Obsession, isolation and the colonies

A few days ago I tweeted a link to Mary Kilcline Cody’s work on the Ethel Proudlock case in colonial Malaya. (There’s also an earlier news item for the curious)

The case has everything, obsession with status, high drama, murder, and more. It’s all on wikipedia if you’re interested but in essence the story goes something like this.

A young man, Proudlock by name, secures a school teaching post at the Victoria Institute in Kuala Lumpur in the early years of the twentieth century. At that time the European community in KL was under a thousand strong, but the school prospered by offering a British public school style education to the sons of British community in colonial Malaya, without the tiresome and expensive business of having to send the children back to school in England.

Proudlock is diligent, works hard, and along the way marries Ethel, who is described as Eurasian – ie someone who had a parent of European descent and one of Asian descent. This in itself is slightly odd as one would have expected someone like him normally to acquire a British wife and not someone ‘second class’, which people of mixed parentage were most definitely classed.

In the small colonial community of KL his choice of options was probably limited, and probably having an Asian mistress, while acceptable in a rubber planter up country was probably not quite proper for a respectable school teacher. And of course he may genuinely have fallen in love with Ethel.

Anyway, despite his marriage to a non-European his career continued to prosper and he eventually got the opportunity to be acting headmaster while the headmaster was overseas on leave.

At this point everything goes wrong in the most dramatic way possible. While he is out one evening, his wife has a visitor, a rubber planter. Ethel shoots the rubber planter, and as he staggers, bleeding, onto the verandah, she continues to empty Proudlock’s revolver into him.

Ethel later claims that her visitor tried to rape her and she shot him in self defence.

However, she goes on trial for murder. It’s claimed that her visitor was in fact her lover, and she killed him in a fit of passion on being told that he was abandoning her for another woman. It’s also been claimed that a European was seen swimming fully clothed in the Klang river behind the house at this time, and it’s been suggested that this man was another of Ethel’s lovers.

Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe the Malay watchman who spotted him was confused as to the time, or maybe the man in question was visiting another house for some purpose, heard the disturbance, and had reason to make himself scarce.

Ethel is arrested, tried and sentenced to death. There is a massive outcry about the injustice of this and eventually her sentence is commuted by the Sultan of Selangor.

Ethel and Proudlock promptly leave the colony – Proudlock’s career is in ruins and Ethel, wel people will talk you konw.

Ethel eventually moves to Florida. Proudlock eventually turns up teaching at a British public school in Argentina, without Ethel. They appear to have kept in contact, but have led separate lives after the Malaya incident.

It looks like a another tale of illicit sex passion and murder in the colonies – and hardly unique – for example there was an equally celebrated case in Happy Valley in colonial Kenya, and an example of what can happen when a community is isolated and closed in on itself.

Besides wikipedia, the Victoria Institute website also has a good account with some extra information on Proudlock and Ethel after they moved on from KL.

There’s also an obvious resonance with Orwell’s Burmese Days with its obsession with status and undertones of racism..

What’s clear is that these colonial societies were hothouses of people trying to establish themselves and climb up the greasy pole – in the main they were young men of comparatively humble lower middle class origin and a job in the colonies gave them a chance to be more than insurance clerks or minor local authority officials. This is different from somewhere like Shanghai in the interwar years, as Shanghai attracted people on the make, fraudsters, disposessed Russians and the rest in the way that colonial Malaya or Burma did not.

The other significant point about colonial Malaya or Burma is that they were small societies, and therefore ones in which it was easier to cut a dash, and being quiet backwaters, ones weher it was easier to have bad behaviour overlooked as along as the government in Delhi or London was happy.

These societies were not settler societies. They were ones in which people went out to to do a job with every expectation of being transferred elsewhere or eventually retiring back to England.

This meant that they tended to have a disproportionate number of young men. And of course young men (and young women) naturally want to have sex. Not surprisingly in a colonial society with an excess of men this results in a tendency both for men to have native mistresses and also for what the Victorians would have called ‘moral indiscipline’ where those who were inclined to have affairs did so.

Nothing of course is surprising here. All closed societies tend to have features of this. It’s what lies behind the myth of universities being hotbeds of passion and intrigue. Put people of opposite genders together in a constrained and enclosed society and things happen. Sometimes explosively, as in the case of Ethel Proudlock.

It’s not surprising that such high octane happenings form the genesis of any number of murder mystery stories set in universities, reasearch groups, archaeological digs and the like – sex, intrique, and that little peculiarly English frisson caused by the (perceived and would be) upper classes behaving badly.

Not surprisingly the Proudlock case has been fictionalised, in this case by Somerset Maugham as the Letter, which was at first a short story and later a play and a movie.

Maugham’s story and play predate Orwell’s Burmese days by several years. While I’m sure that Burmese days is drawn from his own experiences one does wonder if Maugham’s story inspired Orwell …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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3 Responses to Obsession, isolation and the colonies

  1. Pingback: Bruce Lockhart | stuff 'n other stuff

  2. Pingback: Colonial population sizes | stuff 'n other stuff

  3. Pingback: Proudlock and QueryPic | stuff 'n other stuff

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