Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Story of Ram Singh

The story below is an account by Hugh Clifford,  British Resident to the Sultan of Pahang, of the attack on Kuala Tembeling  during the Malay uprising led by Orang Kaya Pahlawan Dato' Bahaman of Semantan to expel the British from Pahang in 1890. While it is obviously written from the British perspective of the conflict, it does give one an idea of the nature of the conflict and, no matter where your sympathies lie, is a rather enjoyable and riveting tale of heroic derring-do!

They were a band of some fifty or sixty ruffians - rebel Malays from the Tembeling Valley of Pahang, clothed in ragged, dirty garments; long-haired, rough-looking disreputables from the wilder districts of Trengganu and Kelantan and Besut, across the mountain range; led by a dozen truculent, swaggering Pahang chiefs, rebels against the Malay Sultan and the Government, outlaws in their own land. The oldest, the most wily, was the ex-Imam Prang Indera Gajah Pahang, commonly-called To’ Gajah, a huge-boned, big-fisted, coarse-featured Malay of Sumatran extraction. To’ Gajah’s three sons were also in the party. They were Mat Kilau, Awang Nong and Teh Ibrahim: typical young Malay roisterers, truculent, swaggering, boastful, noisy and gaily-clad. The foremost fighting chief of the band was the Orang Kaya Pahlawan of Semantan. A thickset, round-faced, keen-eyed man of about fifty years of age, he was known to all the people of Pahang as a warrior of real prowess, a scout without equal in the Peninsula, and a jungle-man who ran the wild tribes of the woods close in his knowledge of forest-lore. 

To' Gajah spoke to them about an attack that was to be made just before dawn upon the small detachment of Sikhs stationed in the big stockade at Kuala Tembeling. The word was passed for absolute silence, and the dugouts with their loads of armed men were then pushed out into mid-stream. The stockade, which was to be the object of the attack, was situated upon a piece of rising ground overlooking the junction of the Tembeling and Pahang Rivers, and at its feet was stretched the broad sand bank of Pasir Tambang, which has been the scene of so many thrilling events in the history of this Malayan State of Pahang.

The men in the boats floated down the stream borne slowly along by the current, were absolutely noiseless. The nerves of one and all were strung to a pitch of intensity. Hands clutched weapons in an iron grip; breaths were held, cars strained to catch the slightest sound from the stockade which, as they drew nearer, was plainly visible on the prominent point, outlined blackly against the dark sky. The river, black also, save where here and there the dim starlight touched it with a leaden gleam, rolled along inexorably, carrying them nearer and nearer to the fight which lay ahead, bearing sudden and awful death to the dozen Sikhs in the stockade. At last, after a lapse of time that seemed an age to the raiders, the boats grounded one by one upon the sand bank of Pasir Tambang, so gently and so silently that they might have been ghostly crafts blown thither from the Land of Shadows.

The Orang Kaya Pahlawan landed with Wan Lela, Mat Kilau, Awang Nong, Teh Ibrahim, Panglima Kiri, and a score of picked men at his heels, leaving old To' Gajah and the rest of the party in the boats. Very cautiously they made their way to the foot of the eminence upon which the stockade stood, flitting across the sand in single file as noiselessly as shadows. Hiding behind some sparse bushes, they caught sight of the glint of a rifle-barrel as a lone Sikh sentry passed down his beat away from them. The raiders could hear the regular fall of the heavy ammunition boots as the sentry marched along. Then they heard him halt, pause for a moment, and presently the sound of his footfalls began to draw near to them once more. Each man among the raiders held his breath, and listened in an agony of suspense. Would he see them and give the alarm before he could be stricken dead? Suddenly a figure started up in silhouette against the skyline behind the sentry's back, moving quickly, but with such complete absence of noise that it seemed more ghost-like than human. A long black arm grasping a sword leaped up sharply against the sky; the weapon poised itself for a moment, reeled backward, and then with a thick swish and a thud descended upon the head of the Sikh. The sentry's knees quivered for a moment; his body shook like a steam-launch brought suddenly to a standstill upon a submerged rock; and then he fell over in a limp heap against the wall of the stockade, with a dull bump and a slight clash of jingling arms and accoutrements.'

In a second all the raiders were upon their feet, and, led by the Orang Kaya, waving his reeking blade above his head, they rushed into the now unguarded stockade, and then, sounding their war-cry for the first time that night, they plunged into the hut in which the Sikhs were sleeping.

There were nine men inside the hut. The jangle caused by the fall of the sentry by the gate had awakened two of them, and these threw themselves upon the rebels and, fought desperately with their clubbed rifles. They had no other weapons. Their companions came to their aid, and a good oak rifle-butt was broken into two pieces over Teh Ibrahim's head in the fight which ensued, though no injury was done to him by the blow. The rush of the Sikhs was so effectual that they all won clear of the hut, and six of their number escaped into the jungle and so saved themselves. The remaining three were killed outside the hut, and Kuala Tembeling stockade had fallen into the hands of the raiders. 

Their greatest enemy of the rebels, the loyal Imam Prang Indera Setia Raja, had his village some thirty odd miles lower down the Pahang River, at Pulau Tawar, and if this place could also be surprised, the best part of Pahang would be in the possession of the rebels, and a general rising in their favour might be confidently looked for. The Orang Kaya and his people knew this, and their hearts were uplifted with triumph, for they saw now that the Saint who had foretold victory to their arms had been no lying prophet.

Unfortunately for the rebels, however, all the Sikhs had not been within the walls of the stockade when the well-planned attack was delivered. On the morning of the attack two of the little garrison, Ram Singh and Kishen Singh, had bestirred themselves before their comrades, and were already shivering on the water's edge when the raiders arrived. It says a good deal for the admirable tactics of the Malays that it was not until the attack had been delivered that the two Sikhs became aware of the approach of their enemies. Suddenly, as the two Sikhs stood, naked save for their loin-cloths, the great stillness of the night was broken by a tempest of shrill yells. Then came half a dozen shots, ringing out crisply and fiercely and awakening a hundred clanging echoes in the forest on either bank of the river. An answering cheer was raised by the Malays in the boats, the tumult of angry sound seeming to spring from out of the darkness in front, behind, on every side of the bewildered Sikhs. The thick mist beginning to rise from the surface of the water served to plunge the sand bank upon which they stood into fathomless gloom. The ears of the two men rang again with the clamour of the fight going on in the stockade, with the shouts and yells of those who shrieked encouragement to their friends from the moored boats, with the clash of weapons, and with the sudden outbreak of the unexpected hubbub. But they could see nothing-nothing but the great inky shadows all about them into which everything seemed to be merged, and from which issued such discordant and fearful sounds.

'Where are you, Ram-siar, my brother?' cried Kishen Singh, despairingly; and a heavy silence fell around them for a moment as his voice was heard by the Malays in the boats. Then the shout of the enemies nearest to the two Sikhs broke out more loudly than before.

'It’s the voice of a kafir!' cried some-'Stab, stab!' 'Kill, and show no mercy, in the name of Allah!'-'Where, where?' -and then came the crisp pattering of many bare feet over the dry, hard sand in the direction from which the Sikh had shouted to his countryman. 

'Brother, I am here,' cried Ram Singh, more quietly, close to Kishen Singh's elbow. 'Alas, but we have no arms, and these jungle-pigs be many. We must tear the life from them with our hands. Oh, Guru Nanak, have a care for thy children in this their hour of need!'

In the dead blackness of the night both men could hear the swish of naked blades on all sides of them, for the Malays were as much baffled by the darkness as were their victims, and men struck right and left on the bare chance of smiting something. Presently the swish of a sword very near to Ram Singh ended suddenly in a sickening thud, the sound of steel telling loudly upon yielding flesh, and Kishen Singh gave a short, hard cough. The unseen owner of the weapon raised a cry of 'Basah!  Basah! I have wetted him! I have drawn blood!' and a yell of exultation went up from a score of fierce voices. Guided by the noise, Ram Singh threw himself upon the struggling mass which was Kishen Singh rolling over and over in his death-agony, with the Malays tossing and tumbling, hacking and smiting above him. Ram Singh's left hand grasped a sword-blade, and though the fingers were nearly severed he managed to wrench the weapon from the grip of a Malay. Then, with the roar of an angry forest monster, he charged the spot where the tumult was loudest.

Putting all his weight into each blow, and striking blindly and ceaselessly, he fought his way through the throng in the direction from which the sound of the river purring between its banks was borne to him. The Malays fell back before his desperate onslaught, but they closed in behind him, wounding him cruelly with their swords and daggers and wood-knives, while he in his blindness did them but little injury.  None the less, as the dawn began to break, Ram Singh, bleeding from more than a score of wounds, and with his left arm nearly severed, succeeded at last in leaping into one of the moored boats, and, cutting the rope, pushed out into mid-stream. There were three Malays on board the little dugout, but they quickly slipped over the side, and swam for the shore, deeming this blood-stained, fighting, roaring Sikh no pleasant foe with whom to do battle; and as they went, Ram Singh, utterly spent by his exertions and by loss of blood, slipped down into the bottom of the boat
in a limp heap. 

Fortunately, none gave chase and thus, as the day-light began to draw the colour out of the jungle on the river-banks, the dugout, in which the wounded Sikh lay, drifted rocking down the stream, until at last it disappeared round the bend a quarter of a mile below the rebel camp.

Ram Singh lay so very still that the raiders may perhaps have persuaded themselves that he was dead; but they should have made sure, for their next move must be down stream, and the success or failure of their attack depended almost entirely upon the next village of Pulau Tawar being surprised as Kuala Tembeling had been, for here was the stronghold of Imam Prang Setia Raja, who was loyal to the Sultan. 

Ram Singh was also aware of the enormous importance of a warning being carried to Imam Prang, and, weighed against this, the mere question of saving or losing his own life seemed to him a matter of little moment. Although he was too weak to stand or to manage the boat, he determined to remain where he was until the current bore him to Pulau Tawar, and then, and not till then, to spread the news of the fall of Kuala Tembeling. He knew enough of Malay peasants to feel sure that no man among them would dare to help him if they learned that the rebels were in the immediate vicinity, and that he had received his wounds at their hands. He knew also that he could not rely upon any Malay to pass the word of warning which alone could save Imam Prang from death, and the whole of Pahang from a devastating little war. Therefore he determined that, dying though he believed himself to be, he must take that warning word himself. He swore to himself that he would not even halt to bind his wounds, nor to seek food or drink. Nothing must delay him, and the race was to be a close one between his own failing strength and rapidly moving rebels. 

The sun rose higher and higher, each moment adding to the intensity of the heat. In the Malay Peninsula, men have frequently died a lingering death from exposure to the sun. Ram Singh bore all this, which seemed almost insignificant in comparison to the pain of the twenty-seven wounds on his body. Shortly after noon a sudden collision with some unseen object jarred the Sikh cruelly, and wrung a moan from his lips.  A brown hand seized the gunwale of the dugout, and a moment later a beardless, Malay face, seamed with many wrinkles, looked down into the boat. 'What ails thee, brother?' asked the face. 

'Help me to reach the Imam Prang at Pulau Tawar,’ said Ram Singh, lying bravely in spite of his ebbing strength. The Malay mounted the dugout and in a short while it was racing down stream with the cool rush of air fanning the fevered cheeks of the wounded man most deliciously. An hour or two later Pulau Tawar was reached, and Imam Prang, hearing that a Sikh in trouble wished to have speech with him, came down to the water's edge. 

'What thing has befallen thee, brother?' he asked, aghast at the fearful sight before him. The dugout was a veritable pool of blood, and the feverish eyes of the stricken man stared out at him from a face blanched to an ashen grey, more awful to look upon by contrast with the straggling fringe of black beard. The pale lips opened and shut, like the mouth of a newly landed fish, but no sound came from them; the great weary eyes seemed to be speaking volubly, but alas! the words could not leave his lips. Was the supreme effort which the stricken Sikh had so nobly made to be wasted? For a moment it seemed as though the irony of Fate would have it so; and Ram Singh, deep down in his heart, prayed to Guru Nanak to give him the strength he lacked, that his suffering might bear fruit. Mightily, with the last remnants of his failing forces, the Sikh fought for speech. He gasped and struggled in a manner fearful to see, till at last the words came, and who shall say at what a cost of bitter agony?

'Dato the ... rebels ....’ came the faltering whisper. 'The rebels Kuala ... Tembeling ... fallen ... taken .... many killed .... make ready ... against their coming .... and behold.. I have brought the word ... and I die I die. . . . '
His utterance was choked by a great flow of blood from his mouth, and without a struggle Ram Singh fainted away and lay as one dead.

Imam Prang was a man of action, and he had his people collected and his stockades in a thorough state of defence long before the afternoon began to wane. While Imam Prang was busily engaged in profiting by the warning thus timely brought to him, Ram Singh was tended with gentle hands and soothed with kind words of pity by the women-folk of the Chief's household. He was a kafir and infidel, it was true, but he had saved them, and all that they held dear, from death, or from the capture which is worse than death.

So the rebels were repulsed, and were chased back to the land from whence they had come, and up and down that land, and across and across it, till many had been slain and the rest made prisoners, and at last Pahang might once more sleep in peace. And Ram Singh, who had saved the situation, was sent to hospital in Singapore, where he was visited by the Governor of the colony, who came to him in his great carriage to do honour to the simple Sikh private; and when at last he was discharged from the native ward healed of his wounds, a light post in the Pahang Police Office was found for him, where he will serve until such time as death may come to him in very truth. If you chance to meet him, he will be much flattered should you allow him to lift up his tunic; and you will then see a network of scars on brown skin. He is inordinately proud of them, and rightly so, say I, for which man among us can show such undoubted proofs of courage, endurance, and self-sacrifice as this obscure hero?

From "In A Corner of Asia" by Sir Hugh Clifford, T Fisher Unwin Ltd, London, 1899 


Anthony Morris said...

A story of courage. It's stories like this that give body to an otherwise dry historical event. Thks Sabri

namjap said...

An enlightening narrative account of the presence of brave Sikhs in Malaya.