Day 17 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 17 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

Today we have a look at the assassination of James Birch and the Perak War.


In today's video we visit the place where James Birch, the first British Resident of Perak, was assassinated. There is the question as to whether James Birch brought it upon himself or whether any British Resident, brought in under the Pangkor Treaty, would have found himself in similar circumstances. Frank Swettenham, who became the first Resident General of the Federated States of Malaya, claimed that James Birch was a kindly gentleman, given to charitable acts, and that his assassination was political and nothing personal. He presided over the trial of the assassins and thus hanged them, which one suspects was perhaps personal, rather than strictly political. He said that hanging them all had brought about far more improvements in the state of the country that any sensitive concern for local culture.


Frank Swettenham was a tough character who could see the political benefits of getting rid of the traditional rulers in one go, but he was also a man of passion. He had a son with an Anglo Indian woman, drove his British wife mad and had her declared insane, and at 89 years of age, married a woman forty years his junior. He was obviously a man who enjoyed having his own way in all manner of ways, and not averse to buying up land cheap and then selling it to the Government at a tremendous profit. This mix of passion and rationality is a powerful mix. One would not enjoy a friendly drink in the Long Bar with him, at least not without checking one's wallet afterwards and wondering what he would claim you promised to do for him.


James Birch, an old colonial hand from Sri Lanka, was a man of similar but less lucky bent to Swettenham, and had shown little sensitivity to Malay sensibilities. He spoke no Malay and merely saw his job as to bring the country under a rational administration, open for British business, with the rule of law. He also was horrified by the local institution of slavery and the manner in which women were treated; local customs he considered barbaric.


The success of the more amenable, if even hairier, Resident, Hugh Low, indicates that personalities do make a difference. He managed to gain the support of the local Malay and Chinese population without so much antagonism. His Malay mistress perhaps helped steady his hand. But on the other hand, the local population had already seen what happens to people who oppose the British.


Well, that is, if they weren't hanged! Otherwise, they would be sent to the Seychelles to live at British expense in what appears to be some style, if this photo of Sultan Abdullah and his family in the Seychelles is anything to go by.

At the heart of all this trouble was something called the Pangkor Engagement. This was a treaty signed on Jan 20, 1874, on board a British steamer Pluto.


These guys were behind it. You can see Birch standing beside the seated Swettenham. They look a rather uncomfortable bunch in uniforms that do not appear very suited for tropical life, or indeed any kind of life. They sort of fit where they touch and offer little in the way imperial dignity. Which shows how unimportant this neck of the world was considered. And probably why they were operating without much in the way of authority from the government back in the UK.

Although communications were improving with the gradual approach of the telegraph, in the 1870's the British diplomat flew by the seat of his pants. And Malaysia was the wild east. The Brits spoke of the Malays as "malay tribes" and saw them as people who had little affinity for any particular place, preferring to move about the jungles, taking over whatever land they saw, squabbling over it with others, and moving on when the heat of conflict took too much of a toll. Land rights were whatever you could hold by force of arms. Thus civilisation was yet to be built. And it was up to the British to build it if they could be rat-arsed in the tropical heat. Languid and irritable by turn, was the lot of the average Englishman seeking their fortune in this arena.

The Pangkor treaty thus came about because of the fighting among the Chinese miners that the Sultans had brought into their lands and the inability of the Malays to control them. The Chinese were their own worst enemies and the Malays were too lax and/or debauched to keep them in their place. These "Larut Wars" not only threatened British interests, but also Chinese interests and ultimately the interests of the Malay people.

Ironically Chinese capital rather liked British administration because of the transparency of the rules and regulations. So as the conflicts between the Chinese clans disrupted the returns on investments, the Chinese, who were not entirely without blame for the situation, pressured the British to do something about it. And the British were only too happy to sell a few guns to add a bit of oil to the fire and await the right moment. This does imply that there was some sort of master plan but that is overstating the situation. On the whole, words like chaos, amorality, incompetence, ignorance, indifference, and opportunism, spring more readily to mind.

The succession dispute between Raja Abdullah and Sultan Ismail, using rival Chinese communities to fight for each other, promised to explode into a vicious civil war. And these explosions of violence had a tendency to send refugees running for the British colonies and then bringing the fighting to the streets there. During this dispute the Chinese were rioting in Melaka and engaging in shoot outs in Penang, making it all too easy for reports to be sent back to the UK justifying whatever officials on the spot decided to do.

The British thus made an offer to Raja Abdullah. He was seen as the more reform minded of the two, or at least he was available for a meeting in Singapore where pressure could be applied unlike Sultan Ismail. Whatever the reason, the British backed his claim to the throne and offered Sultan Ismail a thousand Spanish dollars a month pension if he stepped down to allow Abdullah to rule. And to seal the deal the British cajoled the headmen from the Perak River communities into joining them on the steamer for a conference.

The treaty put to the Malay chiefs was written in English with a Malay translation done by Frank Swettenham. Now, although many British colonial officers spoke Malay, writing the language in a manner that would have the same precision as a British legal document, was probably a bit like trusting to Google Translate. So the Malays did not really know what they were signing. On the face of it, it said that the British Resident would advise on all matters barring religion and custom. And that all taxes and administration of the state had to be done under the name of the Sultan. This sounded reasonable. But, it would have to be in accordance with the Resident's advice. Though, the Resident would have no executive authority. Which even in English is something of a disaster waiting to happen.

And in return for the British backing the authority of Sultan Abdullah, the British were ceded Dinding and Pangkor Island.

Abdullah interpreted this as meaning that he was Sultan and that the British were there to consult on running a modern state. Birch on the other hand assumed that the Sultan was merely there as a rubber stamp for his authority.

Even so, Abdullah knew the British were playing hard ball. The treaty had been signed on a British boat surrounded by British troops. The headmen brought to witness the event were terrified. And no less than the high and mighty Ngah Ibrahim himself, had been brought reluctantly to the meeting by a contingent of British troops. He considered himself as ruling an independent state and thus should be treated as such. And he brought his own military chief, an Englishman at that, Captain Speedy to back his assertion.

On entering the room where discussions were taking place he asked for a chair. He did not wish to sit on the floor with the other chiefs. He was on a par with the Sultan, especially this usurper, Abdullah! In fact he was wealthier than the Sultan. And it was the administration of his lands that were really under discussion! But instead of simply offering him a chair, he was manhandled to the ground and forced to sit with the other lesser chiefs. At that point Captain Speedy had to rapidly re-think where his loyalties lay and Abdullah got more than a little twitchy.

Despite his claim to the throne being upheld and his seeming acquiescence to British demands, Raja Abdullah now realised that he was handing over authority to the British, and he informed his old enemy, Sultan Ismail, that he should stall handing over the Royal Regalia until he could work out how to tame the British.

The question is whether Abdullah had decided that he was being forced into a bad deal or whether his relationship with James Birch pushed him over the edge. Either way, he began talking rebellion with Raja Lela. I have been told that if one wants to describe someone who oversteps their authority and lands one in trouble, a Malay speaker might make a comparison with Raja Lela. Which does suggest that many think that essentially Birch was impossible, but Raja Lela was even more impossible.

Whatever the circumstances, which I go into in detail in the video, Raja Lela's men kill James Birch while he is taking a shower and try to rouse all of Perak against the British. At first it seems like they might manage to do it. The British were very thin on the ground and Captain Speedy seemed less than thrilled about rousing his men to support the British, a reluctance that was either ascribed to his indolence, or conflict of loyalties.

Consequently the first skirmish of the war had the British surprised at Bandar Tua, where they lost four men before reinforcements came to the rescue. And then on the 15th Nov. 1875 they arrived at Pasir Salak, as seen in the video.

In those days it was a fort with a six foot rampart, with a wooden wall on top and a trench filled with sharpened spikes and traps. The Malays were armed with swivel guns and muskets, which sounds a formidable defence. However, this is pretty much the same sort of set up and weaponry that the Malays used to fend off the Portuguese two hundred or so years earlier! In short, their spears and ancient muskets were no match for the Indian Army and soon the place was overwhelmed and burnt down.

Maharaja Lela retreated to Sayong and set an ambush for the British at Kota Lama. Kota Lama had already a bit of history with James Birch. The villagers there had chased him off with loaded guns at an earlier attempt to encourage their compliance with his new order. That in itself should have made him a little wary and less inclined to take a shower in a village run by a man he knew had vowed to stab him!


On the 4th January 1876 Captain Speedy was sent after Raja Lela. When he arrived at Kota Lama he found it only occupied by women and children. He told his men to spread out and go look for weapons. At which point a group of them were rushed by armed men, who managed to isolate them and fatally spear a Major Hawkins! After that debacle Captain Speedy retreated and further cemented his reputation as somewhat unreliable.

Meanwhile Raja Lela and his men built a defensive stockade around Kota Lama and continued the resistance. But it is not long before the British sent an overwhelming force, took the village and sent Raja Lela running into the jungles.

And by mid 1876 the British have captured Lela, and arrested Abdullah and Ngah Ibrahim. And so ended the Perak War.

Twenty years later, James Birch's son, Ernest Birch, took over as resident of Perak and chose the day of his father's murder as the day of inauguration. Which probably was a sign that even in 1895, the British wanted to remind the Malays what would happen if they tried anything like that again.

The British takeover in Perak had an interesting coda. Sultan Abdullah's exile in the Seychelles brought him in contact with a French cabaret song that he thought would make a good anthem for Perak. And it is this song that became the National Anthem of Malaysia, with different words of course.

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