How many Indians were there on Mount Matang?

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Jutta Kelling

With the Indian Festival of light Diwali just gone, here is some more information on the ancestors of the present day Sarawakian Indians.

THIS is a question I have often been asked when talking with Sarawakians about the workers on the Rajah’s coffee and tea estate on Mount Matang. The history of today’s Tamil population in Kuching is closely tied to the indentured labourers who were working on the plantation. But were there other unfree labourers from India?

Indentured labour is a system of coercive labour. Workers were bound by a contract to provide their labour for a limited period on plantations outside India. Historical records refer to the labourers as “coolies”.

Fig 1: Secondary forest on Mount Matang where once were coffee and tea plants (Photo by Dona Wee)

The Matang plantation existed from 1867–1912. It was situated about 18 kilometres southwest of Kuching. In its greatest expansion, the area under cultivation was nearly 450 acres. Like in other parts of Southeast Asia, the labour need could not be met by the local population and the shortage of labour was felt severely.

From the beginning, Indian labourers were employed on the Matang plantation. They came as individual migrants or in groups via Singapore as Southeast Asia was a major destination for labour migration from India. Thus, there had always been a small Tamil workforce on the Matang plantation apart from Javanese or indigenous workers.

In 1888, Rajah Charles Brooke started negotiations with the Government of India about the direct recruitment of indentured workers for Sarawak through official channels. But it was only in 1897 that an agreement between Charles and the Indian Government came into force. A contract was signed under the Indian Emigration Act to bring labourers from the port of Negapatam (Nagapattinam) in Tamil Nadu to Sarawak. The Sarawak Indian Immigration Ordinance was the corresponding enactment in Sarawak and the legal framework to regulate the transportation and arrival of the immigrants, their proper treatment on the plantation or their contracts.

Officially, the ordinance was designed to protect the labourers, but it also served as an instrument of control defining punishments for neglect of labour or desertion. The Singapore agency house Messrs. Paterson Simons & Co. was responsible for the recruitment of the labourers via their intermediaries in India. Charles had to appoint a Tamil-speaking Indian Immigration Agent to enforce the terms of the Sarawak Indian Immigration Ordinance. This officer was responsible for the inspection of the labourers and the plantations, and he had to write half-yearly reports to the Indian Government and to the Rajah.

In June 1897 the Indian Immigration Department was established and Gerard S. Sands was appointed the first Indian Immigration Agent. He was also the plantation manager in Matang at that time. On June 29th, 1897, the first batch of 70 labourers arrived on the German vessel “Vorwaerts”. In that year, 238 new Indians (163 men, 39 women and 36 children) were brought into the country under the Sarawak Indian Immigration Act.

Fig 2: Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on the earlier Matang plantation ground (Photograph by Jutta Kelling)

From then on, there existed another type of immigrant in Sarawak and on the Matang plantation. Those who were bound by a contract under the Sarawak Indian Immigration Ordinance were called “statute immigrants”. The contracts were undersigned for two years, and they included regulations for the wages, for days and hours of labour, and for their proper treatment. On the other hand, the contract restricted the labourers’ movement to the area of Matang. After a fixed term of two years, they could return to India or sign a new agreement to work on the plantation for a longer period.

However, the ordinance did not apply to all other migrant workers from India. They were not subject to the provisions of the ordinance and were bound by varying temporary contracts. The Sarawak Government got actively involved only when they were working in the Public Works Department (PWD) or on Government plantations (Sarawak Gazette, Oct 2nd, 1903). They were called “certificated immigrants” or—in contemporary terms—“free coolies”.

Among them were a growing number of kangani-recruited labourers. The kangani was an established plantation worker who was sent by his employer to India to recruit new labourers. This system gradually replaced the recruitment under the Sarawak Indian Immigration Ordinance, especially after 1910 when Indian indentured recruitment for the Straits Settlements was prohibited.

Matang plantation was not the only place of employment for Tamil “statute immigrants”. A growing number were engaged in the Public Works Department, especially when the construction of the new Matang Waterworks started. The manager of the plantation had to delegate workers to the PWD although the workers remained on the payroll of the estate. Another batch of nearly 100 indentured labourers was employed on the Satap plantation where coffee growing was given up during the second half of 1902 (Sarawak Gazette, Aug 1st, 1902).

Fig 3: Tea/ coffee terrace with site of Matang Waterworks in background. (Photo by Dona Wee)

The following table shows the number of workers (statute as well as certificated immigrants) on the Matang plantation in selected years as given in the reports from the plantation managers or from the Indian Immigration Agent:

Year Number of labourers in Matang
1887   36 
1894   84  
1897 230       
1898 273    
1899 169    
1900 250    
1904 280   
1906 125  
1908 123    
1910   80  
1912   25  

Table 1: Number of labourers on Matang plantation

Among these immigrants, women comprised a significant percentage of up to 31.7 per cent in 1900. Female workers were considered suitable for special tasks. In June 1904, an observer stated about the Matang estate: “The women do a great part of the work on the Estate.” (Sarawak Gazette, June 4th, 1904). Moreover, several younger children were always living on the plantation. The immigration of families was considered to have a positive influence on a stable workforce.

With the construction of the Matang Waterworks, the plantation was reduced step by step and so was the workforce. Coffee growing was abandoned in June 1912, but tea was cultivated in a smaller area until 1921.

Mobility among the labourers was high. Most of them left the plantation after having paid their debts on the expiration of their contracts. They went back to India, to Singapore or they found other work in Kuching.

Sometimes they came back after a while. Some left the plantation to work in the Public Works Department, and some went back immediately after arrival because they were deceived. Others were sent back because they were unfit for work. Some others decided to stay in Sarawak. Individual migrants or small groups went back and forth to India to bring new labourers to Sarawak. Some families lived continuously on the plantation until 1912 and then chose to reside in Kuching.

On the other hand, there was a constant and similarly high supply of new workers from India on the ships from Singapore, although the number of the “statute immigrants” declined steadily as the indenture system was prohibited and the Government plantation was closed.

Between 1903 and 1912 alone, there were about 2,500 persons of Indian origin arriving in Sarawak and a comparable number of Indians leaving Sarawak. This group was heterogeneous. It included migrants from the North of India like Sikh policemen and their families or Bengali hawkers or washermen.

India Street Pedestrian Mall in Kuching (file photo). According to a plaque at the site, its name is derived from the many Indian shops which occupied the street. It was known as the Kling Street in the 1850s but the Third Rajah of Sarawak Charles Vyner Brooke changed its name to India Street in 1928. The street was converted into a pedestrian mall in 1992.

Although it is difficult to have exact numbers, it appears that migrant workers from South India were more common and not only a distinct group that was brought to Sarawak to work on the Matang coffee and tea estate.

Jutta Kelling is a Ph.D. candidate in history from FernUniversität Hagen in Germany. Her study explores the history of indentured labourers who were brought from South India and Ceylon to Sarawak in the second half of the nineteenth century to work on the plantation at Mount Matang.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.