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The Perak Civil War

Perak's 'little war



Isabella Bird was one of the indefatigable spirits of the Victorian era, travelling the world from the Rockies to Korea, Nova Scotia to Morocco. Her book 'The Golden Chersonese' finds her departing from Japanese shores and travelling the length of the Malay Peninsula - sometimes on the back of an elephant. The extract below, written in 1879, chronicles her impressions of the 'little war' in Perak.


It is singular that the fall of Perak as an independent State was brought about by what may be called a civil war among the Chinese, who in 1871 were estimated at thirty thousand, and were principally engaged in tin-mining in Larut. These Chinamen were divided into two sections--the Go Kwans and the Si Kwans; and a few months after Sultan Ismail was elected, a dispute arose between the factions. Both parties flew to arms, and were aided with guns, ammunition, military stores, and food from Pinang, Pinang Chinese having previously supplied the capital needed for working the mines. The settlement was kept in perpetual hot water, its trade languished, and in return for military equipments the Chinese of Larut sent over two thousand wounded and starving men. The Mentri, the Malay "Governor" of Larut, although aided by Captain Speedy and a force of well-drilled troops recruited by him in India, and possessing four Krupp guns, was powerless to restore order, and Larut was destroyed, being absolutely turned into a wilderness, in which all but three houses had been burned, and, while the Malays had fled, the surviving Si Kwans were living behind stockades, while those of the faction opposed to that with which the Mentri and his Commander-in-Chief, Captain Speedy, had allied themselves, were living on the products of orchards from which their owners had been driven, and on booty, won by a wholesale system of piracy and murder, practiced not only on the Perak waters but on the high seas.

The war waged between the two parties threatened to become a war of extermination; horrible atrocities were perpetrated on both sides; and it is said and believed that as many as three thousand belligerents were slain on one day early in the disturbances. If the course of prohibiting the export of munitions of war had been persevered the strife would have died a natural death; but the Mentri made representations which induced the authorities of the Straits to accord a certain degree of support to himself and the Si Kwans, by limiting the prohibition to his enemies the Go Kwans. Things at last became so intolerable in Larut, and as a consequence in Pinang, that the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir A. Clarke, thought it was time to interfere. During these disturbances in Larut, Lower Perak and the Malays generally were living peaceably under Ismail, their elected Sultan. Abdullah, who was regarded as his rival, was a fugitive, with neither followers, money, nor credit. He had, however, friends in Singapore, to one of whom, Kim Cheng, a well-known Chinaman, he had promised a lucrative appointment if he would prevail on the Straits authorities to recognize him as Sultan. Lord Kimberley had previously instructed the Governor to consider the expediency of introducing the "Residential system" into "any of the Malay States," and the occasion soon presented itself.


An English merchant in Singapore and Kim Cheng drafted a letter to the Governor, which Abdullah signed, in which this chief expressed his desire to place Perak under British protection,* and "to have a man of sufficient abilities to show him a good system of government." Sir A. Clarke, thus appealed to, went to Pulo Pangkor, off the Perak coast, summoned the Chinese head men and the Malay chiefs to meet him there, and so effectively reconciled the former, who were bound over to keep the peace, that they were not again heard of. The Governor stated to the Malay chief and Abdullah that it was the duty of England to take care that the proper person in the line of succession was chosen for the throne. He inquired if there were any objection to Abdullah, and on none being made, the chiefs signed a paper dictated by Sir A. Clarke, since known as the "Pangkor Treaty." Its articles deposed Ismail, created Abdullah Sultan, ceded two tracts of territory to England, and provided that the new ruler should receive an English Resident and Assistant Resident, whose salaries and expenses should be the first charge on the revenue of the country, whose counsel must be asked and "acted upon" on all questions other than those of religion and custom, and under whose advice the collection and control of all revenues and the general administration should be regulated. After the signing of this treaty piracy ceased in the Perak waters, and Larut was repeopled and became settled and prosperous.

[*Abdullah informs "our friend" Sir W. Jervois, that his position and that of Perak are "in a most deplorable state," that there are two Sultans between whom no arrangement can be made, that the revenues are badly raised, and the laws are not executed with justice. "For these reasons," he says, "we see that Perak is in very great distress, and, in our opinion, the affairs of Perak cannot be settled except with strong, active assurance from our friend the representative of Queen Victoria, the greatest and most noble....We earnestly beg our friend to give complete assistance to Perak, and govern it, in order that this country may obtain safety and happiness, and that proper revenues may be raised, and the laws administered with justice, and all the inhabitants of the country may live in comfort."]

So far, as regards the Sultanate, I have followed the account given by Sir Benson Maxwell. Mr. Swettenham, however, writes that Abdullah failed to obtain complete recognition of himself as Sultan, and instead of fulfilling the duties of his position, devoted himself to opium- smoking, cock-fighting, and other vices, estranging, by his overbearing manner and pride of position, those who only needed forbearance to make them his supporters. It may be remarked that Abdullah was not as yielding as had been expected to his English advisers.

The Pangkor Treaty was signed in January, 1874. On November 2d, 1875, Mr. Birch, the British Resident, who had arrived the evening before at the village of Passir Salah to post up orders and proclamations announcing that the whole kingdom of Perak was henceforth to be governed by English officers, was murdered as he was preparing for the bath.

On this provocation we entered upon a "little war," Perak became known in England, and the London press began to ask how it was that colonial officers were suffered to make conquests and increase Imperial responsibilities without the sanction of Parliament. Lord Carnarvon telegraphed to Singapore that he could not sanction the use of troops "for annexation or any other large political aims," supplementing his telegram by a despatch stating that the residential system had been only sanctioned provisionally, as an experiment, and declaring that the Government would not keep troops in a country "continuing to possess an independent jurisdiction, for the purpose of enforcing measures which the natives did not cheerfully accept."

As the sequel to the war and Mr. Birch's murder, Ismail, who had retained authority over a part of Perak, was banished to Johore; Abdullah, the Sultan, and the Mentri of Larut, who was designated as an "intriguing character," were exiled to the Seychelles, and the Rajah Muda Yusuf, a prince who, by all accounts, was regarded as exceedingly obnoxious, was elevated to the regency, Perak at the same time passing virtually under our rule.

A great mist of passion and prejudice envelops our dealings with the chiefs and people of this State, both before and after the war. Sir Benson Maxwell in "Our Malay Conquests," presents a formidable arraignment against the Colonial authorities, and Major M'Nair, in his book on Perak, justifies all their proceedings. If I may venture to give an opinion upon so controverted a subject, it is, that all Colonial authorities in their dealings with native races, all Residents and their subordinates, and all transactions between ourselves and the weak peoples of the Far East, would be better for having something of "the fierce light which beats upon a throne" turned upon them. The good have nothing to fear, the bad would be revealed in their badness, and hasty counsels and ambitious designs would be held in check. Public opinion never reaches these equatorial jungles; we are grossly ignorant of their inhabitants and their rights, of the manner in which our interference originated, and how it has been exercised; and unless some fresh disturbance and another "little war" should concentrate our attention for a moment on these distant States, we are likely to remain so, to their great detriment, and not a little, in one respect of the case at least, to our own.


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