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The Kedah Blockade

Kedah's last stand
An English Midshipman's account of the Kedah Blockade of 1838

Sherard Osborn was a junior naval officer in one of the British warships blockading Kedah in support of Siamese efforts in 1838 to re-conquer the State and capture the last Malay stronghold at Kuala Kedah fort. This narrative is based on accounts from his book ' The Blockade of Kedah in 1838: A Midshipman's Exploits in Malayan Waters' . Published in 1857, it not only provided an eyewitness account of the events surrounding the conflict but also revealed his growing admiration not only for his Malay crewmen but also the Kedah Malays he was supposedly at war with.


The Malays had prepared their attack on the Siamese with great care, timing and secrecy. They had over months gathered over 2,000 fighting men and over forty war boats at Batu Putih, near Acheh on the Sumatran coast. Arms, ammunition and other stores were smuggled to them by British merchants in Penang sympathetic to the Kedah Sultan's cause. When British warships blockading the Kedah coast were diverted to engage Lanun ships reported off Trengganu in July 1838, the Malays swept across the unguarded Straits and rejoined other smaller fleets secretly gathering in the dozens of mangrove-shrouded river estuaries they had stockaded along the Kedah coast. By the time, British warships had arrived on the scene, the Malays had concentrated their forces in the Merbok estuary and swooped on the fort at the mouth of the Kedah river. The small Siamese garrison there was massacred. Once again, the old red flag of Kedah flew over its homeland.

The Malays fortified their position in Kuala Kedah while the main force drove the Siamese out of Kedah and rapidly captured Perlis, Setul (Satun)a nd Trang. Osborn noted that the Malay fleet gathered at Trang consisted of over 50 boats, each carrying light artillery and swivel guns.

The Malays were now flushed with victory and marched north to take the war to Siam. Four of the seven Patani states joined the rebellion and the Patani Malays swelled its ranks until their numbers were by now estimated at some 10,000 men. Sweeping ever northwards, they managed to cut off Singora (Songkhla) on the other side of the Peninsula, besieging the garrison of 2000 Siamese and 500 Chinese. The aim was to keep the Siamese on the defensive until the arrival of the monsoons, after which Kedah would have been more stoutly fortified and strengthened by reinforcements and supplies.

By December 1838, the British flotilla had arrived and proceeded to disrupt any Malay supplies or movement of troops along the Kedah coast. This 18-gun warship Hyacinth anchored off Kuala Kedah, just out of cannon shot, and blockaded the fort. Three decked gunboats - "Diamond", "Pearl" and "Emerald" - patrolled the coast from Kuala Kedah to Pulau Bunting. These were manned by Malay crews - released convicts from the Straits Settlements, imprisoned as pirates and experienced seafarers. The Royal Navy's first steam-driven gunship in the East Indies - the Diana - was held in reserve in Singapore.

They were soon joined by a Siamese warship but the vessel took great care to anchor much further away from the coast to avoid Malay cannon fire. When the British invited the captain to join their blockading line much closer to the ramparts, he would just shake his head and mutter "Tidak bagus! Tidak bagus!" (No, that's not good, not good!"). He refused the offer so many times that the British - who were not told what the name of the formidable vessel was - from then on referred to His Majesty of Siam's ship as the "Tidak Bagus"!

After the string of early Malay successes, the tide turned when a force of 10,000 Siamese suddenly thrust southwards across the Kedah frontier, cutting off the Malay forces besieging Singora. Its communications and supply lines severed, the Malays were attacked on its flanks and by frontal assaults from the Singora defenders and the force disintegrated - its remnants desperately trying to slip between the Siamese lines to rejoin their comrades in Kuala Kedah.

Panic and terror immediately struck the whole of Kedah. Similar counter-attacks by the Siamese army had shown that its policy in such cases was one of terror and extermination and the Malays knew that torture and atrocity would be the order of the day. Osborn described various acts of cruelty invading Siamese armies were prone to, including cooking human beings alive. Prisoners were stripped naked and, with their hands tied behind their backs and large piece of fat lashed to their heads, put into hollow tree trunks. "Then a slow steady fire was maintained round it, the unfortunate victim's sufferings by these means terribly prolonged, his shrieks and exclamations being responded to by the exultant shouts of his executioners."

Another torture involved building a wooden platform around a young 'nipah' palm and tying the victim to it in a sitting position over the young tree, so that the sharp spear-like point of its shoot would eventually enter the body. As the plant grew at a fairly rapid rate - several inches in twenty four hours - this would result in unspeakable pain and eventual death by piercing the intestines. "In short, a slow mode of impaling," Osborn noted.

The climax of horror for Osborn was the gambling that took place whenever a pregnant Malay woman would have the misfortune to be captured - the stakes depending upon whether the unborn child was a boy or girl. The game would be concluded with the woman being gutted open to decide who were the winners.

As the weeks wore on and the Siamese army rapidly closed in on Kuala Kedah, the countryside around the fort was choked with the flames and smoke of burning villages and rice fields. Thousands of terrified refugees converged upon the fort and boats of all shapes and sizes - from 'prahus' to simple bamboo rafts - laden to overflowing with human beings streamed endlessly out of the Kedah river estuary the fort guarded. Most of the vessels were too small to make the long journey to the relative safety of Penang or Prai and they anchored at the only refuge they could find - under the guns of their tormentor's allies, the British warships. "We lay at anchor with a black mass of native vessels of every size and shape," Osborn wrote. "Many of the canoes threatening to sink alongside, we were forced to take the unfortunates upon our decks, adding still more to the scene of confusion. "

"On counting the fugitive vessels, we found one junk, one tope, five large 'prahus', and one hundred and fifteen smaller craft, the whole of them probably containing three thousand souls., of which two-thirds were women and the remainder made up of children, old decrepit men and a few adult Malays to navigate the vessels. Two births took place during this sad night of confusion."

The refugees brought with them horror stories of the cruelties perpetrated by the Siamese army in the surrounding countryside and this precipitated an atrocity by the Malays themselves. Three hundred Siamese prisoners captured by the Malays in the early victories of the war were marched to the margins of a small empty reservoir nearby. They were then each stabbed with krises by the guards and the bodies thrown into the reservoir. The location of the massacre was no accident - it lay beside the road along which the Siamese troops had to advance.

By the time the main Siamese force reached Kuala Kedah, reinforcements had swelled its numbers to 15,000, nearly 10,000 of whom were well-equipped with the latest Tower flint muskets. They also had with them many war elephants, some equipped with small swivel guns in their 'howdahs', and batteries of light artillery - some of which were captured from the besieging Malay forces at Singora. The Siamese proceeded to shell the fort to submission, while their infantry unleashed a storm of musket balls onto the defenders from the cover of the jungles surrounding the fort.

Siamese fire was so intense that the British warships had to cast sail and move away as cannon balls from their Siamese allies flew over the top of the fort's parapets and splashed perilously close to their bows. The landward-facing cannon of the fort boomed in reply, though the seaward facing cannons of the Malays still remained silent - not a single shot in anger had been fired between the fort defenders and the British warships since the blockade started.

Across the river, the nearby town of Kuala Kedah had by now been occupied by the Siamese and snipers occupied the houses and started picking off the defenders in their parapets. Numbering less than two hundred by now, the defenders - mostly Malay irregulars and some Rajput Sepoy mercenaries, launched a desperate sortie into the town on the night of March 19th 1839 to clear it of snipers and silence some of the Siamese guns. Caught in open ground, the Malays were cut down in a murderous crossfire and scattered.

The defenders knew that the fort would fall to the Siamese before dawn. The survivors of the night attack were ordered to save themselves - some slipping by the naval blockade on boats, others swimming across the river and taking their chances along the coast. Fifteen sepoys were left to provide covering fire for the escape and holding out for at least two hours, after which they fired one last salvo of artillery fire at the Siamese and attempted to swim to the British warships. "Not being as amphibious as the Malays, they had been swept down by the tide upon the stockade, and the majority were drowned, or killed by alligators," Osborn noted.

By daybreak, the Siamese had already occupied the fort in force. Kedah's war of independence was over.

Osborn reflected on the conflict he had seen over the year and questioned which side he had to fight for. "Nothing but a sense of duty could prevent one from sympathizing in the efforts made by these gallant sea-rovers to regain their own."

"Like spaniels, the natives of the whole sea-board of the Indian peninsula lick the hand that chastises them: not so the Orang Melayu; and we Englishmen should be the first to honour a race who will not basely submit to abuse or tyranny."


Osborn later served in the Crimean War and Britain's wars in China. He ended his naval career with the rank of rear admiral and also served as an admiral in the Chinese navy from 1862-63. He eventually became one of Britain's leading Arctic explorers.

Sources:

'The Blockade of Kedah in 1838: A Midshipman's Exploits in Malayan Waters' by Sherard Osborn (1857), reprinted by Oxford University Press (1987) (ISBN 0 19 588860 X). Price RM 52.80 (well, when I bought it in 1990 anyway!)


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