My wife Olive and daughters Catriona and Fiona returned to UK in April 1962 and I followed them for my first home leave, in July. It was extended by a month so that I could attend a management course and meetings with Plantations Group in London to discuss the next phase of the Tungud development.
On the flight back from Jesselton to Sandakan I got a window-seat. The Borneo Airways captain obligingly took the route which took us along the Tungud River, and I got a perfect view of our project. It was difficult to believe that it was only two years since I had made the same journey with Colin Black and John Galpine, on our initial visit. It seemed that I had been in Borneo for decades, and I felt I was coming home.
In the few minutes it took to fly over the property, I scrutinised it eagerly. I could see that during my absence, Moray had made good progress. Eight of the first 100-acre fields for next year’s planting had already been cleared.
Now that the trees were down I could see that the area near the river, in the triangle between the Tungud and the Labuk Rivers, was almost completely flat. There was no way that our factory, when we came to start building it in a couple of years’ time, could be sited anywhere close to the river as we had originally hoped.
Back from the river, where the following two years’ plantings would take place, the land seemed to be gently undulating. It would, I thought, be a much easier area to develop, particularly as regards roads and drains.
On the Tungud, I could see that good progress had been made on the workers’ houses in the new Ulu Division Kampong. I would probably be able to get the majority of the married families housed in permanent wooden houses before the start of the next monsoon.
On the one small outcrop of hills near the Tungud, just upstream from the workers’ temporary village, work was underway on our first two permanent management houses. It looked from the air as if progress there had been slower than I had hoped. The first of these, which I had been hoping to occupy when the family came out to join me, had not yet been roofed.
About 300 acres had now been planted with oil palm. It looked as if we would achieve the target of 500 acres, which we had set for the year. The nurseries, and the younger oil palm planted in the last few months, looked a healthy colour, except for a yellowish patch in one corner. We would have to see about improving the drainage there.
The leguminous cover-crop which we had planted in 1961, was growing vigorously, smothering the stumps in the cleared areas with a thick carpet of green legumes. We had inoculated the seeds with a bacterium before sowing, and they would now be producing rich nodules of nitrogen-fixing enzymes. Already the soil in these areas would be much more fertile than it had been under the secondary jungle.
In the more recently cleared areas I could see workers putting in new drains. Others were clearing fallen logs from the paths and oil palm circles, and yet others were planting cover crop seeds.
The roads had obviously fallen far behind our programme, but I could see our two new bulldozers shuttling to and fro making a new road, up beyond our permanent village site. They looked like bright yellow dinky-toys. Our new grader and road roller were working a few hundred yards behind them.
It was a busy scene, and I barely had time for it all to register, before our plane swung off down the Labuk River, and I got a quick glimpse of our temporary house site, nestling in the trees along the bank. Further downstream, just beyond our cleared area, I caught a glimpse of Ibrahim’s hut, and then the small group of houses on the distinctive ox-bow lake of the Bayok, where Tasman and his Banjarese community lived. Finally we passed over Klagan Island, Labuk Bay and the Sandakan peninsula, and were starting on our approach to Sandakan Airport.
The next three months after my arrival were frantically busy, and several important changes took place. Perhaps the following extracts from my December monthly report to London, which incorporated my 1962 Annual Report, might be as good a way as any to summarise these.
The monsoon started unusually early this month. Rain fell on 29 days in December, totalling 26.7 inches. The locals assure us that an early start to the monsoon means that it will be over quickly and will be comparatively mild.
Leslie Davidson: The writer’s family left for UK in April. He followed them in July and returned to resume duty in October.
Moray Graham: Did an excellent job acting as estate manager in the writer’s absence. He left on home leave in October and we have been informed that he has accepted an appointment as General Manager with a Chinese company who wish to start an oil palm operation in the Sandakan peninsula.
John Wyngarten: Left for Holland with his family in early December. We have since been informed that for family reasons (son’s education) they will not be returning. He has been offered a job in Bangkok.
Donald Pettit: Our new Assistant arrived on transfer from Pamol Nigeria in August.
If we are to achieve our planting programme for the next few years, the key is ROADS. Local contractors have quoted ridiculous prices and it is clear that we will have to build the roads ourselves. We are requesting Group to find an experienced roads engineer urgently from our Plantations operations elsewhere in the world.
We also require one further experienced Divisional Manager to arrive here as soon as possible, since we intend to start work on the clearing and planting of Bayok Division in the course of the next few months. We would point out that it takes several months for an expatriate Divisional Manager to learn sufficient Malay to communicate with his workers, and we need some months of advance warning to prepare a house for him.
The arrival of the Cocos Islanders has improved our labour situation considerably. At the year end, we had 491 workers and 344 dependants, compared with 250 workers and 164 dependants a year ago. The increase in the number of married families shows that the workers are beginning to look on the project as a long-term prospect.
We continue to have a more racially mixed work force than any other company in Unilever. Current breakdown is: Bugis 170; Timorese 54; Javanese 10; Kadazan 18; Orang Sungai 12; Chinese 29; Dyaks 41; Cocos Islanders 118; Balanini Filipinos 19; Other nationalities 20.
Mr VT John, an Indian from Kerala, took over from Mr Wyngarten in November as our Chief Accountant. He has the potential for promotion to Management within a year. His wife Ivy John is a trained midwife and a great asset to the Company. Mr Mathen, who is VT John’s brother, was our medical supervisor throughout the year.
We are still having little success in getting experienced Overseers to come here from Malaya, with the exception of Mr Kenganathan, and we are having to rely on training and promoting workers who are already in the country. This is a time- consuming business for our managers.
By the year end, all the new wooden labour quarters in Ulu Division village were completed. The workers have now moved in. The houses are on stilts and with their blue-and-white paintwork, they are very smart. They have been built around a central football field. The old temporary attap and kajang village has now been converted into a school.
The first two permanent management houses are being constructed on small hills between the old village and the new one. The first house, which will be occupied by the writer and his family until the GM’s house is built in a couple of years’ time, is expected to be completed by February; and the second house, which will be for our new roads engineer when Group find one for us, will be ready by May.
We are well ahead with the felling and clearing of the 1,200 acres which we hope to plant up next year.
We planted 416 acres during the year. We had sufficient oil palm in the Nursery of plantable size to complete the annual target of 500 acres; however, after the early rains in December, we decided to hold back further planting until the weather is drier.
We have a further 102,000 DxP plantlets in the Nursery at year end. This should be enough to plant up our target of 1,200 acres in 1963. However there are some worrying signs of Anthracnose disease. We are spraying with Ziram.
The DxP Seeds for our 1964 programme have now arrived. We should be putting these into the germinators in the next few weeks.
Datuk Leslie Davidson
Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International
This is an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters; email: firstname.lastname@example.org