||Death on the Perak River
The assassination of JWW Birch
From the chapter 'James Wheeker Woodford Birch' in 'Malay Sketches' by
Swettenham (London: John Lane , 1895)
It was the Malay fasting-month, the bulan puasa (fasting month) when
last events occurred. It is not an auspicious time for conducting
with Malays, they do not even at-tempt to work for that month, they
for most of the day and sit up most of the night, eating and talking,
affairs and hatching plots. This, at least, is the case with the upper
and it is they only who are concerned in politi- cal movements; the
people do not fast as a rule, and leave the plotting to the chiefs,
business they think it is to scheme and to direct, theirs to obey.
In Lower Perak during this particular month of Ramdhan, an unusual
of discussion had been carried on between Sultan Abdullah and his
and they determined not only that the British Resident should be got
of, but one of them, entitled the Maharaja Lela, undertook to do the
the next time Mr. Birch visited him.
This man, the Maharaja Lela, was a chief of considerable rank, after
Sultan he was the seventh in the State. He lived at Pasir Salak, on the
bank of the Perak River, about thirty miles above the residence of
Abdullah, and about forty below that of ex-Sultan Ismail. He avoided
Birch whenever it was possible (though living only five miles from
and managed to keep friends with both Sultans.
During the month, Sultan Abdullah, who was then with his boats at Pasir
a couple of miles below the Maharaja Lela's house, summoned his chiefs
informed them that he had given over the government of the country to
Birch. This announcement was received in silence by the others, to whom
was doubtless no news, but the Maharaja Lela said, `Even if your
has done so, I do not care at all. I will never acknowledge the
of Mr. Birch or the white men. I have received letters from Sultan
the Mentri and the Panglima Kinta telling me on no account to obey the
Government in Perak. I will not allow Mr. Birch to set his foot in my
at Pasir Salak.'
The Sultan said, `Do you really mean that, Maharaja Lela?' and the
replied, `Truly I will not depart in the smallest degree from the old
Another chief, the Datoh Sagor, who lived on the other side of the
exactly opposite to Pasir Salak, said, `What the Maharaja Lela does I
The Sultan then got up and withdrew.
Two or three days before the end of the month
the Sultan called another meeting
of his chiefs at a place called Durian Sa'batang, ten miles below the
island on which the Resident's hut stood. At that meeting the Sultan
the proclamations which were to be issued, placing the ad-ministration
the hands of British officers, and asked his chiefs what they thought
them. The Laksamana, an influential chief, said, `Down here, in the
part of the river, we must accept the proclamations'; but the Maharaja
said, `In my kampong I will not allow any white man to post those
If they insist on doing so, there will certainly be a fight.' To this
Sultan and other chiefs said, `Very well.'
The Maharaja Lela immediately left, and having loaded his boats with
returned up river to his own kampong.
Pasir Salak was the usual collection of Malay houses scattered about in
of palm and fruit trees by the river-bank. Prominent amongst these was
Maharaja Lela's own dwelling, a large and comparatively new building of
more than ordinarily substantial kind, round which he had for months
been digging a great ditch and throwing up a formidable earthwork
by a palisade. These preparations had been duly noted by the Resident.
Arrived at his own home, the Maharaja Lela sent out messengers to
all the men in his immediate neighbourhood, and when they were
he addressed them and stated that Mr. Birch was coming up the river in
few days, and that, if he attempted to post any notices there, the
of the Sultan and the down-river chiefs were to kill him. The assembled
said that, if those were the commands of the Sultan and the Maharaja
they would carry them out. The chief then handed his sword to a man
Pandak Indut, his father-in-law, and directed that everyone should give
him the same obedience as to himself. The people then dispersed. It was
or two days after this that Mr. Birch arrived at Pasir Salak.
Before describing the events of the 2nd November I must go
for a moment. A number of officers, of whom I was one, had accompanied
W. Jervois in his journey to Perak. When the Governor and those with
left the State I was directed to remain behind with Mr. Birch to assist
in his negotiations with the chiefs. A fortnight later I went to
with important papers and the drafts of proclamations defining the
of the Resident under the new arrangement. These proclamations were
and I returned to Perak with them, joining Mr. Birch in his house on
I found the Resident had met with an accident; he had
slipped down and so
badly sprained his ankle that he could not walk without crutches.
Abbott, R.N., and four bluejackets were at Bandar Bharu (the
where were also quartered the Sikh guard (about eighty men), the
Mr. Birch undertook to distribute the proclamations himself in the
districts, and directed me to go up river, to interview the ex-Sultan
the Raja Muda, the Raja Bendahara, and other up-country chiefs, and,
distributed the proclamations at all important villages from Kota Lama
to try to meet him at Pasir Salak on the 3rd November. There, he told
he expected trouble for which he was quite prepared.
The Sikh guard was in a state bordering on mutiny in the evening of the
but by the following morning they seemed to have returned to their
and about noon I left Bandar Bharu with two boats for the interior, Mr.
starting down stream at the same time.
He must have got through his part of the work more rapidly
he expected, for he reached Pasir Salak with three boats at midnight on
1st November, and anchored in mid-stream. The 1st November was the Hari
the first day after the Fast. At daylight his boats went along-side the
and the Resident's own boat was made fast to the floating bath-house of
Chinese jeweller, whose little shop stood on the high bank a few feet
the riverside. This was the only Chinese house in Pasir Salak.
Mr. Birch was accompanied by Lieut. Abbott, an armed guard of twelve
a Sikh orderly, the Malay interpreter (an eminently respectable Malay
nearly fifty named Muhammad Arshad), and a number of Malay boatmen and
There must have been about forty people in the party. Mr. Birch had
him a 3-Pr. brass gun, a small mortar, and a number of English
and Malay weapons, be-sides other property.
Directly after their arrival Mr. Abbott borrowed a small boat from the
and went across the river to Kampong Gajah to shoot sn, j,e, the Chief
that place, the Datoh Sagor, returning in the boat to Pasir Salak,
he at once sought an interview with Mr. Birch.
After this conversation, which was held in the Resident's
the Datoh Sagor and Mr. Birch's interpreter went to the Maharaja Lela's
and the interpreter said to the Maharaja Lela that the Resident wished
see him and would go to his house for that purpose, but if the Chief
it, and would go to Mr. Birch's boat, he would be glad to meet him
The Maharaja Lela said, `I have nothing to do with Mr. Birch,' and the
returned to the boat and reported to his master the result of his
The news of the Resident's arrival had been spread in every direction,
all those in the neighbourhood were ordered to come in. By this time,
or seventy men had assembled and were now standing about on the bank of
river close to Mr. Birch's boats. They were all armed with spears and
and Mr. Birch asked the Datoh Sagor what they wanted, and that they
be told to stand further away. The Datoh told them to move away, and
gave a few yards, but at the same time began to abuse the Resident,
him an `infidel,' and asking what he meant by coming there asking
and speaking like one in authority. Probably the Resident did not
these ominous signs, but his boatmen heard and realised that trouble
Mr. Birch now gave some proclamations to the interpreter, who took them
shore and posted them on the shutters of the Chinaman's shop. Almost
Pandak Indut, the Maharaja Lela's father-in-law, tore them down and
them off to the Maharaja Lela's house. That chief's dictum, was `Pull
the proclamations, and, if they persist in putting them up, kill them.'
it may be supposed he washed his hands of all responsibility, and
Indut went out to execute his master's orders.
Meanwhile, Mr. Birch had handed to his interpreter some
to replace those removed, and, after giving directions to prepare his
went into the China-man's bath-house to bathe, leaving his Sikh orderly
the door with a loaded revolver. This bath-house was of the type common
Perak, two large logs floating in the stream, fastened together by
of wood, and on them built a small house with mat sides about five feet
and a roof closing on the sides but leaving two open triangular spaces
front and back. The structure is so moored that it floats parallel to
bank, and a person even standing up inside it cannot see what is taking
on the shore close by.
It was now about 10 a.m., and in spite of the threatening attitude of
large crowd of armed Malays standing in groups and passing between the
and their chief's house, the Resident was composedly bathing in the
while his people were some of them cooking on the bank, others sleeping
the boats, and a few, the Malays, anxiously expectant, fearing the
boded a catastrophe.
They had not long to wait. The interpreter was still re-placing the
on the Chinaman's hut, when Pandak Indut and a number of other men came
from the Maharaja Lela's house.
The crowd asked, `What are the Chief's orders?'
Pandak Indut replied, `He leaves the matter to me.'
Going straight up to the Chinese shop, he began tearing down the
papers; the interpreter protested, and, seeing no heed was paid to him,
towards the bath-house. He had not made half a dozen steps, when Pandak
overtook him and thrust his spear into the man's abdomen. The wounded
fell down the bank into the river and caught hold of his master's bait,
others followed him and cut him over the head and hands, so that he let
and struggled out into the stream.
The interpreter disposed of, Pandak Indut cried out, `Here is Mr. Birch
the bath-house, come, let us kill him,' and, followed by three or four
shouting amok, amok, they leapt on to the floating timbers and thrust
spears through the open space in the front of the house.
At that time men in the boats could see Mr. Birch's head above the mat
it disappeared without any sound from him, and a moment after he came
the surface of the water astern of the house. Some of the murderers
already waiting there, and one of them, a man called Siputum, slashed
Resident over the head with a sword. He sank and was not seen again.
The Sikh orderly, standing with a revolver at the door of the
jumped into the river without any warning to his master, swam off to
of the boats and saved himself.
The river-bank was now the scene of a general melee. A Malay boatman
a Sikh had been killed, but the others had got one of the boats away
the bank into midstream and towards it two of Mr. Birch's Malays were
while they supported the grievously wounded interpreter. With
they gained the boat and got the man in. As they dropped down the river
Birch's coxswain urged the Sikhs to fire on the Malays, but they said
could not do so without an order ! He accordingly gave the order, and
shots were fired which for a moment cleared the bank. A small boat with
men in it put out lower down stream to intercept the fugitives, and two
them were wounded by shots from these men. The coxswain then wrenched a
from a Sikh and shot one of these assailants. After this the boat
unmolested to Bandar Bharu. Long before they arrived there the
Mr. Abbott, shooting on the other bank, was warned of what had taken
and with great difficulty got into a dug-out and made his way down
under the fire of the Malays on the bank.
The attack, the murder of the Resident, his interpreter, the Sikh and
boatman, and the escape of the rest of the party was the work of a few
Whilst still the passion of strife and bloodthirst swayed the crowd,
Maharaja Lela walked into their midst and asked whose hands had done
Resident and his men to death. Instantly Pandak Indut, Siputum, and the
claimed credit for their murderous work. The Chief said, `It is well,
but those who struck blows can share in the spoil.' He then called a
forward and said, 'Go and tell the Laksamana that I have killed Mr.
The message was delivered the same day, and the Laksamana said, `Very
I will tell the Sultan.'
That evening the Maharaja Lela sent a letter to ex-Sultan Ismail
what he had done, and, to remove any doubt on the subject, he sent with
the Resident's own boat.
These are the facts about Mr. Birch's assassination, and it may be of
interest to add that the Resident's two boats were immediately rifled
all their contents carried up to the Maharaja Lela's house.
Sooner or later punishment overtook every man directly
concerned in this
crime, and also nearly all those who were indirectly responsible. Some
during the subsequent fighting, one died an outlaw in the jungle.
The first man captured was Siputum. He was brought in to Bandar Bharu
one evening in the early part of 1876, and I went to see him in the
about midnight. A wilder looking creature it would have been hard to
He was a Pawang, a medicine man, a sorcerer. For many weeks he had been
hunted outcast, and he seemed to think that capture was almost
to the life he had been leading. He sat on the floor and described to
his share in Mr. Birch's murder, pausing between the sentences to kill
on the wall of his cell. He volunteered the statement that Mr. Birch
a good man, who had been kind to him, and that what he did was by order
his Chief, whom he was bound to obey. The responsibility of the
for his own actions was a doctrine that was strange to him, and he
it too late to profit by it. In December 1876, the Maharaja Lela, the
Sagor, Pandak Indut, and four others were arraigned before the Raja
Jusuf and Raja Alang Husein, and charged with murdering Mr. Birch and
others at Pasir Salak on the znd November 1875.
They were prosecuted by Colonel Dunlop, R.A., and my-self, on behalf of
Government, and defended by an able and experienced member of the
Bar. After a trial which lasted eight days, they were severally found
and condemned to death, but the extreme penalty was exacted only in the
of the three first named. Sultan Abdullah, and other Chiefs whose
in the assassination was established by the fullest evidence, were
from the State, and a like sentence was passed upon the ex-Sultan
and some of his adherents.
In Mr. Birch the British Government lost one of its most courageous,
and zealous officers, but, by the action which his death made
the State of Perak gained in twelve months what ten years of `advice'
hardly have accomplished. That was not all, for the events of those
months, when they came to be fully known, threw a light on the inner
of the Malay and his peculiar characteristics, that was in the nature
a revelation. It is all too soon to forget the lesson or disregard its
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