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

A Chapter on Perak

The Boundaries and Rivers of Perak — Tin Mining — Fruits and Vegetables — The Gomuti Palm — The Trade of Perak — A Future of Coffee — A Hopeful Lookout — Chinese Difficulties — Chinese Disturbances in Larut — The “Pangkor Treaty” — A “Little War” — The Settlement of Perak — The Resident and Assistant–Resident

The “protected” State of Perak (pronounced Payrah) is the richest and most important of the States of the Peninsula, as well as one of the largest. Its coast-line, broken into, however, by a bit of British territory, is about one hundred and twenty-five miles in length. Its sole southern boundary is the State of Selangor. On the north it has the British colony of Province Wellesley, and the native States of Kedah and Patani, tributary to Siam. Its eastern boundary is only an approximate one, Kelantan joining it in the midst of a vast tract of unexplored country inhabited solely by the Sakei and Semang aborigines. The State is about eighty miles wide at its widest part, and thirty at its narrowest, and is estimated to contain between four and five thousand square miles. The great artery of the country is the Perak river, a most serpentine stream. Ships drawing thirteen feet of water can ascend it as far as Durian Sabatang, fifty miles from its mouth, and boats can navigate it for one hundred and thirty miles farther. This river, even one hundred and fifty miles from its mouth at Kwala Kangsa, is two hundred yards wide, and might easily be ascended by “stern-wheel” boats drawing a foot of water, such as those which ply on the upper Mississippi. Next in size to the Perak is the Kinta, which falls into the Perak, besides which there are the Bernam and Batang Padang rivers, both navigable for vessels of light draught. Along the shores of these streams most of the Malay kampongs are built.

The interior of Perak is almost altogether covered with magnificent forests, out of which rise isolated limestone hills, and mountain ranges from five thousand to eight thousand feet in height. The scenery is beautiful. The neighborhood of the mangrove swamps of the coast is low and swampy, but as the ground rises, the earth which has been washed down from the hills becomes fertile, and farther inland the plains are so broken up by natural sand ridges which lighten the soil, that it is very suitable for rice culture.

Tin is the most abundant of the mineral products of Perak, and, as in the other States, the supply is apparently inexhaustible. So far it is obtained in “stream works” only. The export of this metal has risen from 144,000 pounds in 1876 to 436,000 pounds in 1881. Tin-mining continues to attract a steady stream of Chinese immigration, and the Resident believes that the number of Chinamen has increased from twenty thousand in 1879 to forty thousand in 1881. Wealth is reckoned in slabs of tin, and lately for an act of piracy a Rajah was fined so many slabs of tin, instead of so many hogsheads of oil, as he would have been on the West African coast.

Gold is found in tolerable quantities, even by the Malay easy-going manner of searching for it, and diamonds and garnets are tolerably abundant. Gold can be washed with little difficulty from most of the river beds, and from various alluvial deposits. The metal thus found is pure, but “rough and shotty.” The nearer the mountains the larger the find. It is of a rich, red color. Iron ore is abundant; but though coal has been found, it is not of any commercial value. The methods of mining both for tin and gold are of the most elementary kind, and it is probable that Perak has still vast metallic treasures to yield up to scientific exploration and Anglo–Saxon energy.

Rice is the staple food of the inhabitants. Dry rice on the hillsides was the kind which was formerly exclusively cultivated, but from some Indians who came from Sumatra to Perak the Malays have learned the mode of growing the wet variety, and it is now largely practiced. Partly in consequence of a great lack of agricultural energy, and partly from the immense quantity of rice required by the non-producing Chinese miners, Perak imported in 1881 rice to the value of 70,000 pounds.

There is scarcely a tropical product which this magnificent region does not or may not produce, gutta-percha, india-rubber, sago, tapioca, palm-oil and fibre, yams, sweet potatoes, cloves, nutmegs, coffee, tobacco, pepper, gambier, with splendid fruits in perfection — the banana, bread-fruit, anona, cocoa-nut, mangosteen, durion, jak-fruit, cashew-nut, guava, bullock’s heart, pomegranate, shaddock, custard-apple, papaya, pine-apple, with countless others. The indigenous fruits alone are so innumerable, that a description of the most valuable of them would fill a chapter.

Our homely vegetables do not flourish, but watermelons, cucumbers, gourds, capsicums, chilies, cocoa-nut cabbage, edible arums, and, where the Chinese have settled, coarse lettuces, radishes, and pulse, grow abundantly, with various other not altogether to be despised vegetables with Malay names.

The timber is magnificent, and under the unworthy name of “jungle produce” a large trade is done in it. Perak is the land of palms, and produces the invaluable cocoa-palm, most parts of which have their commercial value, the areca palm which produces the betel-nut, the gomuti palm from whose strong black fibres they make ropes, cordage, and strands for capturing the alligator; the jaggary-palm, from which sugar is made, as well as a fermented beverage; the nibong palm, which grows round the Malay kampong, and is used for their gridiron floors and for the posts of their houses; the dwarf-palms which serve no other purpose than to gladden the eyes by their beauty; and the nipah palm which fringes the rivers, and, under the name of attap, forms the thatch of both native and foreign houses.

Road-making has not made great strides in Perak, but railroads are being planned, and a good road extends from the port of Larut to the great Chinese mining town of Taipeng, and thence to the British residency at Kwala Kangsa, a distance of over thirty-three miles, the electric telegraph accompanying the road. Others are in course of construction, and there are numerous elephant and jungle tracks through the western parts of the State.

Still, the rivers form the natural highways. Perak has two ports — Teluk Anson on the Perak river, thirty-four miles from its mouth, and Teluk Kertang, a few miles up the Larut river, and eight miles from the great tin mines of Taipeng. The import and export trade is carried on mainly with Pinang, and at this time one of several small steamers leaves Larut for that port daily. A steamer calls at Teluk Anson once a fortnight on her voyage from and to Singapore and Pinang, and another calls at the same port every fourth day, as well as at the Dindings and the Bernam river.

Trade is rapidly advancing. The exports of the State, which were valued at 147,993 pounds in 1876, amounted to 513,317 pounds in 1881; and the imports which amounted to 166,275 pounds in 1876, had reached 488,706 pounds in 1881, the whole import and export trade of that year amounting to 1,002,023 pounds. The free population of Perak is now estimated at

Malays 56,000
Chinese 40,000
Other Asiatics 850
Europeans 90
Aborigines 1,000
97,940

To which may be added a slave and bond debtor population of nearly four thousand souls.

The revenue of Perak has risen from 42,683 pounds in 1876 to 138,572 pounds in 1881; and the expenditure, keeping pace with it, has risen from 45,277 pounds in 1876 to 130,587 pounds in 1881. The chief sources of the Perak revenue are customs duties, opium and other farms and licenses, and land revenue; and the chief items of expenditure are for civil and police establishments, roads and bridges, and allowances and pensions to chiefs. It is worthy of remark that the military establishment — for so the magnificent Sikh armed police force may be called — costs more than the civil establishment. It may also be remarked that the revenue of Perak, thanks to the financial sagacity and wise discrimination of the Resident, is collected with little difficulty, and without inflicting any real vexations or hardships on the taxpayers.

Public works, such as the construction of good cart roads and bridges, the making of canals, the clearing rivers from impediments to navigation, the enlargement of experimental gardens, the introduction and breeding of sheep, cattle, and improved breeds of poultry, surveying wild land, and rebuilding and draining mining towns, are being carried on energetically. It has been found, after long and carefully-conducted experiments, that the lower mountains of Perak are admirably suited for the growth of tea, cinchona, and Arabian coffee, while Liberian coffee grows equally well on the lower lands. Coffee appears to be so nearly “played out” in Ceylon, that many coffee-planters have been “prospecting” in Perak; and now that the Government of India has consented to the importation of Indian coolie labor into the State, under certain restrictions, as an experimental measure, a future of coffee may be predicted with tolerable certainty. One of the causes for satisfaction in connection with this State is that the Malays themselves are undoubtedly contented with British rule, and are prospering under it. Crime of any kind in the Malay districts is very rare. The “village system” works well, and the courts of law conduct their business with an efficiency and economy which compare favorably with the transactions of our colonial courts; English law is being gradually introduced and gives general satisfaction, and the native Rajahs are being trained to administer even-handed justice according to its provisions, and at the same time without trenching upon Malay religion and custom. Slavery and debt bondage, which, as hitherto practiced in Perak, have involved evils and cruelties which are unknown to any but those who have actually lived in the State, will, it is hoped, be abolished by equitable arrangement in 1883. Various difficulties remain to be settled; the large Chinese element, with its criminal tendencies, requires great firmness of dealing, and the introduction of foreign capital and an additional form of alien labor may lead to new perplexities; but on the whole the outlook for Perak and its people is a favorable one, especially if the present Resident, Mr. Hugh Low, is able to remain to continue his task of developing the resources, settling the difficulties, and consolidating the well-being of the State.

Nothing is known of the early settlement of Perak. It was formerly tributary to the Malay sovereigns of Malacca, and afterward to those of Acheen, to whom the Perak Sultans sent gold and silver flowers as tribute. Siam has also at different times asserted sovereign rights and demanded tribute, but the Siamese were expelled in 1822 with the help of Rajah Ibrahim, the warlike chief of the neighboring State of Selangor. The Government was a despotism, administered during the last three centuries by Sultans who were connected with the ruling dynasties of Johore and Acheen.

Our connection with Perak began in 1818 by a commercial treaty between the East India Company and the Sultan, the chief object of which was to circumvent the Dutch on the subject of tin. By another treaty, in 1826, it was agreed that the Sultan should govern his country according to his own will; that no force should be sent either by Siam to “molest, attack, or disturb” Perak; and while it was stipulated that the Siamese should not attack or disturb Selangor, the English engaged not to allow Selangor to attack or disturb Perak.

So things jogged along till 1871, when the Sultan died, and the Rajahs, passing over two men who by blood were nearest to the throne, elected Ismail, an old and somewhat inoffensive man. Three years of intrigue followed, and many singular complications, which would be quite uninteresting to the general reader, and they furnished no excuse for English interference.

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.

When the changes in Perak were completed, Mr. Hugh Low, formerly administrator of the Government of Labuan, was appointed Resident, and Mr. W. E. Maxwell, who had had considerable experience in Malay affairs, Assistant Resident. Both these gentlemen speak the Malay tongue readily and idiomatically, and Mr. Maxwell is an accomplished Malay scholar. Of both the superior and subordinate it may truly be said that, by tact, firmness, patience, and a uniformly just regard for both Malay and Chinese interests, they have not only pacified the State, but have conciliated the Rajahs, and in the main have reconciled the people to the new order of things.

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