In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Twenty Two: A rough oblong box and no-one to be sorry




Maharajalela and his men

On one day, Isabella took an excursion on a less erratic elephant further up the river to Kota Lama, which in her day was a small traditional village. “This is a place,” she said, “that earned a most unenviable notoriety during the recent troubles and is described as "a stronghold of piracy, lawlessness, and disaffection."


Kota Lama today

Here she met the widow of Maharajahlela – yes it is supposed to be one word - the man executed for complicity in the assassination of James Birch. They must have been somewhat wary of her for the last visit from the British had been by Captain Speedy when he was hunting down the Maharajalela. Here Speedy had walked into an ambush and the unfortunate Major Hawkins was speared. He uttered to those trying to rescue him the very British Last Words: "Save yourself, you can do me no good now!"


Major Hawkin’s grave on Bukit Chandon

One can find Major Hawkins in the graveyard on Bukit Chandan in Kuala Kangsar. His grave promotes him to Brigadier. You can find him along with sixteen other British soldiers killed in various skirmishes during the hunt for Birch’s killers. There were other casualties though, among the Indians and Gurkhas fighting in the British army, but at this time they did not get the same honours as the British and so literally, this place is a White Man’s Graveyard!

Isabella attended a funeral here. It was the funeral of a young Englishman who had come seeking an appointment but had gone down with a violent fever and delirium. This time the culprit was not malaria. It was the result of a drinking binge. Apparently the boy had got very drunk, become extremely violent, so violent that he beat up a couple of Sikh policemen trying to restrain him. And somehow he died in custody. All of which makes us rather roll our eyes as it does sound more likely that he died of a good beating and neglect in a police cell. Maybe he was drunk and disorderly and a danger to all, or at least a damned nuisance, and maybe he did get into gambling, drinking, whoring, and all the usual pass times of the young man who just turns up in some backwoods place known only for a vicious little war thinking that even he could get a job here! But it all smacks of heavy handedness, and cover-ups.

In Emily Innes’s account of her stay in Perak her husband, a magistrate, relied upon a tough old Sikh who sorted out trouble for him, so long as you did not ask too many questions. Convenient accidents happened to people who one could not deal with in any slow, legal manner. Such a man was an invaluable servant to have, and the British were amused to have such no-nonsense characters around.

Whether this was a case of such action, who knows? Isabella summed it up though as, “A career of dissipation, death at twenty one, a rough oblong box, and no-one to be sorry.”

It was yet another colonial story! If the mosquito didn't get you, or the heat, or the Chinese, or the Malays, then it was the booze! And this is in a time before penicillin, so I'm pretty sure that the women might get you as well.

But despite all the threats, Isabella rather liked Kuala Kangsar. This might have had something to do with having attached herself to Captain Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker with whom she would go off on hunting trips.


Malaysian Snipe shooting

Isabella definitely has a type, and consequently her mind turned to contemplating wild beasts: “The jungle seems to be full of wild beasts, specially tigers, in this neighbourhood, and the rhinoceros is not uncommon. Wild elephants are abundant, but like the rhinoceros, they ravage the deep recesses of the jungle.”

I am pretty sure that if Dr Freud had been around, he might have had something to say about deep recesses being ravaged. Not that there is evidence of her deep recesses getting ravaged. She presented herself as a very prim and proper travelling spinster and maybe she was, though Hugh Low was somewhat peeved at Captain Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker taking her out into the wilds during the night and not keeping his men informed as to their whereabouts. And rightly so! The place was dangerous!

Nevertheless, Hugh Low's court appealed to her sense of fair play and justice. Low paid much attention to training up local rajas to administer the region in the British way and she saw, at last, a vision of a Reforming Empire that would civilise the world. Here was a man who would do Malays good! Of course Emily Innis suspected that Hugh Low might have come to do good, and did very well for himself. Her husband had finally resigned after refusing to arrest runaway slaves on Low's orders. And she rather thought him to be living a surprisingly opulent life. His friendship with the local Capitan China, chief of the Hai San, Chung Keng Quee, was perhaps a source of such opulent living? Hugh Low gave him monopolies on the opium, gambling, spirits, pawnbroking and tobacco farms. He became owner of the largest Tin mine in the world and scourge of the Ghee Hing who were dominant in Johor and finally disbanded by the British in 1918. How much Low benefited personally from his association with such a character is not mentioned anywhere that I can find, but it would be unusual in this context to find that there were few personal advantages.

Emily Innes declared that the Residents were unsupervised, made the rules up as they went along, and were not subject to the civilising influence of European society. They conducted themselves just like the Sultans they were supposed to improve upon!

Which brings one to question whether this “indirect” rule did more to fossilise what was considered “oriental despotism” than to lead such states towards a responsible government that ruled not to extract tribute from one’s subjects, but to create a society where everyone had opportunities to lead happy fulfilling lives. On the one hand it was seen as not interfering in the culture of a sovereign nation, but on the other it put on ice internal contradictions that would find ways of adapting to the intellectual developments and innovations springing out of the west. One looks at how Japan avoided collapsing in the face of colonial forces and adapted. Though one also looks at how its own imperial traditions and cultural attitudes drove it into a self-destructive conflict with powers it barely understood. So perhaps Emily Innis has a point. Certainly the Brookes family’s annexation of Sarawak considered that its style of government was the best of both worlds, being on the one hand respectful of local culture and protective of it, while introducing the benefits of a vaguely rational administration. They of course were accused by many, including the more revolutionary local thinkers, of turning Sarawak into nothing more than a barely developed zoo. Hugh Low was of a similar mind-set to the Brookes and it appears that he literally did live in a zoo!

And so Isabella’s visit ended on a high note of positivity. She saw Hugh Low, the man who planted the first rubber tree in Perak, as a positive sign for the future of the country. She approved of his reforming agenda and his respect for local culture. Though she despaired of the Malay's lack of enterprise, adding that in truth they had little reason to do much. Coconuts were plentiful. Rice grew easily. Harvests were frequent. Hunting and fishing was more a game than a chore. And their religion took up most of the men's energies.

Mr Low's refrain was apparently, "
Poor fellows, they know no better." Perhaps our own refrain now when looking back at the British in Malaya, could be similar: "Poor fellows, they knew no better." Not that we know any better nowadays as the cultural wars of today circle around much the same political fault lines and economic imperatives.

Makam Long Jafaar, Ngah Ibrahim’s father, in Bukit Gantang

One of the scenic areas that she rode on horseback through was Bukit Gantang. Isabella loved horse riding and she seems to have either ventured out on her own, or perhaps gone on another excursion with Captain Walker.

Bukit Gantang is where Ngah Ibrahim's father is buried. He was the man who discovered tin in the region. The name basically means Rice Measuring Cup Hill. She was amazed by the plants, the fertility, and by the fact that she could travel unescorted through what had been hostile territory a mere couple of years previous.

She passed through the Pondak Mountain area, named after an Islamic scholar who set up a school there to teach religion. Locals consider it nowadays, in the twenty-first century, as dangerous because of the mysterious disappearances of hikers. So perhaps Isabella just got lucky and avoided the many devils and spirits that Malays believed in then and still do today.

Despite the pacification of the country, the first thing she had heard when arriving in Taiping was that a Chinese gang had hacked a revenue officer to death. Devils, tigers, and murderous Chinese still seemed all too common despite the British imposition of the Perak Armed Police.

When she finally left Taiping, she checked in at Permatang to inquire if there were any scent of the murderers of the revenue officer. Apparently the police were still pursuing their enquiries.

Malaysia is today noted for its pleasant people, and their peaceful nature. It is also noted for an extreme deference to authority where the Sultans live grandly, as the British enabled them to do. But also, the now elected politicians rule and similarly expect to live grandly. Their vices and virtues all seem reminiscent of those Isabella found operating within the political environment of 1879. But at least there is no great taste for fighting those battles with swords and guns. Given the history, it is something of a miracle.

Isabella’s final words were
, “We sailed from Penang in glorious sunshine at the early hour this afternoon, and have exchanged the sparkling calms of the Malacca Straits for the indolent roll of the Bay of Bengal. The steamer's head points northwest. In the far distance, the hills of the Peninsula lie like mists upon a reddening sky. My tropic dream is fading and the Golden Chersonese is already a memory.”


And so we come to the end of this series of Blogs. Imagine how interesting our documentary on this would have been. Right now, the music would be swelling and there would be a stirring speech about the passing of the Empire and how it invented the Modern World, whichever way one looks at it. There would be brilliantly picturesque images of the sun setting over the ocean, of tropical beaches and murky rivers, busy modern streets, and dilapidated old buildings, of multi-cultural Malaysia, and scandalous headlines, parliamentary uproar and judges in wigs and other Anglo-Saxon Common Law accessories. Somewhere in there, there would have to be some old footage of a steam-engine and a collage of images depicting events leading to Merdeka and beyond… ending no doubt with me, pith helmet on my head, a cricket bat in hand, standing in the middle of what would have been a cricket pitch a hundred years ago and wondering why nobody plays cricket anymore. I mean, a hundred years ago, Malaya beat Australia! One might well think, with some justification given a few of the words exchanged between Malaysian and Australian politicians, that the prospect of beating Australia in anything would be enough motivation for the Government of Malaysia to set about making cricket compulsory in all its schools. Just what would Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker think of this lack of cricketing prowess. He would be ordering his houseboy to polish up his Snipe gun and round up a few natives to give them a good talking to about the concept of the “benefit of the doubt”. Then he would have them in the nets and be slinging a few googlies their way.


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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