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The Perak Civil War

The Pangkor Engagement

Formally called the Pangkor Engagement, this treaty wa signed on January 20, 1874 on board the British steamer Pluto, just off the the island of Pangkor in Perak. The treaty is significant in history of the Malay states as it signalled official British involvement in the policies of the Malays and provided a blueprint for how the British would eventually control other Malay states in the peninsula..

The terms of the agreement were:

  • Raja Abdullah was acknowledged as the legitimate Sultan to replace Sultan Ismail who would be given a title and a pension of 1000 Spanish dollars a month;
  • The Sultan would receive a British Resident whose advice had to be sought and adhered to in all matters except those pertaining to the religion and customs of the Malays;
  • All collections and control of taxes as well as the administration of the state had to be done under the name of the Sultan but arranged according to the Resident's advice;
  • The Menteri of Larut would continue to be in control, but would no longer be recognized as a liberated leader. Instead, a British Officer, who would have a vast authority in administrating the district, would be appointed in Larut;
  • The Sultan and not the British government would pay the Resident's salary;
  • Perak ceded Dinding and Pangkor Island to the British.

The key ingredient here was the article dealing with appointment of a British Resident, with powers to supervise the collection of revenues and regulate the overall administration.  In theory, the role of the Resident was only to give advice to the Malay rulers, but in practice he had under his immediate control the entire administrative machinery of the state.  British attempts to put this Residential System into practice in Perak almost immediately ran into serious difficulties when Malay chiefs reacted strongly to attempts by the Resident to reorganise revenue collection in the State. 

How the British managed to get the Malay chiefs to 'agree' to this rather one-sided treaty is clearly illustrated in the account below of the proceedings at the Pangkor meeting, extracted from the excellent biography of Frank Swettenham by H S Barlow  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Southdene, 1995).

"..... the business of the meeting was only able to begin on 16 January. By this time Sir Andrew and Lady Clarke and their attendants had arrived at Pangkor on the Pluto. The meeting started with ceremonial visits by the chiefs to the Governor on board the ship. Of the four major contenders for the position of Sultan, the Mantri and Abdullah alone were present. Ismail subsequently claimed to have received his invitation too late to attend, while Yusuf was not even invited, even though he had written in February 1869 to Singapore stating his claim to the throne. Of the minor chiefs in attendance, the majority represented or supported power-holders in Lower Perak. Representatives from Upper Perak were noticeably absent, and all had personal reasons for not mentioning Raja Yusof's claim.

The proceedings proper started at 3:30 p.m. with an interview between Clarke and the Mantri, alone. The Mantri was accompanied to Pangkor by his Penang-based lawyer, R.C.Woods, but the latter was not allowed to attend the actual proceedings. The Mantri agreed, after some hesitation, to have a British officer in Larut to assist and advise him, but claimed that he now held Larut independently of the Sultan. A further puzzle over the Pangkor proceedings is Clarke's apparent lack of knowledge about Ord's recognition of the Mantri as an independent ruler earlier in 1873.

Clarke also saw Abdullah, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that Abdullah was not the debauchee had been led to expect from previous reports by Straits Government officials. But Ihese wen. no more than impressions. Expert advice was needed, and later on the afternoon of Friday 16 January, Haji Mohamed Said was asked to produce a memorandum and genealogical tree of the Perak royal family. Haji Mahomed Said had of course been Swettenham's Malay teacher in Singapore. This was translated by Swettenham, who confirmed the accuracy of his own translation. It was then countersigned by McNair as to its truthfulness.

With its assistance, Clarke was able to decide that Abdullah had a far better claim than Ismail, since Yusuf's case was ignored. There can be little doubt that Clarke by now knew of the Mantri' s claim and chose to disregard it, thus directly reversing his predecessor's policy.

A plenary session of the chiefs was held on the afternoon of Saturday 17 January. The Mantri, no doubt conscious that his position had been greatly weakened by Clarke's reversal of Ord's policy of recognition, was only with difficulty persuaded to attend. Swettenham and Pickering had failed in their attempts to get him to come. Pickering was sent a second time with twenty soldiers, and this secured the Mantri's prompt attendance, together with Speedy and two other lesser chiefs. The
Mantri, on asking for a chair, was refused one. Clarke was angry at the request, and McNair took him by the waist and forced him to sit on the deck, with all the other Malay participants. This was a clear indication, if such were needed, of Clarke's refusal to recognize his important position among the Perak chiefs.

Given that all those present were on board a British boat, surrounded by British soldiers, it is hardly surprising that there were no dissentients to Clarke's proposal that Abdullah be crowned Sultan. Indeed, the Bendahara was frightened out of his wits when he was on the boat at Pangkor.

The 18 January being a Sunday, the terms of the Pangkor Engagement were only drawn up on Monday 19 January, discussed that afternoon, and signed on Tuesday the 20th in the afternoon. No authorized Malay version of the text remains, and there can be little doubt that originally the Engagement was drafted in English, and translated into Malay for the benefit of the chiefs.

There is some controversy over the Malay text. However a copy of a Malay text, apparently in the hand of Raja (later Sultan) Idris, who did attend, has been found. Raja Idris, also known as Raja Dris in his youth, subsequently became Sultan of Perak, 1887-1916. Born on 19 June 1849, he was less than a year older than Swettenham. The two men were to be closely associated, not always amicably, up to Swettenham's retirement in 1904. Raja Idris was not a signatory to the Pangkor Engagement as he did not at the time hold high office in the State. The Malay text was evidently prepared by Swettenham and Haji Mohamed Said. But the Malay language is by its nature in some contexts not very precise, and arguments attempting to blame Swettenham or Mohamed Said for inaccurate translation have proved inconclusive. The Chinese headsmen had signed their agreement in the morning. Abdullah's appointment as Sultan was marked by an eleven-gun salute, and arrangements were made for the installation to be held a month later at Bandar. A letter was also addressed to the absent Ismail, informing him of his deposition, and requesting him to hand over the regalia of office: under the circumstances a startlingly high-handed piece of colonial tactlessness.

Finally, Dunlop, Swettenham and Pickering were appointed Commissioners to settle compensation questions, and arbitrate on all disputes. As far as British interests were concerned, all power was effectively vested in the Resident, under Article 6, which read as follows: ` That the Sultan receive and provide a suitable residence for a British Officer to be called Resident, who shall be accredited to his Court, and whose advice must be asked and acted upon on all questions other than those touching Malay Religion and Custom. ` However no executive power was given to the Resident; this was to be a source of  much trouble later.

It will be apparent from the foregoing account that there could be no question of any of the parties involved in Perak actually welcoming the establishment of a British presence. It is true however that by disagreeing among themselves on the
question of succession to the Perak Sultanate, they had seriously weakened their position, and this factor was used to great advantage, both by the Chinese factions feuding over the lucrative tin mines, and the British, once the change of policy was accepted in London.

Under the circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that the British account, which was assiduously fostered over the years by Swettenham himself, should have attempted to portray Clarke's intervention as the result of a genuine request from Abdullah. But as we have seen, this argument does not stand up to closer scrutiny. Abdullah was at least prompted, if not directed, to write the letter by W.H. Read, representing Singapore business interests, and even before the letter was received, Clarke had already decided to hold a meeting of the Perak chiefs, and impose his own terms. The crudenessof Clarke's behaviour was compounded by his decision, for no apparent reason, to reverse his predecessor Ord's support of the Mantri, and his public humiliation of the Mantri in the course of the Pangkor deliberations. Moreover, the high-handed tactlessness of Clarke and his colleagues' treatment of the deposed Ismail seemed designed to guarantee Ismail's hostility.

In a letter to his patron, Childers, Clarke admitted he had hustled the Malay chiefs into an agreement, and justified this on the grounds, that had he not done so, nothing would have been achieved. He defended his support of Abdullah on the grounds that it was necessary to secure first the allegiance of the chiefs on the lower reaches of the Perak River, before becoming involved with those further upstream. Colonel Anson, left behind in dudgeon in Penang, was under no illusions: `There can be little doubt that these chiefs did not fully realize what they were asked to agree to; or if they did, had no intention of acting up to it.' Ord expressed similar opinions some two years later. As might have been expected, news of the Pangkor Engagement was received with very considerable satisfaction in Singapore and Penang.

Swettenham, who was closely involved in all these proceedings, must have been fully aware of the true nature of the Pangkor Engagement. His successive treatments of this episode in his writings and the myths he thus established are considered clsewhere. While it is not entirely surprising that Swettenham should have been at pains to sustain the myth of a voluntary request ley Abdullah for British involvement in the Peninsula, it constitutes 'he first of several instances where we may note Swettenham's role as his own and the British establishment's best publicist on matters Malay. In following subsequent events, it must be remembered, whatever Swettenham himself and later colonial writers may have said, that Abdullah's invitation to the British to intervene was extracted under questionable circumstances, and in the eyes of most Perak Malays at the time, British intervention was little more than naked aggression."


'Swettenham', Henry S Barlow. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Southdene, 1995

'Sir Frank Swettenham's Perak Journals, 1874-1876'. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume XXIV Part 4, December 1951

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