In The Footsteps of Isabella Bird

The lost documentary

Part Thirteen: Warm Heart, Strong Impulse


BLOG 13 - Warm Heart, Strong Impulse

Bloomfield Douglas

Bloomfield Douglas was an interesting man. He was definitely a man of energy and talent. Frederick Weld, the Straits Governor who eventually sacked him, said that, “As Resident of Selangor Mr Douglas, a man of warm heart and strong impulse, was not without his merits as well as his faults. He was more active than most men of younger age, courageous, energetic and zealous in many directions and I still believe that personally his loss will be regretted by the Sultan and by a great part of the Malays.”


Douglas painted the scene above which illustrates his long association with the sea, and perhaps tempestuous nature. His diaries illustrate both his involvement in the nitty gritty of Malay life, and his enjoyment of the rugged life. He managed to outlive two wives and several children, and married a third time at the age of 75, claiming he was 65.

In Selangor he had set himself the task of centralising the administration under the Sultan, stripping away the powers of the petty Rajas, and encouraging justice to be dispensed according to actual hard evidence!

When Isabella visited him he appears to have put on quite a show for her with parades, fancy uniforms, and luxury cruises up the river. He even introduced her to the Sultan and his entourage, in a formal gathering where Douglas had in effect kitted out the Sultan in his new more regal regalia. Douglas loved a uniform.

Isabella though was not impressed at all. She instead felt rather queasy in what was a military camp given to sudden drills and paranoia at any Malay sighted on the periphery. Douglas’s experience in Kuching dealing with pirates meant that he really did not trust the Malays or Chinese not to suddenly murder everyone, a state of mind that Isabella did not appreciate.

Douglas, ever the man to make the best of whatever situation he was in, invited her to join him on The Sultan's luxury Steam Yacht for a trip up the river. She could then observe how he was dispensing justice and re-organising Selangor into a civilized industrious modern society.

Despite her low opinion of Douglas
, and with the champagne flowing, she rather enjoyed the journey up the river to Bukit Jugra. “This day has been a tropic dream,” she wrote “I have enjoyed it and am enjoying it intensely. This is one of the very few days in my life in which I have felt mere living to be a luxury, and what it is to be akin to seas and breezes and birds and insects and to know why nature sings and smiles.”

But it was also a sign of how Douglas was manipulating the Sultan. He controlled his finances and although building him a palace, it was complete with a decent wine cellar, western furniture, paintings, and the sort of luxury objet d'art that Douglas considered fit for a Sultan with little regard to the Sultan’s complete indifference to such things.

Abdul Samad like many a Malay, preferred pottering about his Orchard in his sarong. He also liked salting away money out of the reach of Douglas. He would stuff it in cases beneath his bed just in case he needed to run for cover, hire a few pirates and set himself up in some other river outlet where he could charge the odd passing Chinaman a toll fee. Abdul Samad had led a precarious existence and was a man who had learned it was always best not to get too comfortable and to be as mobile as possible.

Isabella sensed that was the case with most of the Malays in this region.
“The people are harassed,” she said, “by a vexatious and uncertain system of fees and taxes, calculated to engender ill feeling, and things connected with the administration seem somewhat mixed.” One might add she could have said much the same about the state of the Malays before the British intervention, something of which Douglas was actually determined to reform! But for her this was another case of the British administration failing to bring about much improvement in the situation.


The State Council

The official reason for the journey up the river was that there was to be a state council. This is where the Resident presented the Sultan with such things as death warrants to sign. Douglas and Daly enjoyed dressing up in splendid uniforms and putting on a show so the council was held with great ceremony to show all the rajas and headmen that Sultan Abdul Samad was in charge - sort of - and doing well out of his association with the British. They had bought the Sultan some new clothes, to try get him out of his scruffy sarong and into something more befitting a powerful and rich Sultan: the grander the Sultan, the more convincing the conceit that the British were merely there as friendly advisors helping the native population adjust to the modern world.

The Sultan’s heir apparent, Raja Musa, had sworn to drive the white man into the sea, but apart from that, he was happy to take the British pension money and also dress up. He liked to show off his noble royal descent and was very keen on protocol. He was strangely enough the son the British considered the more acceptable, perhaps demonstrating that the Brits of the period were as snobbish as Raja Musa. His brother Yacob was, according to Emily Innes, wife of the British tax inspector, amiable and enterprising, despite having had a career as a murderous pirate. He was approachable and thus not a snob.

The Resident,” wrote Isabella of the occasion, “arrived at nine, wearing a very fine dress sword, and gold epaulettes on his linen coat...”

Although Sultan Abdul Samad had a reputation for having killed fifty men with his own bare hands, or because of it, Isabella, like many others found him an amusing, intelligent man.

“If Abdul Samad were not Sultan, I should pick him out as the most prepossessing Malay that I have seen.”

This is not a description that any of the pictures of him conjure up. He looks thin, disappointed, and as unimpressed as he looks unimpressive. And yet, he obviously commanded a lot of respect from everyone who met him. Maybe not as much respect from his daughter and his family, but that’s families for you. He lived a long life and reputedly remained good humoured and intelligent to the end.

Despite the splendour of the ceremony and the luxury of the steamer, Isabella's stay in Bukit Jugra made her miserable.

“The tiger mosquitoes of this region bite all day and they do embitter life. In the evening all the gentlemen put on sarongs over their trousers to protect themselves, and the ladies are provided with sarongs which we draw over our feet and dresses, but these wretches bite through two ply of silk or cotton and in spite of all precautions, I am dreadfully bitten!”


In the next Blog we explore a bit more murder and mayhem.


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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