In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Ten: The Selangor Civil War




The guns on the Dutch Fort at Kuala Selangor

In 1879 Isabella Bird came to Selangor on the Sultan's yacht and visited the Dutch Fort that protected the harbour.

“Selangor is a most wretched place - worse than Klang!” she wrote.

However, despite its then battered appearance, Isabella still found a Chinese gambling-den which she naturally had to visit. And, amidst the mud and slime, as she describes it, she discovered it too served champagne!

“A man living here would need many resources, great energy and an earnest desire to do his duty, in order to save him from complete degeneracy.”

We might also add, that a woman would also have a tough time staving off degeneracy. But Isabella was contemplating the character of Bloomfield Douglas, the British Resident, rather than her own penchant for champagne, gambling and hairy chested men.

What she was reacting to was a town of shanties that had not recovered from being soundly bombarded by the British Navy. How the British came to do this is, well, all part of that long and murky story that she alludes to.

Going back to 1870 we find Kudin was now in control and as far as the British were concerned, he was their sort of Malay. Well, at least he brushed his teeth! Raja Mahdi in Sumatra though rearmed, curiously via a British financier in Penang. And then Raja Mahdi launched an attack, only to find that the Sultan's forces, commanded by Sayyid Mashoor, a notorious Arab mercenary from Pontianak, Borneo, who had fought against the Brookes family in Sarawak, had decided to swap sides and join Raja Mahdi! And you did not want to get on the wrong side of Sayyid.


Sayid Mashur

Which is what Abdul Samad’s son, Raja Yakob, had done by killing Sayyid Mashoor’s brother in some argument, which had him drop the Sultan and join Raja Mahdi. So Abdul Samad, politician, decided to cut his losses and cut a deal with Mahdi allowing him to set up home in Kuala Selangor. Kudin, having lost his backer, ran for Singapore to talk to his lawyer.

As the fighting had caused mining operations to cease, there was not much in the way of revenue to be shared out and so income was supplemented by robbing Chinese junks and killing their passengers. In 1871 there was a particularly onerous pirate attack murdering men, women, children and crew of a Junk in the Straits of Malacca which incited the British Navy to arrive at Kuala Selangor.

They attempted to arrest people they suspected of being pirates, who were mostly Chinese, but ended up in a fire-fight with Mahdi’s men. Once they navy started bombarding the town, Mahdi fled, though not before his men slit the throat of a Malay girl and sprinkled her blood on the abandoned guns so that her vengeful spirit might injure the British.

Well, that's the version of the story that was sent back to the Colonial Office. One suspects that that story is a mangling of another story. In the fort there is a stone where supposedly an adulteress was beheaded and the red sap of the trees around there are supposed to be her blood.


The blood stone

Raja Mahdi wrote an indignant letter to the Colonial Office complaining how he and his family had permission from the Sultan to live peacefully in Kuala Selangor and how he had been trying to help the British arrest the pirates when they attacked his men, bombarded the fortress and chased him and his family into the surrounding jungles. He had had to leave behind everything and somebody, naming no names, robbed him of several thousand dollars! And then Kudin and his men miraculously turned up giving Mahdi no option but to run back to Sumatra!

The coincidence of Kudin’s presence, the arrival of the British navy, and the rather bloodthirsty elaboration of a sacrificial virgin does sound a little fishy. It gets even fishier when Kudin garrisons the place with Sikhs brought in from India. However, once the Navy had left, one of Mahdi's followers, Raja Haji, attacked with his men, killed the Sikhs and put the Sultan's son Raja Musa in charge!

Raja Musa is considered the more amiable of the sons, the other one, Raja Yakob, was thought to be behind the piracy and Yakob was no friend of Mahdi’s Arab ally, thus making it quite plausible that Mahdi actually was trying to arrest the pirates for the British!

Now of course, things get even murkier! Because, Raja Musa was in fact so amiable, that British fans in Singapore had sent him arms and provisions. Frankly, the British just couldn't tell their Musa from their Mahdi and one can see how the Colonial Office got very confused when trying to unravel what on earth had been going on!


Raja Mahdi

In the next blog, the plot thickens!


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.

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