There was a well-known tea plantation not far away, and the French officials, as usual, had not been afraid to let me know, in a roundabout way, what they thought of it, and of the methods of the planter. But the missionaries had nothing but praise for the Algerian that ran the place, and it turned out that he had given them their furniture. There was something quite extraordinary in this situation that, while French Colo¬nial officials privately condemned what was ultimately the Colony’s raison d’etre, and if admitting the use of torture, turned their backs in distaste upon the torturer, these men of God shut their eyes to abuse, and would even accept gifts evidently designed to ensure their goodwill and perhaps cooperation. It should be emphasised that in the small conventional details of conduct, they were, like Brutus, honourable men; patterns of American small-town society, clean looking and clean living, hospitable, friendly and married to wives who might have been voted second most likely to succeed in whatever had been their particular collegiate class-year.
But one began to wonder whether a whole catalogue of easy, short- range virtues had not been outweighed by some gigantic, fundamental shortcoming – which might have been that they had added respectability to the three original virtues of Faith, Flope and Charity, and had made it greatest of the four. If unpleasant things like lynchings at home and torturings abroad happened, it was best to ignore them; most respectable to pretend they didn’t exist. To do otherwise would be to ‘meddle with politics’, a form of activity much disapproved of by Pontius Pilate. I repeat that the American evangelical missionaries were the happiest- looking people I have seen in my life.
It so happened that I soon found myself visiting the plantation whose director the missionaries had found so generous. Strangers in Indo¬china soon find out that the great plantations are thought of by the colonists as the principal showplaces the country has to offer; only slightly less spectacular, perhaps, than Mount Fuji from one of its accepted viewpoints, Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon. In actual fact I cannot conceive of anything less exciting, since in the ends of efficiency a plantation is governed by an order that is wearisome in the extreme. Usually only one type of bush or tree is cultivated and the fact that there may be hundreds of thousands or even millions of them does nothing in my opinion to lessen the tedium.
The plantation we visited had roads along which we did fifty miles an hour for mile after mile in a jeep, seeing nothing but dull, little bushes of absolutely uniform size and spacing. We were taken to a height from which there spread out beneath one a peerless landscape, across miles and miles of which it was as if a fine-tooth comb had been drawn, producing a monotonous warp of close-drawn lines. The director scorched along in his car through this vast and boring domain, showing us with pride the barrage he was building, designed to produce some fantastic kilowattage, and with sorrow the ruins of splendid, seignorial buildings that had been gutted by the Viet-Minh. There were three million tea plants and only a thousand coolies, which was a desperate state of affairs, the director said. They suffered, too, from the chronic idleness of the natives’ disposition. The government saw to it that they handled them with kid-gloves – they were paid a fixed rate of five piastres for a working day of twelve hours, plus 800 grammes of rice and an allowance of salt – but whatever was done for them they showed no signs of realising how well off they were.
At the plantation house we found why the official who took me to the plantation had been sent for. The Deputy with whom I had travelled up from Ban Methuot awaited him. There had been a little luncheon party in the Deputy’s honour, and the Deputy and the planters now got my friend in a corner and formed a ring round him, faintly menacing beneath the post-prandial geniality. In the meanwhile the lady of the house discussed literature. She had just been reading, in translation, Mr Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and found it too terribly depressing – quite the most depressing book she had ever read. Did British colonials really lead those awful existences? And, besides that, as ardent Catholics, both she and her husband did not know whether they approved of the theme. She sighed and looked round her, doubtless reassured, after Greene’s harrowing account of the bungaloid crudities of West Africa, by the infallible heritage of Latin civilisation in her surroundings.
Meanwhile voices at the other end of the room were raised. The Deputy was laying down the law. The plantation had to have more labour, and he had come up from Saigon to see that it got it. The local authority said that there was absolutely nothing to be done. Every avail¬able man had already been drained from the villages in the neighbourhood. If the villages were to survive an irreducible minimum of able-bodied men had to be left in them. The Deputy told him that three hundred more men were needed, and they were going to have them by hook or by crook. My friend pointed out that between military service and labour in the plantations they had practically exhausted the man¬power of the Jarai tribe. This gave the Deputy an idea. Military commitments up here in the plateaux were unimportant, he said. If necessary the three hundred men could be transferred from the Garde Montagnarde. It was at this point that the administrator gave up. Three hundred soldiers would be withdrawn from the forts and set to work picking tea-leaves at a time when enemy infiltrations were more frequent than ever before. Thus, assuming that it was in France’s interests to keep its hold in Indo-China, were the nation’s interests sacrificed to the short-term ambitions of a small, powerful group of its citizens.
Putting down the book which depressed her so much, the director’s wife had an idea. The perfect solution, she thought, would be if the government would allow them to employ the Chinese nationalist internees, who were being held in the Tonkinese camps, instead of leaving them there to eat their heads off in idleness. She was sure that the Chinese would be only too pleased to have the chance to work. All those present agreed with her, and the Deputy said that he would raise the matter in Saigon.
‘The plantation,’ said the administrator, on our way back, ‘will burn – and they know it. It is only a question of time. But before that happens they are determined to squeeze out the very last drop of blood.’