Life in Sumatra

Life in Sumatra

Hall eventually reached Sumatra over six months after he departed from Kent. His first impressions were favourable. As he wrote to his uncle: ‘I was much Surprised on coming ashore here, to see so fine a Country after being told so many bad Accounts of it by the Jack Tars who generaly [sic] do not say any thing Good of any other Country except of Old England’.[1] This positive response was informed by the pleasant weather. He wrote to assure his mother, ‘The Climate here you’ll no doubt think, is unspeakably hot, & unhealthy, but I do assure you, it is not warmer, than I wou’d desire, except in the middle of the day, & for Healthiness, it is allowed by all here, to be as good as any place in India’.[2] Despite Hall’s reassurances to his mother, there was a high death rate of Civil Servants in the East India Company during this period, due to disease and war. Between December 1751 and December 1755, some sixteen per cent of the civil servants at Fort Marlborough died. From the beginning of 1760 to April 1762, over a third of the civil servants, military men, surgeons and artificers at the Fort died.[3] One of Hall’s contemporaries Robert Hay commented from Fort Marlbourgh in 1775, ‘I shall be glad to quitt [sic] India It becoming Irksome to me being like one who has outlived all his friends and matters begin to wear but a bad aspect’.[4]

As well as the unhealthy climate, this high death rate was partly due to the lack of qualified surgeons and medicine. In 1753, having been appointed to assistant to the resident at Natal, Hall recounted to his uncle, ‘Our Doctor here at present has not had a proper Education to correspond wh you & serves in the Double Capacity of Doctor & Ensign, but when one Mr Stephenson, formerly a pupil of yours in Flanders comes here from Marlbro, as I expect shall desire it of him’.[5] That same year, Hall informed his mother that he had had a fever in May that continued into June, ‘but no sooner did I take a dose of Bark which we had be a Country Ship & is almost certain cure here, than my fitts [sic] left me & I recovered strength daily. This being a new Settlement we have been in want of every thing especially medicines’.[6] Instead, Hall relied on the expertise of his uncle, John Pringle, then physician to the Duke of Cumberland in London.[7] Shortly after Hall’s arrival in 1751 he described a pain in his stomach that ‘blooded’ him and then continued, ‘I was a good deal troubled with a Pain in my fundament (before our arrival at St Helena) of which I complain’d to you in London.’ At the foot of this letter, in John Pringle’s hand, is diagnosed, ‘I take Sandies above complaint about his fundament to be nothing but the piles, which I hope will rather do him good.’[8]

Balancing health against his prospects of wealth was one Hall’s primary struggles in Sumatra. As well as being more positive than most observers about Sumatra’s climate,[9] Hall’s early descriptions of the island itself were similarly favourable: ‘It is hereabouts almost quite clear of Woods & fine Champaign Country for about 8 or 10 Miles from the Shore & a perpetual verdure & a fine Sail’.[10] However, this enthusiastic response was short lived. By January 1753, he was asking his mother to exert her power to get him removed to Bengal, ‘there being plenty of every thing there, on the Contrary want here; even of the necessarys of life’.[11] Hall fluctuated between loathing and love of Sumatra. When he was sent to Natal later in 1753, his mood brightened due to the possibilities available for trading natural resources:


There us a great Trade & it is the fountain Head of Gold, Benjamen & Caphire all very fine. The Gold is taken about a days Journey up the Country, by navigation & most of it 22 or 23 Carats fine The Benjamen, (I supppose I need not tell you) ouses [sic] out, of a large Tree, the best of it is full of Lumps & Veins as White as Ivory. The Camphire is taken from a tree of that name, by splitting & tearing the Timber, in every natural Rent of which they find Camphire; the different denominations of which, here, according to its Goodness, (as likewise Benyamin) are Head, Belly, & Foot. It is very Different from that usually imported into Europe from China, It being at least 25 or 30 Times more valuable than that at Batavia.[12]


While in Hall’s description fortune oozes out of the ground, this apparent wealth of natural resources was somewhat illusionary. Madras civil servant Claud Russell wrote to Hall, ‘The Wastage in melting of Gold dust, (particularly the coarse sort from Padang which loses sometimes 9 pr Cent) is so great, that unless the Touch can be very correctly ascertained, it is a precarious Article to deal in — Lately I know our Mint undertaker to have lost Pags 1400 & upwards on the purchase of a Quantity to the amount of Pags 11000 only.’[13] This increasing economic misfortune led Hall to renew his call to be sent to Bengal. He wrote to his brother, ‘I think on the decayed State of this Coast, where I assure you there are now small Hopes of a Gentleman’s picking up a Competency. I must therefore beg of you if its possible, to get me Removed to Bengal & leave you & the rest of my friends to apply for me in the best method they judge proper’.[14]

'A Malay', from Marsden's A History of Sumatra

‘A Malay’, from Marsden’s A History of Sumatra

If Hall’s financial fortunes fluctuated, his dislike of the indigenous population was a constant theme in his letters home. He wrote soon after his arrival to his mother: ‘the only objection I have to is, is the want of Trade which is owing to the Natives of the Country who although they have all the advantages with regard to Sail &c. yet they are so very indolent as to neglect their own Sustenance in a manner’.[15] This construction of Sumatrans as lazy is a common form of asserting the racial superiority of Europeans in the Georgian period.[16] It also allowed Hall to present himself as an industrious trader in contrast. In another incident where he came face to face with the alterity of the island and its people was an incident of reported cannibalism. A near-contemporary of Hall, Walter Marsden, described the incidence in his The History of Sumatra (1783):


Mr. Alexander Hall made a charge in his public accounts of a sum paid to a raja as an inducement to him to spare a man whom he had seen preparing for a victim: and it is in fact this commendable discouragement of the practice by our government that occasions its being so rare a sight to Europeans, in a country where there are no travellers from curiosity, and where the servants of the Company, having appearances to maintain, cannot by their presence as idle spectators give a sanction to proceedings which it is their duty to discourage, although their influence is not sufficient to prevent them.[17]


This account was widely reprinted, often with sensationalist titles, at the time and well into the nineteenth century.[18] It played into European fears of the exotic danger of largely unknown areas of the globe. As anthropologist William Arens has argued there are next to no verifiable sources for the existence of ritualised cannibalism, and cannibalism instead has been an invented phenomenon used to underline the barbarity and savagery of non-Europeans.[19] Even while Hall was positive about the climate and scenery of Sumatra, he cast the indigenous population as lazy and savage, a construction that allowed Hall to position himself as industrious and civilised.

Previous / Next


[1] Alexander Hall to John Pringle, 15 December 1751, NAS, GD206/2/503.

[2] Alexander Hall to Margaret Hall, 17 December 1751, NAS, GD206/500/2.

[3] GD206/2/502.

[4] Robert Hay, to [William?] Hall, 15 April 1775, NAS, GD206/4/33.

[5] Alexander Hall to Doc Pringle, 24 Dec 1753, NAS, GD206/4/30/3.

[6] Alexander Hall to Margaret Hall, 4 Dec 1754, GD206/4/2.

[7] J. S. G. Blair, ‘Pringle, Sir John, first baronet (1707–1782)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [, accessed 14 Aug 2014].

[8] Alexander Hall to John Pringle, 15 December 1751, NAS, GD206/2/503.

[9] See, Donald F. Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume III: A Century of Advance (London, 1993), 1362-66.

[10] Alexander Hall to John Pringle, 15 December 1751, NAS, GD206/2/503.

[11] Alexander Hall to Margaret Hall, 1 January 1753, NAS, GD206/4/2.

[12] Alexander Hall to John Pringle, 24 December 1753, NAS, GD206/4/30.

[13] Claud Russell to Alexander Hall, no date, NAS, GD206/2/503.

[14] Alexander Hall to John Hall, 24 February 1756, NAS, GD206/499/17.

[15] Alexander Hall to Margaret Hall, 17 December 1751, NAS, GD206/500/2.

[16]See, for example, Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native (London, 1977), 35-42.

[17] William Marsden, The History of Sumatra (London, 1783), 303.

[18] ‘The Eating of Human Flesh’, The Weekly Entertainer; or Agreeable and Instructive Repository, 1 (1783), 414-15; ‘Account of the Inhabitants of the Batta Country, in the Island of Sumatra’, The Annual Register (London, 1785), 22; ‘Marsden’s History of Sumatra’, The European Magazine, and London Review, 59 (1811), 126.

[19] William Arens, The Man-eating Myth (Oxford, 1979). See also, Gananath Obeyesekere, Cannibal Talk: The Man-eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas (London, 2005).