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The Perak Civil War

Death on the Perak River

The assassination of JWW Birch

From the chapter 'James Wheeker Woodford Birch' in 'Malay Sketches' by Frank Swettenham (London: John Lane , 1895)

It was the Malay fasting-month, the bulan puasa (fasting month) when these last events occurred. It is not an auspicious time for conducting negotiations with Malays, they do not even at-tempt to work for that month, they sleep for most of the day and sit up most of the night, eating and talking, discussing affairs and hatching plots. This, at least, is the case with the upper classes, and it is they only who are concerned in politi- cal movements; the common people do not fast as a rule, and leave the plotting to the chiefs, whose business they think it is to scheme and to direct, theirs to obey.

In Lower Perak during this particular month of Ramdhan, an unusual amount of discussion had been carried on between Sultan Abdullah and his chiefs, and they determined not only that the British Resident should be got rid of, but one of them, entitled the Maharaja Lela, undertook to do the business the next time Mr. Birch visited him.

This man, the Maharaja Lela, was a chief of considerable rank, after the Sultan he was the seventh in the State. He lived at Pasir Salak, on the right bank of the Perak River, about thirty miles above the residence of Sultan Abdullah, and about forty below that of ex-Sultan Ismail. He avoided Mr. Birch whenever it was possible (though living only five miles from him), and managed to keep friends with both Sultans.

During the month, Sultan Abdullah, who was then with his boats at Pasir Panjang, a couple of miles below the Maharaja Lela's house, summoned his chiefs and informed them that he had given over the government of the country to Mr. Birch. This announcement was received in silence by the others, to whom it was doubtless no news, but the Maharaja Lela said, `Even if your Highness has done so, I do not care at all. I will never acknowledge the authority of Mr. Birch or the white men. I have received letters from Sultan Ismail, the Mentri and the Panglima Kinta telling me on no account to obey the English Government in Perak. I will not allow Mr. Birch to set his foot in my kampong at Pasir Salak.'

The Sultan said, `Do you really mean that, Maharaja Lela?' and the Chief replied, `Truly I will not depart in the smallest degree from the old arrangement.'

Another chief, the Datoh Sagor, who lived on the other side of the river, exactly opposite to Pasir Salak, said, `What the Maharaja Lela does I will do.'

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 small island on which the Resident's hut stood. At that meeting the Sultan produced the proclamations which were to be issued, placing the ad-ministration in the hands of British officers, and asked his chiefs what they thought of them. The Laksamana, an influential chief, said, `Down here, in the lower part of the river, we must accept the proclamations'; but the Maharaja Lela said, `In my kampong I will not allow any white man to post those proclamations. If they insist on doing so, there will certainly be a fight.' To this the Sultan and other chiefs said, `Very well.'

The Maharaja Lela immediately left, and having loaded his boats with rice, returned up river to his own kampong.

Pasir Salak was the usual collection of Malay houses scattered about in groves of palm and fruit trees by the river-bank. Prominent amongst these was the Maharaja Lela's own dwelling, a large and comparatively new building of a more than ordinarily substantial kind, round which he had for months past been digging a great ditch and throwing up a formidable earthwork crowned by a palisade. These preparations had been duly noted by the Resident.

Arrived at his own home, the Maharaja Lela sent out messengers to summon all the men in his immediate neighbourhood, and when they were collected he addressed them and stated that Mr. Birch was coming up the river in a few days, and that, if he attempted to post any notices there, the orders of the Sultan and the down-river chiefs were to kill him. The assembled people said that, if those were the commands of the Sultan and the Maharaja Lela, they would carry them out. The chief then handed his sword to a man called Pandak Indut, his father-in-law, and directed that everyone should give to him the same obedience as to himself. The people then dispersed. It was one or two days after this that Mr. Birch arrived at Pasir Salak.

Before describing the events of the 2nd November I must go back for a moment. A number of officers, of whom I was one, had accompanied Sir W. Jervois in his journey to Perak. When the Governor and those with him left the State I was directed to remain behind with Mr. Birch to assist him in his negotiations with the chiefs. A fortnight later I went to Singapore with important papers and the drafts of proclamations defining the authority of the Resident under the new arrangement. These proclamations were printed, and I returned to Perak with them, joining Mr. Birch in his house on the 26th October.

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. Lieut. Abbott, R.N., and four bluejackets were at Bandar Bharu (the Residency), where were also quartered the Sikh guard (about eighty men), the boatmen, and others.

Mr. Birch undertook to distribute the proclamations himself in the down-river districts, and directed me to go up river, to interview the ex-Sultan Ismail, the Raja Muda, the Raja Bendahara, and other up-country chiefs, and, having distributed the proclamations at all important villages from Kota Lama downwards, to try to meet him at Pasir Salak on the 3rd November. There, he told me, he expected trouble for which he was quite prepared.

The Sikh guard was in a state bordering on mutiny in the evening of the 27th, but by the following morning they seemed to have returned to their senses, and about noon I left Bandar Bharu with two boats for the interior, Mr. Birch starting down stream at the same time.

He must have got through his part of the work more rapidly than he expected, for he reached Pasir Salak with three boats at midnight on the 1st November, and anchored in mid-stream. The 1st November was the Hari Raya, the first day after the Fast. At daylight his boats went along-side the bank, and the Resident's own boat was made fast to the floating bath-house of a Chinese jeweller, whose little shop stood on the high bank a few feet from the riverside. This was the only Chinese house in Pasir Salak.

Mr. Birch was accompanied by Lieut. Abbott, an armed guard of twelve Sikhs, a Sikh orderly, the Malay interpreter (an eminently respectable Malay of nearly fifty named Muhammad Arshad), and a number of Malay boatmen and servants. There must have been about forty people in the party. Mr. Birch had with him a 3-Pr. brass gun, a small mortar, and a number of English fire-arms and Malay weapons, be-sides other property.

Directly after their arrival Mr. Abbott borrowed a small boat from the Chinaman and went across the river to Kampong Gajah to shoot sn, j,e, the Chief of that place, the Datoh Sagor, returning in the boat to Pasir Salak, where he at once sought an interview with Mr. Birch.

After this conversation, which was held in the Resident's boat, the Datoh Sagor and Mr. Birch's interpreter went to the Maharaja Lela's house, and the interpreter said to the Maharaja Lela that the Resident wished to see him and would go to his house for that purpose, but if the Chief preferred it, and would go to Mr. Birch's boat, he would be glad to meet him there. The Maharaja Lela said, `I have nothing to do with Mr. Birch,' and the interpreter returned to the boat and reported to his master the result of his interview.

The news of the Resident's arrival had been spread in every direction, and all those in the neighbourhood were ordered to come in. By this time, sixty or seventy men had assembled and were now standing about on the bank of the river close to Mr. Birch's boats. They were all armed with spears and krises, and Mr. Birch asked the Datoh Sagor what they wanted, and that they should be told to stand further away. The Datoh told them to move away, and they gave a few yards, but at the same time began to abuse the Resident, calling him an `infidel,' and asking what he meant by coming there asking questions and speaking like one in authority. Probably the Resident did not understand these ominous signs, but his boatmen heard and realised that trouble was brewing.

Mr. Birch now gave some proclamations to the interpreter, who took them on shore and posted them on the shutters of the Chinaman's shop. Almost immediately, Pandak Indut, the Maharaja Lela's father-in-law, tore them down and took them off to the Maharaja Lela's house. That chief's dictum, was `Pull down the proclamations, and, if they persist in putting them up, kill them.' Then it may be supposed he washed his hands of all responsibility, and Pandak Indut went out to execute his master's orders.

Meanwhile, Mr. Birch had handed to his interpreter some more proclamations to replace those removed, and, after giving directions to prepare his breakfast, went into the China-man's bath-house to bathe, leaving his Sikh orderly at the door with a loaded revolver. This bath-house was of the type common in Perak, two large logs floating in the stream, fastened together by cross-pieces of wood, and on them built a small house with mat sides about five feet high, and a roof closing on the sides but leaving two open triangular spaces at front and back. The structure is so moored that it floats parallel to the bank, and a person even standing up inside it cannot see what is taking place on the shore close by.

It was now about 10 a.m., and in spite of the threatening attitude of the large crowd of armed Malays standing in groups and passing between the river-bank and their chief's house, the Resident was composedly bathing in the river, while his people were some of them cooking on the bank, others sleeping in the boats, and a few, the Malays, anxiously expectant, fearing the signs boded a catastrophe.

They had not long to wait. The interpreter was still re-placing the proclamations on the Chinaman's hut, when Pandak Indut and a number of other men came quickly 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 newly-posted papers; the interpreter protested, and, seeing no heed was paid to him, turned towards the bath-house. He had not made half a dozen steps, when Pandak Indut overtook him and thrust his spear into the man's abdomen. The wounded man fell down the bank into the river and caught hold of his master's bait, but others followed him and cut him over the head and hands, so that he let go and struggled out into the stream.

The interpreter disposed of, Pandak Indut cried out, `Here is Mr. Birch in the bath-house, come, let us kill him,' and, followed by three or four others shouting amok, amok, they leapt on to the floating timbers and thrust their 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 wall; it disappeared without any sound from him, and a moment after he came to the surface of the water astern of the house. Some of the murderers were already waiting there, and one of them, a man called Siputum, slashed the 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 bath-house, jumped into the river without any warning to his master, swam off to one of the boats and saved himself.

The river-bank was now the scene of a general melee. A Malay boatman and a Sikh had been killed, but the others had got one of the boats away from the bank into midstream and towards it two of Mr. Birch's Malays were swimming while they supported the grievously wounded interpreter. With difficulty they gained the boat and got the man in. As they dropped down the river Mr. Birch's coxswain urged the Sikhs to fire on the Malays, but they said they could not do so without an order ! He accordingly gave the order, and some shots were fired which for a moment cleared the bank. A small boat with two men in it put out lower down stream to intercept the fugitives, and two of them were wounded by shots from these men. The coxswain then wrenched a rifle from a Sikh and shot one of these assailants. After this the boat proceeded unmolested to Bandar Bharu. Long before they arrived there the interpreter died.

Mr. Abbott, shooting on the other bank, was warned of what had taken place, and with great difficulty got into a dug-out and made his way down stream under the fire of the Malays on the bank.

The attack, the murder of the Resident, his interpreter, the Sikh and the boatman, and the escape of the rest of the party was the work of a few minutes. Whilst still the passion of strife and bloodthirst swayed the crowd, the Maharaja Lela walked into their midst and asked whose hands had done the Resident and his men to death. Instantly Pandak Indut, Siputum, and the others, claimed credit for their murderous work. The Chief said, `It is well, none but those who struck blows can share in the spoil.' He then called a man forward and said, 'Go and tell the Laksamana that I have killed Mr. Birch.' The message was delivered the same day, and the Laksamana said, `Very well, I will tell the Sultan.'

That evening the Maharaja Lela sent a letter to ex-Sultan Ismail describing what he had done, and, to remove any doubt on the subject, he sent with it the Resident's own boat.

These are the facts about Mr. Birch's assassination, and it may be of some interest to add that the Resident's two boats were immediately rifled and 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 fell during the subsequent fighting, one died an outlaw in the jungle.

The first man captured was Siputum. He was brought in to Bandar Bharu late one evening in the early part of 1876, and I went to see him in the lock-up about midnight. A wilder looking creature it would have been hard to find. He was a Pawang, a medicine man, a sorcerer. For many weeks he had been a hunted outcast, and he seemed to think that capture was almost preferable to the life he had been leading. He sat on the floor and described to me his share in Mr. Birch's murder, pausing between the sentences to kill mosquitoes on the wall of his cell. He volunteered the statement that Mr. Birch was a good man, who had been kind to him, and that what he did was by order of his Chief, whom he was bound to obey. The responsibility of the individual for his own actions was a doctrine that was strange to him, and he learnt it too late to profit by it. In December 1876, the Maharaja Lela, the Datoh Sagor, Pandak Indut, and four others were arraigned before the Raja Muda Jusuf and Raja Alang Husein, and charged with murdering Mr. Birch and the others at Pasir Salak on the znd November 1875.

They were prosecuted by Colonel Dunlop, R.A., and my-self, on behalf of the Government, and defended by an able and experienced member of the Singapore Bar. After a trial which lasted eight days, they were severally found guilty and condemned to death, but the extreme penalty was exacted only in the cases of the three first named. Sultan Abdullah, and other Chiefs whose complicity in the assassination was established by the fullest evidence, were banished from the State, and a like sentence was passed upon the ex-Sultan Ismail and some of his adherents.

In Mr. Birch the British Government lost one of its most courageous, able, and zealous officers, but, by the action which his death made necessary, the State of Perak gained in twelve months what ten years of `advice' could hardly have accomplished. That was not all, for the events of those twelve months, when they came to be fully known, threw a light on the inner life of the Malay and his peculiar characteristics, that was in the nature of a revelation. It is all too soon to forget the lesson or disregard its teachings.

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