The British Empire Library

Out in the Midday Sun: The British in Malaya 1880-1960

by Margaret Shennan

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Dr A V M Horton
Margaret Shennan was born at Kuching in 1933 and taken by her parents six weeks later to live at Butterworth in northern Malaya, where her father, W G Price, was employed as assistant manager of the Sungei Nyok dockyard. The young Margaret was educated for a while at a school in the Cameron Highlands. In 1986 she published Missee, a memoir of those early childhood years.

'Missee' (a word used for any European girl in Malaya) was evacuated with her mother, Kathleen, before the British surrender of Singapore. Her father was not so lucky: he emerged from Japanese captivity in September 1945 'strange, shrunken, wizened, snowy-haired' and weighing only seven-and-a-half stone (Shennan 1986:254). Nevertheless he returned to Malaya in 1946-53, where he was joined briefly by his wife in 1952-53. As at 1986 Mrs Shennan herself had never returned to Malaya, but had studied and married and became a prize-winning writer.

Her latest book. Out in the Midday Sun, supplements existing work on the same theme by J G Butcher (The British in Malaya 1880-1941; The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South-East Asia; 1979). by Charles Allen (Tales from the South China Seas; 1983) and a trilogy by Robert Heussler. Taking a broader canvas than Heussler and a more extended time-span than Butcher, whilst carrying greater scholarly apparatus than Allen, Shennan's book is 'a collage of the British in Malaya, their lives, thoughts and reactions to events happening around them', and the author aims "to put their side of the story'. She argues that the British achievement in Malaya has not been given its full due. Metropolitan critics, such as Somerset Maugham, are particular targets (pp.8-9).

In studying the history of the British community in Malaya Mrs Shennan is in effect exploring the world of her own family background. At places in the text facts relating to her parents and personal recollections of childhood are deployed, but without the individuals involved being identified. Hence, "Kathleen King (readers not being alerted that this is Mrs Shennan's mother) was a secretary at Vickers Armstrong's shipbuilding works in Barrow-in-Furness when she met her future husband. Bill Price, a naval architect in the drawing office there' (p.l89). Likewise on p.208 readers learn: "For Margaret Price the coronation (UK, 1937) meant a new white frilly organdie dress with a red, white and blue sash', no indication being given that the author is actually writing about herself. An impressive gallery of photographs has been assembled, including a few from the family album.

Based on a prodigious research effort, the writer has produced a worthy mosaic of British society in Malaya, as forty-six pages of endnotes and a ten-page bibliography testify. The facts appear to have been carefully checked (and the indexer safely negotiates potential pitfalls as well). There are passages on all the old favourites, such as the Proudlock case, the Emden raids, the Singapore Mutiny of 1915, and the halcyon days, of 1920sand 1930s. Women and children feature in chapter 10 (pp. 188-208). More information about freemasonry, tantalisingly mentioned in pp.l36 and 163, would have been valuable.

The third and final part of the book is devoted to the War and the Emergency. When the time to depart came in 1957 the expatriate feeling was that the country had been well served by Britain, and was being left well endowed and in good hands (p.344).

British Empire Book
Margaret Shennan
John Murray
Additional Book Review
Stephen Luscombe


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