In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Twelve: Rafflesia Arnoldi




Raffleseia Arnoldi

Just when Abdul Samad seemed to be reasserting his grip on the situation, his dodgier son, Raja Yakob, murdered the crew and passengers on a vessel registered in Malacca right at the time Vice Admiral Sir Charles Shadwell and his British navel squadron happened to be passing through the straits. Andrew Clarke seized this chance to ask the navy to pay a visit to Abdul Samad to make him an offer he could not refuse.

Abdul Samad and friends

Abdul Samad was terrified and took some persuasion to meet with British officials. However, with his security assured, he took the meeting and naturally, told the British that all his sons were innocent and to prove it he arrested and tried several "suspects", sentencing them to be speared. He then had the possibly guilty men killed the night before the British got a chance to question how reliable the one witness was
. The witness, given that his family had been slaughtered by the Bugis, was perhaps keen to avoid any more unpleasantries at their hands and so gave Abdul Samad the result he wanted.

Whatever doubts the British had were swept away when the Sultan expressed a strong desire to have a British officer resident to advise and assist him in his endeavours to maintain order. And thus ended the Malay state sponsorship of piracy in Malay waters!

How genuine Abdul Samad’s desire for a permanent British advisor is arguable, but he had been trying to set up a modern administration along the lines that the British had admired in Lukut. He also remarked to Isabella Bird later on that he had never felt safe until the British came and had feared all meetings with his chiefs would end with someone stabbing him. So perhaps he really was grateful. Abdul Samad was nothing if not a political man, walking a dangerously thin line between the traditionalists and modernists. One still gets a whiff of the chaotic side switching, back stabbing, world of nineteenth century Selangor politics in Malaysia’s political landscape even today.

Emily Innes, who was not a woman to praise much about anything in Malaya, had found Raja Yakob, not Raja Musa, to be an admirably friendly and industrious man, unless one mentioned Islam whereupon he took a more blood curdling turn, but unlike other royal Malays, he was no snob, and happy to get his hands dirty building and maintaining his property. Like his father, he seems to have had intelligence, charm and initiative, as well as the capacity to slaughter when it seemed convenient.

Kudin's friend, Mr J.G. Davidson naturally took over as a sort of official Resident in Klang while the twenty two year old Frank Swettenham was placed in Langat to "advise" the Sultan, which seems to have consisted of going snipe shooting with the old man and listening to his stories.

Malaysian Snipe

How could anyone in the Colonial Office object to young Swettenham being there as an advisor? Surely a man of such tender years who had only just passed his Malay language proficiency examination would be more of an observer than an advisor? Hardly what one would call “interfering in the internal affairs” of another sovereign state?

Even so, that youthfulness did not go unnoticed in Singapore. Swettenham had called himself the “British Resident” but his title was rapidly changed to Assistant Resident under pressure from elements of the administration who disapproved of the whole adventure and were not persuaded that the Colonial Office’s policy of non-intervention was still in tact even if it was only a matter of “advising.”

The Sultan himself saw the funny side of being "advised" by a twenty two year old and took a liking to Swettenham saying "He is very clever in gaining the hearts of Rajas and sons of Rajas with soft words, delicate and sweet, so that all men rejoice in him as in the perfume of an opened flower." He was probably thinking of the notoriously pungent Rafflesia Arnoldi, otherwise known as The Stinking Lily. The quote does give us a sense of Abdul Samad’s sense of irony, an attribute that impressed Swettenham and forever after he had a romantic notion of the British relationship to the Malays. Where the Chinese were all business and enterprise, the Malays, in Swettenham’s writings, were custodians of the land and a more natural way of life.

Meanwhile Raja Mahdi, after trying to persuade Abu Bakar, the Temenggong of Johor, to back him, went to Singapore and much to his surprise found they were not in the mood to negotiate. They arrested him and he conveniently died of TB whilst in jail. So began British Malaya: a murky history indeed, as Isabella called it.

Davidson, saint though Isabella considered him, lasted a surprisingly short time. He fell out with Kudin, probably over money - those Pahang troops were still looking to be paid so one wonders where that money went - and for that matter the Colonial Office were somewhat queasy about Davidson's business interests. Why they were less queasy about appointing dodgy Bloomfield Douglas as Resident and his assistant son-in-law, Mr Dominic Daniel Daly, is a bit of a mystery. Maybe his connections to the governor of Adelaide helped. Or the fact that his uncle had married Raja Brooke’s sister? Or was it a friendship with swash buckling Admiral Keppel? Douglas’s daughter ghost-wrote the man’s memoirs! Or maybe the Colonial Office thought there was a need for a rough frontier type, especially one with twenty years of experience and well, he was Davidson’s assistant so already in situ. On hearing that Davidson had become ill and that he was to take over his duties, he writes in his diary: “I am elated at the news but I wish there was much promise of permanency about it.” So, no love lost between him and his boss.

And in the next blog, we get back to Isabella and her journey and her rather low opinion of Douglas.


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.

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