A History of the Malay Peninsula

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Golden Chersonese

Portuguese Conquest

The Johor Empire

Dutch East India

The Straits Settlements

The Kedah Blockade

The Selangor Civil War

The Perak War

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British Malaya

The Perak War

While the British Straits Settlements were rapidly developing and growing closer to the modern world, the Malay States in the hinterland of the Malay Peninsula continued in a condition comparable to medieval feudalism. The powers of the Malay rulers had declined everywhere.  The chiefs of districts extorted what dues they could from the common people, who had no security that they would not be robbed of the crops they grew and animals they raised by rival forces in the frequent civil wars.  Aborigines, captives and debtors were kept in slavery by the rajas, and even the freemen were liable for forced labour on any kind of private or public work on the orders of the chiefs.  Trade was strangled by the tolls demanded by each local raja, as well as by customs duties on exports and imports leaving or entering the principal river-mouths.

With this state of affairs, it was unlikely that the British rulers of the Straits Settlements would be able to refrain forever from interfering in this relatively lawless hinterland. This intervention was finally prompted with the influx of Chinese immigrants to the Larut district of the northern Sultanate of Perak. Larut was a swampy, thinly-peopled area outside the natural basin of the Perak River when a Malay chieftain called Che’ Long Jafar settled down near the present town of Taiping and discovered rich tin-fields in the area. Che’ Long Jafar encouraged Chinese from Penang to develop them. In 1850, he was granted the right to collect revenue from Larut by the Sultan of Perak, and this was confirmed, with very full powers of government, to his son, Che’Ngah Ibrahim on Long Jafar's death in 1856. A rush to Chinese to Larut followed, and Ngah Ibrahim was soon the richest chief in Perak and aspiring to independence.

The Chinese brought to Larut the fierce rivalry of the secret societies which distinguished their fellow countrymen in the Straits.  The two main divisions were the Ghee Hin, mostly Cantonese, and the Hai San, mostly Hakkas. At first they developed different areas of the district, but in 1862 war broke out between the two, and the Ghee Hin were driven out of their mines at Kamunting.  The leaders of the Ghee Hin then appealed for help to the Straits Settlements Government, and as many were British subjects, Governor Cavenagh blockaded the coast of Larut and demanded compensation. Not wishing to give an occasion for interference, the Sultan advised Ngah Ibrahim to pay compensation, and in return created him Orang Kaya Mantri, one of the four greatest officers in the State, with wider powers over Larut.

However, fighting continued and this struggle seemed likely to go on indefinitely. At this stage the wider issue of the succession to the Perak Sultanate became mixed up with the local struggle in Larut.

In 1871, Sultan Ali of Perak died. According to traditional custom, the Chief Minister (or Bendahara) Raja Ismail invited the the rightful heir, Raja Muda Abdullah, to attend the funeral and to be installed as Sultan. Raja Abdullah, however, was weak and unpopular and feared to accept the invitation.  After waiting for thirty-two days the Perak chiefs lost patience and installed the Raja Ismail instead. Raja Abdullah never really gave up his claim, while a third candidate, Raja Yusof, also had hopes of becoming Sultan.  The State teetered on the verge of civil war.

The British Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Harry Ord, decided not to recognise either of the rival Sultans but decided that intervention was necessary. Sir Andrew Clarke, who arrived as Governor at the end of 1873, was given the following instructions: “I have to request that you will carefully ascertain, as far as you are able, the actual condition of affairs in each state and that you will report to me whether there are any steps which can properly be taken by the Colonial Government to promote the restoration of peace and order and, to secure protection to trade and commerce with the native territories. I would wish you, especially, to consider whether it would be advisable to appoint a British officer to reside in any of the States”. The Secretary of State who wrote these words probably had in mind the good results which had been achieved in India by posting Residents or Advisers to native-ruled states –making them protecorates of the British Empire and, in effect, giving them compete control over all affairs of State except for customary or religious affairs.

Sir Andrew Clarke did not waste any time. Within a few days of his arrival in Singapore, he met Raja Abdullah and found out that he would be willing to receive a British Resident if he were made Sultan. In January 1874, Sir Andrew Clarke met the principal Perak chiefs and signed what was called the Pangkor Engagement. This agreement stipulated that that Raja Abdullah should be recognised as Sultan and should accept a British Resident ‘whose advice must be asked and acted upon on all questions other than those touching Malay religion and custom’.  Raja Ismail was to relinquish his claim to the thrown and be given a title and a pension.

The Perak chiefs had accepted these terms reluctantly and with suspicion, so the task of the first British Resident in Perak was a hard one. Unfortunately, Mr J.W.W. Birch, the Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlement, who was chosen for the post, was not the right man. He had had long experience in Ceylon but he could speak no Malay, was unsympathetic towards Malay customs, easily irritated by abuses and wanted to change everything too quickly.  His attitude can be summed up in his own words ‘ It concerns us little what were the old customs of the country nor do I think they are worthy of any consideration.’ It is not surprising that he could get no co-operation from the chiefs, whose rights of collecting taxes and dues he proposed to take away before any compensation had been fixed. Horrified by the suffering of the debt-slaves he helped them to escape from their masters, who could not understand why an immemorial custom should suddenly cease in this way.

Birch was finally killed in November 1875 by a local chief, Maharaja Lela, at the  village of Pasir Salak, after a meeting at which Sultan Abdullah and his chiefs had decided that he should be killed.

This tragedy brought armed intervention by British troops.  A guerrilla campaign followed until the rebels were caught and hanged. Nearly all the Perak chiefs were involved, but only Sultan Abdullah and a handful of court chiefs were punished by banishment to the Seychelles Islands.  Raja Yusof became Regent and later Sultan.

The British Resident who succeeded Birch, Hugh Low, had to face all Birch’s difficulties with the addition of a heavy war debt and the sullen hostility of the people. But Low was a very different type of man from his predecessor - he spoke Malay well and had had experience of the Residential system in Borneo. He combined patience with sympathy and understanding. He worked through a State Council on which the principal chiefs sat and, with the Malay ruling class working with him, the framework of a working government was established. The collection of revenue was taken out of the hands of the Malay chiefs but they were given allowances as compensation. With the construction of roads and railways, rapid economic development of the state soon followed.

The power of the Sultans, however, was effectively curtailed, with the Malay rulers effectively having authority only on matters related to Malay customs and religious affairs. Perak was thenceforth under the rule of the British Empire and became the first Malay state of what was to become British Malaya.

The Pangkor Engagement

Blueprint for colonisation

Death on the Perak River

The assasination of
J W W Birch

War Despatches

The Illustrated London News' account of the Perak expedition

'A Little War'

A female Victorian tourist's perspective of the Perak War

'The Battle of Bandar Tua'

The first failed British raid on Pasir Salak

The Battle of Kota Lama

The Malay ambush on British marines

The Battle of Paroi

Malay unrest erupts in the south

The Battle of Bukit Putus

The first Victoria Cross awarded in Malaya

Baptism of Fire

The introduction of the Martini-Henry rifle in the Perak War

About the Author

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