In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Two: The Mission




Isabella Bird was a diminutive travel writer of the 1870’s who had found fame writing about her travels in Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains. Despite a stern and Victorian sense of appropriate lady-like behaviour, she developed a fondness for rugged frontiersmen and a somewhat eccentric dress sense. She liked to wear Turkish bloomers to facilitate riding horses and would stuff a wet towel down her back to combat the heat of the tropics. If she was to have a theme song, perhaps Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen conveys something of her demeanour and attitude, though it would be Mad Dogs and English Lady Travellers in her case.

After a journey through Japan, on her way home via Hong Kong and Singapore, she was told by British officials that she might like to take a look at the Native States of Malaya. Essentially these were Selangor, Perak, and Sungei Ujong which was part of Negeri Sembilan.

Selangor 1870s map

These states had recently been turned into British protectorates much against the will of even the British Government back in London, so one suspects that her visit was something of a semi-official inquiry into how on earth and why the British took over this unknown place?

Isabella said the following: “
Malaya is still somewhat of a terra incognito; there is no point on its mainland at which European steamers call and the usual conception of it is as a vast and malarious equatorial jungle sparsely populated by a race of semi-civilized treacherous Mohammedans.


Before one jumps to the “woke” conclusion that Isabella was some rabid racist perpetuating a myth of white supremacy, it is worth considering that her statement was an intention to explore and examine the “usual conception” rather than condone any of the underlying attitudes that created that conception. She does not necessarily escape from the general attitudes of her age, but she takes a more neutral stand on the whole notion of whether “modern” ideas, i.e. what we would now term “western”, were indeed superior to those emerging from within the context of a tropical land requiring little labour to support one’s basic needs.

Frank Swettenham, who later became Governor and Commander in Chief of the Straits Settlements said: “Malays do enough work to satisfy their needs, and nature is so bountiful that that is very little. They do not strive for riches, but they are probably as happy and contented as other people who regard life differently, and it is questionable whether we should deserve their thanks if we could teach them the tireless energy, the self-denying frugality of the Chinese. And for what?”

Indeed many of the British administrators felt little compulsion to interfere in “native” ways and much admired their practicality in such a climate. Given the chance, the British would stroll around their accommodation in a sarong rather than wear the buttoned up uniform of the colonial authority.

A Brit gone native! Note the beard. The Victorian Brits were all hipsters.

For that matter if one looks a little closer, the Imperial British relationship with the local population was often an intimate one producing more than a few scandals, and quite a scattering of British genes that is probably still greater than most would care to admit even nowadays.


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, Isabella arrives in Melaka!

If you haven't already, now watch the video and like, share, subscribe and hit the notification bell so that you can know when more videos are available. You might also like to subscribe to my twitter feed at: @LawrenceWGray where I notify you of any new blogs or even blogs about the vlogs or is that vlogs about blogs? And don't forget to have a look at as well for even more information about Malaysia, among other places.