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The Selangor Civil War

The Selangor Incident

The Selangor incident of 1871 arose out of a simple case of piracy.  The junk "Kim Seng Cheong', Kung Lee Master, sailed on 14th June from Penang with a mixed cargo of piece goods, provision and livestock for Larut. On the 22nd June, when she was eight days overdue and rumours of mischief were circulating in the Georgetown bazaars, one of her owners went to Arthur Birch, the Lieutenant - Governor of Penang.  The vessel was said to have been taken by pirates who had slipped as passengers and seized her at sea. 

Nothing was known  of the fate of the other passengers and crew, but the story soon became embroidered with tales of wholesale slaughter as it spread around the bazaars.  There was little the lieutenant - Governor could do, for there was no naval force in Penang.  So he gave the wretched owner, one Ong Hong Buan, a letter to Colonel Anson in Singapore and shipped him off that evening in the regular passenger steamer "Historian".  Ong reached Singapore on the 24th June.  By then his story had grown longer, for on the evening before, when the steamer was near the Torch lightship, a junk had been sighted which he took from the look of the sails to be his.  But the captain of the steamer had refused to take any action, and Ong was carried lamenting on, to tell his tale to Colonel Anson.

When he heard the story, Anson at once sent off the Government Steamer "Pluto" with a police detachment to comb the west coast of the Peninsula, and, if necessary, the coast of north-east Sumatra too, in search of the junk.  On the morning of the 28th June she found her in the Selangor estuary.  In the words of the "Pinang Gazette":
"At Selangor the police landed on the right bank of the river and obtained information that the junk of the same name as the one sought for had discharged her cargo about ten days previously.  Crossing to the opposite bank of the river, the party there found the missing junk with six Chinese on board, one of whom was identified on Leng Ah Cheok, her steersman; considerable alterations had been made to her, but the gong, drum and cymbals found on board still had the junk's name on them, traces of blood were also on the deck, which had, apparently been recently scraped.  On the police going on shore and making search, a great quantity of her cargo was found.   This had been sold and was discovered in these shops". This account, and the reports of Inspector Cox in charge of the Police and Mr Bradberry, the Master of the Pluto, make it clear that the men responsible for the pirating of the junk were Chinese.  It was in the Chinese shops ashore that the loot was found.

The situation was clearly within the terms of a treaty signed with Selangor in 1825, by which its Sultan agreed not to allow pirates to resort to his territory, and undertook to handover to the British Government any who might be found there.  But trouble arose when Cox and Bradberry tried to obtain the fulfillment of these terms from Raja Musa, Sultan Abdul Samad's eldest son, who was supposed to be in charge.  Musa was friendly and obliging.  But he was not in control of the Selangor River, for it had been in the hands of the warlike Raja Mahdi and his allies since July 1870.  They were no respecters of the English or of the luckless Musa, so that the effort of Cox and his police to round up all the Chinese in the Settlement together with a large part of their property soon brought an angry crowd on the scene led by Mahdi's lieutenant, Raja Mahmud.

Some of the Chinese seized on the barest evidence may well have been local shopkeepers.  Following is Mr Bradberry's report, 1 July 1871:"...on capturing the fourth - evidently one of the head pirates, he having a belt round his waist, and, as we supposed full of money - whilst trying to get him into the boat he laid hold of one of the Malay chiefs by the leg, at the same time whispering something into his ear, on which the Chief told us to give him over to his charge..."  This does not seem the strongest of evidence of priacy, or of being a head pirate!

Eventually, fighting broke out, and Cox was fortunate to extricate his men without loss.  They had secured the junk and part of her cargo, and more Chinese, some of them identified as members of the junk's original crew.  They could do no more, so pursued by some random shots from the shore they retired to Pluto, and thence with the junk in tow to Penang.

As soon as Anson learnt of Cox's rebuff he sent back Pluto with the sloop HMS Rinaldo, hoping that together they would make sufficient show of force to secure the remainder of the pirates and their booty. The "Rinaldo" was lay in wait outside the estuary but the "Pluto" had entered the river towing boats full of British Marines.  Two parties of Marines went ashore but were fired upon by the Raja Mahdi's Malays in the fort. The British retreated to their ships, with one Marine killed and at least five wounded. The "Pluto" steamed out of the river and went on to Penang to transport their wounded.  From then on, the affair became a purely punitive expedition.  On the next day, 4 July, Rinaldo entered the river and remained there for 12 hours, shelling both the Selangor forts and burning part of the town.  On 6 July, there was more shelling and troops were landed.  They found the place deserted.  Mahdi and his men had taken shelter in the jungle, and there was nothing for the blue-jackets to do but spike and dismount the guns and demolish as much  of the forts as possibel before withdrawing. The British handed Kuala Selangor over to the charge of the Tengku Kudin, who garrisoned it with 100 Sikhs and some 30 or 40 Kedah Malays.

The commander of the 'Rinaldo' reported to Singapore that he was successful "in utterly destroying this nest of Pirates". The bombardment of Kuala Selangor was a meant as a sharp lesson to "Malay pirates", and made a great impression on the whole west coast. As soon as the result of Rinaldo's expedition was known in Singapore, Anson sent the Colonial Secretary - the soon-to-be famous Mr JWW Birch - to the Sultan of Selangor at his home in Kuala Langat to ask him to cooperate in arresting and surrendering the remaining pirates and to guarantee that "pirates shall not again be allowed at Selangor or to occupy the forts there." 

Birch travelled in the 'Pluto' with HMS 'Teazer' in support, and landed at Kuala Langat with a large force of marines.  Behind him, the 'Teazer's' guns bore upon the Sultan's home.  The Sultan denied responsibility for the actions of Raja Mahdi and others - he described them as "bad men and pirates who had long devastated my country' - and said he had already captured the remaining pirates concerned in the interception of the Penang junk and had sent them to Malacca.  Birch, in accordance with Anson's instructions, then broached the question of the appointment of a chief acceptable to the Straits Government who would be in charge over the district around the Selangor river.  The Sultan averred that Tengku Kudin was still 'Viceroy' and therefore in control.  There had been reports however, that Tengku Kudin, because of his strong character and forceful administration, had fallen out of favour with the Sultan, so Birch suggested that Tengku Kudin's authority should be renewed as this 'would be very acceptable to the English Government'. 

The Sultan said he could not do this without consulting his chiefs.  Birch threatened to use force within 24 hours.  The following day the Sultan sent Birch two letter, one of which declared Mahdi and the other chiefs supporting him to be outlaws and gave the British Government leave to arrest them. The second letter reappointed Tengku Kudin 'Wakil Yamtuan (the Sultan's agent or representative) with full powers.  Birch delivered these two letter and other 'trophies' to Anson; one was a pair of elephant tusks to be presented to Queen Victoria on behalf of Sultan Abdul Samad, and the other $1,000 worth of tin belonging to Raja Mahdi and handed to him by the ruler, probably as compensation for the piracy.

Birch's threats to the Sultan were clearly intervention in the internal affairs of a Malay state and therefore contrary to the policy of the British Government.  Anson was undoubtedly pleased with the results of Birch's mission, but privately he was uneasy over Birch's show of force when asking for the appointment of a 'Governor' whose duties he had also defined.  When a public outcry broke out in London over what was described on an 'unprovoked attack' on a 'small and defenceless state', Anson hastened to assure the home government in a despatch that he expressed to Birch his "disapprobation' of his peremptory attitude to the Sultan.  However, the Colonial office finally decided that no important aspect of policy had been breached, and not only approached Anson's handling of the Selangor incident but also complimented Birch on "conducting a difficult negotiations with ability' - an attitude which baffled the merchants in the Straits Settlement and the London firms with which they were associated, for it showed that, on the one hand the Colonial Office was inflexible about extending influence over the Malay states, while on the other it was apparently ready to condone action which could legally be described as intervention.

Though the London attitude officially remained one of non-interference and the Governor in Penang was instructed by Singapore not to interfere in the Malay States and to remain aloof at all times, this policy had clearly outlived its usefulness.  It was soon to change but not, this time, with the use of gunboats. This time, Britain utilised a far more effective weapon in the form of a young civil servant named Frank Swettenham.

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