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How did rubber plantations become part of rural Sarawak?

In Malaysian history class, we learned that rubber plantations in the country was promoted by an Englishman named Henry Nicholas Ridley (1855-1956).

He was a botanist, naturalist, and geologist who spent most of his time in Singapore.

His career on this side of the globe started in 1888. He applied and was selected the first director of Gardens and Forests in the Straits Settlements.

Before he made his way here, he was to meet Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari to prepare for his new job.

After reaching Singapore, Ridley was in charge of introducing new plants of economical value to the region. Against popular belief, he was not the first person to introduce rubber to this part of the world as it was already introduced 10 years earlier by Sir Hugh Low.

However, he did establish the taping method for harvesting latex. He was also the one who heavily promoted rubber plantations in Malaya.

He was so passionate in promoting rubber planting that he was always stuffing rubber seeds into the pockets of everyone he met, with hopes that they would plant the seeds. That was how he earned the nickname “Mad Ridley”.

The first rubber tree planted in Sarawak was in the Anglican bishop’s garden in Kuching
Rubber trees are tapped for their resins. Credits: Pixabay

While we learned a lot of Malaysian history in school, we only know a little about Sarawak’s own history with the rubber tree.

Ridley might not have been the one who promoted rubber in Sarawak as vigorously as he did in Malaya, but he did provide a written account of rubber planting in the state.

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In September 1905, Ridley wrote an article which was published in the Agricultural Bulletin of the Straits Settlements.

He stated, “It would now be interesting to hear from the present Custodians of the gardens mentioned if the trees are still in existence, and to what girth they have attained at the sere and yellow age of 39 years.”

According to Ridley’s account, the first rubber trees planted in Sarawak were from seeds imported from the Botanic Gardens, Singapore. Reverend Bishop George Frederick Hose brought them in 1881. Bishop Hose was the uncle of Marudi resident, ethnologist and botanist Charles Hose.

He further stated, “One of these trees is still standing in the Bishop’s garden at Kuching and two more in the garden of the Resident. The former measures 6 feet 4 inches in girth at three feet from the ground and the others are nearly as large. The remainder of the trees have disappeared.”

The first rubber plantation in Sarawak

Ridley actually visited Sarawak four times, in 1903, 1904, 1914 and 1915. During his visits, Mad Ridley could not help but go out and see the rubber plantations.

The first rubber plantation he visited was the Coffee Estate on the slopes of Mount Matang. There, they planted the rubber trees together with coffee, tea and Mauritius hemp.

However according to Ridley, the rubber trees were in bad condition. Although the trees were five years old, they looked like the size of two-year-old trees.

“Many of the trees had fallen, others remained as dead stumps, or if alive bore only a few struggling leafy branches. Round Kuching, in the cemetery and along the roads, a good many para rubber trees have been planted lately, and seem to be doing fairly well, though it is too soon yet to form an opinion of them.”

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Based on Ridley’s observation of rubber planting in Sarawak, the soils were too sandy.

“The greater part of the hills of Sarawak, at least that portion which I have seen, are sandstone or limestone, and a great area of the diluvium of the lower country is therefore very sandy. But the Lundu hills which I visited are granite, compose of a fine-grained granite. The soil here is less sandy and more argillacuous, with sandy mounds or small hills scattered about it. This seemed to be the most suitable ground for para rubber I saw in Sarawak. Another likely spot is long the Kucing river near Santubong, I had not time to visit this, but head that somewhere here Chinese were planting para rubber.

The first rubber export in Sarawak and the Rubber Boom
Natural rubber sheets in drying priocess. Credits: Pixabay.

Based on a report from 1962, the first rubber was exported from Sarawak in 1910.

When the world price of rubber hit historic highs during that decade (the first time in 1905-1906, followed by another boom in 1909-1910), Sarawak got hit by rubber fever.

Then Simanggang Resident AB Ward observed in his memoirs that 1911-1912 were the Planting Eras, as “Natives caught the rubber infection badly. Malays planted all the land they could. Dyaks followed suit, and rubber banished all thoughts of tribal warfare and headhunting.”

Professor Rob Cramb in Land and longhouse: Agrarian Transformation in the Uplands of Sarawak describes how the Saribas Iban took advantage of the money-making opportunity in rubber.

“Initially it was the wealthier Iban communities with a large land base and an accumulated surplus from the gutta and coffee booms which embarked on rubber planting.”

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He also cites examples of early enterprising farmers like Tuai Rumah Budin in Stambak, who planted over 4,000 seedlings his son Lumpoh brought back from Singapore, and Penghulu Saang who planted his rubber in Pelandok in the Paku branch of the Saribas in 1912.

Although the price of rubber fell sharply after 1910, it nonetheless became the main agricultural export of the country until the late 1960s.

Unlike Malaya and other rubber producing countries, the kingdom was relatively late in establishing rubber plantations, as the Brookes favoured smallholders and were reluctant to give indigenous farmland to European companies.

During Charles Brooke’s reign, only five large rubber estates were established.

By 1941 before the World War II, there were 236,557 acres of rubber plantations in Sarawak.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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