In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Twenty One: My Dinner With Apes



After recovering from her fear that the loyalty of the ex-Indian army recruits was questionable, Isabella journeyed to the new, and rather grand, seat of government at Kuala Kangsar. Here the British had built a seat of power fit for a Sultan, complete with palace and a spectacular British built and designed, mosque.

The Ubudiah Royal Mosque

Isabella intended on journeying to the capital in style on the back of what she imagined would be a luxury mode of transport, an elephant. However she discovered that elephants were not quite what they were cracked up to be.

“There was nothing grand about my elephant,” she wrote, “but his ugliness!”

After two hours of uncomfortable travel in a basket that kept sliding off the beasts back, Isabella's elephant driver stopped to chat and smoke with friends. Consequently the elephant went off into the jungle to tear down trees.

“And then going to a mud-hole,” she wrote, “he threw all the water out of it, squirted it with a loud noise over himself and his riders, soaking my clothes with it!”


Eventually the elephant refused to go any further and she ended up walking the last remaining miles. Given her other remarks about the ugly beasts of the jungle she was probably thinking how she would love to visit a zoo and poke a few tigers with sticks. For someone who liked the wild places, she did have a somewhat low opinion of wild animals. Wild men, on the other hand, well, that was a different matter. She had by the way, handed her card to Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker who would be making a visit to Kuala Kangsar to keep her company.

She finally arrived and it is a place where one can see that someone was doing well out of Pax Britannica. Or at least, the Palace looked like they did. Nice Sultanic place or not, the position of the Sultan was rather precarious. The official Sultan, Sultan Abdullah, had been exiled to the Seychelles for his part in the murder of James Birch, and in his place was Sultan Yussuf, who was not particularly well liked by anyone, Brits, Malays or Chinese, and who’s status dependent upon his being a direct descendant of a much earlier sultan, was always rather dubious. He reputedly boiled one of his slave girls alive, but Hugh Low seems to have got on well with him, largely by indulging him, and probably not mentioning the slave boiling incident, just seeing it as a quaint local custom. Hugh Low was woke. He could see that western society was essentially corrupt and exploitative and thus was hypocritical to condemn the traditions of others.


Raja Yussuf

However, despite Low’s indulgence, Yussuf could only command the title of “Acting Sultan,” and was constantly challenged by his son-in-law Raja Idris for leadership of the State Assembly. These two had the distinction of being the only real supporters of the British but they were still rivals and so not particularly co-operative. However, this was a situation that gave true meaning to accusation that the British ruled by “Divide and Conquer,” not that Perak was not divided and full of squabbling powers in the region before the British even knew the place existed. But the situation as it stood gave Hugh Low, some chance of actually keeping the place under his control if not under much control. He could also understand this friction between the son-in-law and father-in-law, as his own son-in-law, John Pope-Hennessey, the governor of Labuan, had blighted his career by suspending him from office on charges of immorality and nepotism, accusing him of keeping a Malay mistress and giving posts to her brothers.

Hugh Low, probably as a consequence of his indulgent rule, lived a comfortable life in a pleasant but traditional Malay house with only a handful of British troops to protect him. One does wonder whether he still lived with the Malay mistress he denied he had, despite his daughter and son-in-law obviously knowing otherwise. His wife had died on Labuan Island…


And her ghost was said to still haunt the Botanical Gardens there today. Whether he had his mistress when she was alive, who knows, but he was only in his forties then and a prime target for young girls impressed by Englishmen and their wallets. Now in his late fifties, the pleasant manner in which he managed to live in Kuala Kangsar does suggest that his household was run by someone who knew how to handle the locals and not, unlike Emily Innes, have to rely upon supplies of rusty tinned food from dodgy suppliers in Singapore. Hugh Low, in short, had gone native, despite then impressive display of Victorian mutton chop whiskers and a hefty British overcoat worn in tropical heat when posing for photographs. When not on official display, one suspects, he strutted around in a sarong and bare feet in his ever open house with Malays, royalty and commoner, coming and going at will.

Isabella took refuge here and waited for him to join her. At first though she had to dine alone... well, almost.


I was assured by the servant,” she explained, “that the meal was served and I sat down much mystified at the well appointed table, when he led in a large ape, and a small one, and a Sikh brought in a large retriever and tied him to my chair... I am inclined to think that Mr Low is happier among the Malays and among his apes and other pets than he would be among civilised Europeans!

In the next blog Isabella confronts the nature of colonialism.


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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