In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Eighteen: Heavenly Peace




If you head up the Teluk River nowadays you will find a rather grubby wasteland darkened by a mix of charcoal factories and boat building enterprises. It is probably not too dissimilar to what Isabella found when she arrived here.

She said,
“We reached Teluk Kartang with a pier, a long shed, two or three huts, and some officialism, white and partly white, all in a dismal swamp.”

She then followed the Larut River into the town called Tai Ping. This place used to be called Larut. A mere five years before, in 1874, it had been the site of the disastrously bloody conflict between the Hai San and the Ghi Hing Chinese societies. They fought vicious wars over tin, gambling and girls, but of course by the time Isabella visited the town, it was supposed to be safe and peaceful. In fact its name, Tai Ping is Chinese for Heavenly Peace.

“The first thing I heard when arriving here,” Isabella wrote, “was that a Chinese gang had waylaid a revenue officer in one of the narrow creeks, and that his hacked and mutilated body had drifted down to Permatang this morning.”


One of the sites that Isabella saw that can still be seen today is Ngah Ibrahim’s house. When she arrived, Ngah Ibrahim had already been banished to the Seychelles along with Sultan Abdullah and his family. And if you are going to be banished somewhere, the Seychelles is probably not such a bad place. Ngah Ibrahim’s family however were left behind to fend for themselves.

Isabella wrote,
“There were two very large two storied Malay houses in some disrepair, in which the wife of the banished Mentri of Larut lives, with a number of slaves.”

One assumes that these were the only two houses that had been left standing after the wars had burnt everything else down leaving as many as three thousand dead. Taiping had not seen much heavenly peace.


Captain Speedy in Abyssinian dress.

Larut had been renamed Taiping by an exotic British adventurer with the comic book name of Captain Speedy. After some hair-raising adventures in Ethiopia, Captain Speedy had settled down as Police Chief in Penang. But he found that too dull, and not very lucrative.

Ngah Ibrahim, the Mentri, i.e. Chief Minister, of Larut had been desperate to regain some semblance of control, so he offered the then famous Captain Speedy a third of the revenues on top of his £15,000 per annum salary if he could restore order. Speedy promptly went off to Calcutta and recruited a bunch of Punjabis and Pathans, and bought a supply of guns from the German arms dealer, Krupp.

Thus Larut gained an Englishman, well sort of. His father was born in Dublin but the distinction was probably lost on anyone in those days. Kipling wrote of Larut in a short story saying of its sparse "English" inhabitants:
"Each man is a law to himself. Some drink whisky, and some drink brandipanee, and some drink cocktails—vara bad for the coats o’ the stomach is a cocktail—and some drink sangaree, so I have been credibly informed; but one and all they sweat like the packing of a piston-head on a fourrteen-days’ voyage with the screw racing half her time. But, as I was saying, the population o’ Larut was five all told of English—that is to say, Scotch—"

Captain Speedy’s enforcers soon restored order among the Chinese and Speedy, either despite or because of his eccentricities, gained the trust of Chinese.

But when the Pangkor Treaty was signed, Speedy returned to the British fold as they offered him the official position of British Resident in Larut. The pay of £1,500 per annum from the British Government was much lower than Ngah Ibrahim’s pay, but Ngah Ibrahim had failed to pay any of his salary beyond the initial outlay spent on recruiting his men and arming them.


Captain Speedy and his men

The appointment though immediately drew criticism. Hugh Low, despite his close ties with the head of the Hai San, said he was too soft on the Chinese, especially the Chinese mercenaries that the Ghi Hing had hired. He called them, “most rude, conceited and ignorant, with no confidence in Europeans.” And he was horrified that Speedy treated them like gentlemen! Ngah Ibrahim also had his complaints. "I gave him pay," he complained, "and he worked under me, but see how he has treated me since!"
It seems Speedy let his new position go to his head. He now owned eighteen elephants and loved to parade around Taiping on an elephant in a rather princely manner, which drew a certain amount of criticism from his less ostentatious countrymen. He was similarly a princely host who unfortunately seemed to end up having severe arguments with his guests after dinner. He was also prone to telling what Frank Swettenham describes as "strange stories" of the explorations of Burton and Speke, as if he had actually been with them.

His bagpipe playing seems to have been the last straw. Frank Swettenham said, "His appearance and marching were impressive but the sounds he drew from the bag and pipes were merely discordant noises." Governor William Jervois said of him: “Captain Speedy is altogether an inferior order of being. He has apparently a delight in dressing himself in a gorgeous leopard skin, with a grand turban on his head, and still further exciting the curiosity of the natives by playing on the bagpipes."

When Birch was killed, Speedy immediately mobilised his forces to secure Taiping. He found the Chinese were resolutely on the British side and Ngah Ibrahim inclined at least to pretend he was. However, Speedy had few resources and was blamed for failing to supply enough labourers to help Brigadier Ross construct roads to enable his forces to get to Kuala Kangsar where Swettenham was thought to be in danger. Speedy was seen as being too friendly to the Chinese and "powerless to induce the headmen to obey his orders or requisitions." And as for his assessment of Ngah Ibrahim’s loyalties, he proved to be very wrong.

Annoying Frank Swettenham even at this stage of his career was perhaps not a good move. Even so, Swettenham dined out on various versions of how he escaped being captured by Raja Lela, the man later hung for killing Birch. The official version had him rescued by Raja Mahmood, a not entirely friendly acquaintance of Swettenham from Selangor. A slightly more theatrical varient of the story had Swettenham, all six foot four of him, blacken his face and disguise himself as a Malay, average height about five foot. Another version that Swettenham told was that he was rescued by a couple of his Malay “girlfriends” - read into that whatever you like – who covered him up in various cloths in the bottom of their boat. Frank Swettenham was a great one for creating his own myth.

Whatever the story, Speedy’s response was deemed inadequate. Speedy’s reputed influence over the Chinese was exposed as somewhat less than he would like others to think. But despite all that, there were still those who thought Speedy was the ideal candidate to take Jame’s Birch’s old position. Including one assumes, Speedy himself, because he ignored all attempts to persuade him to resign his position, including their halving his pay! Jervois, the Governor of the Straits Colonies, was even convinced that Speedy had been in league with Ngah Ibrahim to get rid of Birch!

Speedy was offered the job of Assistant Resident with responsibility for re-building Taiping. Hugh Low though did not want him as his assistant and Speedy resented having Hugh Low put in above him. Hugh Low had merely been a police magistrate on the tiny and obscure colony of Labuan, a place not known for anything at all! But Speedy gritted his teeth and set about his job.

Pretty soon though Speedy was moved sideways to a more Malay area in Durian Sabatang, where in theory he had the same job as he had in Taiping. His town planning in Sabatang was considered to be slapdash, and one suspects he no longer cared. Politically he got on better with the Malay rajas than with the British, which added fuel to the establishment’s suspicion that Speedy was more on the side of the Rajas than the British. Finally he had had enough of the sniping and bickering and in September 1877 he resigned.
After Malaya he had a miserable trip to Sudan where Speedy was a bit on the broody side. Then he and his wife returned to the UK and in 1883 took a job with the Foreign Office in Ethiopia, where he proved relatively useful in various missions, largely because nobody else knew anything about the place other than it was a seriously hardship posting. In 1897 he finally retired to Chatsworth in Shropshire and died in 1910 at the age of 73.

Despite the many who criticised Captain Speedy for shoddy work and spending the most on his own accommodation, when Isabella arrived in 1879, Taiping was in the throws of redevelopment and everywhere she could see Captain Speedy’s handiwork.


“This important Chinese town,” she wrote, “with a street about a mile long, with large bazaars and shops making a fine appearance, being much decorated in Chinese style; halls of meeting for different tribes, gambling houses, workshops, the Treasury, large detached barracks for the Sikh police, a hospital, a powder magazine, a parade ground, a government store house, a large, new jail, neat bungalows for the minor English officials, and on the top of a steep, isolated terraced hill, the British Residency....”

All of which indicates that Captain Speedy’s subsequent reputation was less to do with his incompetence and more to do with an eccentric modus operandi, that the more academically inclined Hugh Low, and the snobbish Frank Swettenham found all too low class.

In the next blog we go further into the Taiping’s history, a town nowadays billed as
“The Happiest Town In Malaysia.”


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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