Day 16 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife through Asia and beyond. Join us as we explore history and culture. And after thirty years in Asia, we are now back in the UK. What next?

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 16 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

You know the story of Captain Speedy, well now here is the story of his boss, Ngah Ibrahim!


Today we look a little more into the history of 1870’s Perak and visit Ngah Ibrahim’s house. If you recall, he was the boss of Captain Speedy. I also mention Frank Swettenham in the video, but we will deal with him on another day. Frank was a real mover and shaker in Malaysian history and in the 1880’s was instrumental in building what would become the modern Malaysia. This is the period when indigenous traditional cultural groupings had to decide whether they were going to embrace change or be side-lined by it, or worse, be destroyed.

Ngah Ibrahim, like many of the Malay leaders of the 1870’s, found themselves straddling the divide between modernity and their traditional allegiances. He was the son of Long Jaafar, the headman of the district of Larut, approximately what became known as Taiping. He thus was one of those entitled young men that rarely grow into people capable of subtle political manoeuvring. Which is all very well when one has a compliant and cowed peasantry depending upon the largesse and protection of their traditional rulers, but when said rulers can see a means of making enormous amounts of money exploiting mineral wealth of a region, any sense of obligation to their subjects disappears.

The situation throughout Perak and other Malay states was that the peasants were forced to pay taxes to the various headmen, and when they failed to pay, they would be turned into debt slaves and be forced to labour for free. Thus their position became all the more wretched and one can trace a lot of the characterisation of Malays as shiftless and lazy to the experience of this version of slavery.

Long Jaafar had already been employing Chinese labour in the tin mines around Larut and made himself very wealthy. And when his son inherited his position, the best way to out do the old man, was to bring in even more Chinese, this time not just men with pics and shovels, but men to run a modern industrial operation. And as a consequence Ngah Ibrahim became richer than the Sultan and saw his Larut as essentially an independent state.

The Chinese roughly fell into two categories, the Ghee Hing, who were Cantonese, and the Hai San, who were Hakka. Now, despite the characterisation of these groups as Triads, or Gangs, as the museum translations term them, they were in fact ancient clan associations. They may well have had blood oaths of loyalty etc. but they acted as business associations, pension fund managers, and even medical health insurance, not to mention quality control agents of your regular opium needs. There was even a certain amount of democracy at work in the associations and we find in Borneo, for instance, from the 18
thCentury onwards an actual independent democratic republic run by such a group of Chinese associations. A fact that might well have encouraged the associations to have political aspirations that made both the British and the Malays nervous, especially after their attempted coup in Raja Brooke's Sarawak. Another theme that runs through Malay politics to this day.


They were in short, a law unto themselves and Ngah Ibrahim found himself with a land divided between two rival groups who saw their parts of town as completely under their control. And with a lot of illiterate Chinese coolies flush with money and having nothing to spend it on but gambling, opium, and prostitution, it was no surprise that policing them became an issue. The First Larut war was little more than a series of revenge feuds across each others territories, caused by gambling disputes. Even so, it was serious enough to require the Sultan to send in his troops to restore order. He charged Ngah Ibrahim for the costs incurred, which must have rankled. This humiliation set Ngah Ibrahim on a fateful course.

To help police the situation, Ngah Ibrahim hired Captain Speedy to form an armed police. Speedy brought his little mercenary army into Larut and things quietened down for a moment. But three years later, in 1865, an even more serious dispute played out when the leader of the Ghee Hing had an affair with the Hai San leader's wife!

The Hai San go on a rampage killing as many Ghee Hing as they could find and in retaliation the Ghee Hing bring in four thousand mercenaries to attack the Hai San, causing them to evacuate the area and run off to Penang, where they set about arming themselves.

After a series of skirmishes, Captain Speedy manages to restore order and Larut is once again restored to an uneasy truce. But in 1873 on the death of the Sultan, one of the claimants, Raja Abdullah, uses the Ghee Hing to defeat Raja Ismail, who was backed by Ngah Ibrahim. Ngah Ibrahim then hires the Hai San to fight for his preferred Sultan. Now things get a bit hazy because the various sources of this information get confused as to when things happen but Isabella Bird, who travelled in the area not long after all this says that Larut was completely destroyed and only three houses were left standing, two of which I assume were Ngah Ibrahim's and Captain Speedy's, because they still stand today. She says that nearly three thousand were killed on one day!

None of that actually seems possible but obviously at the time the British spun the whole conflict as needing British intervention to restore order. So the more blood curdling the story the better!

What is true is that Ngah Ibrahim had backed a loser and Raja Abdullah took the throne, with British help, which must have been a bit of shock to Captain Speedy who found himself now fighting the wrong corner!

This all leads to the Pangkor Treaty which brought in JWW Birch as the British Resident in Perak. More about him in a later video and blog.

James Birch immediately begins a series of reforms and Ngah Ibrahim finds that he has lost the right to tax people he considers his subjects. And worse still, Birch makes a point of liberating the slaves, in particular the women, that many Raja's had accumulated in payment of debts. His motivation for that was not construed as a humanitarian gesture but more of a desire to hog all the women for himself! Perhaps if Birch's inclination truly had been to run after women, he would have had something in common with the Rajas and been less of pain. But somehow I doubt this rather stiff upper lipped old colonial was interested in anything quite as sweaty as sex in the tropics.

So Ngah Ibrahim, perhaps more by association than intention, finds himself as part of the plot that assassinated Birch. And I deal with that story later on when we visit Raja Lela's house where the assassination took place.

Ngah Ibrahim probably was less in favour of murdering the man, more simply for persuading the British to swap him in favour of someone more amenable to local traditions. Especially those allowing traditional rulers to tax at will. And worse than losing a fat portion of his income, he now found that his employee, Captain Speedy, being a loyal British subject, sort of, considered himself as answerable to the British and not Ngah Ibrahim. Ngah Ibrahim bitterly complained that Captain Speedy was now treating
him as little more than his servant!

After Birch's murder Ngah Ibrahim's house was requisitioned by the British who used it as the court house to try the conspirators and to hang the guilty, in particular the hot headed Raja Lela, who can be found buried in the grounds where he was hanged.

Ngah Ibrahim was banished along with Sultan Abdullah and a number of other chiefs to the Seychelles for seventeen years. Which might not be seen as particularly irksome as they were given pensions and could join the cricket club, but I suspect it was a long and frustrating sojourn in an isolated backwater constantly under the watch of people who were probably not very understanding.

And there you have it, the story of Ngah Ibrahim. If you haven't already, now watch the video and like, share, subscribe and hit the notification bell so that you can know when more videos are available. You might also like to subscribe to my twitter feed at: @LawrenceWGray