In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Seventeen: Smoking Mosquitoes




Smoking away the mosquitoes

On her way to Perak, Isabella Bird passed through Province Wellesley, or Seberang Perai as it is known now. She had never heard of it. In 1800, this strip of land along the coast was acquired to safeguard naval access, and was named after the Duke of Wellington's brother, Richard Wellesley, then Governor of Bengal.

“We saw many Malay Kampongs,” she wrote, “under the palms, each with a fire lighted underneath it, and there were many other fires for the water buffaloes, with groups of these uncouth brutes gathered invariably on the leeward side, glad to be smoked rather than bitten by the mosquitoes.”


William Maxwell

In Province Wellesley Isabella stayed with Mr W.E. Maxwell, the Assistant Resident of Perak, and his sister Mrs Isemonger, who spent her time translating Malayan books. Their father was a Supreme Court judge and wrote a history of the present Malay Conquests, viewing the intervention in Perak with particular horror. One suspects Isabel also had her doubts about the enterprise and given the number of people she did meet involved in the administration of this region, one wonders how she managed not to meet Frank Swettenham.

But then, maybe he avoided her. Not that Frank was a typical stiff upper lipped, girl-shy product of a British boarding school. On the contrary he was something of a ladies man with a treat ‘em mean and keep ‘em keen demeanour. Affairs with other men’s wives were his speciality. Add in an illegitimate child and a Malay mistress, and one is wondering whether Isabella, with her penchant for the hairy chested type, would have found him irresistible or simply a louche cad with a twitchy moustache and an eye-popping monocle. His biographer, H.S. Barlow, says, “
He allowed nothing to stand in his way, whether it was professional scruples in his tussle with Maxwell, financial probity, or, most tragically his marriage. This was the blight of his life. It revealed him as cruel, cold-hearted, and deceitful. Moreover the deceit seems to have placed him in a position where he was for several years exposed to blackmail. Add to this a macabre and perhaps sexually associated fascination with death. The result was an outstandingly able and effective man: but scarcely a nice one.


Frank Swettenham with his customary cigarette

In 1895 the Colonial Office sent Maxwell, despite his supreme knowledge of all things Malay, off to be Governor of the Gold Coast in Africa where, after a little war with the Ashanti, in 1897, at the age of fifty one - You can hear all those African Mosquitoes licking their lips can’t you - he was dead of Malaria.


I think there's a bit of a theme developing here. Working in the service of the British Empire was not all that it was cracked up to be!

And why would an expert in Malay history, language, and culture be sent off to the Gold Coast? Well, it takes a bit of puzzling to work out the logic but somehow it is to do with the hatred between Frank Swettenham and William Maxwell.

For reasons that Frank Swettenham considered incomprehensible, the British relinquished interests in Sumatra in exchange for the Dutch handing over interests in Africa. The result was, as he put it, an endless war between the Acehnese and the Dutch and another pointless war for the British in Africa with the Ashanti. Swettenham thought it a stupid trade off as the British and the Acehnese had good relations. But, it does seem to have been very conveniently used by Swettenham’s friend and ally in the Colonial Office, C. P. Lucas, to separate Maxwell and Swettenham whose feud had reached destructive levels.

Roughly speaking, apart from a temperamental dislike of each other, Swettenham accused Maxwell of summarily hanging a Malay near Kota Lama without trial. And Maxwell thought the trials of Birch’s murderers, with Swettenham heavily involved in the proceedings, had wrongly convicted Sultan Abdulla. Swettenham, an inveterate record keeper, whether suspecting this to be true or not, conveniently lost the records of the trials. And Maxwell, when he was the Resident in Selangor following Bloomfield Douglas and Swettenham, rather enthusiastically investigated corrupt land dealings that involved Swettenham. Indeed it was Maxwell who created the whole land system of the Malay States, and having the man whose word literally was the law on such things packed off to fight the Ashanti, was a relief not only to Swettenham but a lot of other people as well.

“Mr Maxwell,” wrote Isabella “was a really able and most energetic man, very argumentative, bright and pleasant!”

She had no idea that his argumentative nature would lead to a confrontation with an African mosquito, but such is life: a concatenation of unpredictable consequences.

What a fascinating confrontation, a meeting between Isabella and Frank would have been. Maybe he would have taken her snipe shooting and shown her the Southern Cross, but in this branch of the multi-verse such a meeting never occurred.

In the next blog with enter the town of heavenly peace.


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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