I recently read an article in The Sarawak Gazette from September 2, 1929 entitled “The Tamil Cooly” which contained the following passage:
“Though the Tamil is an orthodox Hindu by religion, he is bound down by a whole network of ancient superstitions and is more ghost-ridden than any Dyak. Ghosts and demons play an important part in his life, walking or sleeping; the air is filled with fiends who may appear at any moment and vent their malice upon him.
“For instance, it is by no means uncommon for a Tamil rubber-tapper to refuse to continue in a certain field because there is a ghost there who beats him—the truth being that a small dead branch has fallen on him as he worked. “Again, a Tamil lady once came to the writer and solemnly stated that a demon twenty feet high had leapt from the jungle and with horrid screams chased her round and round her lot, finally ending up by kicking her into a ditch where she lay trembling for two hours, not daring to move.
“No amount of reasoning or ridicule could shake the woman’s faith in her unpleasant experience, and it was obvious that her belief was shared by the rest of the labour force. So much so, in fact, that Chinese had to be imported to work that particular section, since no Tamil could be induced to go near the spot.”
This article was more or less a financial report about the plantation’s performance over the previous year or so, and it mentioned that one problem that the plantation faced during that period is that “man-eating tigers” had “carried off 40 Tamil coolies.” To quote,
“As regards the working of the estate, bad health and the scare caused by the tigers have been the most serious troubles with which we have had to contend. The district seems to be subject to periodical waves of bad health conditions, but everything that can possibly be done to prevent epidemics is carried out.
“The depredations of tigers is a much more serious matter. The tappers taken at Bute last year were Tamils and resulted in the disorganization and loss of half of this class of labour.
“Early this January a Chinese tapper was killed and this force, taken on to replace the Indian labour, left practically en bloc and the more outlying fields had to be left untapped for some weeks.
“The management has done everything possible to prevent any further losses, traps have been set and the estate is regularly patrolled by armed watchmen. I am glad to say that up to the present no further trouble has been experienced. The labour force is gradually being reorganized, special efforts are being made to recruit more Tamils and we hope to be able soon to dispense with the Chinese labour which will gain reduce costs to a normal level.” In both of these cases, when Tamil coolies refused to work, Chinese workers agreed to do so. Yes, you had to pay them more, but they would do it. And while it is true that the Chinese rubber tappers ran away when one was killed by a tiger, those workers initially agreed to work there after 40 Tamils had suffered the same fate.
Or perhaps they weren’t told that detail when they were hired?
[The image above of the Tamil women and child is from the British Library.]