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The Perak Civil War

The Perak War Despatches

Born in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the Illustrated London News retained its position as the leading illustrated paper in Britain throughout the 19th century and outlasted many of its contemporaries and rivals to prosper in the age of cinema and television.  First published on14th May 1842, the ILN has provided the British public with a vivid pictorial commentary on domestic and world affairs, giving Britons a fascinating social history of the last one and a half centuries.  Below is a reproduction what it called the Perak War Despatches.

13 NOVEMBER 1875:
Mr Birch, the British Resident at Perak, a State on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, has been murdered. It appears that Mr Birch was attacked in his bath. His Malay interpreter is reported  to have been killed, while four of his suite were wounded, and two are missing. Energetic measures are being taken to bring to light the perpetrators of the outrage. All the native Rajahs are suspected of complicity in the murder, and Sultan Ismail is reported to be collecting large forces for the purpose of attempting to expel the British. The British Residency at Perak was besieged; but it was relieved on Saturday last. On the following day a stockade further up the river was attacked, but without success, and Captain Innes was killed, two other officers being wounded, as well as eight men. A telegram from Singapore, of Wednesday's date, says that 1,500 British troops are on their way from Calcutta and 1-long Kong to take part in the further operations against the Malays. According to the latest reports the body of Mr Birch was found in the river river.

20 NOVEMBER 1875: The Colonial Office has received some further information respecting the murder of Mr Birch, which took place while the gentleman was in his bath, and happened during an affray which followed on a Malay tearing down a proclamation at Pasir Sala. The principal chiefs of Perak are reported to remain unshaken in their loyalty, and the disturbances are confined to a limited area.

4 DECEMBER 1875: General Colborne, with the troops from Hong Kong, has arrived at Perak. The Government of the Straits Settlements has issued what is described as a pacific proclamation. Hostilities are suspended pending the chiefs' answer and the arrival of reinforcements from India; but the British war vessels are blockading the coast, and the Malays are reported to be enduring great privations. The Times publishes a telegram from Moulmein, dated Nov. 30, in which we read:- "The Indian troops arrived at Penang on the 26th, and marched through Larut to Quallakangza, meeting the Perak force. Sultan Ismail probably will prove friendly.The General leaves with the Perak force for Quallakangza. On the 28th the Governor of the Straits Settlement left Perak. He remains at Penang."

The Queen has bestowed a Civil List pension of £75 a year on each of the three younger children of the late Mr. J.W.W. Birch, British Resident at the Court of Perak; and it is understood that the Secretary of State for the Colonies will make provision for the eldest son in the colonial service.

11 DECEMBER, 1875: From Penang we learn that the preparations for attacking the Malays in force are making rapid progress. According to a statement made by the man servant of the late Mr Birch, the Malays are forming strong stockades up the river, and threaten to resist to the utmost.

18 DECEMBER 1875: An official telegram from Penang announces that a number of Malays, estimated at from 400 to 800, have been defeated by some men of the 10th Regiment, acting with irregulars and police. The Malays had fortified themselves by stockade within five miles of the Residency. In Perak no opposition is now met with, and no more troops are wanted.

25 DECEMBER 1875 : Further progress has been made by the expedition sent up the Perak River,the British force having advanced seven miles towards Kinta, dislodging the Malays with guns and rockets. — A Chinese riot has taken place at Malacca, to put down which 200 men of the 3rd Regiment have been sent from Penang.

15 JANUARY 1876: Official intelligence from Penang, states that operations against a disaffected village on both banks of the Perak were undertaken on the 4th. On the right bank disarmament was effected without opposition. On the left the troops were surprised by the Malays. Major Hawkins was killed, as well as two sailors and one Ghoorkha, Surgeon Townsend and two Ghoorkhas were wounded. The Malays were, however, beaten off and the village completely destroyed.

29 JANUARY 1876: Intelligence received at Penang, from Perak, announces that the English troops had attacked another village, that the Malays fled, that our troops afterwards burned the place, and that no lives were lost on our side. In an engagement near the source of the Perak river, the murderer of Mr Birch was killed. One of the chief Rajahs was also killed.

12 FEBUARY 1876: We learn from Penang that the British troops ascended both banks of the Perak on the 4th inst., and destroyed Enggar and the adjoining houses. The Ghoorkas pursued the Malays to Prek, which was also destroyed. No loss was sustained by the British troops.

19 FEBUARY 1876: The following is a copy of a telegram from Governor Sir W.F.D. Jervois, K.C.M.G., to the Earl of Carnarvon, dated Singapore, Feb. 17, 2.55 p.m.:- "Three of actual murderers of Birch captured. One confesses everything; says nine men perpetrated murder, and has given names.

26 FEBUARY 1876: The recent combined military and naval expedition against the hostile Malay chiefs of the Perak river, in the Malay Peninsula forms the subjects of three of our illustrations. Passir Salak, the station when. Mr Birch, the British Resident, was murdered on November 2 was captured within a fortnight of that crime, and the Maharajah Lela, its most guilty author was driven up the river. An expedition started in pursuit of him on Dec. 8. It consisted of 200 infantry of the 10th and 80th Regiments, 40 artillerymen with two steel guns and a rocket tube, and a naval brigade consisting of 40 officers and men of H.M. ships Modeste and Ringdove, with two steel guns on the boat slides, and three rocket tubes. The whole force was under the command of Major-General the Hon. F. Colborne, C.B., and Captain Buller, R.N. Civil commissioners accompanied the expedition. Fifty friendly Malays had preceded the force up the river as scouts.

One of the sketches we have engraved is taken just above Passir Telor. It shows the flotilla of forty-live boats, conveying the force on their way up the river. The large square boats are those conveying the guns, provisions, and coals for a small light-draught steam-launch, which proved of great service. Our correspondent thus relates the operations that ensued.

“Blanja, on the left bank of the Perak river, a village belonging to ex-Sultan Ismail, was reached on the morning of the 13th, when it was ascertained that Ismail had left. General Colborne determined to hollow him across country to his capital, the town of Kinta, before he could have time to strengthen himself there, should he be determined on resistance. Fifty infantry and twenty seamen were left behind in charge of the boats, and the rest of the party, as lightly accoutred as possible, set forth with only a waterproof sheet instead of their packs, and but a scanty supply of provisions carried by the boatmen who had poled up the boats. They started from Blanja at eleven o'clock on the 13th, the troops having already marched from their last night's camping-ground, three miles below Blanja.

“The road or path from the outskirts of Blanja was through the virgin forest or jungle. It is difficult to imagine, but if endless fallen trees, tree roots, elephant holes, streams, swamps, and clay ditches fifty yards long full of, all jumbled together in different combinations of disorder, could be put on paper in it sketch, it would give a feeble idea of the 'road' over which the guns, rockets, and forty rounds of ammunition were dragged, carried, or pushed with intense labour.

“At two o'clock in the afternoon, without any warning, a fire was opened on the advanced guard by an invisible foe, and Staff-Surgeon Randall was wounded in the thigh. All that could be distinguished was that a number of trees had been felled across the road, in the hollow which the vanguard had reached, and that the enemy were posted in a half circle on the rising ground in front of us. Three shots from the guns and the same number of rockets silenced the enemy. Then advancing, we found they had fled from their position, a stockade on the hill side on our right, and slightly on the flank. At three o'clock we had the same thing over again, only this time without loss to us; the rocket tube being close up, one rocket, followed by a loud cheer from our men, inspired the enemy with such dread that they abandoned their next  and strongest position without firing a shot. This was a small hill, on the side of which they had built a stockade, and which, had they held it, would have given us no little trouble to dislodge them from; we were now close upon them, the tracks, especially those of an elephant, being scarce half an hour old. We pushed on, but night overtook us the jungle, and we lay down just where we were, almost too tired to eat. The friendly Malays went on next day, and we joined them at Papau (Papan), fourteen miles from Blanja, on the I5th. The scouts advanced again on the 16th, and reported favourably. Our force joined them next day at noon at a place less than a mile from Kinta. 

“There had been several interchanges of shots between our scouts and the enemy that morning. After a few rockets and shell had been fired into Kinta and an outlying village, the force moved on and entered Kinta at five in the afternoon. Three guns were fired at us as we crossed the river to the island on which Kinta stands; but they had no effect, the shot falling into the water just short of our guns and rockets, which speedily silenced them. The troops entered Kinta without casualty and took up their quarters in the best houses, of which there were numbers, both on the island and the banks of the river.

“Ismail, we hear, has fled miles up the Perak river, and contemplates continuing his journey until he has left the Perak territory behind him and reached Patani, a state bordering the eastern coast of the Peninsula, and under Siamese protection. He is accompanied by the Maharajah Lela and others, who have been most active in their opposition to the British Government.

“The Residency, only a temporary hut which Mr Birch had put up, is situated on a small island in the Perak river, about sixty miles from its mouth and nine miles from Durien Sabatang (Teluk Intan), the highest point to which gun-boats can ascend. This small island is connected with the main by a bridge, across which is the way to the barracks, stores, and offices of the Residency.

There have been some conflicts of later date with the Malays lower down the river Perak, at a place called Kota lama, below the Residency which is at Bandar Bahru. (Note: Kota Lama is in fact a good 100 miles upstream from Bandar Bahru) The force commanded by Brigadier General Ross on the 4th ult., attacked the village of Kota Lama, but met with unexpected and fiercely-determined resistance. Major Hawkins was killed, with one sailor and one sepoy; four or five were wounded, one being Mr Townsend, the surgeon.  The village was destroyed. In the neighbourhood of Tirachi and Sri Menanti, a hundred miles south of Perak, other Malay tribes have given trouble, and a force under Colonel Hill has been employed to chastise them.

25 MARCH 1876: The Malay chief Ismail, who recently surrendered to the Rajah of Quedah, has arrived at Penang.

30 DECEMBER 1876: According despatch from Singapore of the 23rd inst.., the Malay Tribunal has sentenced the Maharajah Lela and six others to be hanged. It was thought probable, however, that the sentence would be commuted.

31 MARCH 1877: We learn by a telegram from Singapore, by Eastern Telegraph Company's cable, that the Sultan of Perak was forcibly arrested on Tuesday night. There was no warrant or written authority. A writ of habeas corpus has been moved for and refused by the registrar; there is no judge in the settlement..

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