The British Empire Library

Nippon Slaves

by Lionel de Rosario

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by J.A.E. Morley (Aden, N. Nigeria, Eritrea, Singapore, Malaya, Cold Coast 1935-1956)
Nippon Slaves is an autobiographical account of the period from December 1941, when Japan launched its assault on Malaya, to September 1945, when Singapore was liberated. The narrator, Lionel de Rosario, ended this period as he had begun it, a Private in the Singapore Volunteer Corps. Almost the whole of this time he was a prisoner of the Japanese, and still under the age of twenty-five when his captivity ended.

Few prisoners of war, whatever their age or rank, can have endured a more harrowing experience than his, which included six months in the notorious camp at Songkurai, from which there emerged only 112 survivors of a British contingent originally numbering 1200. This contingent was responsible for the construction of a 15 kilometre stretch of the Burma-Siam railway which included a bridge over the River Kwai, a bridge made famous by the Hollywood film of that title which, unfortunately, projected an altogether misleading impression of the prisoners' relationship with their Japanese captors.

The features and routine of this camp are vividly described - the bullying and cruelty, with rare exceptions, of the Japanese and Korean guards, the appalling inadequacies of shelter from a cruel climate, the hard labour, the lack of food, the ever-present threat of disease, the seeming inevitability of death. And so, too, the spirit of comradeship, the spark of humour illuminating the most desperate situations, and for some, including the author, the fortifying influence of the Christian faith.

How was it that he survived when so many went under? The book poses this question, and goes some way to answering it. For one thing the author was enterprising and quick-witted, losing no opportunity for barter, despite the risks involved, with the local inhabitants, to supplement his meagre rations. For another he experimented, successfully in the main, with various forms of self-medication learnt from his mother or from other sources; he does not tell us where. But most of all it was his strong will to live that saw him through. As he writes; "Life in Songkurai was a real test of my endurance. Even when I felt really ill, I did not admit it. I felt that by doing so, I would be conceding defeat. I always had that frightening belief that if I went down lethargy would keep me down and I would never rise again".

That was the measure of the man. So it is not surprising to learn that the author, who began his career before the war as a clerk in the General Clerical Service, found his way to Oxford after it was over, graduated there, and subsequently rose to become Assistant Director of Public Works (Architecture) in Singapore. He has now retired and lives in Australia.

British Empire Book
Lionel de Rosario
Janus Publishing Co


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