Day 12 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 12 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

We visited Perlis, the smallest state of Malaysia and beside contemplating the beauty of the place, we hit the state museum to learn about the "treacherous British."

Perlis is the smallest state of Malaysia and only has a Raja instead of a Sultan. It used to be part of Kedah but after the 1821 invasion of Kedah by Siam, it ended up becoming a separate province eventually put under the control of one of the Sultan of Kedah's grandsons. It has remained in that family ever since and has remained separate from Kedah even after Perlis was taken over by the British.

The British role in the region was, as one might expect, all rather tortuous. Captain Light in the latter parts of the eighteenth century, was well known as a trader in the region. He set up trading posts in Phuket and Kota Kuala Kedah with his wife, Martina Rozells, reputedly the daughter of the Sultan of Kedah, via one assumes a French or Portuguese mother. Historians have found few incontrovertible sources on this matter.

Captain Light spoke Siamese and Malay, dressed as a local, and was instrumental in helping to keep the Burmese from invading Phuket, by helping the legendary sisters, Chan and Mook mount the defenses. His business in Kedah created good relations with the Sultan and helped the Sultan fend off the Bugis. The statue of him in Penang shows him as a rather splendid eighteenth century ship's captain, though in fact the statue was modelled on his son, who if one looks closely was eurasian. And interestingly he went on to found Adelaide in Australia. Descendants of Captain Light are still in Malaysia, in the guise of the
Capel Family.

Captain Light's activities might well have been in the name of the East India Company but like a lot of their people, once out in the East, they assimilated and did a lot of trading in their own name without reporting it back to the company. In fact it was common to feed the company fake news to help their share values rise. This created a culture in their rather cramped offices back in London, of closing one eye and not asking too many questions for fear of bursting the bubble. In the 1820's the noted satirist Thomas Love Peacock worked at their head office in London and wrote this about his work there,

"From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven;
From eleven to noon, think you've come too soon;
From twelve to one, think what's to be done;
From one to two, find nothing to do;
From two to three, think it will be
A very great bore to stay till four."

Winding back forty years, we find Kedah doing the deal with Captain Light over Penang and he in a typically grand gesture, fired cannons loaded with gold coins into the mangroves on shore and spread the news to the Chinese that finders would be keepers. Thus began an influx of Chinese intent on clearing the land, picking up the coins, and creating the basis of a colony. It was also the start of the British encouragement of Chinese labour into the sparsely populated peninsular.

In 1790 the Sultan called upon the Company to help him against the Siamese, as Captain Light had promised, but Captain Light could not persuade the Company to help. They never wanted Penang anyway but, even so, they were damned if they were going to hand it back. The Sultan tried to take it by force but he was under far too much pressure from all sides and Penang by then was pulling in too much local business for his efforts to make much headway. So the Sultan learned to live with Penang, and with a few financial incentives the land opposite the island was ceded to the Company and renamed Wellesley Province.

After all that, one would have thought that the British would have at least given moral support to the Sultan against the Siamese but instead, in 1821, they assisted the Siamese in their invasion of Kedah, deposing the Sultan. Who, naturally, fled to Penang, despite the British double dealing. Similarly many of his subjects fled to Wellesley! From there he orchestrated resistance against the Siamese, who no doubt were wondering whose side the British were on! Probably the British wondered as well, assuming they gave it a second thought. Eventually the Sultan was returned to power in Kedah but only as a vassal of the Siamese and Perlis was placed under their direct control.

The politics of all this makes one's head spin. But if one visits Perlis, one can at least see why the Siamese wanted to keep it for themselves.

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