Commerce and Kinship
Pepper and Gambier
Agriculture, Labour, and Secret Societies
Agriculture was and still is a very labour intensive process. The secret societies identified themselves by regional and kinship affiliations, but in practice they were a form of organized labour, and whoever controlled them could end up very rich and powerful, like Tan Hiok Nee. Seah Eu Chin's role was as a merchant, connecting the producers with local and export markets, and as a financier, providing capital for starting or expanding farms. What kind of relationship would he have had with the secret societies, especially the Ngee Heng?
There have been a number of hypotheses about his position with respect to the Ngee Heng and secret societies: (i) that he was a member of the Ngee Heng, (ii) that he had come to an understanding or compromise with the Ngee Heng leaders for his business to flourish, 71 Carl A. Trocki, “Tan Seng Poh,” in The Rise and Fall of Revenue Farming, ed. John Butcher and Howard Dick (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 249. See also Trocki, Opium and Empire, chapter 4. Yen (Social History, 121) says he did not find that ‘there [is] any evidence that the Singapore Teochews used secret societies to perpetuate their monopoly of the pepper and gambier trade.’ But though absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it really depends on what he means by ‘perpetuate’ because the Ngee Heng’s members were the pepper and gambier planters. or (iii) that he founded the Ngee Ann Kongsi as a power base to compete against the Ngee Heng in the 1830s and 40s. 72 Trocki, “Ngee Heng Kongsi,” 110-112. (By the time the Ngee Heng became a part of the economic establishment in Johore after the late 1840s, some of the following statements were no longer true, but this discussion refers to the earlier years when Eu Chin’s business was still being built up.) The reality is probably more complex than this. Consider the following facts:
- The Ngee Ann was not a competitor with the Ngee Heng. The two organizations, although with similar names, played different roles and functions in the Chinese community. This is discussed later in Influence and Leadership.
- Eu Chin was among the financiers for pepper and gambier planting in Johore, during the period when the Ngee Heng Kongsi controlled the kangchu system, 73 Trocki, Prince of Pirates, 130, footnote 30. hence he and the Ngee Heng could not have excluded each other from their operations, as the competition hypothesis might suggest. Instead, as a financier he would be able to turn a profit no matter where the plantations were actually based—in Singapore, Riau, or Johore—since he controlled the lines of credit.
- The Ngee Heng’s members were primarily labourers and menial workers, whereas its leadership were most likely to be tradesmen or shopkeepers, like in other secret societies. The labourers that worked on the plantations that Eu Chin owned must often have been members of the Ngee Heng. Indeed the countryside was probably in the hands of the various secret societies during the early part of his career, as they were able to hold initiation ceremonies in rural areas. 74 Munshi Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, “The Hikayat Abdullah,” trans. A.H. Hill, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 28, no. 2 (1955), 180.
- The Ngee Heng did not own land of its own in Singapore, and indeed left Singapore because the government intended to collect rents on land that had been squatted on. 75 Carl A. Trocki, “Kangchu System,” 141. Eu Chin, however, was willing to pay for the ownership of plantations. 76 Trocki, “Ngee Heng Kongsi,” 105, footnote 13, and references within. His plantations that he started up initially were independent of those smaller-scale plantations that were started by the Teochew planters from Riau who came to Singapore before him.
These points, and the general situation of the time, paint the following likely scenario: Eu Chin brought capital into the pepper and gambier plantation business from his previous commercial activities, and this was something that the preceding Ngee Heng-linked planters could not compete with. He had his own contacts and trading networks from his previous travel and business, and so could set up independent lines of supply and trade. By controlling the purchase and town trade of gambier, he could cause both traders and producers to be indebted to him, which gave him control over or at least independence from the Ngee Heng. More important still, he got into the trade just before the tariff on gambier imports into Britain was lifted, and since he had trading links with Europeans, he could become the channel for the much more lucrative trade to the European market, compared to the smaller and less profitable domestic and China trade that the Ngee Heng and the previous planters had participated in.
At some earlier point he probably had to collaborate with them because, although he had something (capital and trading networks) that the Ngee Heng did not have, the Ngee Heng had control over labour. But later, as his wealth and position grew, he could come to dominate the relationship. The Ngee Heng-linked gambier planters also had greater need of his connections when the British moved to survey the countryside in order to better control it. This was because his position allowed him to petition and negotiate with the government, as a representative of the gambier and pepper planters. 77 Petition from Gambier and Pepper Planters to the Governor, SSR W21 p.120, National Archives of Singapore. The time that the Ngee Heng moved to Johore coincided with their nadir here in Singapore. The Seah family’s and Tan Seng Poh’s (Eu Chin’s brother-in-law) control of the opium revenue farm also helped undermine the Ngee Heng’s power and authority. When the Ngee Heng moved its base to Johore, Eu Chin continued as a financier for some of the farms. Setting up and installing his son Liang Seah as head of the Kongkek (see Reaching the Top) cemented his dominance, because all trade had to be done through that guild, and they were the ones who set prices and did the purchasing. Hence the original key to his success was controlling capital and the link to the European markets.
This model of what might have been largely coincides with Trocki’s reconstruction of Seah’s role in the economy: he was “an investor, a capitalist” whose interests were aligned with the town merchants and Straits-born Chinese faction. 78 Trocki, Opium and Empire, 105-106. It was not simply that Eu Chin controlled capital and the Ngee Heng controlled labour and both sides cooperated harmoniously. In the 1840s especially, before Eu Chin had consolidated the pepper and gambier town merchants under the Kongkek, the Ngee Heng’s control over the plantation labour force was an impediment to Eu Chin’s ability to dominate the pepper and gambier economy. As Trocki says, “the weakness in Seah’s position was his lack of ‘military’ support, the function of secret societies.” 79 Trocki, Opium and Empire, 106. By this he means the control of the plantation coolies and the fighting men who enforced the Ngee Heng’s interests. He even goes as far as to suggest that the Hokkien Quan Tek society was “the tool of Seah and a group of Hokkiens and Babas”, because throughout the 1840s it was involved in a power struggle with the Ngee Heng that coincided (along with other factors) with the Ngee Heng’s move to Johore. While this is certainly possible, it is also possible that he may have moved in to exploit the fallout from the conflict between the Quan Tek and the Ngee Heng, rather than being an active instigator. After all, Eu Chin was himself a Teochew. Which interpretation one favours ultimately rests on how far one accepts the historian Lee Poh Ping’s contention that the conflict between the town traders (the “free trade society”) and the agriculturalists of the interior (the “pepper and gambier society”) over control of the gambier and pepper trade was fundamentally a class conflict that cut across dialect and regional affiliations. 80 Lee Poh Ping. Chinese Society in Nineteenth Century Singapore (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1978). It was a struggle that the town traders (or “taukehs”) won, because in more than one place they managed to out-maneuver the kongsis and be the ones who laid down the terms of the economic game. 81 Trocki, Opium and Empire, 45.