I was looking at some documents from the Straits Settlements that are held in the Colonial Office in London and came across some letters and other documents related to the “misconduct of Russian sailors.”
In January 1901 the Russian ship, the “Vladimir,” stopped at Singapore, and some of the sailors got drunk. Justice of the Peace Thomas Scott came upon the soldiers as he was on his way home, and this is what he later reported:
“I left our (Guthrie and Co’s) godown about 5:15 p.m. for Tanjong Pagar. On getting to the Teluk Ayer Market, I saw a considerable crowd on Robinson Road.
“On passing through the crowd, I saw three Russians, evidently the worse of liquor, and at whom some of the crowd were throwing stones and hooting.”
Scott then tried to put his cart between the crowd and the Russians and to escort the Russians to safety. One of the three Russians ran off on his own. One of the remaining two Russians had a knife and a stick. Scott told the man to drop the knife, but he didn’t do it, perhaps because he did not understand English.
Then, for some unknown reason, the drunk Russian with the knife and stick hit Scott over the head with the stick and Scott began to bleed.
“I still went on escorting them, as by this time a considerable crowd, chiefly Malays, had gathered behind my dogcart.
“I told a couple of natives to run along to the Tanjong Pagar Police Station as soon as possible, and to ask the European Inspector in charge to hurry along with his Sikh peons.
“I was anxious that the Police should come as quickly as possible, because I saw ahead two groups of Russians in uniform, and I was afraid that these might take part with the two drunken men and further trouble ensue, as the drunken sailor was brandishing his knife and shouting out ‘Russe, Russe.’ These other men however kept quiet.
“Besides, the crowd were getting very excited, especially the Malays. I heard them say – ‘He has struck master, let him be killed.’ I said in Malay ‘You all keep quiet; these men are under my charge, the Police will soon be here.’”
The Sikh policemen then arrived and arrested the two Russians for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Scott then explains that,
“I got down from my dogcart, and seeing about fifty Russians in uniform, I went to the person who seemed to be in charge and asked him to get the men away from there down to their ship, as, seeing that hundreds of natives, Chinese, Malays, and others, were about, I was afraid that a disturbance might be created.”
Scott went on to say that, “My wound bled freely, and the sight of this no doubt helped to excite the people by whom I am well known, and of whom there were hundreds of the Tanjong Pagar Dock employees, as it was knock-off time.
“When I left the Dock Company’s premises twenty minutes or so later, there was still a considerable crowd hanging near the Tanjong Pagar Police Station, and along the roads, but everything was perfectly quiet.”
— What I find interesting about accounts like these is the information that they provide about the local people. Colonial sources often focus on the colonial elite, as this account does as well, but we can also find information about the colonized as well.
In this incident it is interesting to see the supposed support that “the natives” offered to Scott. If we are to believe his account, there was some sense of identification between the dock workers and Scott, and they were upset that a drunk Russian had injured him.
I believe that such relationships did in fact exist between “coolies” or simple laborers and members of the colonial elite. A great deal has been written about “resistance” to colonial rule, but many of these people never resisted. To the contrary, they did not question the hierarchical world that they lived in that placed Europeans at the top.