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Sunday 6 May 2012

The Confessions of a Rubber Planter in Malaya - Leopold Ainsworth (Review)

Random Reviews - 1

The Confessions of a Rubber Planter
in Malaya
Leopold Ainsworth
(H.F. & G. Witherby, London. 1933)

I chose this book because because I had read Boris Hembry's Malayan Spymaster recently. It's another planter's memoir, which has previously been reviewed on this blog. I suppose, as the title suggests, Spymaster didn't tell me so much about planting as about bashing Japs and then CTs (Communist Terrorists). I was hoping to find out more about how the 'development' of the country came about. This book certainly helped.

The opening of the book was fascinating. Ainsworth didn't have any significant education or experience to qualify him for the job. He was just a bored clerk in a London plantation company office and managed to persuade his superiors that he might be better in the field than behind the desk. Obviously he was middle class and so came from the right background, so it was worth giving him a go. In this case the risk paid off, but one wonders how often it didn't.

So Ainsworth started as a 'creeper,' following around the more experienced staff and doing the heavy jobs that weren't already being done by the large labour force. He was on the go from before dawn to after dusk, a pattern that seemed to be fairly regular even as he climbed up the ladder. There isn't much in the book about stengahs with his mates in the local club. It seems Ainsworth preferred to be on the estate.The real people he writes about with affection are his co-workers who did most of the hard grind. The main social occasions he writes about are in kampongs, not in the club.

He comes across as a sensitive type too. After a few weeks on his first plantation, he was apalled at the way the labour force was treated. He compares the conditions of the indentured labour to slavery. It's not clear whether it was because of this that he eventually managed to break free to set up his own rubber milling and, later, tapioca milling operations. 

Excerpts from the book turn up in occasional modern writings about the British/European racial outlook of the time. Although the book has its fair share of  racial stereotypes, e.g. the 'lazy' Malay and the 'primitive' Orang Asli (indigenous people), the author not only presents the people he comes across as more rounded, but also often admires and seeks to explain their customs which must have appeared so alien to many of his readers of the time. He only mentions one expatriate as a friend, Carveth Wells, the author of  'Six Years in the Malay Jungle,' but he was a mate from school. However, it's interesting that the subconscious racial profiling that besets Malaysia today was already in full swing nearly a hundred years ago. Every character who appears in the book is given his or her racial classification even when it's unnecessary. For example he employs 'Chinese' mechanics to build his mill or calls for help in an emergency from a 'Sikh' watchman.

All in all Ainsworth comes across as someone you could imagine wanting to get to know. He's enthusiastic and self-effacing. He's a sucker for the wildlife and enraptured by the people. At one point in the book he speculates on the reader considering his life to be a lonely one. He counters this by saying he never had time to be lonely because he enjoyed his work so much and, after work, if there was time, he socialised with his work mates. However the scarce information about his home life in Malaya could lead the reader speculate whether he left much unsaid. He leaves behind a sweetheart in England at the beginning of the book, but she's never mentioned again. There's an occasional reference to flirty women on the plantation or in the kampong, but not much more than that.  His work was obviously a hard grind, but when rubber prices crashed 75% between 1929 and 1932, he decided his time was up and went home.

While the book maybe isn't a classic, if you take into account the time when it was written and the background of the writer, it is notable in giving a picture of an expatriate planter's life in the early 20th century where clubbing and boozing takes second place to hard work and love of the people and country. He's an amusing and keen eyed raconteur who takes second place to what's going on around him.

This book has now been sold, but another copy will be available soon. Please click here for details. At the time of writing this is the only copy available on the internet.


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