From Sea to Sea

Letter V

by Rudyard Kipling

How the world is made for each of us,
How all we perceive and know in it
Tends to some moment’s product—thus
When a soul declares itself—to wit
By its fruit, the thing it does.

I ASSURE YOU, Sir, weather as hot as this has not been felt in Singapur for years and years. March is always reckoned our hottest month, but this is quite abnormal.’

And I made answer to the stranger wearily:—

‘Yes, of course. They always told that lie in the other places. Leave me alone and let me drip.’

This is the heat of an orchid-house, a clinging, remorseless, steam-sweat that knows no variation between night and day. Singapur is another Calcutta, but much more so. In the suburbs they are building rows of cheap houses; in the city they run over you and jostle you into the kennel. These are unfailing signs of commercial prosperity. India ended so long ago that I cannot even talk about the natives of the place. They are all Chinese, except where they are French or Dutch or German. England is by the uninformed supposed to own the island. The rest belongs to China and the Continent, but chiefly China. I knew I had touched the borders of the Celestial Empire when I was thoroughly impregnated with the reek of Chinese tobacco, a fine-cut, greasy, glossy weed, to whose smoke the aroma of a huqa in the cookhouse is all Rimmel’s shop.

Providence conducted me along a beach, in full view of five miles of shipping,—five solid miles of masts and funnels,—to a place called Raffles Hotel, where the food is as excellent as the rooms are bad. Let the traveller take note. Feed at Raffles and sleep at the Hotel de l’Europe. I would have done this but for the apparition of two large ladies tastefully attired in bed-gowns, who sat with their feet propped on a chair. This Joseph ran; but it turned out that they were Dutch ladies from Batavia, and that that was their national costume till dinner time.

‘If, as you say, they had on stockings and dressing-gowns, you have nothing to complain of. They generally wear nothing but a night-gown till five o’clock,’ quoth a man versed in the habits of the land.

I do not know whether he spoke the truth; I am inclined to think that he did; but now I know what ‘Batavian grace’ really means, I don’t approve of it. A lady in a dressing-gown disturbs the mind and prevents careful consideration of the political outlook in Singapur, which is now supplied with a set of very complete forts, and is hopefully awaiting some nine-inch breech-loaders that are to adorn them. There is something very pathetic in the trustful, clinging attitude of the Colonies, who ought to have been soured and mistrustful long ago. ‘We hope the Home Government may do this. It is possible that the Home Government may do that,’ is the burden of the song, and in every place where the Englishman cannot breed successfully must continue to be. Imagine an India fit for permanent habitation by our kin, and consider what a place it would be this day, with the painter cut fifty years ago, fifty thousand miles of railways laid down and ten thousand under survey, and possibly an annual surplus. Is this sedition? Forgive me, but I am looking at the shipping outside the verandah, at the Chinamen in the streets, and at the lazy, languid Englishmen in banians and white jackets stretched on the cane chairs, and—these things are not nice. The men are not really lazy, as I will try to show later on, but they lounge and loaf and seem to go to office at eleven, which must be bad for work. And they all talk about going home at indecently short intervals, as though that were their right. Once more, if we could only rear children that did not run to leg and nose in the second generation in this part of the world and one or two others, what an amazing disruption of the Empire there would be before half of a Parnell Commission sitting was accomplished! And then, later, when the freed States had plunged into hot water, fought their fights, overborrowed, over-speculated, and otherwise conducted themselves like younger sons, what a coming together and revision of tariffs, ending in one great iron band girdling the earth. Within that limit Free Trade. Without, rancorous Protection. It would be too vast a hornet’s nest for any combination of Powers to disturb. The dream will not come about for a long time, but we shall accomplish something like it one of these days. The birds of passage from Canada, from Borneo,—Borneo that will have to go through a general rough-and-tumble before she grips her possibilities,—from Australia, from a hundred scattered islands, are saying the same thing: ‘We are not strong enough yet, but some day We shall be.’

Oh! dear people, stewing in India and swearing at all the Governments, it is a glorious thing to be an Englishman. ‘Our lot has fallen unto us in a fair ground. Yea, we have a goodly heritage.’ Take a map and look at the long stretch of the Malay Peninsula,—a thousand miles southerly it runs, does it not?—whereon Penang, Malacca, and Singapur are so modestly underlined in red ink. See, now! We have our Residents at every one of the Malay native States of any importance, and right up the line to Kedah and Siam our influence regulates and controls all. Into this land God put first gold and tin, and after these the Englishman who floats companies, obtains concessions and goes forward. Just at present, one company alone holds a concession of two thousand square miles in the interior. That means mining rights; and that means a few thousand coolies and a settled administration such as obtains in the big Indian collieries, where the heads of the mines are responsible kings.

With the companies will come the railroads. So far the Straits papers spend their space in talking about them, for at present there are only twenty-three or twenty-four miles of narrow-gauge railway open, near a civilised place called Pirates’ Creek, in the Peninsula. The Sultan of Johore is, or has been, wavering over a concession for a railway through his country, which will ultimately connect with this Pirates’ Creek line. Singapur is resolved ere long to bridge over the mile or mile-and-a-half Straits between herself and the State of Johore. In this manner a beginning will be made of the southerly extension of Colquhoun’s great line running, let us say, from Singapur through the small States and Siam, without a break, into the great Indian railway systems, so that a man will be able to book from here to Calcutta direct. Anything like a business summary of the railway schemes that come up for discussion from time to time would fill a couple of these letters, and would be uncommonly dry reading. You know the sort of ‘shop’ talk that rages among engineers when a new line is being run in India through perfectly known ground, whose traffic-potentialities may be calculated to the last pie. It is very much the same here, with the difference that no one knows for a certainty what the country ahead of the surveys is like, or where the development is likely to stop. This gives breeziness to the conversation. The audacity of the speakers is amazing to one who has been accustomed to see things through Indian eyes. They hint at ‘running up the Peninsula,’ establishing communications here, consolidating influence there, and Providence only knows what else; but never a word do they breathe about the necessity for increased troops to stand by and back these little operations. Perhaps they assume that the Home Government will provide, but it does seem strange to hear them cold-bloodedly discussing notions that will inevitably demand doubled garrisons to keep the ventures out of alien hands. However, the merchant-men will do their work, and I suppose we shall borrow three files and a sergeant from somewhere or other when the time comes, and people begin to realise what sort of a gift our Straits Settlements are. It is so cheap to prophesy. They will in the near future grow into —

The Professor looked over my shoulder at this point. ‘Bosh! ‘said he. ‘They will become dust a supplementary China—another field for Chinese cheap labour. When the Dutch Settlements were returned in 1815,—all these islands hereabouts, you know,—we should have handed over these places as well. Look!’ He pointed at the swarming Chinamen below.

‘Let me dream my dream, ’Fessor. I’ll take my hat in a minute and settle the question of Chinese immigration in five minutes.’ But I confess it was mournful to look into the street, which ought to have been full of Beharis, Madrassis, and men from the Konkan—from our India.

Then up and spake a sunburned man who had interests in North Borneo—he owned caves in the mountains, some of them nine hundred feet high, so please you, and filled with the guano of ages, and had been telling me leech-stories till my flesh crawled. ‘North Borneo,’ said he calmly, ‘wants a million of labourers to do her any good. One million coolies. Men are wanted everywhere,—in the Peninsula, in Sumatra for the tobacco planting, in Java,—everywhere; but Borneo—the Company’s provinces that is to say—needs a million coolies.’ It is pleasant to oblige a stranger, and I felt that I spoke with India at my back. ‘We could oblige you with two million or twenty, for the matter of that,’ said I, generously.

‘Your men are no good,’ said the North Borneo man. ‘If one man goes away, he must have a whole village to look after his wants. India as a labour field is no good to us, and the Sumatra men say that your coolies either can’t or won’t tend tobacco properly. We must have China coolies as the land develops.’

Oh, India, oh, my country! This it is to have inherited a highly organised civilisation and an ancient precedence code. That your children shall be scoffed at by the alien as useless outside their own pot-bound provinces. Here was a labour outlet, a door to full dinners, through which men—yellow men with pigtails—were pouring by the ten thousand, while in Bengal the cultured native editor was shrieking over ‘atrocities’ committed in moving a few hundred souls a few hundred miles into Assam.