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An Unknown Hand

An Unknown Hand

An Unsolved Murder in Colonial Malaya

The biggest Christian cemetery on Penang Island is Western Road Cemetery and includes graves of Commonwealth servicemen and police officers killed during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). Their headstones are a standard design but in the same section is the grander tomb of John St Maur Ramsden who:


                                                      DIED BY GUNSHOT FROM AN UNKNOWN HAND

                                                            AT CALEDONIA – PROVINCE WELLESLEY

                                                                                   JUNE 8th 1948


The coroner’s findings were:

‘Shot by an unknown person with a double barrel gun…There is no evidence against any particular person.’

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Malaysia’s Penang state consists of Penang Island location of the capital George Town and Seberang Perai, formerly Province Wellesley, on the Malay Peninsula. By 1915 the Ramsden family controlled over 55,000 acres of rubber plantations in the Nibong Tebal area.

John Ramsden was the eldest son of Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as Chops. Chops’ father inherited his baronetcy, two Yorkshire country estates, virtually the whole of Huddersfield and in 1874 acquired title to a Malayan sugar plantation. Caledonia was one of the first plantations to shift from cultivation of sugar to rubber which became Malaya’s principal export crop.

Chops (2)

Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as ‘Chops’. He had a strong attachment to his estates in Kenya but never visited Malaya entrusting John to oversee their reconstruction. Within a few years of John’s murder he liquidated all his Malayan companies.

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The Big House, Caledonia plantation was built in 1917 for the General Manager at the time. It is often called the 99 doors mansion although this name was not in use at the time.


On the evening of June 8th 1948 John Ramsden, Managing Director of the Penang Rubber Estates Group, was shot twice in the back of his head as he walked upstairs. The Tamil estate watchman and three Malays heard a shot and found his body slumped behind the stairs. Hunter Crawford, manager of the neighbouring Byram Estate, also heard the gunshots and rushed to the scene. A fluent Malay speaker he took charge and immediately contacted Nibong Tebal police station.

Crawford was a pre-war rubber planter who had worked with John since 1946 to restore buildings and replant fields damaged during the Japanese occupation. Captured by the Japanese he had been interned on Sumatra and resumed his career after the war.

In England at 9.45am on June 9th a message was brought to Chops at Muncaster in Cumbria where the family seat had been moved from Yorkshire in 1917. The Associated Press had rung up with the news that John had had an accident and they wanted to speak to his wife. The story made the front page of the London evening newspapers describing the deceased as: ‘heir to Sir John Ramsden – England’s richest baronet’.


The main staircase. At the time of his death John Ramsden was living alone and it would have been easy for the murderer to enter and flee the scene.

Wachaines (3)In charge of the investigation was William Arthur Campion Haines, Chief Police Officer of Penang & Province Wellesley. Born in 1899, Haines joined the Malayan Police after service in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One. When the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941 he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force, captured by the Japanese, and interned in Changi.  He retired in 1950 and before his death in 1991 submitted his memoirs: ‘A Time to Remember (1920-1950)’ to King’s College London.

For an old Malayan hand like Haines the Ramsden killing was straightforward albeit sensitive due to the victim’s background. Reporting directly to the Commissioner of Police in Kuala Lumpur he was under pressure to provide answers to Sir Edward Gent and the Colonial Office in London.

Search of the crime scene found two spent 16 bore shotgun cartridges under a hedge outside the house and the murder weapon was identified as belonging to a Malay who kept it in the victim’s bungalow. Finding his shotgun missing he reported the loss to police on the evening of the 9th. Whether the killing was pre-planned or in the heat of the moment was not established. At the coroner’s inquest Dr. Loudernernam gave evidence that Ramsden sustained the fatal injury from a pellet hitting the back of his skull.

The police moved quickly with six Malays and Javanese detained for questioning on June 9th. Regarding the motive Haines felt confident enough to brief the local press in time for their morning editions on the 10th:

‘We are satisfied that the murder is not connected with assassinations of employers in other parts of Malaya and does not come within that category of murder.’

He added that the motive was obscure but it was not connected with any recent trouble on the estate. The body was brought to Penang mortuary and on June 10th John Ramsden was buried at Penang’s Western Road Cemetery.

The Straits Times 10th June 1948 duly reported under the heading: ‘Director Killed at Home’:

‘Political motives are not suspected in the murder of Mr. J. St. M. Ramsden.’

When their 48 hours detention was up four of the suspects were released but police enquiries against the other two were ongoing. Granting bail ran the risk of them absconding so holding charges were laid and further detention ordered by the magistrate. Ramsden’s driver Embi Bin Hashim, 27, described in the press as his ‘Head Boy’, was charged with ‘Illegal Possession of Ammunition’. On 17th September he was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment but immediately released, the sentence dating from his arrest on June 9th. He pleaded guilty and his counsel told the District Judge Mr. Fletcher Rogers in Nibong Tebal Court that Mr. Ramsden had given him the ammunition.

ZAINRAMJANA charge of ‘Murder’ was laid against Mohammad Zain bin Ramjan, a local plantation worker. In the absence of a confession or eye witness any case against him relied on circumstantial evidence.

On August 28th he was discharged by Magistrate Mr. Tai Hooi Soo. Inspector Jagir Singh said his instructions were that the discharge was not an acquittal and he was ordered to be detained until after the coroner’s inquiry three days later.

On September 1st 1948 Zain bin Ramjan was asked to try on two pairs of shoes in court whilst giving evidence at the inquiry. They were produced by the head of Penang C.I.D. Mr P.H.D. Jackson who said one pair was found near the murder scene. He admitted the first pair belonged to him the other did not. The witness suggested his shoes had been planted there by someone who had a grudge against him. He denied he had been dismissed by Mr. Ramsden and on the night in question was at his cousin’s house in Bukit Mertajam. In evidence he said:

‘I do not know of anyone bearing sufficient grudge against Mr. Ramsden to shoot him.’

The inquest concluded on 3rd September 1948 and with it all legal proceedings regarding the death of John Ramsden.


Within a week after his funeral three European estate managers were murdered by Chinese gunmen at Sungei Siput in neighbouring Perak state. On the Elphil Estate two Chinese rode up on bicycles to Mr Walker’s office and shot him with pistols from a door and a window. At the Phin Soon Estate twelve Chinese armed with sten guns and revolvers tied up Mr. Allison and Mr. Christian before shooting them in a back office. In response The High Commissioner was forced to declare a nationwide state of emergency. Regarded as the start of the Malayan Emergency trouble had been brewing since 1945 with the growth of trade union movements and rise in communist party membership leading to widespread strikes between 1946-1948. Veterans of the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army retrieved weapons from hiding and the decision for armed conflict had been taken before shots were fired at Sungei Siput on June 16th 1948.


Headline story on the Sungei Siput murders, Morning Tribune June 17th 1948.

The political situation in Malaya was tense and in a House of Commons statement on June 12th 1948 Mr David Rees-Williams, Under-Secretary for the Colonies said extremists were trying to upset the economy of Malaya. Commenting in parliament on the Ramsden murder he said that in recent weeks there had been at least 13 serious incidents including 10 murders and three attacks on European estate managers.

Despite the police discounting political motives John Ramsden’s murder became conflated with the communist insurgency.

In a House of Lords debate on June 16th Lord Ailwyn asked:

‘My Lords I beg leave to ask His Majesty’s Government the question which stands in my name on the Order Paper –

‘To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they are now in position to make a full statement regarding the murder of Mr. John Ramsden in Malaya on June 8th?’

The Earl of Listowel replied in part:

‘A preliminary report from the High Commissioner.. stated that the police were satisfied that this murder was not connected with the recent wave of politically motivated crimes.’

Earl Howe:

‘May I ask the noble Earl if he is aware that in the broadcast news at one o’clock today there was a report that three more rubber planters in Malaya had been done to death?’

At the start of the ‘Emergency’ there were around a thousand European planters in Malaya, mainly British, who along with the police suffered a disproportionate number of casualties.

Murder is only a mystery if the motive and killer are unknown and John’s death was largely forgotten until recently. In footnotes and references it was noted that he had been gunned down by communist terrorists.

The diaries of Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, the conservative politician notes that he was:

 ‘killed in Penang during the Malayan Emergency.’

Internet genealogical sites including Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage record that he: ‘fought in the Malayan Emergency’ and was: ‘assassinated’.

No evidence was ever produced that John Ramsden was killed by communist terrorists.


Published in 2017 Meriel Buxton’s ‘Poverty is Relative’ tells the story of Sir John William Ramsden (1831-1914) his son Sir John Frecheville Ramsden and their relationship with Huddersfield. Related by marriage she was invited by Chops’ grandson Andrew Feilden to write the book.

John St Maur Ramsden was born in London on April 26th 1902 and educated at Eton and Cambridge. At university in the 1920s he was part of an aristocratic set dubbed ‘The Bright Young Things’ by the tabloid press. This group of young socialites including Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton and the Mitford sisters were famous for their fancy dress parties and scandalous stories of drinking and drug taking. The society photographer Cecil Beaton began his career documenting their activities.

Hugo Vickers in his ‘Cecil Beaton; The authorised Biography’ described one of Beaton’s parties:

‘On the last day of October 1925 he attended a wild fancy-dress party in Cambridge given by his Harrow friend Jack Gold. Jack had got into what Cecil thought a ‘select set’ including Sir Richard Sykes, Maurice Bridgeman, John Ramsden, Philip Dunn and Lord Charles Cavendish. For the party Cecil put on a pink chiffon and a bustle drinking champagne and cocktails.’

Vickers quotes from Beaton’s diaries:

If I had been sober I should have paid more attention to the silly Ramsden. He is so smart and dances with the Duchess of York. I was so tight and pleased with myself…I was in a state rushing with Philip Dunn and John Ramsden after me from one couch to another and then falling over a sofa and being smothered with kisses from Philip Dunn and John Ramsden saying, ‘Oh Philip, I shall never speak to you again. Oh Cecil, Oh Cecil I thought your shingle was too marvellous…’

Vickers notes:

‘All these men later married and most of them undertook respectable occupations…. John Ramsden…was assassinated in Malaya in June 1948.’

Buxton concludes that he was probably bisexual and found the pressures on him to marry and produce an heir deeply disturbing. In 1935 John Ramsden married Lady Catherine Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (1906-1996) and their daughter Carola was born in 1938. They were divorced in 1947 and he had returned to Malaya from home leave in England three months before his murder.


John St. Maur Ramsden (Source: Photos provided by the family are included in Meriel Buxton’s book ‘Poverty is Relative’. 

Buxton’s research didn’t include Malaysia but in the same year Lynn Hollen Lees Professor of History Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania published: ‘Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects, British Malaya, 1786-1941’. She describes the social hierarchy and working conditions with John Ramsden’s death and liquidation of the Penang Rubber Estates Group providing a dramatic conclusion.

Professor Lees conducted site visits and oral interviews with surviving plantation workers including one witness who remembered Ramsden. A Tamil lady Muniammah, who worked on the Caledonia plantation in the 1940s, was living in a corner of the abandoned mansion. She remembered John as a nice man who was kind to the estate children and described a private golf course and airfield adjoining the big house. She spoke of a Malay woman who lived as his mistress and a brother working as his driver who resented their liaison. Others said Ramsden was gay and only employed young, handsome Malay houseboys, the sort who had been arrested by the police.

To a modern reader John Ramsden’s sexual orientation would be irrelevant the emphasis more on colonial exploitation or abuse of  position. In an age when homosexuality was illegal the threat of blackmail was enough to ensure family secrets were honoured. The inscriptions chosen by his parents for John’s tomb are telling; a son and heir cruelly gunned down for no reason with his honourable war service recorded on the other panel:

                                                                  JOHN SAINT MAUR RAMSDEN

                                                         SERVED IN THE GREAT WAR 1939-1945

                                                               FIRST IN THE ROYAL AIR FORCE

                                                                    LATER IN THE ROYAL NAVY

                                                              ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC PATROL

                                                              AND AFTERWARDS IN THE PACIFIC

                                                          PRESENT AT THE SURRENDER OF JAPAN

                                                                LIEUTENANT R.N.V.R ON BOARD

                                                                         H.M.S. INDEFATIGABLE


St. George’s Anglican church, George Town, Penang completed in 1818.

In addition to John’s grave there is also a large screen behind the altar of St. George’s Church in George Town. A tiny brass plaque in Latin at the bottom reads in translation:

‘To the greater glory of god and in memory of their beloved son cruelly murdered at Province Wellesley, John Ramsden Baronet and his wife Joan, his parents, have dedicated this monument 1952.’

The inconspicuous plaque, in a classical language only understood by a small number of colonial officials doesn’t even mention their son’s name. The church won’t allow viewing or photography of the plaque.


The Caledonia plantation was converted into a palm oil estate in the 1960s. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council have pushed for the mansion’s conservation but without success as it sits on private land. Most bloggers are interested in it only as a backdrop for haunted house stories.

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Western Road Cemetery on Penang Island. The first time I learnt about the murder of John Saint Maur Ramsden was when visiting the grave of Charles Nevill Godwin, the most senior police officer killed in Malaya. The mysterious inscription caught my interest and before searching the internet I’d jumped to the obvious conclusions: aristocrat, remittance man, black sheep of the family, first European victim of the Malayan Emergency.  


Poverty is Relative (2017) Meriel Buxton

Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786-1941 (2017) Lynn Hollen Lees

Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography (1985) Hugo Vickers

‘Director Killed at Home’ The Straits Times 10th June 1948

‘Estate Manager Shot Dead on Staircase’ Morning Tribune 10th  June 1948

‘Funeral of Mr. Ramsden’ The Straits Times 11th June 1948

‘Murder Charge’ The Straits Times 10th July 1948

‘Mr. Ramsden: No Charge’ The Straits Times 28th August 1948

‘Ramsden Killing: Story of Bungalow Shot’ The Straits Times 31st August 1948

‘Witness Told To Try On Shoes In Court’ The Straits Times 1st September 1948

‘Ramsden Inquest Finishes’ The Straits Times 3rd September 1948

‘Head Boy Gaoled’ The Straits Times 17th September 1948

Penang Heritage Trust Newsletter Issue No. 101 / April 2012, ‘Mystery of Rubber Estate Manager’s Murder’, Leslie A.K. James

Hemingway in Manila

Hemingway in Manila

Hemingway enjoying his Asian tour.

In November 1940, two months after publication of his Spanish Civil War novel: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, American author Ernest Hemingway married his third wife war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Paramount Studios paid him $100,000 for the movie rights and announced that film star Gary Cooper would play the leading role.

At the height of his fame Hemingway agreed to accompany his wife on assignment for Colliers Magazine to cover the Sino-Japanese war. Years later in: ‘Travels with Myself and Another’ Gellhorn wrote about: ‘the horror journeys’ of her life including what Hemingway called their honeymoon trip to China in 1941.

According to Peter Moreira’s: ‘Hemingway on the China FrontHis World War II Spy Mission with Martha Gellhorn’, they went to China:

‘surreptitiously gathering intelligence for the (US) government.’

Hemingway’s  mission was to gather information on relations between Mao Tse-tung’s communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists.

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Clipping from Austin American-Statesman January 31st 1941.

On February 1st 1941 the couple set sail from San Francisco to Honolulu aboard the luxury liner SS Matsonia. After Hawaii they took Pan Am’s China Clipper flying boat service to Hong Kong via Guam with a longer stop-over in Manila. Hemingway stayed in Manila again on his return journey but apart from its climate the sweltering capital didn’t make any lasting impression on the famous writer. In Hemingway’s fiction and journalism no reference of any importance is made to the Philippines. By contrast his visit was eagerly reported in the local press.

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Postcard of the Matson Lines Luxury Liner Matsonia. 

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The China Clipper in Paradise by David Ferris.

Arriving at the Manila Hotel he was mobbed by admiring Filipino journalists and authors from the Philippine Writers League who faithfully transcribed his every utterance.

The Official Gazette, official journal of the Republic of the Philippines, has the following entry in their ‘History from Day to Day’ column, Philippine Magazine 38 (April 1941):

Feb 21 – Ernest Hemingway, celebrated novelist, and wife arrive in Manila by Clipper, in message to Philippine Writers League he states:

‘I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly’.


Ernest Hemingway was greeted in Manila by F. Mangahas, President of the Philippine Writer’s League and Amando G. Dayrit.  ‘Al’ Valencia in dark glasses. (photo from Philippines Magazine, Volume 1, No.4 1941).

Six feet tall and weighing in at 225 pounds Hemingway towered above the diminutive Filipinos. Throughout his life he enjoyed the finest food and drink and in later years suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure with his weight peaking at 260. In his posthumously published novel about expat life in Paris: ‘A Moveable Feast’ he described hunger as: ‘good discipline’ becoming a metaphor for literary success. Hemingway’s impoverished life as a young man in Paris created a deep desire to experience life and channel this experience as a creative force in his writing.


Philippine journalist and wartime correspondent ‘Al’ Valencia met Hemingway for drinks at the Manila Hotel. When his home in Manila was destroyed during the war he lost everything but saved his autographed copy of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. (Source: Gina Wileman)

Hemingway Nestor

Hemingway signing a book for a young Filipino writer named Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (From the Facebook page of Nestor’s daughter).

The welcoming committee were struck by Hemingway’s courtesy towards his fellow writers and throughout the author’s stay he was happy to autograph his new book. Even when presented with copies pirated in Shanghai, for which he received no royalty, he just grinned and autographed it.

Hemingway told them:

‘That you should write at all (and so well) in this intense heat makes your achievement truly marvelous. You should do all your important writing before six o’clock in the morning.’

At home in Cuba his schedule was to write every morning as soon as possible after first light when it was still cool and there was no one around to disturb him.


Hemingway’s writing has been mined for quotes on everything from life to love to war and writing. The Manila Hotel still dines out on one of the big man’s less inspired utterances: ‘If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.’

The Manila Hotel was opened in 1912 on reclaimed land along the former Malecon a famous seafront beauty spot. In the lobby was the Pan Am office where Clipper passengers made reservations and dropped off luggage. As Manila Bay was considered too rough for flying boat landings the Clipper was moored eight miles south of the city at Cavite Naval Base.

Today the hotel is opposite what remains of the historic walled city of Intramuros founded by the Spanish in 1571. The moats were later filled in by American town planners turning them into sunken gardens and a public golf course.

There are several paragraphs about Hemingway’s last night in Manila in the June 1941 issue of the American Chamber of Commerce Journal. Published under the heading: ‘Just Little Things’, a column of anecdotes and business talk, the article bears no by-line but may have been written by the journal’s editor Walter Robb.

Much of Hemingway’s time was spent with old Basque friends from Pamplona, Havana and New York hanging out at the fourth floor Sky Room of the Manila Jai Alai Building on Taft Avenue. The Basque people originated from the mountainous region of northern Spain, which he famously called:

‘the country that I loved more than any other except my own,’

Spain provided the inspiration and setting for his major works including: The Sun Also Rises (1926), Death in the Afternoon (1932) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The author was the most prominent foreigner amongst the writers and journalists who sided with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War making it problematic for him to visit after the victory of General Franco’s Nationalists in  1939. Hemingway moved to Cuba the same year living there for 22 years, longer than any place in his life.

‘Three hundred years in a convent and fifty in Hollywood’  – is a shorthand for the Philippines colonial experience;  governed by Spain from 1565 to 1898 and then America from 1898 to 1946.

To the English writer Aldous Huxley writing in the 1930’s the Philippines was unlike any other country in the Orient:

‘It is Spain – diluted, indeed, distorted, and overlaid with Americanism.’


The Jai Alai fronton.

Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting and deep sea fishing, sports that became recurring themes in his fiction. Although his Manila sojourn was too short to enjoy either he was an enthusiastic spectator at the jai alai fronton. Jai alai (Pronounced ‘HY+UH+LY’) involves bouncing a ball called a pelota off a walled in space or fronton using a hand-held wicker basket known as a cesta. The game originated in the Basque region. Dubbed the fastest sport in the world it was also extremely dangerous. Played originally without helmets so the crowd could see the player’s expressions smashed teeth were common and sometimes death.

Jai Alai Skyroom.jpeg

Before World War 2 the Manila Jai Alai Building was considered the finest art deco building in Asia. After the sport was banned in 1986 because of game fixing and murder it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2000.

On Hemingway’s final night he had to leave the Manila Hotel at 2am to catch the China Clipper but at midnight was still drinking in the Sky Room. One of the Basques took him back, helped him pack and together they sang folk songs all the way to Cavite. Hemingway just made his flight to Hong Kong.

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The walled city of Intramuros, Manila. (Image copyright: Justin James Wright)

Pre-war Intramuros was famous for its places of worship known as the Seven Churches of Intramuros an allusion to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Most were destroyed during the battle for Manila in 1945. One of the most distinctive with its tall bell tower was the San Nicolas Tolentino Church of the Augustinian Recollects. The Augustinian Recollects are a catholic religious order of friars and nuns who came to the Philippines from the Basque region of Spain in 1606. After the war the ruins of San Nicolas remained standing, until it was demolished in 1959.

Hemingway took time to visit these priests who he admired from his time in Spain. He told his interviewer that men:

‘don’t come any better in any package.’

One of the fathers presented him with a suitable gift – a bottle of 80 years old Napoleon brandy.

Ernest Hemingway grew up a Protestant in Oak Park Chicago but converted to Catholicism when he married his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. He later told Gary Cooper that becoming a Catholic was one of the best things he’d done in his life.

At his funeral in 1961 there was no formal Catholic service. Whether his death was an accident or suicide by shotgun was undecided at the time but had no bearing on the funeral. The fact that Hemingway had been divorced barred him from a Catholic Church funeral.

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Hemingway & Gellhorn arrive in Hong Kong, South China Morning Post.

Hemingway was still on good form when he arrived in Hong Kong on February 22nd. Holding court  at the bar of the Hong Kong Hotel he boasted to one reporter about his book sales:

‘Drink up, drink up, I’m in the money,’

Gellhorn, unimpressed and largely ignored went out to do some serious reporting on Hong Kong’s social condition. Eventually tired of her husband’s ‘loafing’ she persuaded him to move to the Repulse Bay Hotel on the south of the island for some rest before their trip to China. She had been eager to visit China since childhood but Hemingway had little interest. He had not he said spent his formative years:

‘stuffing his imagination with Fu Manchu and Somerset Maugham,’

The couple travelled to Chongqing, Chengdu and Shanghai meeting Chiang Kai-shek, his wife Soong Mei-ling and Zhou Enlai but the trip was physically demanding. They endured dangerous flights, travel by mule, bedbugs and Gellhorn suffering from ‘China rot’ that caused the skin between her fingers to ooze puss. Hemingway moaned constantly. In her memoirs, she refers to him as Unwilling Companion, or U.C. for short. He only seemed to come alive when challenged to a drinking competition by a group of Chinese generals.

Gellhorn soon lost all her illusions, disappointed by the lack of vigour with which the war was was being waged against the Japanese and appalled by the squalor, the corruption and the deep social divisions:

‘An overlord class and tens of millions of expendable slaves was how China looked to me,’ 

Hemingway travelled home alone while Gellhorn flew on to Burma, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. He was still in a sour mood when seen off from Hong Kong on May 6th. The Clipper was crowded and he was not looking forward to the flight to Manila, to Guam, to Wake Island, to Midway, to Hawaii.

According to Moreira Hemingway couldn’t stand Manila and spent five nights there drunk and miserable:

‘He described the city as a place where people didn’t ask for someone at a hotel desk; they just asked a houseboy where the room was and barged in. He was getting sick of people talking to him about For Whom the Bell Tolls…and he was tired of answering questions about it.’

To escape ‘the dreariness’ of Manila Hemingway accepted an invitation from local flyer George Rowe to fly to Baguio known as the ‘Summer Capital of the Philippines’ because of its altitude and cool climate.

On May 11th he attended a dinner by the Philippine Writer’s Association. Carlos Baker in his official biography of Hemingway wrote:

‘everyone’s attempt to be gaily informal bored him so much that he got too drunk to care….

In Manila Hemingway made a few more notes and explored some of the Spanish bars of Intramuros. Otherwise his sole gain from the Philippine stopover was a good short summer haircut.’

He became short tempered with journalists when reporters asked him what was happening in China shouting at them that if they wanted to find out they should go for themselves. Hemingway did however pay attention to local news being so moved by a huge fire in Tondo that he donated 500 pesos to a fund for the victims. Tondo remains a notorious slum area still prone to fires today.

Manila’s coat of arms incorporates the waves of Manila Bay surmounted by a sea-lion and a pearl in its shell. The sea-lion represented the islands’ former status as a Spanish colony whilst the upper portion references the city’s nickname – ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Pre-war Manila was far from dreary it’s culture closer in atmosphere to Havana than to Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore. There were no high-rise buildings, it was clean, the water was safe and crime practically non-existent The city’s total population was around six hundred thousand, a tenth of present day Metro Manila.

In a region of colonies the Philippines was unique in having an assurance of independence. The islands had been granted Commonwealth status in 1935 with full independence scheduled in 1946. High society was dominated by old established families but a colonial mentality persisted conjured by the phrase ‘Manila Americans.’ According to a 1939 census, excluding the military, there were only 8,709 Americans resident in the Philippines with 5,149 living in Manila and the neighbouring province.

Florence Horn’s 1941 travelogue – ‘Orphans of the Pacific’  had this to say about the American community:

‘Americans in Manila are like Americans in Mexico City and Americans in Maracaibo and Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro. They build for themselves a barricaded American life wherever they are. They insulate themselves as thoroughly as possible against the life of the country they are in. . . They grouse continually about petty inconveniences, and berate this miserable native bitterly and endlessly … The American women heartily despise the Filipinos.’

Manila with its tropical lifestyle, similarity to Havana and expatriate American community should have been Hemingway’s kind of town. The city was the same, what had changed during his three month’s tour was Hemingway’s mood. He later referred to his Asian journey as: ‘that unshakeable hangover’.

In 2006 Dr. Christopher D. Martin, a psychiatrist, published a study on Hemingway’s mental health history finding significant evidence that he presented symptoms of bipolar disorder, possible borderline and narcissistic personality traits exacerbated by a lifetime of alcoholism along with a genetic predisposition towards mental illness.

When the United States entered World War 2 Hemingway was at home in Cuba. He armed his boat the Pilar with tommy guns and grenades supplied by the Office of Naval Intelligence before setting out on anti-submarine patrols. Thinking that a German submarine would come close to barter or steal fish his crew of Basque jai alai players would lob hand grenades down the conning tower of the submarine and open fire with machine guns. They never encountered any submarines. Gellhorn unimpressed saw it as an excuse to go drinking and fishing with his crew and promptly left to cover the real war in Europe.

In 1945 the couple were divorced Gellhorn famously stating that she didn’t want to become a footnote in someone else’s life.


Hemingway’s 1937 novel: ‘To Have and Have Not’ set in Key West and Cuba was the template for countless books and movies about a tough guy on a boat. In 1952 Warner Bros. released ‘Mara Maru’  starring Errol Flynn and Ruth Roman. Flynn played an ex-PT boat commander running a salvage business in Manila and hunting for sunken treasure.

Maramaru (3)


Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, (1969), Carlos Baker

Travels with Myself and Another. New York: Penguin, (2001), Martha Gellhorn

Orphans of the Pacific, (1941), Florence Horn

Language of the Street and other Essays, (1980), Nick Joaquin

Ernest Hemingway: How Mental Illness Plagued the Writer and His Family, Barbara Maranzani, April 2 2021,

Hemingway on the China Front – His World War II Spy Mission with Martha Gellhorn, (2006), Peter Moreira

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, (2017), Nicholas Reynolds

Ernest Hemingway and my Grandfather: An Enduring Friendship, Gina Wileman,

‘Just Little Things’, June 1941 issue of the American Chamber of Commerce Journal

The American Minority in the Philippines During the Pre-War Commonwealth Period, Gerald E. Wheeler, Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia

‘Glory Days’ published in the November 2007 issue of Tatler Philippines

‘In love and war: a Hong Kong honeymoon for Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’, Stuart Heaver, South China Morning Post Magazine, October 12th 2019