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For want of rice: Sarawak's attempts at rice self-sufficiency during the period of Brooke rule, 1841-1941.

Sarawak has been dependent on imported rice and other foodstuff since the establishment of the Brooke Raj, but became increasingly so from the 1870s. Efforts to promote rice cultivation were consistently overshadowed by the channelling of capital and labour to other more profitable economic pursuits, namely gold mining, the procurement of jungle produce, and commercial cultivation of export crops such as gambier, pepper, rubber. Measures by the Brooke authorities to increase domestic rice output produced few results, and the failure of Brooke rice policy was amply demonstrated by the events of 1919-21, when the country faced a severe rice crisis. However, the lessons learnt during the crisis were soon forgotten, and despite government policies to reduce Sarawak's dependence on imported rice, little was accomplished during the next two decades.

The Need for Increasing Domestic Rice Production

"From the known industry of the Dyaks, and their partiality to rice-cultivation", James Brooke wrote, "there can be little doubt that it would become an article of extensive export."(1) Brooke, however, misjudged the Dayaks' capacity, or inclination, to produce rice. On occasion they traded hill-rice (padi bukit) with the coastal Malays, but the surplus rice was not sufficient for export. Hill-rice farming was largely done by Dayaks, while the Malays in the coastal districts relied more on trade than rice farming for their subsistence. "Padi" refers to the rice plant as well as the grain of the rice plant. Basically there were three systems of growing rice in Sarawak during the Brooke period, namely dry or hill-rice, wet-padi and swamp padi. The growing of hill-rice by the Dayaks and other indigenous communities follows the swidden cultivation methods of slash-and-burn as practised by hill peoples in other parts of South-East Asia. Wet-padi cultivation was carried out in the deltaic areas and along the banks of the lower reaches of the main rivers by Malays. The methods employed by Malay wet-padi farmers were basic with very little use of draught animals for ploughing and a conspicuous absence of irrigation. The cultivators of swamp padi (padi paya) combined methods utilized in hill-rice and wet-padi, with seedlings planted in seedbeds, then transplanted to holes made by a dibble stick (tugal). The yields of swamp padi were slightly higher than for hill-rice.(2) When the population grew during the early 1850s, notably in the Chinese mining community of Upper Sarawak, increasing quantities of rice were imported from Singapore.

In 1861 the boundaries of the Brooke Raj were extended to the Bintulu river, and the administration displayed a growing concern to increase local rice output to cater for the expanding population. Charles Johnson (later Brooke), then the Tuan Muda, was actively involved in promoting agriculture including wet-padi cultivation among the Dayaks.

By the early 1870s there was already mention of problems of rice shortage and over-dependence on foreign imports (Table 1).(3) Rajah Charles (r. 1868-1917) encouraged local rice production among natives by awarding prizes for the best crops and well-maintained farms, and also promoted padi growing among the Chinese of Upper Sarawak.(4) In the columns of the Sarawak Gazette(5) a lively debate was conducted as to the best means of increasing local rice output and overcoming the territory's dependence on imports. Suggestions ranged from bringing in experienced rice planters, like Javanese and Madurese, to establish rice farming communities in the country, to "forcing" the "indolent" local Malays to grow more padi.(6)


Year       Imports from Coast(*)    Imports from Foreign Sources
                  (Tons)                         ($)

1864             66,369                         12,011
1865             86,328                         14,272
1866             93,795                          3,905

                246,792                         30,188

1874             21,358                        114,817
1875             15,475                        116,898
1876             14,410                        124,424

                 51,243                        356,139

Note: * Mainly from Rejang, Kalaka, Batang Lupar and Sadong.

Source: SG, 16 Apr. 1877, p. 26.

Planters blamed labour shortages in the gambier and pepper estates of Upper Sarawak in the late 1870s on the high price of imported rice which made recruitment of Chinese coolies difficult.(7) This situation adversely affected Charles' programme of promoting commercial agriculture. When gambier and pepper growing became more firmly established from the 1880s onwards and the numbers of Chinese coolies working on the plantations increased, it was apparent that positive steps had to be taken to increase local rice output. Charles' solution was to sponsor the immigration of Chinese rice farmers and their families.

Charles was impressed with the huge expanse of the Rejang basin, and had a grand vision for its development which included the establishment of Chinese agricultural communities there.(8) In November 1880, he announced that the government would support immigration into the Rejang of "Chinese settlers with wives and families numbering not less than Three hundred souls, who will employ themselves in gardening and farming paddy or in other cultivations".(9) However, Chinese immigration to the Lower Rejang did not become a reality until the government brought Foochow and Cantonese farmers directly to Sibu from their home provinces in South China. Hakkas and Henghuas subsequently came on their own without government support.(10)

By the first decade of the twentieth century there were permanent Chinese agricultural communities in the Rejang around Sibu. However, plans to boost rice production and ideally to export rice were unsuccessful, as the settlers encountered difficulties in growing rice. Reverend James Hoover, the government-appointed Protector of the Foochow Chinese, offered the following explanation of the failure experienced by Foochow colonists in the Rejang when they attempted to cultivate padi.

According to an agreement made by the late Rajah with Mr. [W]ong Nai Siong, a Foo-Chow colony was established on the Rejang in 1901, "for the purpose of cultivating rice and vegetables" (See Agreement, Art. 1). There is an impression abroad that these colonists never made an honest effort to plant rice. This is a mistake.

1. The first year they all planted rice at Seduan on the Sungei Merah, but they used seed they had brought from China, and being seed adapted to a colder climate it matured too soon. When the stalks were only a foot high it began to head, the heads did not mature, and the crop was not worth harvesting.

2. The second year they tried again planting two crops. The first crop was a failure because it was planted too early in the season to make way for the second crop, the second brought nothing principally because of the birds which concentrated on it, being the only rice in the neighbourhood.

3. The third year they tried the Dyak method of just cutting and burning without cultivating (as in former years they had done in China, and expended much time and labour). As might be expected this failed completely.

4. The fourth year they were so discouraged and homesick that they refused to plant, and lived almost entirely at the expense of the proprietor [Wong Nai Siong]. This soon brought him to bankruptcy, and the colony to the verge of failure. At this junction the Rajah thought the colony would do better without the proprietor, and he was removed from the country.

5. The next year it was necessary to plant rice or starve as there was no proprietor to supply it, and, as it happened, they got a good crop.

6. By this time many had begun to plant pepper, and in a short time every body was planting as much as it was possible to take care of.

7. For the next two or three years the rice crops were more or less of a success, but the time came when it did not pay to husk the rice, a man's labour was worth more doing something else. It took a man and a woman a day to husk and clean a bag of rice. At the same price rice was selling in the bazaar this did not pay, and compared with what a man could earn sawing boards or planting potatoes, he was losing money. This difficulty was solved by the introduction of a rice-huller.

8. Rice cultivation then took a new life with some hope of supplying the market of Sarawak. But there were many partial failures of crops from reasons I will name later. Very seldom was a full crop harvested.

9. Then came rubber, and the planting of rice gradually fell off, because when people have money as these people have, it is much cheaper to buy rice than to raise it: always providing there is any to buy.

10. Then came the [European] war, and last year [1918] the bazaar ran short of rice several times. With much persuasion and some fear, everybody put out rice, but the crop, with a very few exceptions, is a failure. When the rice was about eight inches high, floods came and submerged it for more than a week, leaving it half drowned, from which it did not recover. Now here we are with rice clearer and scarcer here than it has been before, and we have no rice of our own. Malay and Milano rice here is a total failure.(11)

The immigrants accordingly turned their attention to more profitable crops such as pepper and para rubber, and relied on imported rice.(12) Far from declining, imports increased 'further to cater for these newly-established Chinese communities.

A further attempt was made in 1898, when Hakka Christians sponsored by the Basel Mission entered Sarawak and were granted 60 hectares (150 acres) of good land to grow padi at a location south of Kuching in the present-day Sungei Maong and Batu Kawa areas. An indenture between Charles and the Hakkas stipulated that they would devote their energies to padi planting in exchange for the land and for initial financial assistance including the provision of free house-building materials.(13) This group, too, found padi planting unsuitable, and turned to vegetable gardening with good results.(14) At the turn of the century, more of their countrymen came on their own account and contributed to the expansion of this Hakka agricultural community along Penrissen Road on the outskirts of Kuching.(15)

Government encouragement of padi cultivation continued during Vyner Brooke's reign (1917-46). The government called on the Chinese colonists in the Rejang to fulfil their original commitment to grow rice, and the Foochows and Henghuas did make an attempt to plant padi.(16) They accomplished little, and the country remained dependent on imported rice, and was extremely vulnerable to the sort of crisis that took place in 1919-21.

The Rice Crisis of 1919-21

By mid-1917, the curtailment of commercial shipping owing to the European War had reduced demand for rubber, with serious consequences for Sarawak. Rubber was exported to Singapore and the earnings utilized for purchasing rice. As the market for rubber at Singapore gradually shrank, so too did Sarawak's buying power in the rice market. The timing could not have been worse, for during this period (1917-18) rice control in Burma resulted in the high demand for Siamese rice, and toward the end of 1918 the price of Siamese rice tripled.(17) To a certain extent, the high price of imported rice had a positive effect on domestic production, and increased planting of padi was reported in places such as Bintulu, Simunjan and Miri.(18) Some Malay headmen attempted to promote double cropping, but without success.(19)

By far the most important consequence of the rice crisis was the stimulus it gave to Chinese immigrant communities in the Lower Rejang to grow padi for their own consumption. A November 1917 report by the Resident of the Third Division in Sibu illustrates the situation.

Towards the end of the month considerable anxiety was caused amongst the Foo Chow community by a report being circulated that it was useless to ship rubber to Singapore as there was no market for same and that rice would not be procurable on credit....

It is to be hoped that the Chinese will at last realize that the cultivation of sufficient rice for their own consumption is imperative. If such is the case the low price now obtainable for rubber may, in time, prove a boon to the community at large.(20)

By mid-1918, arrangements were being made with the cooperation of Malay and Dayak farmers that "all paddi [sic] lands not required by them for the coming farming season must be given, rent free, to those who have no land".(21) There were encouraging signs of padi planting among the Foochows, Henghuas and other immigrant communities.(22) The Foochow showed themselves to be overfastidious, and greatly tested the patience of the authorities.

The Foo Chow have been lent, for one farming season, sufficient farming land for their requirements. However, they are not satisfied and appear to consider they should be allowed to pick and choose at will and object to Malays and Dyaks farming land adjacent.... A notice has been issued to the Chinese that if they will not assist themselves the Government will not assist them in case of a rice famine.(23)

In 1919 Sarawak found it difficult to import sufficient rice to feed the population. The situation which Sarawak faced by early 1919 can be summarized as follows:

[In April] the Food Controller in the Straits Settlements officially intimated to [the Sarawak] Government that the export of Burma rice to Sarawak was prohibited owing to the action of the Indian Government in curtailing supplies, and although the authorities were approached to grant this country a reduced import of Burma rice to amount to only one third of the total imports, the concession was not allowed. Previous to this the imports of Burma rice had been from 60% to 70% of the total supplies and the loss of the cheaper grades of rice was naturally felt severely. Now we have to face a possible 50% reduction in rice from Siam and Saigon, our only remaining sources, in 4 or 5 months time.(24)

In Siam, "With grain prices high and foreign demand intense, rice exports reached a level that caused food stocks in the country to fall to dangerously low levels"; the Bangkok government prohibited the export of rice except under license with effect from 12 July 1919, and at the end of the year announced that no exports would be permitted at all during 1920.(25)

Sarawak's urban population depended almost entirely on imported rice supplies, consuming about 20,000 piculs (roughly 13,000 long tons) a month.(26) Reports of poor harvests and damage of crops by pests during the 1918-19 season made it unlikely that domestic production could supply the deficiency, and prospects were generally gloomy for town dwellers.(27) The situation in the rural districts was less serious because indigenous communities such as the Dayaks and Kayans grew enough rice for their own subsistence.

In April 1919 the government issued an order making "excessive profit on the sale of rice and padi" an offence.(28) The following month, the Sarawak Gazette hinted at the "possibility of the Government having to take over and distribute the entire import of rice".(29) A Food and Supply Control Committee was constituted, and in June the government did take control of the sale of rice, and implemented rationing, initially in the First Division and subsequently throughout the entire country.(30)

Facing and Overcoming the Crisis

Short-Term Measures

In May 1919 the Food and Supply Control Committee warned all outstations to expect a sharp fall in rice supplies, possibly by as much as 50 per cent, toward the end of the year.(31) A government propaganda campaign encouraged people to grow tapioca (ubi bandong), sweet potatoes (kribang), kladi (a type of taro, Alocasia indica or Alocasia denudata) and sago as rice substitutes, along with vegetables, fruits and other foodstuffs. The government also requisitioned all arable lands that were not currently in use ("waste" lands in the terminology of the administration) for food cultivation, and District Officers and Native Officers met with local communities "to emphasize the imperative importance of starting at once the local production of foodstuffs" if acute food shortages were to be avoided.(32)

To procure supplies for 1919, the Sarawak government arranged with the Straits Settlements Government to provide an import of 18,000 piculs (1,176 long tons) per month, a reduction of 10 per cent from normal levels. The bulk of this rice, almost 70 per cent, was consumed at Kuching, and the remainder distributed to the outstations.(33) A government subsidy allowed rice to be sold at a reasonable price.(34)

In some places people remained oblivious to the seriousness of the rice shortage facing the country. The Chinese of Baram, for instance, apparently took initial government warnings lightly, to the irritation of local officials:

The Chinese now seem to be afraid that they will not have sufficient rice. They were informed three times concerning the shortage and the Food Control Officer offered them 2,700 piculs of rice, but all they required at first was 1,200 piculs, which they reduced to 800 piculs. I have now informed them it was their own fault and the sooner they started to plant rice substitutes the better.(35)

Much the same thing happened in Dalat and Sadong:

The Dalat people still continue to consume rice at an enormous rate and it is difficult to prevent this as I have not sufficient staff to start a system of registration and rationing. I have, however, done as much as possible and appointed one man to sell rice only in Dalat. It is a pity that the local Chinese, who will be the first to suffer if the rice gives out, entirely fail to grasp the situation and refuse to believe that no more rice will be obtained from Sibu during the landas [the rainy season lasting from October to February].

They have placed every obstacle in my way and think only of the present and the opportunity of exchanging rice for sago and jelutong.(36)

In Sadong:

As soon as the restriction on export of local padi and rice was removed, numbers sold their meagre stocks at once: no doubt hoping to be able to buy or borrow from Government enough to tide them over until the next harvest, and cheaper than for what they sold their own padi. Investigations have been made and to those people who have sold their padi, no assistance at all will be given. To others in dire need a certain amount of padi will be lent.

These people are absolutely hopeless, and it is only by making it as difficult as possible for them, during times such as these, that they will ever learn, or make any effort to fend for themselves.(37)

These were isolated cases, however, and for the most part both the campaign to increase local rice output and the system of rationing proceeded smoothly throughout 1919 and 1920.(38) In the outstations, the government allowed rice to be sold on the open market and refrained as far as possible from imposing controls, but growing hardship led to increased levels of intervention. For instance, in Sibu District towards the end of 1919, "It was found necessary for the Government to take over the sale of rice to Dayaks as stocks were getting so low and at times, during the month, it was necessary to substitute raw sago for rice."(39) Some traders and shopkeepers raised prices in an attempt to exploit the situation, and the government finally imposed controls on the sale of rice, warning traders against profiteering and price fixing.(40)

Towards the close of 1920 the situation began to improve. Local harvests, though not entirely up to expectations, allowed the outstations to be self-sufficient, at least until the next season. A major fall in consumption allowed the greatly reduced amount of imported rice, a mere 87,790 piculs (5,737 long tons) for the whole year of 1920, to meet local demands.(41) Low demand was attributed to high prices, increases in domestic output and an outflow of Chinese coolies into Dutch Borneo "where it was said they were able to obtain cheaper rice and more lucrative employment".(42)

The government continued its subsidy, which by January 1921 had reached $126,292, exclusive of free provisions for the poor and cheap rations for civil servants.(43) Overall, the Treasury spent $491,730 in rice subsidies during 1919 and 1920.(44)

By the end of 1920 rice prices were falling, and the Straits Settlements authorities released Sarawak "from any further liability in connection with the rice purchase by the Straits Settlements Government at prices so much higher than the present market rates", thereby making possible the purchase of 20,000 piculs (1,300 long tons) of rice from Saigon. When this consignment arrived in early January 1921, the retail price for all rice was reduced to 70 cents per gantang, an affordable level for most of the population.(45)

Rice and padi were decontrolled in Singapore on 1 May 1921.(46) In Sarawak, decontrol was instituted from 10 May, but proceeded in slow stages owing to the country's poor communications and transport system, and controls were not fully lifted until 18 October. The delay was necessary "in order to ensure an adequate supply of rice until the merchants were able to resume the business in sufficient bulk to guarantee such".(47)

Government Attempts to Achieve Rice Self-Sufficiency

In the aftermath of the rice crisis, Vyner established a Department of Agriculture in 1924 to improve and develop agriculture in Sarawak.(48) The Department's initial attention was focused on attaining rice self-sufficiency,(49) and it undertook experimentation of various methods of padi cultivation with a view to improving farming techniques. The training of padi inspectors was initiated, and a padi demonstration farm established.(50) The government also created an Agricultural Improvement Fund to provide funding for agricultural development.(51)

However, efforts to promote improved methods of padi cultivation among local farmers had little success during the 1920s. A 1929 report on padi cultivation in the First Division stated that farming methods were "everywhere very primitive"; true wet-rice cultivation was "hardly ever undertaken", double-cropping was largely non-existent, farmers were indifferent to weeding, irrigation, drainage and "hardly attempted" systematic tillage, while the "use of any form of plough, or ... changkol [a heavy hoe] for tillage" was "unknown". The report emphasized that padi growing needed to be made profitable, "at least as attractive as the production of crops for export, however profitable these other crops may be", but it argued against imposing regulations and legislation as a means of improving rice output "because of the difficulty of their enforcement"; instead, it recommended a programme of instruction in agricultural methods, and gave its full support to the proposed scheme of establishing padi settlements.

That education can only take the form of concrete example is obvious, and the proposed Padi Settlements, populated by expert Javanese planters and their families, would seem to be the best way of making a start; this proposal has already been fully discussed, and should be proceeded with.(52)

The concept of designating areas of padi reserves and establishing padi farming communities in order to capitalize on the demonstration effect, first suggested in the early 1870s,(53) was implemented during the 1930s with colonies of Chinese, Javanese, Japanese, and Bugis.(54) A 1938 report on padi growing suggested that the policy of fostering padi settlements of foreign rice growers as a long-term measure in achieving rice self-sufficiency was unnecessary, and urged greater reliance on the local inhabitants and the setting-up of demonstration farms staffed by trained personnel to introduce effective rice farming methods.(55)

In 1928 the government appointed an agronomist specializing in rice cultivation, and an agricultural chemist to head a government analytical laboratory created to serve all departments but in practice largely concentrating on agricultural work.(56) Vyner appears to have been committed to this project, for it was said of this laboratory that "nothing appears to have been spared in its equipment" and it cost the Treasury nearly $10,000. Although the appointments of both agronomist and chemist were vacated during the Depression (1929-31), some research was carried out at the Semonggok Central Agricultural Station during the 1930s. Agricultural stations specializing in padi culture were set-up in the late 1930s, one at Kanowit (1937) and another at Rantau Panjang (1939), to conduct research into the adaptability of padi strains for local planting.(57) Personnel from the Agriculture Department were sent to Malaya to undergo courses in wet-padi cultivation.(58)

At Ranan, near Kanowit in the Rejang, the Roman Catholic Mission established a model farm which introduced new crops like coffee, cocoa, and wet-padi and swamp padi, as well as new agricultural expertise including ploughing with draught animals, with Dusuns from British North Borneo engaged to instruct the Dayaks.(59) During the 1930s a Government Padi Farm was established near the Mission's operation at Ranan, and an Agriculture Inspector was permanently stationed at Kanowit.

The government also encouraged double-cropping of wet-padi cultivation, and introduced a fast-growing variety which ripened within four months to the natives in the Baram and in the Upper Sadong.(60) Efforts by their penghulus to persuade the Bintulu Dayaks to practise double-cropping were unsuccessful; only the very desperate who were short of food showed "any inclination to break through their custom" and plant a second crop.(61) If this Bintulu example is anything to go by, it is doubtful that padi double-cropping was attempted by other indigenous communities. The following statement from a 1929 report on swamp padi cultivation in the First Division summarizes the native attitude towards double-cropping:

... almost nowhere is the same field cultivated in two successive seasons. Among both Malays and Dyaks there is a general belief that it is impossible to grow two successive crops on the same area, however good the soil may be: their methods of agriculture being what they are, this is no doubt their experience.(62)

The natives also resisted efforts to change their accustomed cultivation methods. Charles' attempts during the 1860s to persuade the Dayaks to use water buffalo to plough their fields accomplished little,(63) and the Roman Catholic Mission at their Ranan farm fared no better despite almost four decades of encouragement and demonstration. The most plausible explanation might be that the terrain of most Dayak areas was more suited to shifting cultivation of hill-rice than to wet-rice farming.(64) Other indigenous communities, such as the Muruts, Kelabits, Kedayans and Bisayas, grew wet-rice on irrigated fields, and used buffaloes for ploughing. The Kelabits and the Muruts, for instance, occupied well-watered inter-montane basins which were well-suited for irrigated rice cultivation.(65) Efforts to spread these methods elsewhere may have been misguided. A government-commissioned investigation concluded in 1938 that the use of buffaloes in padi growing was unnecessary: "No advantage accrues from buffalo cultivation except on hard clay where water supply is deficient."(66)

In general, the indigenous inhabitants maintained their traditional modes of subsistence farming. They mistrusted innovations in farming technology and were unconvinced by government propaganda. Pragmatism for survival, perhaps, was the key principle in the decision of whether to acquire new farming methodology or to adopt new crops. This can be seen in certain sectors of the Dayak community, notably the Dayaks of Saribas, who like the Chinese adopted rubber cultivation when that proved more lucrative than planting rice.

A report issued in 1929 smack a hopeful note concerning rice production: "In view of the great unused areas of fertile land, given an adequate agricultural population, Sarawak could probably become not only self-supporting but an exporter of rice."(67) However, padi cultivation had to compete with other more profitable activities, like the collection of jungle produce, and from the mid-1910s with para rubber planting, which rapidly took precedence over all other economic activities.

Vyner issued repeated warnings about the fickleness of the rubber market, but people nevertheless placed their faith in rubber.(68) The yearly report of the Third Division for 1923 noted that the Chinese had largely abandoned rice planting "owing to the steady price of rubber during the year".

It is a great pity that the Chinese will not plant padi, but they can scarcely be blamed for not doing so when it does not pay, and they make so much money out of rubber at anything over 50 cents a kati that they can afford to pay even high prices for rice.(69)

During the 1920s there was a steady increase of imported rice (Graph 1), a clear indication of the failure of Vyner's attempt to raise domestic output. The adverse effects of rubber cultivation on domestic rice production can be seen in the close correlation between increased rice imports and rising rubber exports (Graph 2).


Rice was the staple food of the majority of the inhabitants of Brooke Sarawak and an important item of import. The availability of more lucrative pursuits, such as the trade in jungle produce, along with affordable prices for imported rice, provided natives with an attractive alternative to subsistence rice production. Chinese trading, mining and commercial agricultural communities had always relied on imported rice supplies. Even immigrant Chinese farmers brought in by Charles at the turn of the century to cultivate padi and thereby bolster domestic output, instead switched to the far more attractive and more profitable para rubber. Further attempts by the Brooke government to encourage rice growing had little effect.

The crisis of 1919-21, when controls in Burma and Siam affected Sarawak's imported rice supply, provided clear evidence of Sarawak's over-dependence on imported rice. Although assistance from the Straits authorities and implementation of immediate short-term measures allowed the country to weather the lean years, long-term strategies to increase local output proved unsuccessful because rubber cultivation remained a more profitable enterprise. The Depression of 1929-31 exposed once again the susceptibility of Sarawak's dependence on imported rice and other foodstuffs, but inflated rubber prices in the mid-1930s, to a certain extent a result of the International Rubber Restriction agreement, but also a function of increasing world demand, again made rice production a secondary pursuit.

Overall, therefore, efforts by the Brooke government to make Sarawak self-sufficient in rice, or at least, less dependent on imports, were a failure. The country remained a rice deficit area through the end of Brooke rule.

This paper, originally titled "The Sarawak Rice Crisis of 1919-1921: Rajah Vyner and the Brooke Rice Self-Sufficiency Policy", was first presented at the First Conference of the European Association for South-East Asian Studies (EUROSEAS), Leiden, The Netherlands, 29 Jun.-1 Jul. 1995. Since then it has been revised, expanded and re-titled. A grant from the then Centre for South-East Asian Studies, University of Hull, and from the Sarawak Foundation, London, and a fellowship from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia, funded the research for this paper. I would like to thank Dr Paul H. Kratoska, my fellow panelists at Leiden, especially Dr Ian Brown, and an anonymous referee for their comments on earlier drafts.

Unless stated otherwise, all currencies refer to the Sarawak dollar which was tied to the Straits Settlements dollar, and tended to fluctuate in value. From 1906 the Straits Dollar was pegged to Sterling at the rate of $1 to 2s 4d, or $8.57 to [pounds]1, which was generally maintained until the outbreak of the Pacific War (1941-45).

Local measurements commonly use for padi and rice are passus, piculs (or pikuls) and gantangs. Their approximate Imperial equivalent is as follows:

1 pikul 1 gantang (dry weight) 1 passu = 8 gantangs 133.30 pounds 10.64 pounds 85.12 pounds

1 James Brooke, A Letter from Borneo with Notices of the Country and Its Inhabitants Addressed to James Gardner, Esq. (London: L. and G. Seeley, 1842), p. 14.

2 For details of swamp padi cultivation methods, see Robert Pringle, Rajahs and Rebels: The Ibans of Sarawak under Brooke Rule, 1841-1941 (London: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 26-27. See also James C. Jackson, Sarawak: A Geographical Survey of a Developing State (London: University of London Press, 1968), pp. 79-88.

3 For instance, see Sarawak Gazette (hereinafter SG), 16 Oct. 1871, n.p.; and, SG, 1 Jan. 1872, n.p.

4 For instance, see SG, 1 Dec. 1871, n.p.; and, SG, 28 Apr. 1871, n.p.

5 The single most important source and a mine of information relating to the socio-economic development of the Brooke Raj from the 1870s is the semi-official Sarawak Gazette which was first published in 1870. Although it carried official "Proclamations" and "Orders", always had a serving Brooke officer as its Editor, and was published at public expense by the Government Printing Office, the Gazette acted more as a reviewer, or even a critic, of the Brooke administration than a government mouthpiece. The editorials, commentaries, and "Letters to the Editor", are particularly frank in criticizing the Brooke Raj; the publication of monthly and annual administrative reports from the divisions and districts, and the various departments in the Kuching bureaucracy, are also revealing of the condition of the government and country. If there was any censorship, it was minimal. See Conrad Patrick Cotter, "A Guide to the Sarawak Gazette, 1870-1965" (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1966), pp. 1-17, and Pringle, Rajahs and Rebels, pp. 368-69.

6 For instance, see SG, 1 Jul. 1871, n.p.; SG, 15 Jul. 1871, n.p.; SG, 31 Aug. 1871, n.p.; SG, 16 Nov. 1871, n.p.; SG, 13 Apr. 1872, n.p.; SG, 16 Apr. 1877, p. 26; and, SG, 26 Mar. 1878, p. 19.

7 For instance, see SG, 16 Apr. 1877, p. 25.

8 Charles Brooke, Ten Years in Sarawak (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1866; reprint, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990), vol. 2, p. 252.

9 Government announcement of 1880 regarding the terms of its support for Chinese who intend to settle permanently in the Rejang as agriculturalists, preferably as rice farmers.

I CHARLES BROOKE, Rajah[,] make known the following terms which the Government of Sarawak hereby agrees to fulfil with any Company of Chinese who will engage to bring into the Rejang River Chinese settlers with wives and families numbering not less than Three hundred souls, who will employ themselves in gardening and farming paddy or in other cultivations -

1st - The Government will provide land sufficient for their requirements free of charge.

2nd - The Government on first starting will build them temporary houses, and make a good path to their landing place.

3rd - The Government will give them one pasu of rice per man or woman and a little salt and half the amount to every child for the first 12 months.

4th - The Government engages to keep up steam communication with Kuching and carry any necessaries for these settlers on the most reasonable terms.

5th - The Government will build a Police Station near them to protect them and assist in making themselves understood in the native language and generally look after them.

6th - In carrying out the above engagements the Government expect the said Chinese will permanently settle in the territory of Sarawak.

Kuching, 11th November, 1880.

(Source: SG, 29 Nov. 1880, p. 59.)

10 For Foochow settlers, see "Memo of Agreement between the Sarawak Government and Messrs. Nai Siong and Tek Chiong of Chop Sim Hock Chew Kang", 27 Jul. 1900, Agreement Book II (Sarawak Museum and State Archives); and, for Cantonese immigrants, see "C. Brooke to Messrs. Chiang Shiong and Tang Kung Shook", 5 Mar. 1901, Agreement Book II (Sarawak Museum and State Archives). For Hakka immigration to the Rejang, see SG, 2 Jan. 1902, p. 1. For Henghuas, see SG, 17 Jul. 1911, p. 136; SG, 16 Jul. 1913, p. 165; and Craig A. Lockard, "Charles Brooke and the Foundations of the Modern Chinese Community in Sarawak, 1863-1917", Sarawak Museum Journal 19, 38-39 (1971): 98-99. Although the Brooke government arranged contracts with the Foochows and Cantonese, there was no similar arrangement with the Henghuas. The initial batch of 300 Henghua Methodists arrived in 1911 from Fukien Province China led by the Reverend Dr William Brewster, an American Methodist minister, and Charles may have felt that it was unnecessary to have written contracts when dealing with a fellow European and a Methodist missionary. See John M. Chin, The Sarawak Chinese (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 66-67, 70 n. 13.

11 J.M. Hoover, "Cultivation of Rice in the Rejang", SG, 2 Jun. 1919, p. 140.

12 Padi cultivation was not abandoned altogether despite initial difficulties, and by the end of 1912 optimistic reports were appearing about Foochows and Henghuas resuming this activity. For instance, see SG, 1 Nov. 1912, p. 245; SG, 1 Mar. 1913, p. 51; and, SG, 1 Oct. 1914, p. 228.

13 See SG, 1 Nov. 1899, p. 316; Lockard, "Charles Brooke and the Modern Chinese Community", p. 93, and Chin, The Sarawak Chinese, pp. 59-60. See also SG, 1 Feb. 1900, p. 22.

14 See SG, 2 Jun. 1902, p. 122.

15 Ibid.

16 See SG, 2 Jan. 1918, p. 4; SG, 1 Jul. 1918, p. 160; and, SG, 16 Oct. 1918, p. 272.

17 See Paul H. Kratoska, "The British Empire and the Southeast Asian Rice Crisis of 19191921", Modern Asian Studies 24,1 (1990): 122-27.

18 For Bintulu, see SG, 16 May 1917, p. 122; Simunjan, see SG, 2 Jan. 1918, p. 4; and, Miri, SG, 1 May 1918, p. 104.

19 For instance, see SG, 17 Jun. 1918, p. 143; and, SG, 16 Jul. 1918, pp. 176-77.

20 SG, 2 Jan. 1918, p. 5.

21 SG, 1 Jul. 1918, p. 160.

22 For instance, see SG, 16 Oct. 1918, p. 272.

23 SG, 1 Jul. 1918, p..160.

24 SG, 1 May 1919, p. 105.

25 Kratoska, "Rice Crisis", p. 131.

26 SG, 16 Jul. 1919, p. 189; consumption figures are for 1917 and 1918.

27 SG, 1 May 1919, p. 105.

28 SG, 16 Jan. 1920, p. 17.

29 SG, 1 May 1919, p. 105.

30 See SG, 16 Jan. 1920, p. 17; and, SG, 16 Jul. 1919, pp. 189-90.

31 SG, 1 May 1919, p. 105.

32 Ibid.

33 See SG, 16 Jul. 1919, p. 189.

34 By December 1919, it was estimated that the Treasury had spent over $70,000 in rice subsidies excluding the "special rice-allowance" afforded civil servants, which in Kuching alone "amounted to $5,000 a month". SG, 16 Jan. 1920, p. 17.

35 SG, 1 Dec. 1919, p. 313. See also SG, 1 Jul. 1919, p. 179.

36 SG, 16 Jan. 1920, p. 24.

37 SG, 16 Nov. 1920, p. 250.

38 See SG, 16 May 1919, p. 126; SG, 1 Sep. 1919, pp. 234-35; SG, 16 Sep. 1919, pp. 246-47; SG, 16 Oct. 1919, pp. 271, 272; SG, 1 Nov. 1919, p. 287; SG, 1 Dec. 1919, p. 311; SG, 2 Feb. 1920, p. 37; SG, 16 Mar. 1920, p. 75; SG, 1 Apr. 1920, p. 85; and, SG, 2 Aug. 1920, p. 175.

39 SG, 16 Jan. 1920, p. 11.

40 See SG, 1 Aug. 1919, p. 207.

41 SG, 1 Feb. 1921, p. 2.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 SG, 1 Jul. 1921, p. 123.

45 SG, 1 Feb. 1921, p. 2.

46 SG, 3 Jan. 1922, p. 2.

47 Ibid. Dissenting voices argued that rice control had more disadvantages than benefits for the country. For the argument that control in 1921 was "unjustifiable", see SG, 1 Sep. 1921, pp. 173-74; and, for a rebuttal of this position, see SG, 1 Oct. 1921, p. 197.

48 A Department of Agriculture was first instituted in 1915 and primarily entrusted with the responsibility of land alienation and land survey. The former function had hitherto been carried out by officers acting in the name of the "Land Office", while the latter had been undertaken by the Public Works Department. The Director of Agriculture, then, had no control over agricultural issues which were left to the outstation administrators. Then, in 1919 the Department of Agriculture was re-named the Land and Survey Department and the Director of Agriculture became Superintendent of Lands and Surveys. The Department of Agriculture was revived in 1924 and had direct responsibilities over agricultural matters. See A. F. Porter, Land Administration in Sarawak (Kuching: Government Printing Office, 1967), p. 46; and, SG, 2 Jan. 1924, p. 2.

49 For the objectives of the Department of Agriculture, see Sarawak Administration Report (hereinafter SAR) 1929, p. 18.

50 SAR 1929, p. 22.

51 See 21st Meeting, 16 Oct. 1924, General Council 1867-1927, p. 32; and, SG, 1 Feb. 1924, pp. 56-57.

52 G. M. Goodall, Report on Swamp Padi and Other Foodstuff in First Division of the Department of Agriculture for the Years 1928-29 (Kuching: Government Printing Office, 1929), pp. 2, 8.

53 The idea of setting up rice-farming colonies was first mooted by P.E. Andresen in a letter to the Gazette, dated 26 Jun. 1871, whereby he suggested the importation "from Java or Madura, [of] say 200 families of rice cultivating people" whose skills and experience could be learned by the local people. This idea was argued out in the columns of the Gazette but no such scheme was implemented by the government at the time. See SG, 1 Jul. 1871. For the debate, see SG, 15 Jul. 1871; SG, 31 Aug. 1871; SG, 16 Oct. 1871; and, SG, 13 Apr. 1872.

54 See SAR 1929, p. 22; SG, 1 Nov. 1930, p. 279; SG, 2 Jan. 1931, p. 11; SG, 1 Apr. 1931, p. 83; SAR 1931, p. 8; SG, 1 Jan. 1932, p. 8; SG, 1 Jul. 1932, p. 126; SG, 1 Nov. 1933, p. 144; SG, 2 Jan. 1936, p. 16; and, SG, 1 Apr. 1936, p. 87.

55 C. L. Newman, Report on Padi in Sarawak 1938 (Kuching: Government Printing Office, 1938), pp. 21, 23.

56 J. S. W. Bean, Annual Report Department of Agriculture, Sarawak, for 1928 (Kuching: Government Printing Office, 1929), quoted in J.R. Dunsmore, "A Review of Agricultural Research in Sarawak", Sarawak Museum Journal 16,32-33 (Jul.-Dec. 1968): 309; SAR 1934, p. 4; and, SAR 1935, p. 4.

57 The Kanowit Station undertook laboratory testing of Malayan padi varieties best adapted to local conditions, while at Rantau Panjang, an area in the Igan river below Sibu, experimental cultivation of various strains of wet-padi was conducted. According to J. Cook, Sarawak Director of Agriculture from 1956 to 1963, the "first significant move towards scientific development in agriculture occurred in 1939 when a senior officer from the Malayan Department of Agriculture was seconded to Sarawak with a brief to concentrate on improving rice production". Selected padi strains from Malaya were introduced and a series of trial cultivations was conducted throughout the country. Cook himself, then State Agricultural Officer, Brunei, assisted in implementing the project in districts in Limbang. J. Cook to A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, Oxford University Development Records Project, 3 Sep. 1983 (Personal copy); and Interview with J. Cook, Dundee, Scotland, May 1993.

58 See SAR 1936, p. 3.

59 The Agricultural Improvement Fund provided for transportation of nineteen head of buffaloes from Limbang to the Roman Catholic Mission farm at Ranan, and undertook to pay the wages of two Dusuns drovers engaged by the Mission for instructional purposes in ploughing by buffaloes. SAR 1936, p. 3. See also Leonard Edwards and Peter Stevens, Short Histories of the Lawas and Kanowit Districts (Kuching: Borneo Literature Bureau, 1971), p. 137; and Father Bruggemann, "The History of the Catholic Church in the Rejang 1882-1966", The Sarawak Teacher (Special History Issue) 2 (1966): 19. The "buffalo scheme" was initiated by Father Dunn as part of an attempt to introduce wet-padi cultivation among the Dayaks in the Rejang. John Rooney, Khabar Gembira (The Good News): A History of the Catholic Church in East Malaysia and Brunei (18801976) (London: Burns & Oates, 1981), pp. 162-63; SG, 1 Jun. 1892, p. 100; SG, 2 Jan. 1920, p. 2; and Bruggemann, "Catholic Church in the Rejang", p. 19.

60 See SG, 16 Apr. 1918, p. 92; and, SG, 16 Jul. 1918, pp. 176-77. The padi variety, known as agit, was normally planted by the Kayans.

61 SG, 17 Jun. 1918, p. 143.

62 Goodall, Report on Swamp Padi, p. 2. A notable exception was the case of Tanjong Purun at Lundu where Malay and Sebuyau Dayaks reaped the benefits of double-cropping. See ibid., p. 10.

63 In order to discourage the migratory lifestyle of the Dayaks in search of new land for their swidden farming, Charles sought to introduce to them new farming methods that he hoped would encourage them to settle permanently:

I wish now to show them a specimen of farming and ploughing and if they can be persuaded to take it so much the better. If we could get them to purchase buffaloes and cattle ... to use them for cultivating purposes whereby they might consider their own habitations to last for generations. This would be a step in advance and a proper step.

"The Journal of Charles Brooke, September 1866-July 1868", in Charles Brooke, Ten Years, vol. 2, p. 359.

64 Swidden hill-rice cultivation as practised by the Dayaks and other indigenous people came under criticism for "wasteful" land use and low yields. For instance, see SG, 2 Jan. 1920, pp. 2-4; SG, 1 Mar. 1921, p. 30; and, SG, 1 Oct. 1926, p. 252.

65 Apart from the Muruts, the Brookes had little contact with these minorities.

66 Newman, Report on Padi, p. 25.

67 Goodall, Report on Swamp Padi, p. 8.

68 For instance, see 20th Meeting, 17 Oct. 1921, General Council 1867-1927, p. 30; 21st Meeting, 16 Oct. 1924, General Council 1867-1927, p. 32; and, 22nd Meeting, 17 Oct. 1927, General Council 1867-1927, pp. 34, 35.

69 5G, 1 May 1924, p. 157
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Author:Gin, Ooi Keat
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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