The British Empire Library

Scorpion On The Ceiling - A Scottish Colonial Family in South East Asia

by Roddy Martine

Courtesy of OSPA

Kathleen Kazer (Research Analysts, FCO 1970-2005)
Roddy Martine has written over twenty books covering a wide range of Scottish topics. This book is a different venture, being the story of his family's experiences in Singapore, Malaya and Sarawak before, during and after World War II. The book draws on family letters and diaries, contemporary accounts and interviews with survivors, and the author has also consulted many of the relevant histories to provide the context. The numerous photographs from the Martine family collection deserve particular mention, featuring not only family and friends, but also scenes and buildings - many long gone - and events ranging from the 1941 Brooke centenary celebrations in Kuching to the off-loading in 1946 of elephants from Chipperfield's circus, bought by the Borneo Company to work on the Rejang river. (One wonders what they made of the change in life-style.) The book reminds us of the large numbers of Scots, "a race renowned for its pioneering spirit", who served abroad throughout the Empire.

Roddy Martine was born in Sarawak in 1946, after most of the events described in the book. His father, Charles Martine, had arrived in Singapore in 1922 to work for the Borneo Company, one of Britain's great trading companies in Asia. Charles enjoyed the comfortable life of a European bachelor in pre-war Singapore, hard work, sport, social life, curries, gin slings and tengahs. He married in 1934 and moved to Penang with his wife, Pat. Here, their comfortable life continued - although unknown to them the Penang photographer, Mr Tokisatsu, was a Japanese agent taking photographs of Penang's harbour and defences. In 1939 Charles was transferred to Kuching where the Borneo Company was in need of reorganisation. The author gives a perhaps rather romanticised account of the Brooke family rule in Sarawak, but there are fascinating details of pre-war life in Kuching with its small colonial community centred on the palace of Rajah Vyner Brooke and his Ranee Sylvia, and the Rajah's devious - and, later, deranged - private secretary, Gerald MacBryan.

When war broke out in Europe the Martines, like many others, judged that it would be safer to stay in the East. But in 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and in 1942 began their advance on the South East Asian territories, invading Malaya and Singapore and the Borneo territories. The familiar and depressing story of Britain's inability to provide adequate defences for its dependencies emerges here. In 1942 Charles and his wife were separated, he in Singapore, and she and their daughter in Australia, following a 140 mile walk from Kuching through the jungle to the Dutch East Indies, to escape the Japanese advance. Charles felt compelled to return to Singapore to protect his company's interests, was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned in Changi, where he was Communications Officer of D-Block and survived the Japanese purge, the "Double Tenth" of 1943. The account of the Martines' experiences brings out the loyalty and kindness to the British of many among the local populations.

The Martines were reunited in 1945 and soon returned to Sarawak to the Borneo Company, but the old ways were fast disappearing and in 1946 Sarawak was ceded by Rajah Vyner Brooke to the British Crown, despite the strong anti-cession movement culminating in the murder of the Governor, Duncan Stewart. As a leading expatriate businessman, Charles Martine was appointed to the Council Negri of the new British colony where, his son says, he helped lay the foundations of opposition. Meanwhile, in Malaya the communists had launched their insurrection and fears of its spread to Sarawak, as well as a desire to re-unite their family, led the Martines to return to Scotland in 1951. Charles Martine, like many others, never afterwards spoke willingly of his wartime experiences and his wife, too, was reticent. It was only after their deaths that Roddy Martine learnt the full extent of the ordeals they had undergone.

The book's interest and value lie in the personal details of expatriate life in South- East Asia during this period, and in the information on the British trading companies, rather than in the big historical picture, and the photographs support this admirably. The author's tone is mostly dispassionate, but the reader cannot but be affected by his accounts of the effects of the Japanese occupation on expatriates and local populations. A few criticisms: the political background to events is sometimes over-simplified, for example the remarks on the post-war arrangements in Sarawak, and on the spread of communism in Malaya.

It is difficult to keep track of all the various friends and colleagues and a longer list of characters would have helped. A glossary of local words would also have been useful; some are explained while others are not - eg ''gharries", "twakow" and "kabun". And there are a few small errors - Rajah Brooke's private secretary was Gerald not Gerard MacBryan, Lee Kuan Yew's name is now spelt as here rather than Kwan, and the normal usage for the State Council is Council Negri not Negri Council.

British Empire Book
Roddy Martine
Librario Publishing Ltd
1 904440 57 6


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe