In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Fifteen: Sit down and sign this!




The British Pankor Treaty team from left to right: Governor Jervois seated, William Pickering behind him, James Birch to his right, Captain Speedy in profile on the steps, and Frank Swettenham in the rather nonchalant pose.

When Isabella arrived at Dindings this area had only recently been handed over to the British as part of the Pangkor treaty. This treaty was signed on a steamer parked off Pangkor Island in 1874 thus bringing an end to the Larut Wars, which had been fought in Perak between rival Chinese Triads. This had intermingled with a succession dispute over the Perak sultanate between the tie wearing, thus approved of, Sultan Abdullah and the sarong wearing Sultan Ismail, a supporter of Mahdi in Selangor and the Yam Tuan in Negeri Sembilan. And you know what happened to them! So it was here that a more strident residency system became official policy.

Thus the British “invited” the Malay and Chinese chiefs of Perak to meet Straits Settlement governor Andrew Clarke on Pangkor Island. Well, some of them. The anointed Sultan of Perak, Sultan Ismael, refused to come. He had become Sultan on a technicality. Abdullah, the son of the previous Sultan, had failed to turn up to the funeral of his father and thus broke the rules so the chief minister, the Bendahara, took the crown. Similarly Raja Yusuf refused to come. He was a direct descendent of Sultan Ahmaddin who died in 1806, and would eventually briefly become Sultan of Perak. Abdullah, the deposed son, was more enthusiastic and used it to establish his claim to be the legitimate ruler, even if it meant having a British advisor.

Among the British contingent we find young Frank Swettenham, a future governor of the Straits Colonies; James Birch, who was later speared in a shower; and William Pickering, who later in Singapore had a chopper lodged in his head. This did stop him chasing the man and wrestling him to the ground but he did lose his enthusiasm for colonial service. A villa in Italy beckoned him to retirement. For that matter Frank Swettenham's wife also seems to have had a hard time coping with Frank’s enthusiasm for the Malayan service. She ended up committed to an insane asylum. Things could have been worse. At least she did not compete for the axe in her head prize that Mrs Innes and Captain Pickering managed to win.


William Pickering fending off his attacker.

These Brits paid a price for this largely self-prescribed role in Malaya. The British government had right from the eighteenth century onwards never been very enthusiastic about their expanding role in the region. If it was not for Raffles defying them and setting up shop in Singapore in 1819, they would have quite happily left the place to the natives or whichever other colonial power cared to make the effort. Except perhaps the French! Threats of their intervention anywhere out east always made the British keen to assert their authority. It had been the thought of a Napoleonic general taking over Java and Malacca that had brought the British out of their bases in India to make sure Napoleon did not have another source of income.

Raffles by the way lost four children and one wife to malaria and cholera. And he himself died at 45, under investigation by the British authorities for corruption and insubordination and being sued by the East India Company. With his career thus in tatters he managed to develop a brain tumour brought on by various tropical infections. Despite how much fun all this disease, violence, and prickly heat, the British still kept on coming.

So Perak’s chiefs, rajas and rival Sultans, were persuaded to accept the British preferred Abdullah along with his British Resident. Request is perhaps not the right word. Perhaps, scared into making the request is more apt considering the wreck of Kuala Selangor the British naval bombardment had made. Even the mighty Ngah Ibrahim, the chief minister of Larut, a man richer than any of the Sultans, with his own army, was wary. So he brought with him his British Lawyer and his British enforcer, Captain Speedy, to demonstrate that he already had plenty of British advisors and that his interests had to be treated with respect. He literally demanded a chair at the table with the British, alongside Abdullah. Instead, he was manhandled to the floor and forced to sit with the other minor headmen, much to his annoyance. Consequently it was obvious that no objection to the agreement was allowed and all had to sign and accept the appointment of James Birch as Resident of Perak.



The James Birch Memorial with mural where the image is scratched out.

In Ipoh there is a monument to James Birch. His son unveiled it in 1909 when his son became governor. It is resplendent with images of the march of civilisation, including interestingly an image of Mohammed, or is that Jesus that has been scratched out? The story told at the moment is that it is Mohammed and that as his image is forbidden, it was removed. However science, technology and justice, the Imperial Mission Statement, are all represented there. The two streets next to it are Jalan Dato Maharaja Lela and Jalan Dato Sagor, named after two of the men hung for spearing James Birch to death whilst he showered.

James Birch had spent his career in Ceylon where he had lost his patience, and arrived in Malaysia determined not to take any nonsense. He wanted to reform the decadent oriental system of slaves, sultans and blood feuds all in one go. All that need was a firm hand, a handful of ill-trained sepoys, and a solid display of English ingenuity.

I believe,” he said, “that the system as practiced in Perak at the present time involves evils and cruelties which are unknown to any but those who have actually lived in these states.


Which did not endear him to those with a bevy of slave girls all too willing to run off to James Birch and beg for help. So the local chiefs were not amused. After a bizarre opium fuelled ceremony with a local medium that provoked Raja Lela, the traditional protector of the Sultan, to promise that he would keris James Birch and restore Malay traditions, Abdullah called up his English lawyer to see if he could legally have James Birch replaced by someone a little less likely to be kerised!

Birch unfortunately brought his steamer and a squad of sepoys to Pasir Salak to requisition Raja Lela's custom post on the river. While his men posted the cease and desist orders on walls about the village, he decided to take a refreshing shower. This was a bad move. A spear was thrust into the shower and Birch discovered the origin of Satay.

After he was killed, all his men were then killed and dumped into the river alongside of him. This act resulted in another little war that ended with Raja Lela and associates getting hanged. Plus a few that Abdullah hung saying it was them what did it and he and his more well bred associates were completely innocent. It was a ploy that worked for Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor, but this time, the British had none of it and he and his entourage were then banished to the Seychelles where he learnt to play cricket, no doubt enlightening him as to the nature of fair play and the benefit of the doubt.


Sultan Abdullah and his family in the Seychelles

It was in the Seychelles that he heard a song in a French nightclub and rewrote his version. This later became the basis of Malaysia's national anthem. Abdullah, it turns out, was actually a bit of talented composer and artist.

In 1891 the following question was asked in the British Parliament:

MR. FRANCIS STEVENSON (Suffolk, Eye): I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies whether, having regard to the fact that the ex-Sultan Abdullah, of Perak, has now been exiled for more than 14 years in the Seychelles Islands, and bearing in mind the peculiar circumstances connected with his trial, the Government are prepared to re-consider the answers given on the 5th of May and 1st of August, 1890, and to consent to re-open the case; whether, if they decline to adopt that course, they are prepared to allow him either to be set at liberty, or to visit England; and whether they are aware that Sir Benson Maxwell, formerly Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements, is of opinion that the ex-Sultan is innocent of the charge which resulted in his sentence?”

Consequently in 1891 he went to live in Singapore.

In the next Blog we look at a few more White Man’s graveyards.


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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