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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-rev...@lists.h-net.org>
Date: Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 5:38 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Environment]: Hyser on Lees, 'Planting Empire,
Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786-1941'
To: <h-rev...@lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revh...@mail.h-net.org>

Lynn Hollen Lees.  Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British
Malaya, 1786-1941.  Cambridge  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  374
pp.  $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-03840-0.

Reviewed by Raymond Hyser (University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey

Unlike Britain's expansion into other parts of South and Southeast
Asia, Britain's movement into Malaya was not by conquest but rather
by "invitation shadowed by intimidation" (p. 116). Starting her study
in 1786 with Britain's acquisition of Penang, Lynn Hollen Lees, a
noted scholar of European social history, traces the spread of
British colonialism across the Malay Peninsula until the Japanese
occupation in 1941 in her book _Planting Empire, Cultivating
Subjects_. Lees's monograph provides a fresh perspective on British
colonialism in Malaya, and the British Empire more generally, by
firmly rooting the colonial project within a network of transnational
movements that highlights the construction of "a multi-cultural
society under the umbrella of British overlords" (p. 1). Her book
explores how these transnational movements shaped British Malaya
through an analysis of the social history of the parallel
developments of plantations and towns across the peninsula. Through
this exploration, she interrogates the nature of British colonial
governance in Malaya by critiquing such "simple, inflexible
categories" as settler colony and directly ruled possession that
often dominate the study of empires (p. 6). Lees argues that the
British in Malaya "ruled in an environment of layered and shared
sovereignty" that created a political landscape that was as complex
as it was conflicted (p. 4). Couching her argument in the study of
the individual in rural and urban spaces, Lees investigates how the
multi-ethnic populace of British Malaya experienced and adapted to
"empire" as they navigated this political landscape. She aims to show
how imperial Britain "planted a colony in Malaya and cultivated its
inhabitants as British subjects" (p. 16).

Progressing in a largely chronological fashion, the book is divided
into two parts. The first section concentrates on the nineteenth
century where the author describes the expansion of British colonial
rule throughout the Malay Peninsula and the various manifestations of
governance exercised by the colonial state. She traces the
corresponding growth of plantation colonialism, focusing on sugar
cultivation, and the development of urban centers across Malaya. Lees
looks at the contrasting styles of British colonial rule that
developed within plantations and towns. Grounding her discussion in
the papers of the Penang Sugar Estates Company, she explores the
"coercive regime" of plantation colonialism that "depended upon
physical violence and cultural caricatures to sustain a rigid
hierarchy of power and inequality" (p. 99). Built on ideas developed
on Caribbean plantations and slavery, plantation colonialism in
Malaya was an arena of heavy discipline, low pay, and racial
segregation. In contrast, urban populations enjoyed significantly
less direct interaction with the colonial state. Rather than the
rigid, racial hierarchies of plantations, towns enjoyed an
overlapping of social and cultural worlds as their multi-ethnic
inhabitants engaged with one another through marketplace interactions
and urban civil society. In towns, the British colonial state opted
for a mode of governance Lees calls "layered sovereignty" where
colonial officials relegated informal control of the various ethnic
groups to their community leaders (p. 119). Despite the seemingly
insular environments of plantations and towns, the boundaries between
them were relatively open and porous. This allowed for the mobile
society of British Malaya to move across both the physical and
political landscape to experience "multiple layers of imperial rule"
(p. 16).

The second section of the book focuses on the first four decades of
the twentieth century when British control continued to expand across
the Malay Peninsula. The twentieth century saw the rate of
urbanization increase, as well as the dramatic transformation of the
Malayan economy wrought by the widespread adoption of rubber
cultivation. Colonial officials continued their policy of layered
sovereignty but found the status quo increasingly difficult to
maintain as transnational pressures mounted against colonization (p.
170). Although rubber cultivation transformed Malaya into Britain's
most profitable colony, it also continued the rigid hierarchy and
racial segregation of plantations that were developed on the sugar
estates of the nineteenth century. As the colonial state sought to
raise the standards of workers' welfare, colonial rule became
identified with the unfree labor and violence of plantation
agriculture. While racial segregation and violence persisted on rural
plantations, the cosmopolitanism fostered in urban centers of the
nineteenth century continued into the twentieth century. In urban
areas, where colonial surveillance was minimal, the multi-ethnic
populace continued to intermingle with one another in a vibrant
display of cosmopolitanism. Residents negotiated the fractured world
of different alliances and loyalties in urban centers as colonial
authorities and ethnic community leaders layered various authorities
onto the urban landscape. This "divided sovereignty," although
providing the colonial state a pragmatic means to deal with the
challenges of imperial rule, raised the questions of what British
subjecthood meant for people living in British Malaya (p. 15).

Lees draws on an expansive array of archival material from Britain,
Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States to depict the complex
nature of British colonialism on the Malay Peninsula. Bolstered by
oral history interviews, as well as a multitude of printed primary
and secondary sources, her work provides a refreshing perspective on
British Malaya by focusing not only on colonial officials but also on
workers, managers, merchants, and teachers who comprised Malaya's
cosmopolitan polity. Written in clear and lucid prose, the book
generally maintains a fine balance between detailed forays into
imperial historiography and engaging vignettes through a thoughtful
analysis of her sources. Although grounding her study in an almost
exclusively English-language source base, Lees exhibits a keen
awareness of the silences and representations found in colonial
archives. Her work shows a sensitivity to the subaltern voices that
are often lost or obscured in the colonial records. Her meticulous
reading of the sources allows her to "shine a spotlight on the
vanished worlds of British Malaya" (p. 13). Her narrative pays
attention to the often-neglected stories of women, the harsh working
conditions faced by Malayan plantation workers, and the financially
crippling realities of debt peonage. While she orientates her study
on British colonialism in Malaya, Lees also exhibits her interest in
world history by incorporating the effects of transnational events
into her narrative, such as the atrocities of rubber cultivation in
the Belgian Congo. Her work is a richly detailed empirical study that
brings to light the diverse world of British Malaya.

Lees's _Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects _is a rich and valuable
contribution to the historiography of British colonization in
Southeast Asia. Her work successfully challenges the reader to
scrutinize the categories of imperial governance to highlight the
varied and diverse forms of British colonial rule. Situating the
"flows of empire" within the transnational currents of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, Lees provides scholars with an in-depth look
at how the multi-ethnic populace of British Malaya experienced empire
through their negotiation of the competing powers and alliances
endemic to layered sovereignty. This monograph is a must-read for
scholars interested in British colonial rule in Southeast Asia and
the nature of British subjecthood.

Citation: Raymond Hyser. Review of Lees, Lynn Hollen, _Planting
Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786-1941_.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54924

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart
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