The ‘little Rajas’ of the Straits Settlements

The British in Malaya. This photo was of a garden party during the first Durbar in Kuala Kangsar, taken in 1897. (Source: Arkib Negara Malaysia)

Whilst there had been British administrators of conceivably great character and fortitude during the colonial years, there were those in colonial service that left much to be desired. In his description of the Straits Settlements officers, AJ Stockwell described them in the journal History Today as:

“… semi literate loafers; there were complaints about ‘insolent broken-down bankrupts or drunkards’ in the service of Perak.”

While, in Selangor, the Governor reported in 1882: “I have had to dismiss two-thirds of the staff of officials here… for inefficiency.“

In the examination of the failure of the British Officers, many unfavourable remarks and detailed description of the quality of officers sent to administer the state were questionable and laughable.

Being in a new state dominated by the Malays, many of them did not receive first hand information on these Malay states.  Thinking that they might succeed doing the same during their rule in India, these ‘blank’ officers came to work in an area where the language and culture were totally different from what they perceived originally.

Stockwell further describe that the service in the Protectorate states:

“… attracted an odd assortment of people gleaned from the hedgerows and ditches of the English Society.  There were mercenaries, solitaries, fanatics and also drifters.  Some were consumed with reforming zeal and rode roughshod over Malay sensibilities; the first resident of Perak J.W.W. Birch, was one of these, and prompted contemporaries to pun on birches, brooms and clean-sweeps.”

An officer was also dismissed for flogging both a policeman and a Chinese barber.  It was discovered he had nothing much to except to report on  the daily weather.

Lords Stanley of Alderley reported this at the House of Lords:

“These Residents it was supposed were to inculcate lessons of order and economy in finance, but the Resident in Larut at once erects a residency worthy of a colonial Governor. The Penang Gazette speaks of its ‘noble proportions’ and centre room 70 feet in length. He then provides himself with a bodyguard of Chinese, dressed in blue satin tunics and red circular hats, and he appears to have no fewer than 17 elephants at his disposal for a picnic for his Penang friends. In his Report he invariably speaks as though he were the Ruler of the country, instead of the adviser of the Ruler.”

There was also an official in Upper Perak who boasted a more comprehensive harem than that of many Malay Sultan and ruled his fief from the back of an elephant.

Their luxurious lifestyle  and lack of knowledge on the Malay culture attracted the wrath of the Malay rulers and the Malay populace.  The hierarchy of the Malay society evolves around the Sultan as their leader.  What these officials did was considered  lese majeste[1] to the Malays.

These acts portrayed by these colonial officers had, in part, led to the chain of events (citing to events leading to the Perak War in the late 1870s as an example) as we know them in Perak and other neighbouring states.

Footnote: [1]lese majeste – an act of  insulting the ruler

1.  Stockwell, A. J. The Malayan Raj, History Today. May 77, Vol. 27 Issue 5, p306, 10p.
2.  Lord Stanley of Alderley, HL. Deb 28 February 1876 vol 227 cc1000-18.


5 thoughts on “The ‘little Rajas’ of the Straits Settlements

  1. Salams good editor(s),

    My late grandmother, Raja Khairul Kamariah ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdullah, told me how Birch was ‘kaki perempuan, tak kira bini orang ke tidak’, and that he was ‘sombong’ and ‘tak hormat adat orang Melayu’ (brash and overbearing) and that these were the reasons which brought his downfall/murder.

    Though I hold my grandmother in high esteem, I secretly thought these reasons to be a tad fantastical or even trivial to have led to Birch’s violent end.

    After reading the above, I now know better and in fact, am struck with awe. My grandmother had actually shared a credible piece of information which she probably had privy of. She was around 10 or 11 when her father died and could have gathered this account first-hand from none other than Sultan Abdullah himself.

    Thank you for an incredible read.

  2. Ku Yam,
    Apparently, given his ghastly reputation in India, Birch was seen as the right “ingredient” for their intervention in Malaya altho didn’t expect him to be killed.

    The team is in the midst of collating all the pertinent info regarding this and we will share with all in due course. Insyallah.

  3. Dear Chiman,

    Thank you! Alhamdulillah, now, finally, a more balanced view about our history. This ‘revealing’ piece of write-up that SK has posted will allow us to have a better understanding of the significant background that had shaped the turn of events in Perak’s tumultuous history.

  4. Dear all – Apparently there is a conspiracy within the Colonial Office that Birch was sent, knowingly that he would cause problems to the local chiefs and the Ruler. I was in the Dept of SE Asian Studies, Hull Univ., with a Prof Bassett, a noted authority on Malaya in that Department. He said, “the British needed a sacrificial lamb in order to colonise the malay states… What better excuse than to avenge the death of one of their Officers”.

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