Senior Library Bonny Tan spotlights Emily Innes’ The Chersonese with the Gilding Off (1883), a work that stands apart from that of her female compatriots because she wrote as the wife of a minor British official at a time when few colonial wives had their insights published.
“I think that in most of these tropical colonies the ladies exist only on the hope of going “home!” It is a dreary, aimless life for them — scarcely life, only existence.” (Bird, 1883, p. 110)
Emily Innes’ The Chersonese with the Gilding Off, Vol. I and II. 1885. Rare Materials Collection, National Library Singapore.
Emily Innes: Depicting the Chersonese
By the late 19th century, travelogues, surveys and government studies had covered much of Southeast Asia but most of these publications were written by men. The only women writers published were famed travel writers like Isabella Bird or wives of missionaries like Harriette McDougall. Emily Innes’ publication, The Chersonese with the Gilding Off (1883), thus stands apart from the work of her female compatriots because she wrote as the wife of a minor British official at a time when few colonial wives had their insights published.
James Innes had been appointed Collector and Magistrate at Kuala Langat in Selangor in 1877. He had earlier served in Sarawak and had quickly risen to become Treasurer. Research showed that he had, unfortunately, faced problems with money throughout his career. James also proved impractical, shortsighted and unable to relate with his superiors. In a way, Emily’s book was written as a defence for her husband who had resigned his post after six years; his conflict with the Resident, Captain Bloomfield Douglas, being the main reason, though Emily’s stated reason is James’ opposition to slavery in the Malay States.
The two-volume work however depicts more than the Inneses’ dissatisfaction with the greater government and their acrimonious relationship with the Douglases. Tin mining production in Perak and Selangor had risen spectacularly in the 1870s, with the introduction of innovative tin mining methods adapted from Chinese rice planting irrigation techniques. In fact, the lucrative tin mining business saw Chinese immigrants increasing by large numbers in the Malay States. The explosive mix of wealth, new immigrants and old Malay rulers led to wars and conflicts. The British mediated at the invitation of local rulers, profiting at the same time — a period known as the British intervention. As the Inneses had resided at the Protected Malay States just after British intervention in 1874, Emily’s book gives a contemporaneous and vivid account from the unique perspective of the first British woman living in the interiors of the Peninsula. Self-taught in Malay, Emily’s descriptions of the Malay rulers, their villages and villagers as well as their initial reaction to British presence during intervention have proved valuable to historians studying this period (Gullick, 1993, p. 170).
Her publication is also interesting for its obvious play against the more famous work of Isabella Bird’s, The Golden Chersonese (1883). Giving the perspective of a resident instead of an acclaimed traveller, Innes wrote her piece “in contradistinction [to Bird’s] but with no aim of contradiction” (Doran, 2008, p. 175). Bird’s account of the Malay states was of five weeks between January and February 1879, while Emily’s is of her five-year residency from 1876 until her husband’s resignation in 1882.
Emily herself acknowledges the value and yet contrasting realities both authors portray in their writings:
To those who have read Miss Bird’s most
interesting book, the ‘Golden Chersonese’
— a book that was specially delightful to Mr
Innes and myself, since we felt as if we had
known personally every creature, every thing,
and almost every mosquito she mentioned
— it may seem curious that, notwithstanding
the brilliancy and attractiveness of her
descriptions, and the dullness and gloom of
mine, I can honestly say that her account is
perfectly and literally true. So is mine. The
explanation is that she and I saw the Malayan
country under totally different circumstances.
(Innes, 1885], Vol. 2, p. 242)
Elk horn fern (Bird, 1883, p. 177)
Indeed where Isabella visited the Malay States under the protection and support of government officials, “Emily Innes was … forced to endure — although with great bravado — the drudgery of swampy, lugubrious isolation, rickety atap-houses, a cretinous native society, deceitful servants and scarce food supply — not to mention a traumatic, near-fatal experience involving revolting Chinese coolies” (Wong, 1999).
Surviving the Chersonese
Volume 1 describes the Inneses at Langat,their first lodgings and experiences in the Protected Malay States while Volume 2 is of their stay at Durian Sabatang. Neither posting was comfortable, with the latter worse than the former. So depressing were their circumstances that, having just arrived at their “Malay wigwam” in Langat and taken a short walk to survey their surroundings in what little civilisation there was, they “agreed aloud that if [they] had to remain six months in this fearful place [they] must either leave the service or commit suicide” (Innes, p. 19). However, the Inneses survived not just six months but six years in the Malay States.
Though some have said Emily’s writings reflect “the mark of acute paranoia” (Heussler, 1981, p. 67), one must consider her dire circumstances. There was no ladies’ club or any other foreign women to commiserate with — only the intrusive locals and the overbearing sounds and sights of village life. Without children and at times, even a husband at home to occupy her, boredom was her constant companion.
Malay youth and maiden (Bird, 1883, p. 328)
Though her life was painfully boring, she wrote of her experiences and encounters with the wry sense of humour peculiar to the British:
Some of the day was got rid of by bathing two or
three times, and the consequent dressing
and undressing … some more time was disposed
of in eating and drinking — or rather in sitting
at the table and looking at food — for the
debilitating effects of the climate and want of
exercise did not leave us much appetite. There
were still many hours during which we either
had nothing to do, or could do nothing, from
heat, ennui, and mosquitoes. (Innes, 1885, pp.
Smoking the mosquitoes (Bird, 1883, facing p. 138)
For the well-read Emily, the only recourse to fighting the boredom was turning to books but unfortunately, her attempts at obtaining reading materials were unsuccessful:
We tried to get books from the Circulating Library
in Singapore, but failed because there were only
two Europeans in the districts and there was no
regular communication at all between Langat
and the outside world .… Having failed in this direction,
we sent home for books and newspapers. We ordered
six of the latter, besides several magazines, to be constantly
sent to us, but from various causes we
did not reap the full benefit of this arrangement.
Our papers, especially the illustrated ones, were more
often than not stolen, or delayed for months… (pp. 34—35)
Unable to escape into some form of leisure, Emily turned to studying the local habits and dispassionately describing her own struggles.
Much of Volume 1 thus documents mundane activities such as her attempts at cooking a decent meal with limited and poor quality resources, the native behaviour of her Malay neighbours and the level of hygiene in the village or rather the lack of it. This volume also provides details about James Innes’ work and relationships with the locals and his colleagues, along with insights on personalities such as Bloomfield Douglas, Resident of Selangor and Tunku Dia Udin, the Viceroy of Selangor — a critical character in the history of modern Selangor. The characters are rendered from a biased perspective because of the relationship she had with each of these personalities. Even so, they present unique angles for researchers, particularly as she wrote these descriptions from the perspective of a woman, and that of a wife of a British official.
The Tunku Muda (Innes, Frontispiece to Vol. II)
Volume 2 describes the Inneses’ reluctant transfer to Durian Sabatang, the “white man’s grave” (Innes, p. 55), just as their more comfortable bungalow, designed by James Innes himself, was completed at Langat. A large part is devoted to an account of the tragic murder of Captain Lloyd, Superintendant of Dindings, at Pangkor and to the injuries sustained by Emily during the attack. Being new to the district and facing some discomfort, Emily had been invited to the Lloyds’ home: “I had never seen either of them, but that was of no consequence in a country where English are so rare that all are to a certain extent brothers” (Vol. 2, p. 91). In fact, the day Emily arrived, the Lloyds’ servants had not yet returned since receiving their pay and Mrs Lloyd, with three young children on hand, was in a quandary. The Lloyds’ troubles were only just beginning, as unemployed Chinese labourers in nearby Lumut saw the isolated Lloyds as a vulnerable and attractive target for a robbery. Unfortunately, Emily was a guest of the Lloyds on that fateful day such occurred. Mrs Lloyd and Emily were seriously injured in the attack on the family home but both survived the assault.
Collector’s bungalow at Bandar Langat (Innes, 1885, Vol. 1, frontispiece)
The tragedy saw Emily return on home leave, followed soon after by James who had become ill due to the conditions at Durian Sabatang. Although James returned to Bandar, he resigned within two years because of continued poor relations with the Resident. James’ departure from his position in the Malay States and the resultant loss of his much desired pension gave Emily the impetus to write this explanatory autobiography commenting on the injustices the Inneses had suffered under the poor leadership of their British compatriots.
The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Ernest C.T. Chew, Visiting Professorial Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, in reviewing this article.
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