Day 14 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 14 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

Captain Speedy and Ngah Ibrahim! What a great title for a super hero movie.



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Taiping used to be called Larut, after the elephant who discovered tin in these parts. Elephants often discovered mining opportunities, apparently by collecting mud on their legs.

Its name was changed to Taiping after the Pangkor treaty, which ended a long list of very violent conflicts by essentially handing over peacekeeping to the British. The British of course, embarked upon a series of unsettling reforms such as freeing the slaves, in particularly the slave girls of the rajas who flocked to the British in droves seeking housekeeping appointments. And the Rajas decided enough was enough, stabbed the hapless resident in his shower, and a blood bath ensued.

Much of colonial history is plainly bonkers. Which brings me to Captain Speedy, the boss of Taiping before the Brits came in, who some thought was completely bonkers.

Hugh Low, the British Resident who restored order to the troubled state, did not like Captain Speedy, not the least because Captain Speedy was against his wishes made his number two despite having been getting down and dirty with Ngah Ibrahim and the whole Larut Wars mess. One imagines that Captain Speedy probably thought he should have the top job in the area, seeing Hugh Low as a bit of a flake. Low had close relations with the Brookes family running Sarawak and had been previously consigned to Labuan Island, as the governor's secretary. Labuan Island was the pits. There was nothing there but mosquitoes who managed to kill off Low's wife, and present him with the consolations of a Malay mistress much to his children's annoyance. And probably his dead wife's, as her ghost is still thought to be wandering around Labuan's Botanical Gardens to this day.

So where Hugh Low was well acclimatised to Malay culture, Captain Speedy's experiences in the region were that the Chinese and Malay would be slitting each others throats if it wasn't for his charm and a band of dodgy Indian mercenaries he had picked up in Calcutta himself. Captain Speedy had been born in India, earned his spurs dealing with the Indian Mutiny, and had managed to become chums with the Ethiopian Emperor, who ennobled him with the title Basha Felika, before they fell out and Speedy fled Ethiopia for his life.

As you can see, Captain Speedy had a taste for the exotic. He became a "Captain" after taking place in the Maori Wars in New Zealand. After that, he returned to Ethiopia and helped the British in their campaign against the Ethiopian Emperor and was awarded the wardship of Prince Alamayu Simeon, the young son of the now late Emperor. He brought him with Mrs Speedy, to Penang. Apparently they were very fond of the boy! However, they packed him off to Cheltenham College back in England and appear not to have seen him for the next eight years. Most likely the following photo has him pining for his old tribal life before marriage civilised him and he had to get a proper job.

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In 1871 we find him as the superintendent of police in Penang. This was probably very boring and when Ngah Ibrahim asked him to come and sort out some bloody feud among the Chinese, he promptly resigned, and recruited a bunch of Punjabis and Pathans, bought a supply of guns from Krupp, and went off to kick some Chinese butt.

He might also have been impressed by Ngah Ibrahim's harem of enslaved Chinese women that Ngah Ibrahim had a half share in. They had been captured by the Hai San triad, who Ngah Ibrahim backed against the Ghee Hing. If that had not impressed him, then no doubt he was impressed by Ngah Ibrahim's offer of a third of the revenues of Larut on top of his £15,000 per annum salary, if the Ghee Hing were driven out.

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—"

Speedy was a bit of a hulk of a man who seemed more at home in Africa, but for the moment he was in Malaya and not only Hugh Low had a low opinion of him, so did Sir William Jervois, Governor of the Straits Settlements. He called Captain Speedy 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, an instrument on which he performs with much facility."

Obviously the Bagpipe playing was a deal breaker as far as the Straits Colonials were concerned. Even worse, Captain Speedy was seen as in the pay of Ngah Ibrahim and thus not acting in British interests.

Even so, for some reason the Ghee Hing trusted Captain Speedy, despite him being instrumental in their defeat, and it was deemed best to recognise him as Resident of Larut to avoid more trouble. It was also thought that this was probably the only way to get him to disband his private army. Also, the offer of £1,500 per annum from the British Government was somewhat acceptable because Ngah Ibrahim might have promised a heap more, but so far he had failed to pay any of it beyond the initial outlay that Speedy spent on recruiting his men and arming them.

One might thus think that Captain Speedy was something of a hot tempered scoundrel with a penchant for violent solutions. Maybe by present day standards we would blanch at his rough justice, but Hugh Low considered him far too soft on the Chinese, especially the Chinese mercenaries that the Hai San had hired. He called them, "most rude, conceited and ignorant, with no confidence in Europeans." And was horrified that Speedy treated them like gentlemen!

Speedy was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. He found he was condemned for excluding Ngah Ibrahim from the government of Larut once the Pangkor Treaty had been signed. "I gave him pay," complained Ngah Ibrahim who was feeling unloved, "and he worked under me, but see how he has treated me since".

Speedy was also accused of having an inclination to do himself well in respect of amenities provided from public funds. Thus his house in Taiping was, in local terms, on the grander side of things. It looks modest enough if you visit it nowadays, but at the time Taiping was inhabited mostly by rough Chinese miners living in shanties and other official buildings like the prison etc, were of a shoddy nature in comparison to Speedy's own home.

Speedy also owned several elephants and loved to parade around Taiping on an elephant in a rather princely manner. 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, begrudgingly admired by Jervois, was not merely annoying but downright horrid. Frank Swettenham said, "His appearance and marching were impressive but the sounds he drew from the bag and pipes were merely discordant noises."

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."

It would seem that Speedy was perhaps a little inclined to embellish his influence among the locals and thus when Birch was murdered and a Malay revolt was underway, his influence was exposed as somewhat less than he would like others to think. And so once the situation settled down and the commissions and investigations into what went wrong began, Captain Speedy applied for six months' leave. His wife's father had died and his affairs needed sorting out. Thus Captain Speedy was supposed by the Colonial authorities "very comfortably of" and no longer under any financial compulsion to continue his administrative career. At least, that is what they hoped because now they would not have to sack him and perhaps have all manner of accusations bandied about that would throw up more trouble than was worth their effort.

Despite all that, there were those who thought Speedy was the ideal candidate for the next Resident! Including one assumes, Speedy himself, because he ignored all attempts to persuade him to resign his position, including halving his pay! And it seems that by ignoring all letters from the Colonial Office suggesting his services were no longer required and embarking on a ship back to Malaya, Captain Speedy was allowed to return to his old job . Jervois, the Governor of the Straits Colonies, was apoplectic and convinced that Speedy had been in league with Ngah Ibrahim in the attempted overthrow of the British regime in Perak!

Pretty soon after arriving in Malaya he was moved sideways to a more Malay area in Durian Sabatang, where in theory he had the same job as he had in Larut. His town planning there was somewhat slapdash, and one suspects he no longer cared. Politically he rather got on with the Malay rajas, which added fuel to the establishments suspicion that Speedy was more on the side of the Rajas than the British. Finally though, he had had enough of the sniping and bickering and in September 1877 he resigned.

Whatever one can say about the man, he left his mark on Malaysian history, even though Post Colonial revision have relegated him to a less prominent role than the British would have given him.

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After Malaysia 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 met up with Alamayu, who went on to the military academy at Sandhurst and then on to the Yorkshire College, now called Leeds University, where he promptly died of pleurisy. I spent three shivery years at Leeds University living in cheap rental accommodation and can attest that pleurisy was definitely on the cards.

Speedy, never good with money, was even worse with his wife's and was broke by the end of 1883. And so he 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.

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