s I returned from my trip to Malaysia last week, complete with a suitcase full of print-outs from the archives and a head full of ideas about how the development of meteorology in British Malaya fits into the wider story I want to tell with this project.
Most of my time in Malaysia was spent in the Arkib Negara (national archives), which holds a surprising amount of documentation relating to the establishment and operation of meteorological services in the Malaysian Peninsular. My expectations of what I might find in the archives had been lowered by people who’ve worked on other topics there, and who have often had quite a frustrating time. But with the help of Fiona Williamson, who’s also working on the history of meteorology in the region (see this paper for example), I was able to find my way to a few really useful collections.
As Fiona’s argued, there really wasn’t a whole lot of meteorology done in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1929, when the UK Meteorological Office and the Air Ministry were trying to accelerate the roll-out of a meteorological infrastructure to support imperial aviation, Malaya was described by the head of the Indian service as a “non-meteorological country”. It was considered the one ‘weak link’ in the meteorological chain which was to render the skies above the England-Australia air route safe for navigation. C.D. Stewart was therefore dispatched from the Met Office to coordinate a new service which would greatly expand existing observational efforts, while also hastening the circulation of data so that synoptic charts could be developed daily, and forecasts issued to aviators.
Who was meteorology for?
This moment in the late 1920s, with the rise of transcontinental aviation, saw new debates about what – and crucially who – meteorology was for. If expensive meteorological infrastructure was merely required to make the skies above Britain’s territories safe for planes flying overhead, was it really the business of those territorial governments to foot the bill? In East Africa, the roll-out of a regional British met service to facilitate flight on the Cape-Cairo routes was joined by promises of more local benefits, including new knowledge to apply to agriculture in climatically diverse colonies. In Malaya, there was very little talk of agricultural meteorology as a salve to colonial support for what was essentially and imperial project of inter-dominion aviation. That may have been to do with the combination of what was seen as an essentially ‘monotonous’ climate, and the firm establishment by then of agricultural monocultures. Things like rubber were being grown on large estates quite successfully by then, and there wasn’t much sense that meteorology had anything to offer the growers. Others who saw greater variation in the Malayan climate nonetheless saw the weather as essentially unpredictable, and held out little hope for reliable weather forecasts.
So meteorology developed in British Malaya as essentially a form of ‘infrastructural science‘ – a combination of applied theoretical knowledge and environmental observation, essentially operating invisibly, not for the purpose of producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to support the establishment of a much wider socio-technical infrastructure (international aviation). How to pay for such a science was a frequent sore point, with the states disagreeing over whether contributions to the overall budget should be allotted based on how many observation stations each state had, or according to how many flights landed in each territory. Singapore, for example, had few met stations but lots of landings, whereas the large rural states further north had a growing number of met stations, but weren’t exactly key stops on the emerging trunk air routes. This uncertainty about whether the air above Britain’s territories was a colonial or an imperial matter points to wider debates about the constitutional operation of Britain’s patchwork empire, about the relationship between colonial autonomy and joint imperial effort, and to different assumptions about the place of science in making such spaces governable. In the correspondence at this time, one can read lots of interesting efforts to convince others, including the rulers of the Unfederated Malay States, of how the expectation of ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ states was the production of reliable meteorological information, and the free provision of such information to anyone who might like to use it.
Who did the meteorology?
Unlike some of the other meteorological services I’ve been studying, it was possible in Malaysia to get a bit of insight into the staff who made it all happen, beyond the conventional European at the top. Within the Arkib Negara you can find service records of some of the staff who were recruited locally – their progression up salary scales, their performance in technical exams, and the fines and sanctions they were subject too when their observations weren’t deemed up to scratch. Often these were men who would spend some time at HQ in Singapore helping to compile, tabulate and compute the numbers, but for most of the time they were out in the countryside, running isolated meteorological stations in far flung corners of the territories. Tensions frequently arose around their working conditions – their accommodation, the long hours, access to schools for their children, their subjection to a disciplinary regime which was often seen as unsympathetic to the difficult conditions in which meteorological work was done. Being able to unearth some of this stuff has been really enlightening, as it enables me to say something about the everyday lived realities of meteorology in colonial settings – to go beyond the writings of the directors and the managers and the ideals of smoothly running systems of weather observation and computation, to get to the voices of the people putting in the hard, repetitive, often maddeningly dull work of making colonial skies legible and predictable.
Meteorology at war
One of the threads I’m keen to follow through the Malayan story is the relationship between meteorology and the military. Of course the rise of civil aviation coincided with the further development of military flying, and the Malayan meteorological service always had a close relationship with the Royal Air Force. During the occupation of British Malaya by Japan in World War II, it seems that the observational infrastructure was kept ticking, even if most of the records from this period were apparently destroyed. Many of the observation staff worked 7-day weeks throughout the occupation, leading to some serious health problems and a backlog of leave allowances after the war which drastically undermined the ability of the service to meet all its obligations. The ambition to run a 24-hour forecast service had to be abandoned, as worn-out staff took long stretches of leave – often in India – to recuperate.
Forecasting activities at Kuala Lumpur aerodrome were particularly hard hit by the staff shortages, but the office there was seemingly still able to prepare a daily stream-line analysis for the RAF to inform its bombing campaigns against the communist insurgents as the Emergency took hold. Confident claims were made about how meteorology would facilitate efficient air strikes against the rebels in forested hills, although it seems I may have to do some more digging in UK-based archives to get at the details.
So there are lots of things to process and ideas to develop over the coming weeks and months, and a few follow-up visits to more local archives to be made in order to finesse a few points.
I should say thanks to all the staff at the Arkib Negara, who dealt incredibly patiently with my requests, and tolerated my dodgy Malay with great generosity!