In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Four: Melaka



Parameswara or Iskandar Shah

Melaka was founded in the fifteenth century by a Srivajayan prince who had been run out of old Singapura by the Majapahit forces of Java or the Siamese. There are various versions of the story. There is also confusion regarding the founder of Singapura and the man who finally lost control of Singapura! So the history is a little muddled.

Melaka, to protect itself from Siamese attentions, at first became a tributary of the Chinese Empire, then, as its power in the region grew, the influence of Arab and Tamil traders turned it into a powerful Islamic Sultanate. But in 1511 the Portuguese, allied with local Chinese, took over, scattering the Sultan and his family around the region. The Sultan retreated to his lands in Sumatra and his sons regrouped in Perak and Johor. There then followed a long history of struggles with the Portuguese and the Achenese, who saw themselves as Melaka’s true successors.


The Afamosa Gate (2019)

The Portuguese built a fortress, “The Afamosa”, the gate of which still stands as a prop for many a tourist’s selfie. The fortress fended off repeated attacks until 1641 when the Dutch in alliance with the Sultanate of Johor, ousted the rather depressed Portuguese governor Manuel De Sousa Coutinho who had tired of the constant embattled position he had served his term under. Money exchanged hands for the gates to be opened, which probably cheered the man up as he could then retire in some comfort. The Portuguese of course considered him a traitor and he appears to have lived out his life in Melaka and been buried there with the Dutch giving him full military honours. As you can see, he looks rather miserable though.

Manuel De Sousa Coutinho

Then during the Napoleonic Wars, the British took over and destroyed the fortress. After a brief return to the Dutch, in 1824 it was handed back to the British, splitting the region into Dutch and British spheres of influence. There was no doubt in Isabella's mind that those under the British got the better deal.

She said, “
The Portuguese were little better than buccaneers, the Dutch were little better than hucksters - mean, mercenary traders, without redeeming qualities; content to suck the blood of their provinces and give nothing in return. I should think that the colony is glad to be finally rid of them.

How rid of the Dutch the colony was, is a moot point! In the 1870’s Melaka’s business was still dominated by the Burghers, the Dutch who had married locally. And it was Henry Velge, a Melakan of Dutch descent, whose dealings over mining rights in Sungei Ujong set off a vicious little war between the British and the ruler of Negeri Sembilan. Henry Velge erected a mausoleum on St Pauls Hill at the centre of Melaka, dedicated to six members of his family who all died within seventeen days of each other of diphtheria. He himself lived till he was ninety-five.

The Velge family mausoleum

Despite the supposed "civilising" mission of the British, Isabella found that after fifty odd years of British rule, there was little sign of any development at all. There were no British banks, hotels, or much in the way of business.

Malacca looks, a town "out of the running",” she wrote, “utterly antiquated, mainly un-English, a veritable Sleepy Hollow. The place is so quiet and still that if I had to stay for long, I would yearn for an earthquake or tornado or any disruption to the dream produced by the heated, steamy, fragrant air, and the monotonous silence… It is a land where it is always afternoon. Hot, still, dreamy. Existence stagnates. Trade pursues its operations invisibly. Commerce hovers far off on the shallow sea. The British and French mail steamers give the port a wide offing.”

One wonders what the attraction of the place would be for anyone, least of all for the Imperial Mission! But in places where there is intrigue, scandal, gossip and, not to mention the odd man eating tiger, a certain breed of individual is always attracted. And Captain Hayward was such a man. Now I should have a nice big picture of the man here but unfortunately I cannot find any.

Now if I was making this as a documentary, I would cut to myself taking a nice virile pose and suggest that you should just image someone a bit like me, only younger, with more beard, and a bit more of a rippling abdomen visible beneath my very smart khaki uniform decked out with a sam brown bullet belt, a topi set at a jaunty angle, and an enormous rifle casually slung over my shoulder, sort of Clint Eastwood meets Lawerence Gray… It would be a moment no doubt of great humour. As it is, I will just let you imagine the scene where I wrestle a crocodile as Helen, my trusty wife and cameraperson, artistically manages to catch glittering droplets of water as I pop up for breath, bloodied knife in hand… Aaah, what a documentary that would be. Instead, you are just having to put up with me sat on a stool stumbling through some kind of introduction to the blog just to try keep the YouTube Channel alive and bring some of the YouTube audience to my website. Who knows, they might even buy one of those novels of mine that we're published in Hong Kong?!!

Now where was I? Ah yes, Captain Hayward!

Captain Hayward arrived in Melaka escorting the reigning prince of Sungei Ujong who was on his way to Mecca for the Haj.

Syed Abdul Rahman with truly exaggerated Oriental politeness, presented me with the key of his house in the interior!” Isabella announced.


Syed Abdul Rahman (Perhaps !Several histories use this photo for several personalities of the period, including Syed Abdul Rahman’s great rival, Dato Bandar! So, maybe it is him, maybe not. If it is dated after 1881, it won’t be him. But I cannot find an exact date for it.)

The actual title of Syed Abdul Rahman was the Dato Klana of Sungei Ujong. He was also the man who did the dodgy deal with Henry Velge that set off the chain of events that involved the British in "a little war."

This prince,” she said, “is regarded by British officials as an enlightened ruler, though he is a rigid Mussulman. His dress looked remarkable plain...”

She would find most of the Sultans rather plain. They were at their most picturesque often after being dressed by the British! When the British took over they wanted their Sultans to look a little more like a privileged oriental despot!

Dato Klana died of dysentery in Mecca, along with most of his household. Malay Royalty led precarious existence.

In the next Blog, Isabella leaves Melaka and goes on an adventure with Captain Hayward.


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.

So, do not forget to SUBSCRIBE to the YouTube Channel where I shall announce each blog as it is posted. Also check out our other documentaries on The Hidden History of Johor Bahru and The Hidden History of Johor Lama. Those are documentaries that we actually finished!

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.