In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Nineteen: The Balad of Ngah Ibrahim



Ngah Ibrahim

Ngah Ibrahim, like many of the Malay leaders of the 1870’s, found themselves straddling the divide between modernity and their traditional allegiances. He was the son of Long Jaafar, the headman of the district of Larut. He thus was one of those entitled young men that rarely grow into people capable of subtle political manoeuvring. Which is all very well when one has a compliant and cowed peasantry depending upon the largesse and protection of their traditional rulers, but when said rulers can see a means of making enormous amounts of money exploiting the mineral wealth of a region, any sense of obligation to their subjects disappears and any sense that they owe him anything in return also rapidly disappears.

The situation throughout Perak and other Malay states was that the peasants were forced to pay taxes to the various headmen, and when they failed to pay, they would be turned into debt slaves and be forced to labour for free, essentially becoming serfs. Thus their position became all the more wretched and one can trace a lot of the characterisation of Malays as shiftless and lazy to the experience of this version of slavery. No slave is particularly keen on working that hard to create wealth for the master. So if you really wanted to increase your productivity without upsetting the social order of the Malays, you brought in Chinese coolie labour, tightly controlled by Capitan China's, men in control of the clan associations and indentured labour rackets.

Long Jaafar had already been employing Chinese labour in the tin mines around Larut and made himself very wealthy. And when his son inherited his position, the best way to out do the old man, was to bring in even more Chinese, this time not just men with picks and shovels, but men to run a modern industrial operation using more sophisticated means of organising capital investments, hence the appearance of British Lawyers on the Malay scene. And as a consequence Ngah Ibrahim became richer than the Sultan and began to see that his Larut was essentially an independent state, and should be recognised as such by the British.


Chinese coolies working on the tin mines

The Chinese roughly fell into two categories, the Ghee Hing, who were Cantonese, and the Hai San, who were Hakka. Now, despite the characterisation of these groups as Triads, or Gangs, as the present day Ngah Ibrahim’s house museum translations term them, they were in fact ancient clan associations. They may well have had blood oaths of loyalty and a mafia like ethos, but they also acted as business associations, pension fund managers, and even medical health insurance, not to mention quality control agents of your regular opium needs.

They were not exactly cuddly communal societies, but there was even a certain amount of democracy at work in the associations and we find in Borneo, for instance, from the 18
th century onwards a state one could characterise as an actual independent democratic republic run by such a group of Chinese associations. A fact that might well have encouraged the associations to have political aspirations that made both the British and the Malays nervous, especially after the Chinese miners of Raja Brooke's Sarawak attempted a coup.

The Societies were in short, a law unto themselves and Ngah Ibrahim found himself with a land divided between two rival groups who saw their parts of town as completely under their control. And with a lot of illiterate Chinese coolies flush with money and having nothing to spend it on but gambling, opium, and prostitution, it was no surprise that policing them and their turf wars became an issue.


The Larut Wars as portrayed by the Ngah Ibrahim Museum, Perak

The First Larut war was little more than a series of revenge feuds across each others territories, caused by gambling disputes. Even so, it was serious enough to require the Sultan to send in his troops to restore order. He charged Ngah Ibrahim for the costs incurred, which somewhat rankled and made Ngah Ibrahim think that he was not get the respect he felt he deserved. This humiliation set Ngah Ibrahim on a fateful course.

To help police the situation and avoid having grovel to the Sultan, Ngah Ibrahim hired Captain Speedy to form an armed police. And Captain Speedy, the head of the police in Penang, liked the generous offer and so resigned his position and set too recruiting Indian Sepoys and buying arms from Krup.

Speedy then brought his little mercenary army into Larut and things quietened down for the moment. Ngah Ibrahim's plans seemed to be working, but three years later, in 1865, an even more serious dispute played out when the leader of the Ghee Hing had an affair with the Hai San leader's wife!

The Hai San went on a rampage killing as many Ghee Hing as they could find and in retaliation the Ghee Hing brought in four thousand mercenaries to attack the Hai San, causing them to evacuate the area and run off to Penang, where they set about arming themselves.

After a series of skirmishes, Captain Speedy managed to restore order and Larut was once again restored to an uneasy truce. But in 1873 on the death of the Sultan, one of the claimants, Raja Abdullah, used the Ghee Hing to defeat Raja Ismail, the previous Sultan's Bendahara, who was strategically backed by Ngah Ibrahim no doubt because he felt more of an equal to such a man. Ngah Ibrahim then hired the Hai San to fight for his preferred choice, thus raising his status all the more. He would be a king maker and that was almost as good as being a king!

Thing now get a bit hazy because the various sources of this information get confused as to when things happen but Isabella Bird said Larut was completely destroyed and only three houses were left standing, two of which I assume were Ngah Ibrahim's because what is now the Ngah Ibrahim museum still stand today.

None of that actually seems possible but obviously at the time the British spun the whole conflict as needing British intervention to restore order. So the more blood curdling the story the better!

What is true is that Ngah Ibrahim's plans had gone seriously haywire and he had backed a loser! So Raja Abdullah took the throne, with British help, which must have been a bit of shock to Captain Speedy who found himself now fighting the wrong corner! Ngah Ibrahim amidst the smoking remnants of his town must have been somewhat dazed and very suspicious of what the British had in mind for him.

This all led to the Pangkor Treaty which brought in J.W.W. Birch as the British Resident in Perak. James Birch immediately began a series of reforms and Ngah Ibrahim found that he had lost the right to tax people that he considered his subjects. And worse still, Birch made a point of liberating the slaves, in particular the women, that many Raja's had accumulated in payment of debts. His motivation for that was not construed as a humanitarian gesture but more of a desire to hog all the women for himself! Perhaps if Birch's inclination truly had been to run after women, he would have had something in common with the Rajas and been less of pain. But somehow I doubt this rather stiff upper lipped old colonial was interested in anything quite as sweaty as sex in the tropics. He genuinely thought he was going to drag these primitive war lords in the 19th Century and not stand any nonsense. They were now weak and Britain was strong so now was the time to use that strength for good before the wishy washy liberals started having sympathy for these petty parasitic oriental despots.
So Ngah Ibrahim, perhaps more by association than intention, found himself as part of the plot that assassinated Birch. He probably was less in favour of murdering the man, more simply for persuading the British to swap him in favour of someone more amenable to local traditions, especially those allowing traditional rulers to tax at will. He might have even countenanced Captain Speedy as the perfect man, a man in his employ, a man who knew the locals, was well liked even by the Chinese who he tamed. So having Speedy appointed the Assistant Resident must have at least been some consolation but he found that his employee, Captain Speedy, considered himself as answerable to the British and not Ngah Ibrahim. Ngah Ibrahim bitterly complained that Captain Speedy was now treating 
him as little more than his servant! Which probably made Ngah Ibrahim despair and not terribly enthusiastic about any British Resident and, knowing the British and Speedy, well aware than an uprising against the British was not feasible.

Kota Ngah Ibrahim

After Birch's murder Ngah Ibrahim's house was requisitioned by the British who used it as the court house to try the conspirators and to hang the guilty, in particular the hot headed Dato Maharajalela, who can be found buried in the grounds where he was hanged.


Maharajalela Mausoleum

Ngah Ibrahim was banished along with Sultan Abdullah and a number of other chiefs to the Seychelles for seventeen years. How fair this was is open to debate. Certainly William Maxwell considered it unfair but Frank Swettenham thought it a good way of getting these people out of the way so that the British could get down to the business of creating a modern state without the inconvenience of have to take into account these people's views.

Ngah Ibrahim died in Singapore in 1887 no doubt a wealthy man but not exactly the mover and shaker of his ambitions.

In the next blog we get back on the road with Isabella Bird.


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.

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.