Monday, May 29, 2006

Colonialism and Liberal Horror

Greetings from Singapore! Apologies for not having updated this site for almost a week, but travels and woork have made new entries a bit difficult. I have joined Stefan in Singapore for a week for some meetings. I am writing to you from the magnificent 11th floor reference section of the new National Library building, and from my vantage point Singapore extends as far as the eye can see, from St. Joseph's Church just below near Bugis towards Orchard Road and beyond. Given the pollution these days in Hong Kong, I don't take such vistas for granted!

I've had a chance to walk aroound the library and there are some lovely volumes on local history. One particularly colorful character is one Frank Swettenham, who was promoted to positions of high authority as a Malay-speaking cadet; there is a volume called 'Swettenham" written by a former rubber planter named H.S. Barlow.

There is a section of the book that deals with conceptions of slavery and forced corvee labor in many of the Malay Sultanates, demonstrating that in the Far East the question of 'mui tsai' and coolies impressed into service was far from just being a Chinese problem.

The interventions this issue caused as a result of outcries in England about such practices over which Britain at that time had only nominal sway was a significant factor in the escalation of British power projection in the area. There is a perception that colonialism was a product of European realpolitik over natural resources and geographically strategic locations. While doubtless these were also considerations, the accommodation by which the majority in a (partial) democracy, particularly amongst liberals in 19th century Britain, came to be because of 'moral' outrages in which the liberals felt obligated in intervene, on such issues as slavery or human rights. Indeed, it does raise uncomfortable parallels with our present age when democracy and its advance is used as the spearpoint for penetration into foreign (mis)adventures.

I will simply end today's post with a quote from Barlow's book, encapsulating the problem of slavery in mid-19th century Malaya:
A Malay ruler in these states [Perak and Pahang] was to a large extent judged by the size of his retinue. Debt-bondage, and corvee labour formed the basiis of such a retinue, and therefoore played a key role in Malay society before the advent of the British. An individual who contracted a debt, generally to his ruler, was obliged to work for the ruler until the debt was paid off. Debt-bondage frequently had its origins in the need to raise money, for example, for a wedding in the family. Sometimes the basiis on which the debt was contracted was genuine: sometimes less so. In any case, the debt-bondsman's wife and children were usually also similarly treated...

...kerah, or corvee labour, was a kind of tax: 'In those days every able-bodied rrakyat, unless specially exempted, had on demand to give so many days forced labour to the Sultan or local chief, or pay recognized compensation...Kerah labour might fall at any time of the year, including the busiest time in the agricultural cycle. In response to these risks, the Malay farmers abandoned their houses and orchards and moved elsewhere. In any case they tended only to cultivate sufficient for their immediate needs. As a result of the threat of corvee labour, Malay communities, in the early years of British rule, were enormously unstable, to the detriment of longer term agricultural development...

Sweetenham's involvement with the problem began with the Pangkor Engagement [the treaty with the Malay chiefs-Ed.]. The text contained nothing to justify the abolition of debt-slavery: a source of considerable aggravation during [Agent] Birch's period in Perak [where he was later murdered-Ed.]...Swettenham's memorandum was prepared promptly, and submitted. In it, Swettenham set out in vivid detail the abuses of the debt-bondage system, particularly as practised in Perak, the state where he noted that most abuses occurred. 'In different states this debt-bondage is carried to greater or less extremes, but in Perak the cruelties exercised towards debtors are even exclaimed against by Malays in other states.' Families were made debt-bondsmen for generations, and their women often forced into prostitution... He concluded bleakly:

"I have often discussed this question of debt-slavery with the Malays themselves, but they say they see no way under the rule of their Rajahs to put down this curse of their country, with all the vils that follows in its train."
It does bringup an interesting point, whether we discuss this issuue, or that of the mui tsai question in Hong Kong (which lasted until World War II). Although we condemn colonialism universally today, would the abolishment, at least legally, of human trafficking, have occurred without it? It is hard to imagine today's world without all the boundaries that are a direct consequence of the Age of European Imperialism, but would the world, and those regions, have been better off without contact or trade with the West?

It seems for all the sensitivity we have towards the world's cultures today, we still have ideas of Progress in terms of societal mores by which we judge other cultures (Sudanese female genital mutiliation, for instance), and in many cases, we would applaud the stamping out of practices in polities under colonial control.

But I suspect in other places, the devastation of traditional social units and their replacement with an entirely exploitative system (e.g. the Belgian Congo) that broought little material benefiit to its inhabitants would demonstrate that there were so many different types of colonialism, some more malevolent than others. But these issues from the 19th century, nevertheless, provide food for thought for Western interventions in the 21st century, and a new razor by which too judge their legitimacy.


Anonymous said...

Apropos your thoughts on slavery, vaginal mutilation, and the West, I proffer this statement attributed to General Sir Charles James Napier (British commander-in-Chief in India), concerning the Hindu practice of throwing living widows upon the funeral pyre of their dead husbands:

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Fred,

Thanks for Napier's comment, I seem to remember a John Keay book expressing what a colorful character he was.

That was a hilarious quote, especially if you imagine the deadpan, stiff-upper-lip delivery of it. It also gets to the heart of my entry yesterday - use of force by a colonial power to root out practices it cannot tolerate.

Ultimately I guess I come down on the side of the colonizers, mostly, because to contemplate the opposite, that is, them having stood by while practices that they consiidered a gross injustice were being systemically perpetrated, is I think even worse. In any case, the French, British and Americans could be quite tolerant of other practices that deviated from their own societal mores as long as it was not a gross violation (like bigamy, which some colonizers seemed by their actions downright in favor of!).

I think what was much more problematic was when such practices were used as a pretext for invasion or a more explicit form of colonization. Like democracy today, the eradication of despotism was in idea that would be pursued by imperial means. By bringing modern market forces to bear upon the colonies, it was thought, a 'civilizing' influence would be exerted upon natives that would bring them to a more enlightened state.

Sadly, they did not think about how they would gracefully withdraw once many of the native elite achieved that 'enlightened state', or indeed to have any set parameters to judge that enlightenment, after which the colonial power woould presumably no longer be necessary...and so history repeats itself.

Don David Price said...

Dave or Stephan:

This is not on point, but I am trying to research whether there was a policital relationship between Macau and the Malay States around the 1900s? If you know can you steer me to any reference materials, in Engliash. I'm in Portugal where the English language libraries are nil. Thanks in advance. Don David Price March 16,2007