The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

A Chapter on Sungei Ujong

The Puzzles of the Peninsula — Sungei Ujong — A Malay Confederation — Syed Abdulrahman — The Revenue of Sungei Ujong — Scenery and Productions — The New Datu Klana — A “Dual Control”

I had never heard of this little State until I reached Singapore, and probably many people are as ignorant as I was. The whole peninsula, from Johore in the south to Kedah in the north, is a puzzle, what with British colonies, Singapore, Malacca, and Province Wellesley, and “Protected States,” Sungei Ujong, Selangor, and Perak, north, south, and east of which lie a region of unprotected Malay States, with their independent rulers, such as Kedah, Patani, Tringganu, Kelantan, Pahang, Johore, etc.* In several of these States, more or less anarchy prevails, owing to the ambitions and jealousies of the Rajahs and their followers, and a similar state of things in the three protected States formerly gave great annoyance to the Straits–Settlements Government, and was regarded as a hindrance to the dominant interests of British trade in the Straits.

[*A number of small States are united into a sort of confederation known as the Negri Sembilan, or Nine States. Their relative positions and internal management, as well as their boundaries, remain unknown, as from dread of British annexation they have refused to allow Europeans to pass through their territory.]

In 1874, Sir A. Clark, the then Governor, acting in British interests, placed British residents in Perak, Selangor, and the small State of Sungei Ujong. These residents were to advise the rulers in matters of revenue and general administration, but, it may be believed, that as time has passed, they have become more or less the actual rulers of the States which they profess to advise merely. They are the accredited agents of England, reporting annually to the Straits Government, which, in its turn, reports to the Colonial Office, and the amount of pressure which they can bring to bear is overwhelming.

It is not easy to give the extent and boundaries of Sungei Ujong, the “boundary question” being scarcely settled, and the territory to the eastward being only partially explored. It is mainly an inland State, access to its very limited seaboard being by the Linggi river. The “protected” State of Selangor bounds it on the north, and joining on to it and to each other on the east, are the small “independent” States of Rumbow, Johol, Moar, Sri Menanti, Jelabu, Jompol, and Jelai. The Linggi river, which in its lower part forms the boundary between Selangor and Malacca, forks in its upper part, the right branch becoming for some distance the boundary between Sungei Ujong and Rumbow. It is doubtful whether the area of the State exceeds seven hundred square miles.

The Malays of Sungei Ujong and several of the adjacent States are supposed to be tolerably directly descended from those of the parent empire Menangkabau in Sumatra, who conquered and have to a great extent displaced the tribes known as Jakuns, Orang Bukit, Rayet Utan, Samangs, Besisik, Rayet Laut, etc., the remnants of which live mainly in the jungles of the interior, are everywhere apart from the Malays, and are of a much lower grade in the scale of civilization. The story current among the best informed Malays of this region is that a Sumatran chief with a large retinue crossed to Malacca in the twelfth century, and went into the interior, which he found inhabited only by the Jakuns, or “tree people.” There his followers married Jakun women, and their descendants spread over Sungei Ujong, Rumbow, and other parts, the Rayet Laut, or “sea-people,” the supposed Ichthyophagi of the ancients, and the Rayet Utan, or “forest-people,” betaking themselves to the woods and the sea-board hills.

This mixed race rapidly increasing, divided into nine petty States, under chiefs who rendered feudal service to the Sultans of Malacca before its conquest by the Portuguese, and afterward to the Sultan of Johore, at whose court they presented themselves once a year. This confederation, called the Negri Sembilan, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made various commercial treaties with the Dutch, but its domestic affairs were in a state of chronic feud, and four of the States, late in the eighteenth century, becoming disgusted with the arbitrary proceedings of a ruler who, aided by Dutch influence, had gained the ascendency over the whole nine, sent to Sumatra, the original source of government, for a prince of the blood-royal of Menangkabau, and after a prolonged conflict this prince became sovereign of the little States of Sungei Ujong, Rumbow, Johol, and Sri Menanti, the chiefs of these States constituting his Council of State. This dynasty came to an end in 1832, and intrigues and discord prevailed for many years, till the Datu Klana of Sungei Ujong, troubled by a hostile neighbor in Rumbow and a hostile subject or rival at home, conceived the bright idea of supporting his somewhat shaky throne by British protection.

After some curious negotiations, he succeeded in obtaining both a Resident and the English flag to protect his little fortunes; but it is obvious that his calling in foreign intervention was not likely to make him popular with his independent neighbors or disaffected subjects, and the troubles culminated in a “little war,” in which the attacking force was composed of a few English soldiers, Malay military police, and a body of about eighty so-called Arabs, enlisted in Singapore and taken to the scene of action by Mr. Fontaine. The “enemy” was seldom obvious, but during the war it inflicted a loss upon us of eight killed and twenty-three wounded. We took various stockades, shot from sixty to eighty Malays, burned a good deal of what was combustible, and gave stability to the shaky rule of the Datu Klana, Syed Abdulrahman. Of this prince, who owed his firm seat on the throne to British intervention, the Resident wrote in 1880:— “Loyal to his engagements, he had gained the good will of the British Government. Straightforward, honest, and truly charitable, he had gained the love and respect of almost everyone in Sungei Ujong, Chinese as well as Malay, and if he had a fault he erred on the side of a weak belief in the goodness of human nature, and often suffered in consequence.” This was Captain Murray’s verdict after nearly five years’ experience.

The population of this tiny State, which in 1832 consisted of three thousand two hundred Malays and four hundred Chinese, at the time of my visit had risen to twelve thousand, composed of three Europeans, a few Klings, two thousand Malays, and ten thousand Chinese. It exports tin in large quantities, gutta-percha collected in the interior by the aborigines, coffee, which promises to become an important production, buffalo hides, gum dammar, and gharroo. In 1879 the exports amounted to 81,976 pounds; 81,451 pounds being the value of tin. Its imports are little more than half this amount. Rice heads the list with an import of 18,150 pounds worth, and opium comes next, valued at 14,448 pounds. The third import in value is oil; the next Chinese tobacco, the next sugar, the next salt fish, and the next pigs! The Chinese, of course, consume most of what is imported, being in a majority of five to one, and here as elsewhere they carry with them their rigid conservatism in dress, mode of living, food, and amusements, and have a well-organized and independent system of communication with China. It is the Chinese merchant, not the British, who benefits by the rapidly augmenting Chinese population. Thus in the import list the Chinese tobacco, pigs, lard, onions, beans, vermicelli, salted vegetables, tea, crackers, joss-sticks, matches, Chinese candles, Chinese clothing, Chinese umbrellas, and several other small items, are all imported from China.

Having been debited with a debt of 10,000 pounds for war expenses, to be paid off by installments, the finances were much hampered, and the execution of road-making and other useful work has been delayed. This war debt, heavy as it was, was exclusive of 6,000 pounds previously paid off, and of heavy disbursements made to supply food and forage for the British soldiers who were quartered in Sungei Ujong for a considerable time. Apart from this harassing debt, the expenses are pre-eminently for “establishments,” the construction of roads and bridges, and pensions to Rajahs whose former sources of revenue have been interfered with or abolished. The sources of revenue are to some extent remarkable, and it is possible that some of them might be altogether abolished if public attention became focussed upon them. Export duties are levied only on tin, the great product of Sungei Ujong, and gutta-percha. The chief import duty is on opium, and in 1879 this produced 4,182 pounds, or about one-fourth of the whole revenue. Besides this fruitful and growing source of income, 3,074 pounds was raised in 1879 under the head “Farms;” a most innocuous designation of a system which has nothing to do with the “kindly fruits of the earth” at all, but with spirits, gambling, oil, salt, opium, and a lottery! In other words, the “farms” are so many monopolies, sold at intervals to the highest bidder, the “gambling farm” being the most lucrative of the lot to the Government, and of course to the “farmer”!

The prison expenses are happily small, and the hospital expenses also, owing mainly in the former case to the efforts of the “Capitans China,” who are responsible for their countrymen, and in the latter to the extreme healthiness of the climate. The military police force now consists of a European superintendent, ninety-four constables, paid 45s. per month, and twelve officers, all Malays; but as it is Malay nature to desire a change, and it is found impossible to retain the men for any lengthened periods, it is proposed to employ Sikhs, as in Perak.

Sungei Ujong, like the other States of the Peninsula, is almost entirely covered with forests, now being cleared to some extent by tapioca, gambier, and coffee-planters. Its jungles are magnificent, its hill scenery very beautiful, and its climate singularly healthy. Pepper, coffee, tapioca, cinchona, and ipecacuanha, are being tried successfully; burnt earth, of which the natives have a great opinion, and leaf mould being used in the absence of other manure.

The rainfall is supposed to average 100 inches a year, and since thermometrical observations have been taken the mercury has varied from 68 degrees to 92 degrees. From the mangrove swamps at the mouths of turbid, sluggish rivers, where numberless alligators dwell in congenial slime, the State gradually rises inland, passing through all the imaginable wealth of tropical vegetation and produce till it becomes hilly, if not mountainous. Sparkling streams dash through limestone fissures, the air is clear, and the nights are fresh and cool. Its mineral wealth lies in its tin mines, which have been worked mainly by Chinamen for a great number of years.

The British Resident, who was called in to act as adviser, is practically the ruler of this little State, and the arrangement seems to give tolerable satisfaction. At all events it has secured to Sungei Ujong since the war an amount of internal tranquillity which is not possessed by the adjacent States which are still under native rule, though probably the dread of British intervention and of being reduced to mere nominal sovereignty, being “pensioned off” in fact, keeps the Rajahs from indulging in the feuds and exactions of former years. Since my visit the Datu Klana died of dysentery near Jeddah in Arabia in returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, and three out of six of his followers perished of the same disease. The succession was quietly arranged, but the hope that the State to which its late ruler was intensely, even patriotically attached might remain prosperous under the new Rajah, has not been altogether fulfilled. Affairs are certainly not as satisfactory as they were, judging from recent official statements. The import of opium has largely increased. Rice planting had failed owing to the mortality and sickness among the buffaloes used in ploughing, the scanty crop was nearly destroyed by rats, and the Malays had shown a “determined opposition” to taking out titles to their lands.

The new Datu Klana is very unpopular, and so remarkably weak in character as not to be able to bring any influence to bear upon the settlement of any difficult question. The Datu Bandar (alluded to in my letter) is entirely opposed to progress of every kind, and, having a great deal of influence, obstructs the present Resident in every attempt to come to an understanding on the land grant question. A virulent cattle disease had put an end for the time being to cart traffic; and the Linggi, the great high-road to the tin mines, had become so shallow that the means of water transport were very limited. Large numbers of jungle workers had returned to Malacca. The Resident’s report shows very significantly the formidable difficulties which attend on the system of a “Dual Control,” and on making any interference with “Malay custom” regarding land, etc. It is scarcely likely, however, that Sungei Ujong and the other feeble protected States which have felt the might of British arms, and are paying dearly through long years for their feeble efforts at independence, will ever seek to shake off the present system, which, on the whole, gives them security and justice.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31