In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary




Isabella Bird portrait

We were going to make a video documentary about Isabella Bird’s 1879 travels through British Malaya. Unfortunately the Virus has defeated us. The repeated Movement Control Orders have now for a second time caused us to postpone the shoot. Perhaps this time it is postponed for good as we are moving to the UK at the end of 2021. So instead, I shall post a blog about various aspects of this story.

Isabella on elephant
Isabella in Perak

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see us trying out elephants in the elephant reserves or travelling up the rivers hunting crocodiles. Nor will you see us travel through the places Isabella visited and see how they have developed, or not as the case may be. Nor will you discover that many places of great historic interest still lurk amongst the modern towns, often ignored. Nor will you see me sweating in the heat and tramping through the mean streets of Klang or Taiping to the beat of background music supplied by some Royalty Free Music platform! Trust me, this is a great loss for humanity.


Lawrence and Helen filming The Hidden History of Johor Lama.

Retracing the footsteps of these historical journeys can enable us to discover a different perspective on the story to the one handed down to us in the texts. One discovers the local legends, rumours, and versions of stories that ancient chroniclers and modern academics have twisted to their purpose. Although video documentaries necessarily simplify and leave out complex analysis, one hopes one’s enthusiasm for discovery will encourage others to look beyond the propaganda and embrace the often-inconvenient nuances of the story.

So, what did I learn by doing the research for this project? As you shall see when I get onto telling the story, I learnt that running the British Empire was not for the faint hearted. I constantly had to ask myself, what did anyone get out of the experience? Administrators and soldiers died in droves, mostly from disease and heat stroke. And apparently the benefits for anyone were somewhat patchy. I also learnt that there was a certain inevitability about the whole process and that the fuel that drove the Imperial engine of the 19
th Century similarly drove it in the 10th Century. The parallels between the warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain and the Sultanates of Malaya kept popping into my head.

It is always dangerous to draw too many parallels in history but it does point to certain themes that emerge again and again. A quick glance at what is going on in Afghanistan today will present you with a picture that looks nigh on identical to a picture that one could find of Afghanistan when the British army was being chased out in the 1840’s.

The model of Imperial expansion seems to be as follows: firstly, there is the contact between two geographical areas with different people and cultures that provides business opportunities to both sides. Secondly, this closer contact leads to judgements being formed as to the moral values of the other, and in the wake of disputes, political pressure develops for the imposition of one set of rules of conduct. Thirdly, the collapse of a local power and the need for business to continue as before brings about a call for the restoration of law and order by those that significant local opinion concede have both military and moral strength.

How this break down of local powers occurs is multi-faceted. Maybe the stress of contact with an alien culture brings about social unrest, maybe other forces outside of the trading system causes the collapse, maybe luck, natural disasters, or the over-reliance upon a strong man who no longer has the strength to carry on. Whatever it is, with another powerful player in the region, such as the East India Company, any resulting political void will suck other nations in to look after their own interests and maybe those of the elites they do business with as well.

Although one can put history down to the pushes and pulls of inevitable geo-political forces, it is individuals who make the decisions and carry out the actions. Our intended documentary was to be about shining a light upon some of the personalities involved in what Isabella Bird, with more than a touch of irony, called a murky business conducted by “honourable men.”

I recommend that you order Isabella’s account of her journey and also Emily Innes’s account of her time in Malaya at the same period. The two books make for interesting comparisons of two different experiences.


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.

In the next blog I will tell you more about Isabella Bird and her mission in Malaya.

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.