In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Sixteen: White Man's Grave


Blog Sixteen: Penang


After Pangkor, Isabella Bird arrived in Penang, which she found very much to her taste. She wrote: “The sight of the Asiatics who have crowded into Georgetown is a wonderful one, Chinese, Burmese, Javanese, Arabs, Malays, Sikhs, Madrasses, Klings, Chuliahs, and Parsees and still they come in junks and steamers and strange Arabian craft and all get a living, depend slavishly on no one, never lapse into pauperism, retain their own dress, customs, and religion, and are orderly.”

Isabella too asked one of the boatmen ferrying her about the harbour why Penang was like this. He said, "Empress good - coolie get money; keep it!"

Out of this cosmopolitan and wealthy throng she said she saw not one single Malay woman. She thought their lives must be very dull.

“The Malay people live strange and uneventful lives. The men are not much inclined to much effort in fishing or hunting, and, where they possess rice land, in ploughing for rice. They are not savages in the ordinary sense, for they have a complete civilization of their own, and their legal system derived from the Koran.”

The Chinese on the other hand, she said, “Are everywhere the same, keen, quick-witted for chances, markedly self-interested, purpose-like, thrifty, frugal, on the whole regarding honesty as the best policy, independent in manner as in character, and without a trace of Oriental servility.”

Well, they got the thumbs up from her in Penang where the Chinese Public Relations agency must have been working overtime. Elsewhere they are portrayed as fractious, dangerous, opium addled, dishonest, psychotic, gamblers, which may be the misinterpretation of a petty minded racist swallower of imperial prejudices, or might be the honest impressions of someone who rather liked seeking out gambling halls that managed to get in sufficient quantities of champagne and keep it cool and fizzy. In Penang, she does not mention a single gambling hall. Obviously her schedule put her in touch with a different class of people.

If one reads the less romanticized memoirs of Emily Innes, who Frank Swettenham dismissed as too bitter to be reliable, she says Isabella’s account is as true as her own, with the difference being that Isabella was shown only the best of the country while she and her husband had to suffer life without support in the boondocks.

Northam Road Protestant Cemetery

It should be noted though that in 1879 there were only six hundred and twelve Europeans in the whole island. Not many Europeans were even attracted by the prospect of earning a fast buck. If one goes to the old Protestant Cemetery on Northam Road in Penang one literally finds a Whiteman's graveyard. Captain Light, the founder of the colony, is in there, having died of malaria in 1794.


Captain Light’s grave

We find other British Governors there, similarly carried away by malaria. And even the unfortunate Superintendent Lloyd is here. His tombstone blandly declaring that a Chinese Gang murdered him, as if that was normal. Which, it was and one can see why Europeans gave the place a wide birth.

It is also a little known fact that Arthur Wellesley, before he became the Duke of Wellington, had also visited Penang and might well have been one of the reasons why the place became even more deadly than when Captain Light was firing canon loaded with gold coins into the mangroves to encourage enterprising Chinamen to grab the land and clear it. His brother, then Governor of Calcutta, had sent him to Penang to organise its defences against any French inspired attack. He noted that Georgetown’s Fort Cornwallis was next to useless and proclaimed the whole town as indefensible and should be moved to the other side of the island. There military supplies could easily be arranged without the risk of getting cornered by a French frigate in the narrow straits. This was not seen as feasible and thus the defences of Fort Cornwallis were beefed up with the digging of a moat. And that moat, now filled in, became a haven for mosquitoes and consequently did more damage to the British forces, let alone the endlessly sickly Governors, than any passing French frigate could have managed.


Isabella arrived in Penang on Sultan Abdul Samad’s steamer with Bloomfield Douglas who was going to a conference of various officials with Sir W. Robinson, who was at that moment the Straits Colonies Governor and as yet did not have a road in Singapore named after him. As you can imagine, there was quite a turnover of these men, who frequently fell ill and or fell foul of the politics of the position. He was merely going back to the UK on leave, and so lots of people wanted him to represent their cases and reports at the Colonial Office when he reached London.

Isabella said of this unholy scramble for attention, “There are people pushing rival claims, some wanting promotion, others leave; some frank and above-board in their ways, others descending to mean acts to gain favour, or undermining the good reputation of their neighbours; everybody wanting something and usually, as it seems, at the expense of somebody else!”

She thus summed up the colonial world! It was probably a bit of a treat for the Governor to have breakfast with Isabella. She was one of the few people without an axe to grind, though he was probably aware that the good opinion of a popular writer on foreign climes would not do him any harm.


Sir Hugh Low.

He keenly introduced her to Mr Hugh Low, the third Resident in Perak, and man with a very different sort of track record to the others she had met. Mr Low seemed to be at ease in the rather precarious position the residents found themselves in. The previous resident in Perak had been non other than J. G. Davidson! Who must have recovered from his bout of illness, or suspicious financial irregularities? Whatever it was, he had taken over after Birch, to calm the situation down. The cast of restless natives were all people that he knew on a personal level, but even he balked at staying on when he could not get the resources he deemed would ensure his safety. That standing army he wanted to recruit to protect his business ventures in Selangor was probably the sort of thing he wanted but the Colonial Office thought that was not exactly cricket as it smacked of annexation and Gladstone simply would not accept that sort of thing. So, short of any other candidate, they took a chance on Mr Hugh Low.

Mr Hugh Low had been vegetating for years as a lowly police magistrate on Labuan Island writing books about Malaya. His wife died of... yes, you guessed it.


And his daughter had disowned him, disgusted at his Malay mistress. So Mr Low, a man of great beard, bad suits, a stalled career, and low book sales, had nothing to lose but a knighthood to gain. So he took his chances. He also seemed immune to mosquitoes and most unnaturally seemed to actually like Perak and the people, even the Chinese, especially Chung Keng Quee, the head of the Hai San, who he formed a close business arrangement with.


Hugh Low is credited with bringing about stability in Perak, largely, if Emily Innes is anything to go by, by letting the rajas get away with their old habits of slavery and toll collecting, the two issues that had resulted in poor James Birch being stabbed to death. She also seemed to think Hugh lived well above his station, seeming to have many resources that her husband when working for him, was unable to procure, such as housing, security, food! Her husband was a magistrate in Perak, having been sent there by Bloomfield Douglas glad to be rid of the complaining Innes’s. But not for long, for Mr Innes resigned in disgust at having been required by Hugh Low, to capture runaway slaves and return them to their Malay owners. Hugh Low is credited with ending the slave trade but it seems it took him a long time doing so, with the excuse that these cultural anomalies required sensitivity and ways of compensating owners.

Despite, or perhaps because of Hugh Lows tolerance of such feudalistic aspects of Malay culture, Isabella found Hugh Low a charming man and so took the opportunity of the Governor’s introduction to go on a tour of Perak.

The next blog takes us to Province Wellesley and we find out a bit more of the political rivalry among the British Residents.


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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