Coffee planting in colonial Malaya

Many postcards that depict coffee harvesting, and the later stages of the commodity chain. Far fewer show the earlier phases of coffee production. This postcard is one of a handful of vintage images depicting someone planting coffee. It is also, as far as I know, one of the very few historic postcards that depict coffee growing in what is now Malaysia.

Beyond the depiction of coffee growing, the image captures the complex layers of globalization and integration in the Indian Ocean Basin in the late nineteenth century. The coffee farm was in one of the “Native States” of the Malay States, likely the state of Selangor, which was historically the peninsula’s largest coffee producer. The labourer depicted here is likely an indentured labourer from India; part of larger population of Indians who moved from India to the Malay States through British colonial networks — either as convicts, “free” migrants, or indentured labourers. And the coffee itself is likely Liberian coffee (Coffea liberica), which had been brought from West Africa to the UK in the early 1870s and then circulated across the world through scientific and commercial networks. In most places, Liberian coffee was a commercial failure; Malaya was one of the few exceptions.

Liberian coffee flourished in Malay States’ relatively low-altitude coffee farms from the 1870s through to the late 1890s. By the end of the century, booming coffee production in Brazil was driving global coffee prices downward, and the coffee leaf rust started attacking the states’ liberica farms. At the same time, booming prices for rubber encouraged farmers on the peninsula to switch from coffee to rubber, which became the colony’s dominant cash crop.

The postcard was published by the Singapore-based studio G.R. Lambert & Co, to feed the growing demand for postcards from western tourists visiting Singapore. With that market in mind, the studio focused on “picturesque” subjects, including urban and rural landscapes. Over time, the studio expanded its offices across much of Southeast Asia. According to an article on the studio by the National Library of Singapore, the studio was “credited for having the most comprehensive photographic documentation of the topography and peoples of Southeast Asia.”