An abridged account by Frank Swettenham of the first failed British attack on Maharaja Lela's stronghold at Pasir Salak on December 7th, 1875, and the courage and loyalty of two Malay scouts who took part in that raid.
On the day after my arrival at Bandar Bharu, Captain Innes, R.E., came from Penang accompanied by two officers and 60 men of the First Battalion of H.M. loth Regiment, together with the Superintendent of the Penang Police H. Plunket and twenty native constables armed with rifles. When the news of Mr. Birch's murder reached that place, the nearest British Settlement, Captain Innes was sent with a force to take charge of the Residency. It is not my intention to detail the subsequent events except in so far as is necessary for a right understanding of an incident connected with the death of a man called Nakodah Orlong, a Sumatran Malay.
With the force at our disposal, which included Lieut. Abbott, R.N., his four bluejackets, and about fifty so-called Sikhs, it was determined to attack Pasir Salak before the Maharaja Lela had time to collect a large following. An immediate advance was also considered advisable to prevent the number of our enemies being increased by what might look like our indecision. The distance from Bandar Bharu to Pasir Salak was five miles, every yard of it covered with vegetation of some sort, the only road a narrow path by the river-bank; moreover, Pasir Salak was not on our side of the river. It was, therefore, settled that we should start at daylight the next morning, the 7th November, in boats, that we should pole up stream two miles and walk the rest.
All that was wanted was a body of scouts to feel the way, and I undertook to find these. There were Raja Mahmud and his two followers, but it was hard to say where any other trustworthy Malays could be got at such short notice. Late that evening, however, Nakodah Orlong, whom I knew well, came in, and when I asked him if he would join us he at once consented, and said he could bring fourteen of his own men with him. That made us twenty, and was enough for the purpose.
We were up at 4.30 A.M. on the 7th, got all the men into boats, and made a start by 7.30 A.M. The river journey was accomplished without incident, a landing was effected, and the party moved off. The scouts were in front, followed at an interval by half the detachment of the lOth Captain Innes and the sailors with a rocket-tube came next, then the Sikhs and Penang Police under Mr. Plunket, and last of all the remainder of the 10th Regiment. We began the march gaily enough, not expecting to meet with any resistance till near Pasir Salak.
After walking a mile or so, always close by the river-bank, we came to a large field of Indian corn. The plants were eight or ten feet high, and so thick and close that it was impossible to see more than three or four yards in any direction; the ground between the corn-stalks was planted with hill-padi, and that was a couple of feet in height. On entering this field we opened out to cover as large a front as possible, and, when half way through the corn, passed a gigantic fig-tree growing on the edge of the river bank. On my right was Nakodah Orlong, and to the right of him one of his men called Alang; on my left was Raja Mahmud and the rest of the scouts.
We had been walking fast, and of the rest of the force we could see and hear nothing. We were talking and laughing (being still a long way from Pasir Salak) when suddenly we came to the end of the cover, for the last few feet of the corn had been cut down. At this moment Nakodah Orlong said, "There they are," and the words were hardly out of his mouth when we were greeted by a volley from the enemy concealed behind a stockade not a dozen yards in front of us.
Nakodah Orlong fell without uttering another sound, and, the enemy maintaining a brisk fire, our position was so uncomfortable that my own inclination was unhesitatingly to get out of the way. Probably my intention was apparent, for Raja Mahmud said, "Stand fast and shoot." I was obliged to him and followed his advice, but as the Manila boy and I were the only possessors of shooting-weapons, and the enemy were hidden behind a rampart of logs and banana-stems, while we had no shelter whatever, our continued existence was due simply to their want of skill. The absurdity of the situation was apparent, and its unpleasantness was heightened by the opening of a brisk fusillade in our rear. That decided us and we stepped back under cover, and then moved to the sheltering trunk of the fig-tree.
Arrived there we found that besides Nakodah Orlong (about whose fate there was no doubt, for he fell within a yard of me), Alang was the only one missing. He was the last man on the right, and, as no one had seen him, we concluded that he also had been killed. It was at once proposed that we should go back and secure the bodies, but our own people keeping up a merciless discharge in rear, and the enemy doing their best in front, we were caught between two fires, and thought it best to try and stop our friends at any rate from shooting us. We shouted, but that, of course, was no use, no one could either see or hear us. Twice again during the day we were placed in the same uncomfortable position, and a man kneeling behind me was shot in the back of his thigh. Once also the Sikhs made a determined attack on the men with me as we were trying to outflank the Malays, and in spite of our shouts only desisted when almost within touch of us.
The enemy's stockade was a long rampart impenetrable to bullets; it was faced by a deep and wide ditch cut at right angles to the river, with one end on the bank and the other in high jungle. The work was backed by a thick plantation of bananas, affording perfect cover, and those defending it were commanded by the Maharaja Lela in person, and his father-in-law Pandak Indut, foremost of Mr. Birch's murderers. Our rockets, an old pattern, were ineffective, and as they all went over the top of the stockade were greeted by the jeers of the enemy. We were close enough to hear even what they said in the intervals between the firing.
Our force was then reduced to the officers, the men of the 10th, bluejackets, and Malay scouts - the Sikhs and Penang police had retired en masse at an even earlier hour, and explained afterwards, with much force, that it was not for this kind of work that they had engaged. About 1 PM, Captain Innes gave the order to charge the stockade. That was done, but without guns to clear the way it was a hopeless task. We could not get across the ditch in the face of an unseen, protected enemy, while we were entirely at their mercy. We had to retire with the loss of Captain Innes killed, both the officers of the loth (Lieutenants Booth and Elliott) severely wounded, and other casualties. If men with weapons of precision and the knowledge to handle them had held the work, none of our party ought to have escaped. But with Malays you can take liberties; their weapons take some time to load, but they are deadly enough at a few yards distance.
Though we had gained nothing by rushing the place, the enemy did not like that style of attack and retired, only we did not know it then. We were engaged in counting the cost, picking up the wounded and organising an orderly retreat, for it was late, we had some miles to go, and we expected the Malays would leave their shelter and come after us. We had no surgeon, no stretchers, and the return journey was one that is not pleasant to recall. We reached our boats at 3 P.M., and the Residency a quarter of an hour later.
For some time I was very busy trying to attend to the wounded, but then my Malay friends asked me for a boat, as they said they must go and fetch Nakodah Orlong's body, and see what had become of Alang. A British soldier was also missing. I gave the boat and they started. About 8 P.M. they returned with Alang and the body of his chief; they had met the lad swimming down the river with his master's body.
When Nakodah Orlong fell, and the rest of us got away behind the great tree, this boy stayed by the dead man, and as he was right in the line of the thickest cross-fire, Alang pulled the body as close to the bank as he could, and there remained from morning till evening, making no sign, but simply declining to abandon the corpse. A man even came out from the stockade and attacked him with a kris, wounding him on the hand, but Alang beat him off. After the final charge, when our people passed close by him, it was he who saw the Malays retire, and he allowed us all to go away and leave him without giving any indication of his whereabouts. Then, the coast being clear, unable to carry the body so great a distance, he dragged it into the river and was swimming down stream with it when the boat met him.
Given a glorious sunny day and a good cause, the idea of ending existence suddenly and painlessly in the pride of life and in face of the foe has its attractions, and robs the inevitable of its sting. But who can hope that after his death there will be one other being whose love is great enough to offer his own life a willing sacrifice to guard the thing that was to-day a friend and to-morrow will be corruption?
Extracted from the chapter "Nakhoda Orlong" in Sir Frank Swettenham's "Malay Sketches" (1895, London: John Lane). "Malay Sketches" is available for download at my Sejarah Melayu Library.