Read CHAPTER IX of British Borneo Sketches of Brunai‚ Sarawak‚ Labuan‚ and North Borneo , free online book, by W. H. Treacher, on ReadCentral.com.

In the eyes of the European planter, British North Borneo is chiefly interesting as a field for the cultivation of tobacco, in rivalry to Sumatra, and my readers may judge of the importance of this question from a glance at the following figures, which shew the dividends declared of late years by three of the principal Tobacco Planting Companies in the latter island:

		     Dividends paid by

	   The Deli      The Tabak       The Amsterdam
In       Maatschappi.    Maatschappi.       Deli Co.

1882     65 per cent.    25 per cent.   10 per cent.

1883    101    "         50    "        30    "

1884     77    "         60    "        30    "

1885    107    "        100    "        60    "

1886    108    "         .....            .....

In Sumatra, under Dutch rule, tobacco culture can at present only be carried on in certain districts, where the soil is suitable and where the natives are not hostile, and, as most of the best land has been taken up, and planters are beginning to feel harassed by the stringent regulations and heavy taxation of the Dutch Government, both Dutch and German planters are turning their attention to British North Borneo, where they find the regulations easier, and the authorities most anxious to welcome them, while, owing to the scanty population, there is plenty of available land. It is but fair to say that the first experiment in North Borneo was made by an English, or rather an Anglo-Chinese Company, the China-Sabah Land Farming Company, who, on hurriedly selected land in Sandakan and under the disadvantages which usually attend pioneers in a new country, shipped a crop to England which was pronounced by experts in 1886 to equal in quality the best Sumatra-grown leaf. Unfortunately, this Company, which had wasted its resources on various experiments, instead of confining itself to tobacco planting, was unable to continue its operations, but a Dutch planter from Java, Count GELOES D’ELSLOO, having carefully selected his land in Marudu Bay, obtained, in 1887, the high average of $1 per lb. for his trial crop at Amsterdam, and, having formed an influential Company in Europe, is energetically bringing a large area under cultivation, and has informed me that he confidently expects to rival Sumatra, not only in quality, but also in quantity of leaf per acre, as some of his men have cut twelve pikuls per field, whereas six pikuls per field is usually considered a good crop. The question of quantity is a very important one, for quality without quantity will never pay on a tobacco estate. Several Dutchmen have followed Count GELOES example, and two German Companies and one British are now at work in the country. Altogether, fully 350,000 acres of land have been taken up for tobacco cultivation in British North Borneo up to the present time.

In selecting land for this crop, climate, that is, temperature and rainfall, has equally to be considered with richness of soil. For example, the soil of Java is as rich, or richer than that of Sumatra, but owing to its much smaller rainfall, the tobacco it produces commands nothing like the prices fetched by that of the former. The seasons and rainfall in Borneo are found to be very similar to those of Sumatra. The average recorded annual rainfall at Sandakan for the last seven years is given by Dr. WALKER, the Principal Medical Officer, as 124.34 inches, the range being from 156.9 to 101.26 inches per annum.

Being so near the equator, roughly speaking between N. Latitudes 4 and 7, North Borneo has, unfortunately for the European residents whose lot is cast there, nothing that can be called a winter, the temperature remaining much about the same from year’s end to year’s end. It used to seem to me that during the day the thermometer was generally about 83 or 85 in the shade, but, I believe, taking the year all round, night and day, the mean temperature is 81, and the extremes recorded on the coast line are 67.5 and 94.5. Dr. WALKER has not yet extended his stations to the hills in the interior, but mentions it as probable that freezing point is occasionally reached near the top of the Kinabalu Mountains, which is 13,700 feet high; he adds that the lowest recorded temperature he has found is 36.5, given by Sir SPENCER ST. JOHN in his “Life in the Forests of the Far East.” Snow has never been reported even on Kinabalu, and I am informed that the Charles Louis Mountains in Dutch New Guinea, are the only ones in tropical Asia where the limit of perpetual snow is attained. I must stop to say a word in praise of Kinabalu, the Chinese Widow," the sacred mountain of North Borneo whither the souls of the righteous Dusuns ascend after death. It can be seen from both coasts, and appears to rear its isolated, solid bulk almost straight out of the level country, so dwarfed are the neighbouring hills by its height of 13,680 feet. The best view of it is obtained, either at sunrise or at sunset, from the deck of a ship proceeding along the West Coast, from which it is about twenty miles inland. During the day time the Widow, as a rule, modestly veils her features in the clouds.

The effect when its huge mass is lighted up at evening by the last rays of the setting sun is truly magnificent.

On the spurs of Kinabalu and on the other lofty hills, of which there is an abundance, no doubt, as the country becomes opened up by roads many suitable sites for sanitoria will be discovered, and the day will come when these hill sides, like those of Ceylon and Java, will be covered with thriving plantations.

Failing winter, the Bornean has to be content with the the change afforded by a dry and a wet season, the latter being looked upon as the “winter,” and prevailing during the month of November, December and January. But though the two seasons are sufficiently well defined and to be depended upon by planters, yet there is never a month during the dry season when no rain falls, nor in the wet season are fine days at all rare. The dryest months appear to be March and April, and in June there generally occurs what Doctor WALKER terms an “intermediate” and moderately wet period.

Tobacco is a crop which yields quick returns, for in about 110 to 120 days after the seed is sown the plant is ripe for cutting. The modus operandi is somewhat after this fashion. First select your land, virgin soil covered with untouched jungle, situated at a distance from the sea, so that no salt breezes may jeopardise the proper burning qualities of the future crop, and as devoid as possible of hills. Then, a point of primary importance which will be again referred to, engage your Chinese coolies, who have to sign agreements for fixed periods, and to be carefully watched afterwards, as it is the custom to give them cash advances on signing, the repayment of which they frequently endeavour to avoid by slipping away just before your vessel sails and probably engaging themselves to another master.

Without the Chinese cooly, the tobacco planter is helpless, and if the proper season is allowed to pass, a whole year may be lost. The Chinaman is too expensive a machine to be employed on felling the forest, and for this purpose, indeed, the Malay is more suitable and the work is accordingly given him to do under contract. Simultaneously with the felling, a track should be cut right through the heart of the estate by the natives, to be afterwards ditched and drained and made passable for carts by the Chinese coolies.

That as much as possible of the felled jungle should be burned up is so important a matter and one that so greatly affects the individual Chinese labourer, that it is not left to the Malays to do, but, on the completion of the felling, the whole area which is to be planted is divided out into “fields,” of about one acre each, and each “field” is assigned by lot to a Chinese cooly, whose duty it is to carefully burn the timber and plant, tend and finally cut the tobacco on his own division, for which he is remunerated in accordance with the quality and quantity of the leaf he is able to bring into the drying sheds. Each “field,” having been cleared as carefully as may be of the felled timber, is next thoroughly hoed up, and a small “nursery” prepared in which the seeds provided by the manager are planted and protected from rain and sun by palm leaf mats (kajangs) raised on sticks. In about a week, the young plants appear, and the Chinese tenant, as I may call him, has to carefully water them morning and evening. As the young seedlings grow up, their enemy, the worms and grubs, find them out and attack them in such numbers that at least once a day, sometimes oftener, the anxious planter has to go through his nursery and pick them off, otherwise in a short time he would have no tobacco to plant out. About thirty days after the seed has been sown, the seedlings are old enough to be planted out in the field, which has been all the time carefully prepared for their reception. The first thing to be done is to make holes in the soil, at distances of two feet one way and three feet the other, the earth in them being loosened and broken up so that the tender roots should meet with no obstacles to their growth. As the holes are ready for them, the seedlings are taken from the nursery and planted out, being protected from the sun’s rays either by fern, or coarse grass, or, in the best managed estates, by a piece of wood, like a roofing shingle, inserted in the soil in such a way as to provide the required shelter. The watering has to be continued till the plants have struck root, when the protecting shelter is removed and the earth banked up round them, care being taken to daily inspect them and remove the worms which have followed them from the nursery. The next operation is that of “topping” the plants, that is, of stopping their further growth by nipping off the heads.

According to the richness of the soil and the general appearance of the plants, this is ordered to be done by the European overseer after a certain number of leaves have been produced. If the soil is poor, perhaps only fourteen leaves will be allowed, while on the richest land the plant can stand and properly ripen as many as twenty-four leaves. The signs of ripening, which generally takes place in about three months from the date of transplantation, are well known to the overseers and are first shewn by a yellow tinge becoming apparent at the tips of the leaves.

The cooly thereupon cuts the plants down close to the ground and lightly and carefully packs them into long baskets so as not to injure the leaves, and carries them to the drying sheds. There they are examined by the overseer of his division, who credits him with the value, based on the quantity and quality of the crop he brings in, the price ranging from $1 up to $8 per thousand trees. The plants are then tied in rows on sticks, heads downwards, and hoisted up in tiers to dry in the shed.

After hanging for a fortnight, they are sufficiently dry and, being lowered down, are stripped of their leaves, which are tied up into small bundles, similar leaves being roughly sorted together.

The bundles of leaves are then taken to other sheds, where the very important process of fermenting them is carried out. For this purpose, they are put into orderly arranged heaps small at first, but increased in size till very little heat is given out, the heat being tested by a thermometer, or even an ordinary piece of stick inserted into them. When the fermentation is nearly completed and the leaves have attained a fixed colour, they are carefully sorted according to colour, spottiness and freedom from injury of any kind. The price realized in Europe is greatly affected by the care with which the leaves have been fermented and sorted. Spottiness is not always considered a defect, as it is caused by the sun shining on the leaves when they have drops of rain on them, and to this the best leaves are liable; but spotted leaves, broken leaves and in short leaves having the same characteristics should be carefully sorted together. After this sorting is completed as regards class and quality, there is a further sorting in regard to length, and the leaves are then tied together in bundles of thirty-five. These bundles are put into large heaps and, when no more heating is apparent, they are ready to be pressed under a strong screw press and sewn up in bags which are carefully marked and shipped off to Europe to Amsterdam as a rule.

As the coolies’ payment is by “results,” it is their interest to take the greatest care of their crops; but for any outside work they may be called on to perform, and for their services as sorters, etc. in the sheds, they are paid extra. During the whole time, also, they receive, for “subsistence” money, $4 or $3 a month. At the end of the season their accounts are made up, being debited with the amount of the original advance, subsistence money and cost of implements, and credited with the value of the tobacco brought in and any wages that may be due for outside work. Each estate possesses a hospital, in which bad cases are treated by a qualified practitioner, while in trifling cases the European overseer dispenses drugs, quinine being that in most demand. If, owing to sickness, or other cause, the cooly has required assistance in his field, the cost thereof is deducted in his final account.

The men live in well constructed “barracks,” erected by the owner of the estate, and it is one of the duties of the Chinese “tindals,” or overseers acting under the Europeans to see that they are kept in a cleanly, sanitary condition.

The European overseers are under the orders of the head manager, and an estate is divided in such a way that each overseer shall have under his direct control and be responsible for the proper cultivation of about 100 fields. He receives a fixed salary, but his interest in his division is augmented by the fact that he will receive a commission on the value of the crop it produces. His work is onerous and, during the season, he has little time to himself, but should be here, there, and everywhere in his division, seeing that the coolies come out to work at the stated times, that no field is allowed to get in a backward state, and that worms are carefully removed, and, as a large proportion of the men are probably sinkehs, that is, new arrivals who have never been on a tobacco estate before, he has, with the assistance of the tindals, to instruct them in their work. When the crop is brought in, he has to examine each cooly’s contribution, carefully inspecting each leaf, and keeping an account of the value and quantity of each.

Physical strength, intelligence and an innate desire of amassing dollars, are three essential qualifications for a good tobacco cooly, and, so far, they have only been found united in the Chinaman, the European being out of the question as a field-labourer in the tropics.

The coolies are, as a rule, procured through Chinese cooly brokers in Penang or Singapore, but as regards North Borneo, the charges for commission, transport and the advances many of which, owing to death, sickness and desertion, are never repaid have become so heavy as to be almost prohibitive, and my energetic friend, Count GELOES, has set the example of procuring his coolies direct from China, instead of by the old fashioned, roundabout way of the extortionate labour-brokers of the Straits Settlements. North Borneo, it will be remembered, is situated midway between Hongkong and Singapore, and the Court of Directors of the Governing Company could do nothing better calculated to ensure the success of their public-spirited enterprise than to inaugurate regular, direct steam communication between their territory and Hongkong. In the first instance, this could only be effected by a Government subsidy or guarantee, but it is probable that, in a short time, a cargo and passenger traffic would grow up which would permit of the subsidy being gradually withdrawn.

Many of the best men on a well managed estate will re-engage themselves on the expiration of their term of agreement, receiving a fresh advance, and some of them can be trusted to go back to China and engage their clansmen for the estate.

In British North Borneo the general welfare of the indentured coolies is looked after by Government Officials, who act under the provisions of a law entitled “The Estate Coolies and Labourers Protection Proclamation, 1883.”

Owing to the expense of procuring coolies and to the fact that every operation of tobacco planting must be performed punctually at the proper season of the year, and to the desirability of encouraging coolies to re-engage themselves, it is manifestly the planters’ interest to treat his employes well, and to provide, so far as possible, for their health and comfort on the estate, but, notwithstanding all the care that may be taken, a considerable amount of sickness and many deaths must be allowed for on tobacco estates, which, as a rule, are opened on virgin soil; for, so long as there remains any untouched land on his estate, the planter rarely makes use of land off which a crop has been taken.

In North Borneo the jungle is generally felled towards the end of the wet season, and planting commences in April or May. The Native Dusun, Sulu and Brunai labour is available for jungle-felling and house-building, and nibong palms for posts and nipa palms for thatch, walls and kajangs exist in abundance.

Writing to the Court of Directors in 1884 I said: “The experiment in the Suanlambah conclusively proves so far that this country will do for tobacco. There seems every reason to conclude that it will do as well here as in Sumatra. When this fact becomes known, I presume there will be quite a small rush to the country, as the Dutch Government, I hear, is not popular in Sumatra, and land available for tobacco there is becoming scarcer.”

My anticipations have been verified, and the rush is already taking place.

The localities at present in favour with tobacco planters are Marudu Bay and Banguey Island in the North, Labuk Bay and Darvel Bay in the neighbourhood of the Silam Station, and the Kinabatangan River on the East.

The firstcomers obtained their land on very easy terms, some of them at 30 cents an acre, but the Court has now issued an order that in future no planting land is to be disposed of for a less sum than $1 per acre, free of quit-rent and on a lease for 999 years, with clauses providing that a certain proportion be brought under cultivation.

At present no export duty is levied on tobacco shipped from North Borneo, and the Company has engaged that no such duty shall be imposed before the 1st January, 1892, after which date it will be optional with them to levy an export royalty at the rate of one dollar cent, or a halfpenny, per lb., which rate, they promise, shall not be exceeded during the succeeding twenty years.

The tobacco cultivated in Sumatra and British North Borneo is used chiefly for wrappers for cigars, for which purpose a very fine, thin, elastic leaf is required and one that has a good colour and will burn well and evenly, with a fine white ash. This quality of leaf commands a much higher price than ordinary kinds, and, as stated, Count GELOES’trial crop, from the Ranan Estate in Marudu Bay, averaged 1.83 guilders, or about $1 (3/2) per lb. It is said that 2 lbs. or 2-1/2 lbs. weight of Bornean tobacco will cover 1,000 cigars.

Tobacco is not a new culture in Borneo, as some of the hill natives on the West Coast of North Borneo have grown it in a rough and ready way for years past, supplying the population of Brunai and surrounding districts with a sun-dried article, which used to be preferred to that produced in Java. The Malay name for tobacco is tambako, a corruption of the Spanish and Portuguese term, but the Brunai people also know it as sigup.

It was probably introduced into Malay countries by the Portuguese, who conquered Malacca in 1511, and by the Spanish, who settled in the Philippines in 1565. Its use has become universal with men, women and children, of all tribes and of all ranks. The native mode of using tobacco has been referred to in my description of Brunai.

Fibre-yielding plants are also now attracting attention in North Borneo, especially the Manila hemp (Musa textilis) a species of banana, and pine-apples, both of which grow freely. The British Borneo Trading and Planting Company have acquired the patent for Borneo of DEATH’S fibre-cleaning machines, and are experimenting with these products on a considerable scale and, apparently, with good prospects of success. For a long time past, beautiful cloths have been manufactured of pine-apple fibre in the Philippines, and as it is said that orders have been received from France for Borneo pine-apple fibre, we shall perhaps soon see it used in England under the name of French silk.

In the Government Experimental Garden at Silam, in Darvel Bay, cocoa, cinnamon and Liberian coffee have been found to do remarkably well. Sappan-wood and kapok or cotton flock also grow freely.