In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Six: Restless Natives




Sungei Ujong was part of Negeri Sembilan, a state founded by settlers from Minangkabau in Sumatra. Originally there were nine clans that shared a common dialect and culture, with a love of pointy roofs and a matrilineal succession of land-ownership, which probably underlies a tendency for local places in the peninsula to be named after various widows. The Minangkabau were once the fierce supporters of Raja Kecil, who in 1718 challenged the Bendahara dynasty of Johor for the right to rule. He was eventually defeated by a coalition of the Bendahara and the Bugis. On the death of his favourite wife, Raja Kecil lapsed into debilitating melancholia and took to sleeping beside her tomb. And the Bugis and Minangkabau, even by 1879 were not on speaking terms.

Bugis Pirate looking very cool and Bugis armour in Kota Ngah Ibrahim

By 1879 Negeri Sembilan had evolved a complicated system of rulers with a chief of chiefs, that is the Yam Tuan, based in the town of Sri Menanti. The Yam Tuan claimed precedence over the Dato Klana, essentially Clan Chief, and thus the mining rights of Sungei Ujong were not exactly the Dato Klana’s to do with whatever he willed.

Isabella appears to have been only vaguely aware of this history, though was rather at pains to explain that those who were called “pirates” were perhaps less pirate and more like Customs Officials enforcing tolls on the use of their part of the river. Granted, that prices seemed to double if you were Chinese, and killing the odd Chinese who refused to co-operate was not uncommon, but she had probably been reading The Straits Times and picked up their lack of sympathy for the Chinese operators in the region.

Many of the British writerly residents in Malaya had a romantic affinity for Malay culture, and little affinity for the raucous Chinese coolie and his penchant for opium, gambling and, whenever they could, getting into fights over women in brothels. That element of modernity most decidedly did not display the Christian Virtues that Isabella considered the hallmark of civilisation.


Isabella travelled north from Melaka along the coast to the mouth of the Linggi River and landed at a fork in the river called Sempang where there was a remote police station on the border between British territory and Sungei Ujong. Here they took on fresh water for the rest of the journey. She described the place as follows:

The Rassa police station is a four roomed shelter, roofed with attap, a thatch made of the fronds of the nipah palm, supported on high posts and reached by a ladder. In this four Malay policemen and a corporal have dwelt for three years to keep down piracy.”

The Rassa Police Station at Pasir Permatang

Police stations were the first things the British built when they took over territory in Malaya. It is worth noting that only five rather sleepy policemen were needed to keep pirates in check. This perhaps indicates the thoroughness of Captain De Fontaine's village burnings, as mentioned in the previous blog, and why things got a bit intense when Isabella arrived at Pasir Permatang, a market town where the river traders gathered to buy and sell. Here she found the male members of that village waiting for Captain Hayward and his entourage to arrive at the jetty. They had gathered to see a white woman travelling with two English girls, the daughters of the Governor of Melaka no less!

They were a sombre-faced throng, with an aloofness of manner and expression far from pleasing. The thatched piers were crowded with turbaned Mussulmen in their bajus or short jackets, full white trousers, and red sarongs or plaitless kilts, the boys dressed in silver fig-leaves and silver bangles only. All looked at our unveiled faces silently, and, as I thought, disapprovingly."

This was a trading settlement with a lot of resentful inhabitants. Business was no doubt better when they could supplement their income with a bit of toll collecting.

They don't look that bad! Not a bit piraty at all!

Isabella and her party were supposed to be carried by sedan chairs through the jungles to a road where they were to be met by the British Resident, but the locals refused to do so. Their excuses were that there were owls in the jungle and that the carriers would run away and abandon the women. Owls were apparently associated with bad spirits.

Captain Hayward sensed that it would be safer for them to go further up river to try get to the road. As they tried to negotiate a boat to help their escape, the locals, as if to prove Captain Hayward’s point, then beat up their servants. However, as Isabella writes, “Mr Hayward had knowledge of the peculiarities of the Malay Character...

One can hear Captain Hayward loading his rifle at that point. But even when Captain Hayward managed to procure a boat, the girls were now protesting that they were too sick to move and wanted to stay the night in the police station. It conveniently had a couple of canon at the entrance and a wall full of guns, perhaps evoking a certain amount confidence in their safety. However, the local police, despite ostensibly being under the control of Captain Hayward, did not fill him full of confidence and he was determined that his charges should not dwell there too long.

Heretofore, I have always travelled without encumbrance,” said Isabella, uncharacteristically annoyed, “Is it treasonable to feel at this moment that these fair girls are one?

Captain Hayward rescued the situation by producing a bottle of whisky and poured it into the girls, thus rendering them into a state where they could not refuse anything.


Captain Hayward always carried a flask of whisky, strictly for medicinal purposes, especially when transporting young ladies on dangerous journeys.

A boat and crew were requisitioned. And after carrying the girls onto the boat in a state that they were probably not very accustomed to, they continued into the heart of darkness with: “Mr Hayward sat, vigilant and lynx-eyed, at the edge of the boat. “


He did this for eighteen hours, gun at the ready, just in case. Though given the narrow and twisty turns of the river, the gun was perhaps more aimed at crocodiles than natives as the boat kept running aground and the crew had to keep getting out to free it. One can now take a day trip up the river without all the inconveniences but it nearly proved too much for the teenage girls who screamed all night thinking that they saw tiger-eyes gleaming in the mangroves. Isabella said she simply hunkered down and went to sleep, or would have slept if the girls had not kept waking her to tell her of the next alarming incident.

The next Blog takes us to Seremban where we meet Captain Murray, the British Resident of Sungei Ujong.


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.

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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.

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