The ‘Burden’ of Malaya

This excerpt, taken from Alfred R. Wallace’s record of his fieldtrip to Malaya in the years 1854 to 1862, reeks of that benevolent, white colonist mentality which was ubiquitous among his contemporaries. The notion of racial superiority – albeit woefully and wholly self-conceived – is evident in Wallace’s physical comparisons between the ‘Malayan races’ and the ‘high-class European[s]’. Not only are his commentaries utterly superficial, they are also imbued with the typical moral judgments, specifically in terms of the Malayan’s uncultivated ‘capability of civilization’. Literally speaking, Wallace may be congratulating them for having ‘passed beyond that first stage of savage life’, but his inherent sarcasm is simply too amusing to ignore.

The ‘need’ for the white men to bring their ‘culture’ to these savage lands, therefore, qualifies the colonial ‘burden’ for two primary reasons: to ‘confer blessings on the afflicted’ by a quasi-God figure with ‘pure benevolence’, as well as to inculcate the ‘system’ of trade among these ‘semi-barbarous’ brutes. The former is seen through Wallace’s valorization of ‘Rajah Brooke’ as a ‘superior being, come down upon earth’ who, like ‘Tuan’ Jim, ‘must go on’ with his civilizing mission despite the burdens of being ‘sneered at as an enthusiastic adventurer, or abused as a hard-hearted despot’. James Brooke is thereby transformed into the hero figure who is compelled to strive for a romanticized quest, one which is from the beginning deemed to futility.

The supposition of Christian redemption (or salvation) aside, Wallace also imposes the need for these lower peoples to build up an economic ‘system’. He suggests that the financial empowerment from trading with the Europeans is the very means through which ‘the people are [now] well-fed and decently clothed’. However, it is not difficult to discern the greed of exploitation from the seemingly self-congratulatory, sacrificial tone in Wallace. (‘It must be remebered, that the [colonial] Government expended capital for years before any return was obtained’.)

To me, travel writing such as this is quite plainly written so as ‘to excite wealthy amateurs to explore them [that is, the ruin mess of uncivilied lands] thoroughly’ as well as to anchor the civilizing rhetoric among what Marlow called ‘the priveleged reader[s]’.

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