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Treaty that tamed Perak

Millennium markers - British colony

The tin trade was of vital importance to the British. The 1870s marked the beginning of what has been called the Age of Imperialism in which capital became the major catalyst for European expansion overseas. British financiers and politicians in London, British and Chinese capitalists in Singapore and their local collaborators, a few Malay chiefs in Perak, all played a part in bringing Perak under British rule, hoping that order would be imposed and trade could continue. Historians have later given the Pangkor Treaty and the year 1874 an importance it did not have initially. It did bring calm and quiet to Perak, but it did not settle the state's complex political and economic problems immediately.

The treaty signed by the British Governor of the Straits Settlements (that comprised Penang, Malacca and Singapore), Sir Andrew Clarke, and a group of Malay chiefs from the lower and middle areas of the Perak River, recognised the Raja Muda, Raja Abdullah's claim to the throne.

Raja Abdullah had invited the British to intervene in Perak's affairs and help install him as sultan. He and his Malay chiefs also agreed to accept a British Resident and an Assistant Resident whose advice had to be accepted and acted upon in all matters except Islam and Malay custom.

Earlier aboard H.M.S. Pluto, an agreement had been signed between British officials and Chinese tin miners, in which the miners agreed to order their secret societies to stop fighting and live in peace in all the tin mining areas.

The signing ceremony was not attended by certain important Malay chiefs from Upper Perak. Absent were Raja Yusuf, Raja Abdullah's rival to the throne, and Raja Ismail, another rival to the throne who had already been proclaimed sultan by a meeting of Malay chiefs in 1871 on the death of Perak's last ruler, Sultan Ali.

Sultan Ismail, who resided in Blanja on the upper Perak River, possessed the ceremonial swords, krises, drums and elephants by which the dignity of kingship was normally upheld.

In the eyes of the Perak Malays, he was the legitimate ruler.

Raja Abdullah, as the Raja Muda, felt he should have rightfully been appointed the ruler, but he had failed to attend the 1871 meeting. Now that he was acknowledged sultan, Perak had two sultans.

But Sultan Ismail refused to recognise the Pangkor Treaty and to hand over the royal regalia to Raja Abdullah without which the latter could not hold his coronation.

Without waiting to solve the problems in Perak first, Governor Clarke intervened in the other West Coast Malay States of Selangor and Sungei Ujung, forcing the rulers in these states to accept British Residents by signing treaties in November and December of 1874 respectively.

All these states, together with other minor states in Negri Sembilan, stretching along the whole of the West Coast of the Malay peninsula from Malacca to Penang, were in such a state of disturbance that all legitimate trade with them had ended. British investments suffered.

Tin mine, Taiping

Perak became the first state to experience British intervention due to certain business interests in Singapore that had associations with Raja Abdullah and that influenced him to ask for British aid.

Tan Kim Cheng, the head of the Ghee Hin secret society who owned tin mines and revenue farms in Selangor and Perak, and British merchant W.H. Read, the president of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, drafted the letter to Sir Andrew Clarke for Raja Abdullah, in which he asked for British recognition and assistance to run the state of Perak.

Seymour Clarke, Read's brother-in-law in London and a director of the Selangor Tin Company, followed this up with a petition to the British government, in which he said that if it failed to intervene, some other European power, probably Germany, would.

British historians, C.D. Cowan and C.N. Parkinson, have regarded Seymour Clarke's letter as being instrumental in forcing the British Government to intervene in Perak and the other Malay states.

For the first 10 months after the treaty was signed, however, no full-time British Resident was appointed to Perak to advise Sultan Abdullah. The delay proved fatal to the British cause. It allowed rivalry among the chiefs and anarchy in the tin mines to drag on.

J.W.W. Birch, (left) the Colonial Secretary in Singapore, was not appointed British Resident in Perak until Nov 1, 1874. But he proved to be a wrong choice.

Birch's character and moral integrity was, from the beginning, in doubt. He was in debt to a few Chinese businessmen in Singapore who had investments in Perak and Selangor. While performing his duties as Resident he was under investigation over his pecuniary interests, and was not formally confirmed in his job.

Instead of advising the sultan, as required under the treaty, Birch took over the administration. He mishandled the system of taxes, revenue farms and slavery and incurred the enmity of the chiefs. He was assassinated at Pasir Salak on Nov 2, 1875.

But that initial resistance raised by the chief called Maharaja Lela was quickly crushed by British military might.

An official British enquiry into Birch's murder uncovered a conspiracy involving most of the chiefs as well as Sultan Abdullah and Sultan Ismail. In 1877 Sultan Abdullah and three other Malay chiefs were banished to the Seychelles for their complicity in the crime, while Sultan Ismail and some of his chiefs were banished to Johor. Raja Yusof was made Regent of Perak, and later appointed sultan.

Only a year after Birch's murder did the British succeed in bringing peace and an end to the rule of Malay feudal chiefs and the imposition of a Western form of administration.

Up to 1877, the Treaty of Pangkor was an unmitigated disaster. But it did serve as the basis for other treaties the British later signed with other Malay states.

n Dr Cheah Boon Kheng was formerly a lecturer in the History Department at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF - : The Treaty of Pangkor, signed aboard the British Navy ship, HMS Pluto, off Pangkor island on Jan 20, 1874, gave order to Perak where a state of disorder had brought the booming tin trade to a grinding halt. Dr CHEAH BOON KHENG examines how the treaty that opened the door to British intervention in the Malay states came about and what its consequences were.

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