In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Three: Arrival



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Victoria Docks, Singapore

Isabella travelled from the docks at Singapore to Melaka. The steamer she took was high-tech as far as the locals were concerned. Manpower and wind was still the order of the day in most places, so canoes and local “praus” with their rattan sails greeted her. Here and there Chinese junks and Bugis pinisi added to the colour of the place, though her overwhelming impression of it was that is was humid, somnambulant and, contradictorily, crowded with noisy Chinese coolies! And despite the Governor being forewarned of her arrival, she had a rather grumpy three-hour wait at the docks until she was finally picked up. One suspects that the British administration was in a certain amount of panic in finding suitable accommodation and an acceptable face to make a good impression.

Presently,” she said, “we were surrounded by a crowd of Malay boats with rude sails made of mats... By one of these I sent my card and note of introduction to the Lieutenant Governor. An hour afterward the captain told me the Governor usually went into the country early on Monday morning for two days. So I was left among a crowd of Chinamen to endure stifling heat and uncertainty, much aggravated by the want of food, for another three hours.

Melaka River

Melaka, or Malacca, was a town that she found to be enlivened only by the insufferable mosquitoes and the occasional tiger venturing into the streets to disturb the torpor.


She was put up at the Old Dutch Stadthaus that can still be seen at the centre of what is now Melaka’s tourist district. She said that it had “enough of solitude and faded stateliness to be fearsome, or at least eerie, to a solitary guest like myself, to whose imagination, in the long dark nights, creeping Malays or pilfering Chinamen are far more likely to present themselves than the stiff beauties and formal splendours of the heyday of Dutch ascendancy.”

However, the gardens in front of the Stadthaus, now part of the museum grounds featuring an antique train carriage among other items, were then pleasant and the Governor, Captain Shaw, and his family were very accommodating and entertained her at their rather more modest bungalow.

Captain Shaw,” she said, “who has been for many years Lieutenant Governor of Malacca is a fine, hearty, frank, merry, manly, Irish naval officer, well read and well informed, devoted to Malacca and its interests and withal a man of an especially unselfish, loving, tender nature.”

When Isabella met him, Captain Shaw had had eleven years ruling over a political hot house. Thousands of Malay refugees had rushed to Melaka's outskirts fleeing the anarchic wars that Chinese tin miners had plunged the Native States into. Captain Shaw summed up his job as persuading the Malays not to shoot Chinamen. This task had often threatened to overwhelm his meagre resources.

In the end though the mosquito proved too much for Captain Shaw, and he died of malaria a mere two months after Isabella met him. The mosquito you will find as you read this account despatched more Englishmen than any marauding native.



You can find these books either here:

or here:

All the quotations from Isabella’s book are by permission of the publisher.

If you are interested in finding out more for yourself, a great resource for researching these histories can be found at
and the
Singapore National Archives.

So, do not forget to SUBSCRIBE to the YouTube Channel where I shall announce each blog as it is posted. Also check out our other documentaries on The Hidden History of Johor Bahru and The Hidden History of Johor Lama. Those are documentaries that we actually finished!

And please come back here to continue reading the accounts of the various histories that we would have been covering in our documentary.

What I have done is that I have taken the script and turned it into various short blogs with various old photographs and illustrations.

The next blog explores more of Melaka's history.