century, and rubber in the twentieth—determined the kinds of society created in Malaya. Drawing on a newly discovered archive, Lees reconstructs in painstaking detail the social hierarchy and working conditions on a sugar plantation as they were established in the early nineteenth century. She does not downplay the absolute, often brutal control that European planters exercised over the Indian and Chinese laborers, drawing attention to the ways in which the colonial state, despite its enlightened rhetoric, turned a blind eye to such abuse.
More broadly, Lees uses the story of the Penang Sugar Plantation as a prism through which to describe the expansion of British control in Malaya and the growth of urban areas on the western coast of the peninsula. So-called gentlemanly capitalists like John William Ramsden, who invested a great deal in the Penang Sugar Estates, are portrayed as the plantation economy’s version of the improving English landlord. During much of the nineteenth century, indebted contract laborers were not paid enough to feed and clothe themselves; the death rate at times bordered on one in ten South Asian workers, whereas no deaths were reported of British employees (75). Escaping workers who managed to reach twenty miles away from plantations without being captured might find themselves in Malay lands, outside the jurisdiction of the British state and therefore beyond the reach of the European estate owners. But the work regimes on estates were uniformly harsh even when they were diverse. Chinese overseers often asserted control of the Chinese laborers—grouped according to dialect or region—using methods that were opaque to plantation managers and the colonial state (76). [End Page 670]
These were some of the fragmented or layered sovereignties that obtained in colonial Malaya. Other examples could be seen in towns like Penang, where the Chinese community founded temples, clubs, welfare associations, and schools, and were often left alone by the colonial state to run things by themselves. Such so-called sovereignty, however limited, nevertheless starkly contrasted with the absence of freedom on the plantations. A valuable feature of Lees’s book is the attention it pays to the neglected stories of women, who were especially vulnerable to assault and exploitation in the “masculine world” of the plantation (78). The individual stories of the relative powerlessness of the worker in any disputes with the European bosses are equally illuminating; floggings...