Commerce and Kinship
Pepper and Gambier
Take-off and Maturity (1830s-50s)
Eu Chin was in the right place at the right time. He entered gambier and pepper cultivation just as tariffs were falling and prices were rising, allowing him to make a quick return on his investments. Previously, gambier grown in Riau and Singapore was used locally in small quantities as a masticatory, with the rest exported to China, and trade volumes were relatively low. Towards the mid-1830s, the high duties on gambier exported to Britain were lifted, and the amount exported to Britain and Europe grew steadily along with its price, as gambier was found to be useful as an industrial tanning agent for leather. 36 J.C. Jackson, Planters and Speculators, 9. Wheatley (“Land Use”) says that prices grew favourable in the English market in 1836. This followed an initial dip in prices when the Dutch imposed a high duty on the import of gambier into Batavia in 1827. 37 Low Siow Chek, “Gambier-and-Pepper Planting in Singapore” (Acad. exercise, University of Malaya, 1955), 10-11. He cites SSR N1 (Jan 1827), National Archives of Singapore. The price of gambier peaked from 1834-1836, 38 see J.C. Jackson, Planters and Speculators, 13, table 1, and a graph from Low (Gambier-and-Pepper”) reprinted as fig. 2 in Wong Lin Ken, “Review Article – The Chinese in 19th Century Singapore,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 11 (1980): 151-186. so Eu Chin was just in time to join the boom.
Was it entirely luck? His good timing could have been informed by good business sense. He would have known about the reduced duties on gambier through his contacts in the European business community, while in his travels and trading with the Riau Chinese, he must have encountered gambier planting and may have even traded in Riau gambier from early in his career. Most Chinese gambier planters were also Teochews like him. Putting these facts together, he must have realized that it was to his advantage to move into gambier planting. 39 Trocki, Prince of Pirates, 141: “The leaders in opening up Singapore to gambier cultivation were the same traders who had earlier serviced the Riau centre,” among whom was Eu Chin. Gambier production jumped in 1835, and demand increased 30% in a year, according to contemporary accounts. 40 Trocki, Prince of Pirates, 140, citing T.J. Newbold, Political and Statistical Account of the British Settlements in the Straits of Malacca… etc. (London: John Murray, 1839). By 1836, the cultivation of gambier on Singapore was extending rapidly, and this reduced the reliance on imports from Bintang (i.e. Bintan) island for both internal trade and the home market. 41 Singapore Free Press, 29 Dec 1836.
It was not gambier alone but the pepper that was cultivated in tandem with gambier that truly made the combined planting profitable. Gambier leaves were boiled to extract tannins, which were the actual product to be sold. Pepper was fertilized using manure derived from the discarded gambier leaves. While pepper harvesting was seasonal, gambier leaves could be collected all year round, and while pepper plants took time to mature, gambier matured quickly and so cultivating the two together ensured steady income for the planters through gambier while they waited for the pepper crop to mature. Otherwise, gambier on its own would be unprofitable. 42 J.C. Jackson, Planters and Speculators, 9-11, and letter to the editor from “Agricola”, Singapore Free Press, 4 Feb 1836. Some Europeans were also interested in pepper because they thought it would be more profitable than nutmeg. 43 Singapore Free Press, 29 Dec 1836. At the same time as the gambier boom, exports from Southeast Asia to China as well as the junk trade in general were falling; 44 Carl A. Trocki, “The Rise and Fall of the Ngee Heng Kongsi in Singapore,” in ‘Secret Societies’ Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Secret History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia, ed. David Ownby and Mary Somers Heidhues (Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), 103-104, and references therein. therefore it was fortunate that gambier and pepper found a market in Europe.
Eu Chin’s fortune and influence grew in tandem with the pepper and gambier industry. It helped him strengthen his leadership position in the Teochew organization that he led, the Ngee Ann Kongsi. His wealth allowed him to act as a trustee for the Kongsi’s land holdings, such as the Tai Shan Ting cemetery off Orchard Road, and may have helped to fund other land purchases. By 1840, he joined the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, and had extensive dealings with European firms. 45 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 82. Membership of the Chamber and business contacts within the European community would have built up his influence with the European establishment, because many European merchants also held official or semi-official positions in government. According to Lim Boon Keng, by 1842 he was “already a fairly rich man. In this year his pepper business was a great success and he largely increased his general trading.” 46 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 82.
[Pictures of Gambier, Pepper, Nutmeg]
Eu Chin’s role in pepper and gambier planting was not that of a farmer or plantation foreman, as the popular rags-to-riches narrative would seem to suggest. He operated one level above the day-to-day operations, initially as a town trader receiving the produce for trade on the market, and as a supplier of provisions to the plantations, typically in exchange for produce. Eventually he moved on to being a financier providing the capital for starting up plantations. Singapore could have been the regional centre for the exchange and sale of gambier for money and goods from as early as 1830, and Eu Chin would have been one of the traders at the head of this debt structure. 47 Carl A. Trocki, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 49, no. 2 (1976): 139.
Gambier and pepper agriculture was not good for the land. Cultivators mostly practiced a sort of shifting cultivation where the land was planted and then abandoned once its nutrients were exhausted. In addition, an equal area of forest for an area of plantation was required to supply firewood to boil and process the gambier leaves. Therefore, plantations exhausted both the soil and the wood supply in the vicinity. Abandoned plantations were allowed to be overgrown by lallang grass and belukar (secondary forest) scrub. As early as the late 1830s, many older plantations were already beginning to be exhausted or abandoned. 48 Wheatley, “Land Use”, and Ridley “Agriculture in the Malay Peninsula,” 300. This state of affairs was encouraged by the relative abundance of virgin land in the early years of the settlement, by the fact that planters did not own the land they planted on but were merely squatters, their lack of land management practices (because it was simply easier to let the government take care of the abandoned land), their intention to make a quick profit, and perhaps even their resistance to change or ignorance of any better planting method than what they had found most profitable at the start. 49 Singapore Free Press, 29 Dec 1836.
Pepper and gambier planting was tied up closely with the activity of secret societies, in particular the Teochew Ngee Heng Society (义兴, Yixing, also known as the Ghee Hin in Hokkien transliteration). According to sources summarized in an article by Patricia Lim,50 P. Lim Pui Huen, “Continuity and Connectedness: the Ngee Heng Kongsi of Johore, 1844-1916,” in New Terrains in Southeast Asian History, ed. Abu Talib Ahmad and Tan Liok Ee (Singapore: Singapore University Press and Ohio University Press, 2003), 306-308. the Ngee Heng came to Riau and Singapore from China as its members fled Manchu oppression. The Ngee Heng began as a political organization dedicated to the overthrow of Manchu rule during the Qing dynasty and restoration of ethnic Han Chinese dominion in China. When the organization was transplanted to Southeast Asia by Chinese immigrants, it took on important social and economic functions instead. 51 see Lim, “Continuity and Connectedness,” also see Trocki, “Ngee Heng Kongsi” and the parent volume of the latter, for reviews of the present understanding of the role of secret societies or hui. In Riau, even before coming to Singapore, the Ngee Heng and other secret societies were involved in the pepper and gambier agriculture. 52 Carl A. Trocki, “Origins of the Kangchu System 1740-1860,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 49, no. 2 (1976): 140. It acted as an association of plantation workers collectively representing their common interests, and taking the form of a ritual brotherhood. 53 Trocki, “Ngee Heng Kongsi,” 95-97. In the male-majority immigrant labour community of the sin-kheks (新客, xinke, new immigrants), the secret societies took over some of the roles that family and community had played back home, and used fictive kinship (“brotherhood”) to structure their internal hierarchies.
The issue of land and the presence of the secret societies came together to shape events in the 1840s. The Riau planters moved to Singapore primarily because their land was coming close to exhaustion, but the decreasing area of available land in Singapore would soon compound other problems facing them, such as government action to regulate land leases. In the late 1830s, the government of the settlement acted to regulate the occupation of land outside the Town area, passing several Acts to begin this process. 54 Low, “Gambier-and-Pepper,” 39-41. E.g. Act X of 1837, Act XVI of 1839 and other references therein. This legislation affected European planters more than the Chinese planters, because Chinese planters were often squatters who did not bother to take up titles to the land that they occupied. 55 Low, “Gambier-and-Pepper,” 40, also SSR R4, 29 Nov 1836. In 1841, a Government Surveyor was appointed to measure land in the interior of the island, to settle boundary disputes and to issue title deeds. The survey was incomplete because of the difficult terrain, so many squatters could remain, but by Dec 1844, the government was confident enough to demand that squatters pay for a deed of sale between 5 to 10 Rupees per acre to stay on the land that they were occupying, an amount that was considered excessive. 56 Low, “Gambier-and-Pepper,” 41-42, and Singapore Free Press, 16 Jan 1845. The Surveyor’s arrival and the falling price of gambier were the ostensible reasons for the exodus of reportedly 4000 members of the Ngee Heng Kongsi to Johore in the North. 57 Trocki, “Kangchu System,” 141. Cf. Letter from Ngee Heng headman, Singapore Free Press, 26 Mar 1846. Also see C.M. Turnbull, “Johore Gambier and Pepper,” Journal of the South Seas Society 15, no.1 (1959): 44-46. Another push factor for the Ngee Heng planters in particular was conflict between the Ngee Heng and rival secret societies in Singapore, 58 Trocki, “Ngee Heng Kongsi,” 105, and Prince of Pirates, 104-109. especially the Quan Tek society. 59 Carl A. Trocki, Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 88 et seq. Conditions were certainly more favourable for the Ngee Heng in Johore: the Ngee Heng Kongsi had legitimization from the Johore state, the kangchu system formalized the Ngee Heng’s authority and power structure, and the Ngee Heng headmen like Tan Kee Soon and Tan Hiok Nee became important kangchus in Johore who had influence with the Temenggong (later the Sultan). It was a significant coup for the Ngee Heng to gain a foothold in Johore, where they could form a stronghold against the other societies with whom they were in competition.
What was the Kangchu System?
In brief outline, a kangchu (港主, gangzhu) was the head of a kang, which was an area of planting serviced by a “harbour”, where boats loaded produce from the surrounding plantation and unloaded provisions for the planters. These kangs were located along the rivers of Johore, because rivers were the primary lines of transport and communication in the 19th century Malay Peninsula, where the few roads were poor and forests were thick. The kangchu had civil and military authority over his kang, and held the monopolies for the provision of opium, spirits, gambling, and pork to the planters resident in his kang. To earn this right, he had to pay a $100 fee to the Johore government upon his appointment, as well as land tax and various payments to the revenue farmers from whom he leased the monopoly. 60 The main sources on the Kangchu system are Tan Teck Soon, “Chinese Local Trade,” Straits Chinese Magazine 6, no. 23 (1902): 89; Turnbull, “Johore Gambier and Pepper”; Trocki, Prince of Pirates; and J.C. Jackson, Planters and Speculators. The Johore state welcomed the Ngee Heng because it provided them with a ready-made organization on which to build up the kangchu system, which was the most economical means of opening the upriver lands to cultivation.
[Place names in Singapore related to kangchu system]
In the beginning, the Johore state had little resources at its disposal to control the new settlers, and Trocki points out that it developed the kangchu system as a “minor innovation on a very old theme”, 61 Trocki, Prince of Pirates, 89-90. that of letting the Chinese develop their own imperium-in-imperio. The state essentially tendered out the business of governing the Chinese communities and developing the land to the kangchus, and in return it received the considerable revenues that the pepper and gambier trade generated. The early wealth of Johore was built upon this trade; Temenggong Ibrahim’s shrewd hospitality to the Ngee Heng and his incorporation of that society into the kangchu system would therefore result in his son, Abu Bakar, being able to claim the titles of Maharaja and later Sultan, fulfilling the de facto triumph of the Temenggong’s lineage over that of Sultan Hussain, whom Stamford Raffles had recognized as Sultan in 1819.62 Trocki (Opium and Empire) describes the Temenggong’s career and the development of Johore. Frank Swettenham, in his British Malaya (rev. ed. 1948, London: George Allen and Unwin), argues strenuously (though futilely) against the injustice of the British neglect of Sultan Hussain and his descendents.
What is important for our story is how the plantations were financed. The kangchu assigned land to new planters in his kang, and gave him provisions on credit, the debt being paid off after the first crop was harvested and sold. After this, further debt was transferred to the town traders, people like Eu Chin, who financed the kangchus, and they would act as sole agents for the planter’s produce until all the debt was serviced. It was an exchange of provisions like food and supplies for the agricultural produce, and the prices were later regulated by the town traders’ guild (founded in 1867), known as the Gambier and Pepper Society and also called the Kongkek. 63 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 37. The prices they paid were about 30% below the actual market value, but the planters themselves were not completely helpless, for they had their own guild to look after their interests. 64 Tan Teck Soon, “Chinese Local Trade,” 90. The big Singapore merchants were all financiers and agents, and none of them were directly involved in the day-to-day business of the trade by this point in its development, as documented by the Surat Sungei, which were the title deeds issued by the Johore government for the kangchus. 65 Carl A. Trocki, “The Johor Archives and the Kangchu System 1844-1910: a Bibliographic Essay,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 48, no. 1 (1975): 1-47.
While the Kongkek was only officially founded in 1867, pepper and gambier merchants (and other merchants too) were already combining to protect their interests many years before. Evidence for this is found in a letter in 1847 from “Gambier, Pepper, and Co.” to the Singapore Free Press, urging the Chamber of Commerce to petition the domestic British authorities to lower the import duty of black pepper into Britain. 66 Singapore Free Press, 18 Nov 1847, and SSR R10, 13 Dec 1847, National Archives of Singapore. In that year, prices for gambier and pepper were on their way to hitting their lowest values since the late 1830s. 67 see fig. 2 from Wong, “Review Article”, reproduced from Low, “Gambier-and-Pepper”. The internal evidence of the letter suggests that it was written by European merchants trading in pepper and gambier, 68 Low, “Gambier-and-Pepper,” 30. whereas the Kongkek was exclusively Chinese, dominated by town merchants from both Singapore and Johore. Nonetheless, it shows that the merchants of the time knew that banding together would give them a greater degree of influence than if they had worked alone.
The planters whom Eu Chin financed certainly included many squatters. However, as mentioned above, it is recorded that he took up titles on land for planting as far back as 1835, when the government had not yet attempted to fully enforce its land lease scheme. He seems to have been trying to protect his interests by working within the legal and administrative framework of the colonial government, rather than relying on his soft power (his reputation and wealth) within the Chinese community alone. This is only one of several instances of him negotiating a favourable position for himself between the British and Chinese power structures. While he was willing to work within the framework of British officialdom, he did not automatically accept its demands quietly. In 1855, the administration again demanded payment for land occupied by plantation owners (a separate event from that which triggered the 1840s exodus) at the price of 5 Rupees an acre. 69 Turnbull, “Johore Pepper and Gambier.” The basis for the government’s claim was the same as in the 1840s, however: Act XVI of 1839. See Low, “Gambier-and-Pepper”. Seah Eu Chin and other planters submitted a memorial to the Governor petitioning for a reduction in the price, listing numerous reasons including the falling price of gambier (not true), the infestation of those lands by tigers, and the fact that they would not be productive for much longer, being close to exhaustion. The Governor’s secretary sounds almost exasperated in his reply to them:
“... the Governor directs me to observe that the demand now made of five Rupees as the price of the land… is not a tax, but payment for the occupation and permanent possession of the land. Hitherto this occupation has been effected without payment, and every effort has been made to turn it to advantage, but now payment is demanded and permanent possession offered, a permanent Title once thus obtained the proprietor may do what he likes with the land. It is his own – he may sell or abandon it, or exhaust it, or cultivate it, as suits his views and interest ... .” 70 SSR V20 no. 110, National Archives of Singapore.
Eu Chin and the planters do not seem to have won this particular argument.