Monday, 12 May 2014

"A splendid thing to belong to such an Empire"

An account by the British Resident at Pahang, Hugh Clifford, of his conversations with Sultan Idris of Perak during the latter's visit to London for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, with some startling insights on how the Sultan saw his role in the British Empire.

The then Sultan of Perak had paid a long visit to England some eighteen months earlier and London wrought upon him no new impression. A man of fifty-three years of age, he had passed almost exactly half his life under Malay rule, and half under the new regime inaugurated by Great Britain. A man with eyes wherewith to see and a mind wherewith to judge, compare and think, he was in his day probably the most enlightened rulers of the Native States of the East, and a convinced apostle of British rule. 

He had seen in his own time his country pass from a mere wilderness of forest, threaded sparsely by sorry footpaths, into a land surprisingly wealthy and prosperous , over the face of which roads and railways run criss-cross like the meshes of a net. He had seen lawlessness, brigandage, rapine and constant internecine strife vanish and be replaced by a peacefulness unequalled in Piccadilly. He had seen the spear and the kris, which once ruled his world, laid aside in the glass cases of museums, or brought out only on State occasions  to deck courtly ceremonials. Moreover, he had seen his own ancestral lands, which of old lay fallow under dense jungle, opened up and made to produce rich revenues; blackest ignorance replaced by education; lack of sanitation by the wise respect for the laws of hygiene; and dire poverty by wealth and comfort. 

Though the sentimentalist may mourn the disappearance of much that was picturesque, of much that was attractive, yet these be wonderful changes for any man to have witnessed in the space of half a lifetime, still more to have had a hand in bringing to pass; and without disparaging the wisdom and self-devotion of his European advisers, it must be admitted that Perak owes a large share of its prosperity to the personal efforts of perhaps the greatest of the Sultans who have ever ruled over it.

But the thing that chiefly fired the Sultan's imagination was no one of the revolutions in fact and ideas to which I have alluded, for in all his talks with me it was not upon any of them that he insisted. The cardinal point which he gripped and which obviously filled him with pride, was the contrast between his own position in the world and that of the 27 members of his House who in unbroken line have ruled over his country in the past. 

They, he would say, were frogs beneath an inverted coconut shell who dreamed not that there was any world beyond the narrow limits in which they were pent. Shut off from the rest of mankind, living in the hearts of their vast forests, they ruled barbarously over a barbarous people. They were feared by their subjects above the Tiger and, with ample reason, they were loved less than he; they wrought much evil, and no good, to man or beast; and withal they were squalid folk, contented with a paltry state, living ignobly in a world that did not know the insignificant fact of their existence.

"It is wonderful thing," he said to me as we drove off the Horse Guards' Parade after the great Colonial Review. "These be but samples of the King's soldiers in distant lands. I saw our own people - a mere dozen or so - yet I know for how many that dozen stands. Mine is but a tiny country, while others that have sent men here today are vast. What a tremendous host do those whom we have seen this morning represent! Never since Allah first made the world hath there been so mighty a gathering! And this host is the host of my King!"

"It is a splendid thing to think that one belongs to such an Empire - that one is part of it! None of my forebears, stowed away in their forests, enjoyed the greatness that is mine, in that I am myself a portion of something so very great!"

That speech came from his heart, was no mere oriental hyperbole, for he spoke to me as friend to friend, and was not sparing of his criticisms when occasion arose. Observing all things with keen intelligence, criticising all that struck him as unworthy, praising everything that appealed to him as rightly belonging to the great Empire of which he felt himself to be a member, pleased by the kindness and courtesy extended to him, and looking forward with intense interest to the tremendous ceremony  which he had come so far to witness, the Sultan of Perak passed the days of his visit until that fateful Tuesday arrived upon which it was announced that King Edward was compelled to submit  to an immediate operation for appendicitis and that His Majesty's Coronation was indefinitely postponed. The blow was to us all a heavy one but from the Sultan there came no word concerning his personal disappointment.

"It is the will of Allah," he said simply. "Even our King is His servant to do with what He will; and I, who am the servant of the King, can do little to aid him in his extremity. But that little I will do. Today and tomorrow - until the danger to the King be passed - I go not forth from my dwelling. I will sembahyang hajat - recite prayers for my Intenton of the King's safety. To him my service is due, for to him I owe - everything."

And there I will leave him, clad simply in cotton garments, kneeling and prostrating himself upon his prayer carpet, making earnest supplications to the King of kings for the life of the ruler whose servants, in his name, have brought a malayan people out of the Land of Darkness and out of the House of Bondage. Surely there is hope for a race, let the pessimists say what they will, whose influence wins the love, admiration, confidence and ready support of such men as this - men with the clean mind, the keen intelligence and the kind heart of Sultan Idris of Perak - and makes of them loyal and enthusiastic Imperialists.

Extracted from 'Bushwhacking: and other Asiatic tales and memories' by Sir Hugh Charles Clifford (1929. London: Harper & Brothers)

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Nakhoda Orlong

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.

I went down to the boat to see Nakodah Orlong; he looked just as I had seen him last, except that his hair and clothes were drenched with water and there was a great hole in the centre of his forehead, marking, no doubt, the track of an iron bullet from a swivel-gun. Of that, however, he could never have been conscious, nor yet of the devotion of the man whose life had been in extremest peril throughout a long day to guard his chiefs dead body, without thought of gain or praise, only determined that none but loving hands should be laid upon the voiceless, pulseless clay he once called master.

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.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Of Malay Savages

Frank Swettenham,  the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, writes about when he confronted an American lady's racism

One night, in the early months of this year, I sat at dinner next to a comparatively young married woman, of the type that is superlatively blonde in colour and somewhat over-ample in figure. She was indifferently dressed, not very well informed, but apparently anxious, by dint of much questioning, to improve her knowledge where possible. She was, I believe, a journalist. 

Some one must have told her that I had been in the East, and she, like most stay-at-home people, evidently thought that those who go beyond the shores of England can only be interested in, or have an acquaintance with, the foreign country wherein they have sojourned. Therefore the lady fired at me a volley of questions, about the manners and habits of the Malay people, whom she always referred to as "savages". 

I ventured to say that she must have a mistaken, or at any rate incomplete, knowledge of the race to speak of Malays as savages, but she assured me that people who were black, and not Christians, could only be as she described them. I declined to accept that definition, and added that Malays are not black. I fancy she did not believe me; but she said it did not matter, as they were not white and wore no clothes. I am afraid I began to be almost irritated, for the long waits between the courses deprived me of all shelter from the rain of questions and inconsequent remarks. 

At last, I said, "It may surprise you to hear that these savages would think, if they saw you now, that you are very insufficiently clad;" and I added, to try and take the edge off a speech that I felt was inexcusably rude, "they consider the ordinary costume of white men so immodest as to be almost indecent." 

"Indeed," said the lady, who only seemed to hear the last statement, "I have often thought so too, but I am surprised that savages, for I must call them savages, should mind about such things." It was hopeless, and I asked how soon the great American people might be expected to send a force to occupy London. 

I have just been reminded of this conversation. A few days ago, I wrote to a friend of mine, a Malay Sultan, whom I have not seen for some months, a letter inquiring how he was, and saying I hoped soon to be able to visit him. Now comes his answer; and you, who are in sympathy with the East, will be able to appreciate the missive of this truculent savage. 

In the cover there were three enclosures: a formal letter of extreme politeness, written by a scribe, the Arabic characters formed as precisely and clearly as though they had been printed. Secondly, a letter written in my friend's own hand, also in the Arabic character, but the handwriting is very difficult to decipher. And thirdly there is another paper, headed "Hidden Secrets" written also in the Sultan's own hand. 

The following is a translation of the beginning of the second letter. At the top of the first page is written, "Our friendship is sealed in the inmost recesses of my heart." Then this: " I send this letter to my honoured and renowned friend" (here follow my name, designation, and some conventional compliments). The letter then continues: "You, my dear friend, are never out of my thoughts, and they are always wishing you well. I hear that you are coming to see me, and for that reason my heart is exceedingly glad, as though the moon had fallen into my lap, or I had been given a cluster of flowers grown in the garden called Benjerdna Sri, wide-opening under the influence of the sun's warm rays."

"May God the Most Mighty hasten our meeting, so that I may assuage the thirst of longing in the happy realisation of my affectionate and changeless regard. At the moment of writing, by God's grace, and thanks to your prayers, I and my family are in good health, and this district is in the enjoyment of peace ; but the river is in flood, and has risen so high that I fear for the safety of the bridge." 

There is more, but what I have quoted is enough to show you the style. When this savage has turned from his savagery, he will no doubt write "Dear sir," and "Yours truly"; his correspondence will be type-written, in English, and the flaxen-haired lady will remark with approval that the writer is a businessman and a Christian, and hardly black at all.

Extracted from the chapter "West and East" in Sir Frank Swettenham's "Unaddressed Letters" (1898, London: John Lane). "Unaddressed Letters" is available for download at my Sejarah Melayu Library.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Malaya's first Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross  is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of the British Empire territories, taking precedence over all other orders, decorations and medals. The first Victoria Cross awarded for action in Malaya was to Captain George Nicholas Channer. Though the citation for the award states that it was "for his gallant conduct during the recent operations against the Malays in Perak", the engagement in question was actually against the Malays in the Sungai Ujong War and not the Perak War. 

When the Dato' Kelana of Sungai Ujong (the area that is today known as Seremban) accepted a British Resident and agreed to it being a protected British state, Sungai Ujong was attacked by the Yam Tuan Antah of Seri Menanti. After a series of skirmishes, the Malays occupied a fortified position on the Bukit Putus pass. It was at this battle that Channer won his VC and below is the citation describing what occurred.

From the War Office, April 12, 1876

The Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention to confer the decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned Officer, whose claim to the same gas been submitted for Her Majesty's approval, for his gallant conduct during the recent operations against the Malays in Perak, as recorded against his name, viz.:-


Bengal Staff Corps

Rank and Name: 

Captain (now Brevet-Major) George Nicholas Channer

Act of Bravery for which recommended:

For having, with the greatest gallantry, been the first to jump into the Enemy's stockade, to which he had been dispatched with a small party of the 1st Ghoorkha Light Infantry on the afternoon of the 20th December, 1875, by the officer commanding the Malacca Column, to procure intelligence as to its strength, position, &c.

Major Channer got completely in rear of the Enemy's position, and finding himself so close that he could hear the voices of the men inside, who were cooking at the time, and keeping no lookout, he beckoned to his men and the whole party stole quietly forward to within a few paces of the stockade.

On jumping in, he shot the first man dead with his revolver, and his party then came up and entered the stockade, which was of a most formidable nature, surrounded by a bamboo palisade; about seven yards within was a log-house, loop-holed, with two narrow entrances, and trees laid latitudinally, to the thickness of two feet.

The Officer commanding reports that if Major Channer, by his foresight, coolness and intrepidity, had not taken this stockade, a great loss of life must have occurred, as from the fact of his being unable to bring guns to bear on it, from the steepness of the hill, and the density of the jungle, it must have been taken at the point of the bayonet.