A leading light in Perak’s late 19th century advance: Frank Athelstane Swettenham

Henry S. Barlow, Hon. Treasurer, Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

Frank Athelstane Swettenham was a highly distinguished British colonial official who, having served in progressively senior positions for three decades in British Malaya, became Governor of the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang, and Malacca (1901–1904). During these three decades, and beyond, Swettenham also wrote extensively on Malaya’s political affairs as well as on its culture and customs, about which he had a good deal of expertise.

Swettenham arrived in Singapore from England in January 1871, a few months before his 21st birthday, to work as a cadet in the civil service. He served first as a collector of land revenue and then as a Justice of the Peace and Magistrate in Penang. In 1874, he was employed on three special missions to Perak, after which he would play an increasingly important role in the events associated with British intervention, and in framing policies that shaped the state’s development, including federating the state as part of the Federated Malay States.

This article traces aspects of Swettenham’s role in Perak’s evolution in the last quarter of the 19th century, during which period he served as the Acting Resident of Perak, 1884–1886, Resident of Perak, 1889–1896, and the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States, 1896–1901. Yet despite his extensive knowledge of Perak, Swettenham—like many other colonial administrators of the Victorian era—did not always appreciate the resilience and sensitivities of Malay institutions and custom.

Perak in turmoil

At the start of the 1870s, Chinese merchants in the Straits Settlements—and to a lesser extent British merchants—were taking an increasing interest in the growing tin trade and revenues that were coming from Perak, as well as from other states in the Malay Peninsula. The industrial revolution that began over a century earlier in Europe and spread to North America had created an enormous market for tin ore.

Chinese clans hotly contested access to and control of Perak’s profitable tin mines, which were owned by Chinese towkays and operated by large numbers of Chinese migrant workers held in conditions of slavery. The rival groups fought for control of the mines and sought to align themselves with the local chief, the Menteri, Ngah Ibrahim, in Perak’s tin-rich district of Larut.

This struggle for control was increasingly associated with local Malay politics and a battle for the state's throne after the death of Sultan Ali in 1871. Perak had three competing claimants: Rajas Yusof, Ismail, and Abdullah. Raja Yusof was the son of the previous sultan before Sultan Ali—Sultan Ja’afar—and had the most direct lineage claim but was unpopular with many of the state’s chiefs. Raja Ismail, who had strong mining interests and was supported by Ngah Ibrahim, was not of royal blood. Raja Muda Abdullah claimed succession as the raja muda, but during his absence from Sultan Ali’s funeral, because he feared attempts would be made on his life, the chiefs chose Raja Ismail as the new sultan, in a decision that remained vigorously disputed.

British intervention

A fluent Malay speaker, Swettenham came to the fore in Perak in 1874 when he was appointed interpreter in the discussions that led to the Pangkor Engagement of January that year and its subsequent implementation. Swettenham had been taught Malay in Singapore by Mohd Said, the government’s Malay interpreter, and passed his final Malay language examinations in July 1872. Mohd Said was asked to produce a memorandum and genealogical tree of the complexities of the Perak royal family’s lineage. The memorandum was translated by Swettenham into English and led Andrew Clarke, the Straits Settlements Governor (1873–1875), to decide that of the several contenders to the Perak throne, Abdullah had the best claim.

The Pangkor Engagement—signed under great duress by the Malay Chiefs at Pangkor—confirmed his claim; it was originally in English, translated into Malay by Mohd Said and Swettenham. In addition, it sought, among others, to settle mining land disputes between the Chinese clans in Larut, and to agree on the terms for British intervention in, and administration of, Perak.

Three Commissioners—among them Swettenham—were appointed to settle compensation questions and to arbitrate on the disputes between Larut’s Chinese clans. Swettenham was kept busy arranging for the demolition of blockades set up by the mining factions, to prevent a bloodbath. In his own words some years later: ‘For the most part the means employed were the only ones available – tact and firmness, with an accent on the latter’ (Swettenham, 1907, p.179).

Despite the signing of the Pangkor Engagement, the main problem of Abdullah’s legitimacy as Perak’s sultan among his Malay subjects remained. For them to accept him as Sultan, it was essential to retrieve the Perak regalia from Sultan Ismail. For this purpose, J. W. W. Birch, at the time Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements and having previously had many years of colonial service in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), was sent to Perak from Singapore to try to retrieve the regalia, accompanied by Swettenham as interpreter. They travelled up the Perak River to visit the Malay territorial chiefs and, although they were unable to retrieve the regalia, they did make the acquaintance of, and were impressed by, Raja Yusof, another contender for the Perak crown who had been overlooked in earlier discussions in Pangkor.

Under the terms of the Engagement, British residents were to be appointed, initially to Perak and later to Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang as well. Their advice was to be taken on all matters except those relating to religion and Malay custom. Birch, who was keen to become Perak’s Resident, was provisionally appointed to the position on 4 October 1874.

Yet Birch was extremely tactless. So much so that he alone was able to unite the warring factions—but only to agree to his murder, committed on 2 November 1875. In particular he badly mishandled the allowances to be paid to the chiefs in exchange for their agreement not to tax tin ore passing downriver through their territories; acted impetuously and disregarded Malay traditions in attempts to abolish slavery; and, with Swettenham’s support, threatened Abdullah that if he did not sign documents requesting British assistance in the state’s administration, he would be supplanted by Raja Yusof as the British nominee for Sultan.

Swettenham and J. W. W. Birch
Barlow, 1995

Birch’s assassination and retribution

At the beginning of October 1875, Sultan Abdullah signed, under duress, a letter of proposal from W. F. D. Jervois, Governor of the Straits Settlement, 1875–1877, declaring that the British government would govern Perak in the name of the Sultan through Commissioners and Assistant Commissioners of the Queen, with the advice of a Malay Council. Birch was murdered while bathing downstream in the Perak River at Pasir Salak where he had gone to post two proclamations, one relating to the appointment of judges and the other about a new taxation system. Swettenham went upstream to post the same two proclamations. At Blanja, he heard the news of Birch’s murder on the afternoon of 4 November. He was informed that some Malays had wanted to kill him as well (Cowan, 1951). Swettenham’s own accounts of how he ran the blockade late that night became more colourful as the years passed.

Swettenham officiated at Birch’s burial service on 6 November. The Perak War, 1875–1876, that followed was, on the British side, a massive over-reaction. Forces were brought in from Hong Kong and Labuan, while Swettenham was appointed to assist the military force to be sent up the Perak River. He managed to enlist the support of hardened Malay warriors who had previously opposed the British in Selangor, which—in contrast to Birch's—says much for the powers of his leadership at the age of 25. He was involved with the British military authorities and locals in searching for those believed to be responsible for Birch’s murder, which may be seen as a political crime.

On 3–5 March 1876, Jervois appointed Swettenham, and the lawyer J. G. Davidson, Selangor’s first Resident, as the assessors at the first trial of those involved in Birch’s murder. Raja Idris, who was appointed by Sultan Abdullah, presided. The three accused Malays—Seputum, Si Gondah, and Ngah Ahmat—who carried out the murder but were not the instigators, were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentences of Si Gondah and Ngah Ahmat were, however, commuted to life imprisonment by Jervois. Seputum was hanged in the presence of the Perak chiefs and Sultan Abdullah, at Bandar Bahru on 20 May 1876. The British authorities were particularly keen for Sultan Abdullah to be present because of the rumoured existence of a letter from him to Seputum offering him 1,000 silver dollars for killing Birch.

Sultan Abdullah and the Perak Chiefs
Barlow, 1995

On 30 March 1876, it was announced that Swettenham was to be appointed Assistant Colonial Secretary ‘with special responsibility for Native Affairs.’ This ensured that Swettenham in effect, though not in name, became a prosecutor, and could, through this role, ensure that no questions were asked about any possible cover-ups, let alone atrocities by the British forces in the Perak War.

The more senior chiefs who had fled after Birch’s assassination—Maharaja Lela, Pandak Indut, and Dato Sagor—were eventually captured or surrendered and charged, along with four minor chiefs, with Birch’s (and his interpreter Mohamed Arshad’s) murder. On 14–22 December 1876, they were all tried before Raja Yusof and Raja Hussein, with Davidson and W. E. Maxwell serving as the assessors. Swettenham and Colonel Dunlop, the Inspector-General of Police, prosecuted, and the accused were defended by J. D. Vaughan in a trial that lasted seven days. They were all found guilty. The three senior chiefs were hanged in Matang near Larut on 20 January 1877, while the death sentences on the minor chiefs were commuted to life imprisonment.

Based on a decision of a specially convened three-member commission of inquiry that reported in December 1876, Sultan Abdullah, Ngah Ibrahim (the Menteri), the Laksamana, and the Shahbandar were exiled to the Seychelles in mid-1877. Raja Ismail, the principal rival to Sultan Abdullah, was banished to Johor. Swettenham played a material role behind the scenes in arranging these outcomes. These grim precedents in Perak served to ensure that in future the ‘advice’ of Residents both in Perak and elsewhere in the peninsula would not be lightly ignored.

Swettenham as Acting Resident, Perak

In 1877–1882 Swettenham, though not directly involved in Perak’s affairs, continued to work closely with Sir Hugh Low, the successor to Birch as Perak’s Resident, in refining and developing the residential system established at Pangkor. Swettenham was appointed Selangor’s Resident, 1882–1884, and threw himself vigorously into the planning of Kuala Lumpur. Towards the end of March 1884 Swettenham took over as Acting Resident of Perak, replacing Low. The vigour with which Swettenham had handled problems as Selangor’s Resident was matched in Perak.

Hugh Clifford, then aged just 17, came out to Malaya in 1883 and was posted to Perak as a cadet civil servant. He and Swettenham became close friends, cemented in part by a visit by Swettenham in 1884 to Lower Perak, subsequently reported in official prose:

It being imperatively necessary to visit Kuala Slim on the Bernam River, I left Kuala Kangsar in the beginning of September and returned to headquarters after an absence of 30 days. In that time I went down the Perak River to Teluk Anson, visiting all the important riverine villages on the way, inspected the works in progress at the post and then proceeded up the Bidos (Bidor) and Songkei Rivers to Tiang Betara. The rest of the journey was performed on foot over jungle paths (except a few miles on elephants and on horseback in the Kinta district), and convinced me of the necessity of constructing the trunk road (House of Commons [HC], 4958, 1887).

Swettenham had by this time appointed Martin Lister as his private secretary, who accompanied him throughout this trip. At various times during their visit, they stayed with, or were joined by, the young Hugh Clifford. G. Templer Tickell, a Burma-born surveyor and engineer, observed the great flood at the end of 1885, and was later responsible, with Swettenham, for the layout of Kuala Kangsar after it. It was, he revealed, Swettenham who decided that all roads should be named ‘Jalan’.

If Swettenham's expatriate colleagues at this time were in general congenial, the same could scarcely be said of Regent Yusof. His unpopularity had caused him twice to be bypassed in the succession to the Perak throne. Yet he realized that he owed his position entirely to the British. Although Yusof was difficult and obstinate, Low and Swettenham were able to deal with him. By the time Swettenham had become Acting Resident of Perak in 1884, Yusof was growing old, and indeed nearly died. Swettenham no doubt endorsed the advice from Hugh Low that Yusof be elevated from Regent to Sultan: a distinction he was to enjoy only for a few months before his death.

The visit of Cecil Clementi Smith, Acting Governor of the Straits Settlements, in February 1885 to inspect progress of Perak’s first railway from Port Weld to Perak’s tin-mining centres in Taiping no doubt loomed large in Swettenham's calendar. After they inspected the railway line, initiated by Low, the remainder of the visit was taken up by official visits, tent-pegging, parties, and an expedition to Kuala Kangsar. The visit proved successful, and Raja Idris, whom Smith met in Kuala Kangsar, was so pleased 'that he voluntarily expressed the opinion that the other Malay states, especially Pahang, should not delay in asking for a Resident' (HC, 4958:4).

Taiping station, 1885
Barlow, 1995

Much of April and May 1885 was taken up with Swettenham's expedition up the Bernam River to explore a way over the mountain range to Pahang. He was accompanied part of the way by George Edward Giles, a military man and a gifted draughtsman. He left the expedition early owing to illness, but clearly stimulated Swettenham’s artistic interests. Swettenham found some relaxation in painting, for it is from this period in his career that most of his watercolours and sketches can be dated. They show skill and an acute awareness of topography, which was particularly important for someone so passionately devoted to building roads and railways.

By July 1885, scarcely more than 15 months after Swettenham had assumed his post in Perak, the beneficial impacts of his work were becoming evident. During a Muslim New Year feast at the Court House in Kuala Kangsar, with Malay chiefs present, Raja Idris, who was back from his visit to London and speaking on behalf of the chiefs, said how much they appreciated British administration. It is possible, though, that Raja Idris, responsible for this initiative in praising Swettenham, had an eye to the succession on the death of the ageing Yusof, when Swettenham's support would be important.

Smith, in his covering letter to Colonel Stanley, the Colonial Secretary, added:

Mr Swettenham has not unnaturally abstained from mentioning the laudatory remarks personal to himself which were made by Raja Idris and the Regent, but it is right I should state my belief that the ability and distinction with which he has discharged the duties of Acting Resident during the past sixteen months have been mainly instrumental in evoking so unprecedented an outburst of native feeling in connection with the Government of the country (Colonial Office [CO], 273/135).

Around that time, Swettenham submitted his Annual Report for Perak for 1884. Smith, forwarding it to Lord Derby in London, commented favourably:

I consider the Government of Perak has been most ably carried on by Mr Swettenham, who has unremittingly devoted his whole time and powers to its service, and whose official training, which has developed high administrative qualifications, has proved of marked advantage in dealing with the system of Government in its varied phases in a new country (Straits Times Daily, 5 June 1895).

The press, however, saw in his behaviour the shadow of future criticisms, which were to become strident in the early 1890s: 'The Resident is very much of an autocrat in his mode of governing.'

Swettenham left Kuala Kangsar on 11 January 1886 with a glowing letter from Low:

I beg to be permitted to express to you how much in my opinion the State of Perak is indebted to you for the manner in which you have advised this Government and conducted its affairs during the 22 months you have acted in my place (CO, 273/139).

Low enumerated Swettenham's achievements: the opening of the eight-mile Port Weld to Taiping railway, and extensive public buildings at Taiping, including commodious residences for the chief officers of government and a large new market. He praised the improvements in the design, the construction of the works, and the reduction in costs from earlier years. The roads in Larut were in good condition:

General view of Taiping, late 1880s with the Residency on the hill, and tin workings in the foreground
Barlow, 1995

… and the Pass leading into the valley of the Perak River will form a beautiful and lasting memento of the ability and boldness which induced you to conceive and undertake (for Perak) so difficult and costly though necessary a work. At Kuala Kangsar, the town is of your creation, the foundations of its oldest buildings not having been laid two years ago, it is now a well-built town progressing quite as fast as did Thaipeng [Taiping] ... I cannot therefore but congratulate you on the success of your administration, and it will be a great pleasure to me to bring to the notice of His Excellency, Sir F. A. Weld who appointed you to the duties, the brilliant way in which you have carried out His Excellency's wishes, and the exceptional success of your administration (CO, 273/139).
Swettenham reproduced the letter in its entirety many years later. Low continued in the same vein in his 1885 Annual Report on Perak:
The architectural pretensions of all the buildings undertaken by the advice of Mr Swettenham show a very great improvement in taste on those which were erected in the preceding years (HC, 4958:14).
Low charitably drew attention to the fact that Swettenham had planned the museum under construction in Taiping, although It seems likely that this was in response to Low's specific instructions before he went on leave. Swettenham in time came to take some pride in the museum at Taiping, for years later as Resident General he strongly discouraged the development of a museum in Kuala Lumpur, on the grounds that the one in Taiping sufficed for the Federated Malay States. The museum at Taiping was to become for many years the outstanding institution of its kind in Malaya, attracting some of the most distinguished naturalists of the late 19th century in Southeast Asia.

Low concluded his annual report with a typically generous tribute to Swettenham:
I cannot conclude this report without recording the very great care and able manner in which Mr F. A. Swettenham exercised the function of Resident adviser to this Government, while I was absent in England for nearly two years. Although during that time he carried on more extensive works than had ever been undertaken, he left the financial position of the state in a better position by the sum of 302,353.86 silver dollars than it was on 1st January 1884.

Personally, I am under the greatest obligations to Mr Swettenham; he ... has made the administration much easier for his successors by the regulations on various subjects which he drew up and caused to be drawn up during his tenure of office, and the order which he successfully introduced in every department (HC, 4958:75).

When Swettenham was Acting Resident of Perak, 1884–1886, he pressed ahead on Low’s instructions with a new code of Land Regulations, which the State Council approved on 31 January 1885. The 1879 regulations had at least acknowledged, if only as an interim measure, the existence of native tenure, but the 1885 regulations, based on those which Swettenham had introduced in Selangor in 1882, abolished it. The problems that had developed in Selangor were repeated in Perak. The surveys, which were so essential to a lease form of tenure were woefully behind, and when carried out, were poorly done and inaccurate. Preference was given to revenue-producing tin areas. In many cases the survey and demarcation fees absorbed the quitrent for the first one and a half years. Eventually Swettenham admitted that there were cases when the survey fees exceeded the value of the land. The unsatisfactory land regulations that he had established in Selangor and Perak were replaced by the Torrens system of land registration.

Low retired in 1889, and it was evident that Swettenham, after his success as Acting Resident, was the man for the job. In January 1888, Charles Prescot Lucas—Swettenham’s firm ally—in London’s Colonial Office in a minute remarked that he was obviously the right man. The Colonial Office wrote to ask Cecil Clementi Smith, now Governor of the Straits Settlements, whom he would recommend. Smith strongly supported Swettenham:
In my opinion Mr Swettenham is unquestionably the proper officer to succeed Sir Hugh Low. His experience of Perak is more extensive than that of any other officer in the service and I have entire confidence in his ability, powers of administration and discretion (CO, 273/155:429).
Back in London, Lucas continued to press Swettenham's claims, and the appointment was in due course made. This exacerbated his rivalry with W. E. Maxwell, who pointed out he was senior and should get the position.

On Low’s retirement, one of the Perak District Officers commented, ‘Mr Swettenham has arrived. Now all the money old Low has been bottling up will begin to fly.’ While Swettenham had been busy in Selangor with his railway, Low had pressed on with the construction of the first railway in Perak, the eight-mile line between Port Weld and Taiping. Little further railway development took place in Perak, till Swettenham returned in 1889. However, a modest extension of the original line for some three miles from Taiping to Kamunting was under construction in 1888. During Swettenham’s time as Resident of Perak, 1889–1896, significant further extensions to the railway system in Perak were constructed. By 1896, the railway had been extended to run from Ulu Sepetang to Enggor and Chemor to Telok Anson.

Swettenham was close to the height of his powers as Resident of Perak, heavily involved in opening the state to British investors, largely in the coffee industry. But Swettenham’s promotion in 1896 to become the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States was to prove the source of his undoing, most particularly in Perak.


As the administration of the states became more complex, it became increasingly evident to the British authorities that some form of federation was essential for policy and administrative purposes. In mid-1895, Swettenham received instructions from London to visit the Sultans of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan—Malaya’s primary tin-producing states—and Pahang. He was requested:
if it be possible, with the full consent and approval of the different rulers, to constitute a federation of these states, while preserving intact the privileges they possess, including the right of each state to pass its own laws . . . (CO, 273/203:331–3).
Swettenham was to be responsible for ‘a most careful’ translation of the Treaty of Federation into Malay:
a task which I feel that I can with perfect safety commit to your care in the full certainty that all ambiguities or doubtful renderings of the English text which may give rise to the future difficulty will be by you avoided (CO, 273/203:331–3).
Swettenham headed first for Sultan Idris of Perak: the ruler of the senior Residency, which was by far the most prosperous, and who had worked with Swettenham for the best part of 20 years. His support was crucial if the others were to sign. The Sultan signed at once after assurances were given by Swettenham that his powers would not be diminished. Swettenham then had no trouble in obtaining the agreement of the other three rulers. It was no doubt intentional that the precise details of these negotiations were never spelt out by Swettenham, but it rapidly became clear to Sultan Idris that he had been misled into signing the agreement for Federation, which sharply curtailed his own powers, in direct contravention of the terms of the Pangkor Engagement.

The first durbar, 1897

The first parting of the ways between Sultan Idris and Swettenham came very shortly after Swettenham returned from leave in June 1896, as the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States. To celebrate Federation, a durbar was to be held in Kuala Lumpur. Sultan Idris objected strongly and felt that it should be held instead in Kuala Kangsar, the official state capital of Perak. At first Swettenham seemed to hold his ground—even when Idris threatened not to attend if it was held in Kuala Lumpur—giving the somewhat flimsy excuse of the poor health of Idris’s wife. The Perak Pioneer newspaper, however, maintained the durbar would be held in Perak, and accurately reflected Sultan Idris's views in its comment: ‘The Premier State has much cause to grumble at the innumerable slights which Confederation has thrust on it' (Perak Pioneer, 22 August 1896).

Swettenham continued to shelter behind the excuse of the illness of Idris's wife. But few can have been deceived, and a deferment to 1897 was soon announced in the press. In his Annual Report, Swettenham referred to ‘most cordial' relations between himself and the Sultan. The only suggestion of a disagreement allowed to surface was Swettenham's report that the Sultan of Perak would have preferred that the Resident General's headquarters and those of the federal government should be in Perak rather than Selangor.

Federation itself involved the diminution of the Sultans’ legal rights. It left Idris in no mood to brook any further slights on his position, and his opposition marked the start of a gradual process of disenchantment by the other rulers, too, with Swettenham's behaviour over Federation.

When the durbar was eventually held in Kuala Kangsar in 1897, on the surface things went very smoothly, and Idris proved to be an excellent and generous host. After this experience, the rulers decided that such meetings should not be held annually, but only when so decided by the Resident General with the support of the High Commissioner. Nonetheless, as Swettenham pointed out, the merits of bringing together all the rulers were considerable, even if the administrative problems were formidable and the costs high. It brought home for the first time the realities of Federation.

Sultan Idris of Perak
Barlow, 1995

One such reality was spelt out by Swettenham:
Nothing can be decided at the Council [of Rulers], which is only one of advice, for no Raja has any voice in the affairs of State, but his own; and this was carefully explained and is thoroughly understood (CO, 273/229:299).
There was perhaps a note of relief in this remark, for in the preceding paragraph Swettenham had described Sultan Idris as ‘extremely jealous of his rights as a ruler; and I was surprised to hear the frank way in which, at the Council, he spoke of British Protection, which he did not hesitate to describe as control.' It was a foretaste of worse to come. Swettenham himself characteristically provided a favourable summing up of the first durbar:
From every point of view the meeting has been an unqualified success, and it is difficult to estimate now the present and prospective value of this unprecedented gathering of Malay Sultans, Rajas, and chiefs. Never in the history of Malaya has any such assemblage been even imagined (CO, 273/229:299).
Only the previous year, Sultan Idris, as representative of the Federated Malay States at the coronation of King Edward VII, had toyed with the idea of registering his disapproval with developments direct to Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies. But this had been forestalled by Lucas visiting him in advance at his London hotel, to enquire 'what he wished to say in his forthcoming interview.' Idris reassured him: 'he [Idris] is not preferring complaints in any way’ (CO, 273/285:249). He realized that any such appeal would inevitably be referred to Singapore, and that Chamberlain would feel obliged to support Swettenham. A more effective protest could be made by addressing Swettenham personally in front of and with the support of his fellow rulers. Such an opportunity had last occurred in 1897. Idris had no intention of missing the next one.

The siting of the rulers' accommodation in the Lake Gardens for the first durbar enabled them to hold preliminary discussions. These doubtless included the manner in which Federation had circumscribed their powers in their own states. Swettenham on arrival in Kuala Lumpur heard that Idris 'intended to make a speech and express dissatisfaction with the results of Federation' (CO, 273/295:163). Accordingly, he arranged a private meeting with Idris, who 'disclaimed every feeling but that of entire satisfaction' (CO, 273/295:164–176). Swettenham attributed the rumour to the failure on the part of his informant to understand Malay. It has been suggested that Swettenham, anxious to prevent the Sultan from making a public complaint, which would indicate to the Colonial Office that he had lost the support of the Sultans, persuaded Idris to refrain from open criticism. The Sultan on his part was assured that if the rulers wished to make representations to the Colonial Office, these would be listened to. The result was that Swettenham had to wait, in some trepidation, for the closing speeches of the conference to hear what Idris had to say in his summing up.

The second durbar, 1903

Group photo of Federal Conference, Lake Gardens, Kuala Lumpur, 20-25 July, 1903
Source: Barlow, 1995

Amid all the pomp—similar to that in the first—the detailed business of the conference was accorded low priority, except for Swettenham's opening speech, which he read personally in Malay from Jawi script, on Monday 20 July. For condescension, tactlessness, and boastfulness it beat most colonial utterances. He started by taking credit for Federation: `... it is satisfactory to be able now, after seven years' experience, to state that the result of the scheme, for which I am mainly responsible, has proved far more successful than I anticipated' (High Commissioner’s Office [HCO], 1404/1904). He touched on the honour done to Sultan Idris in inviting him to the coronation of Edward VII, which was delayed and partly aborted due to the King's illness, and the satisfaction expressed by Chamberlain with developments in the Malay Peninsula. He dwelt on the financial benefits that had accrued to the Federated Malay States, before reverting to bombast:
... the present position of the Malay States under British Protection is to me a source of profound satisfaction. It has entirely justified the counsel of those, who nearly thirty years ago, insisted it was the duty of the British Government to interfere and put a stop to a state of anarchy and oppression which is happily almost inconceivable in view of what we see here and all around us today (HCO), 1404/1904).
He then outlined plans for expansion of the railways to the east of the main range, adding pompously:
I take this opportunity to emphasize a fact which the British Government has not forgotten and is not likely to forget. It is that though the circumstances demanded intervention, we came into the Malay States at the invitation of the Malay Rulers, to teach them a better form of administration (HCO, 1404/1904).
He closed with a gratuitous insult:
The Malays have in all this been great gainers, and I only regret that their national characteristics make it difficult, though not impossible for them to take full advantage of the opportunities which now come begging at their doors (HCO, 1404/1904).
The unfortunate Sultan Idris, who was the senior of the Sultans present, bore the brunt of this onslaught and was obliged to sit through two and a half days of deliberations and festivities. Still, the rulers took the opportunity to make requests that the proceedings, which were in English, should include a Malay version, and that measures be taken to increase the number of Malays in the senior grades of local government.

At the official closing it fell to Sultan Idris, as the senior ruler, to make the closing address, which he did with a wonderful sense of irony. He sketched the history of British involvement in Perak, and remarked of the period after the Perak War, 'subsequently the eminent qualities of the present High Commissioner were displayed in assisting those who were loyal, and but for him the people of Perak would have been grievously afflicted.' He further claimed that after Low's leave, when Swettenham had acted in Perak in the mid-1880s, the Regent, Yusof, had urged him, Idris, to press for the appointment of Swettenham in a substantive capacity to succeed Low. Idris gave the impression that he was personally responsible for Swettenham's elevation. He mentioned Ipoh, and the railway lines that connected it to the rest of the peninsula:
Now I notice traders can go there with great facility making the journey in a day, reclining at ease in a railway carriage, smoking their cigars, and kept cool by the rush of air caused by the swift motion of the train (HCO, 1404/1904).
Yet there was an inherent contradiction between the efficient binding together of the states in Federation and remaining true to the promises of continued independence that Swettenham himself had made when he persuaded the sultans to agree to the idea in 1895. Idris continued:
These states are now known as the negri-negri bersekutu (united countries) but the matter of union (persekutuan) I do not clearly understand ... which is the helper and which is the helped? A Malay proverb says there cannot be two masters to one vessel: neither can there be four rulers over one country (HCO, 1404/1904).
Harking back to the Pangkor Engagement, which both Idris and Swettenham had attended a quarter of a century earlier, Idris reminded those present that the British had promised a Resident, not a Resident General: 'It is my hope that the affairs of each state may be managed by its own officers so that the Governments may be separate entities (HCO, 1404/1904)'. Idris—without irony—now sought greater decentralization.

Swettenham was later to describe the Sultan's closing speech as remarkable for the credit he paid to the benefits of British rule. More remarkable was undoubtedly the fact that Idris had challenged, albeit in the most allusive manner, the form of this rule. It was masterly and, under the circumstances, the only possible response. That such points should be made by the senior ruler in the Federation, however politely, must have emphasized for Swettenham the dilemma in which he had placed himself. He had based his career on claims to be able to handle the Malays better than anyone in the British administration. Here was the leader of those same Malays taking him to task. Though Idris did not say it in so many words, the unspoken accusation was that Swettenham had betrayed their trust. Swettenham perhaps realized he had overstepped the mark, for his reply was equally mild, with only the faintest hint of his customary sarcasm:
While I desire to offer my sincerest thanks to the Sultan for his over-flattering picture of the part I have played in the Malay States, I would ask you to remember that Sultan Idris is my personal friend, and in what he has said, he has spoken under the influence of friendship (Swettenham, 1907, p. 291).
He concluded by reassuring Idris that he did not support the abolition of the Residents, and reminded him that the Treaty of Federation expressly stated that previous arrangements were not to be disturbed. He concluded: 'Though I speak for myself, my Malay friends will learn, if they don't know it already, that it is a characteristic of British methods to maintain continuity of policy' (Swettenham, 1907, p. 291). It may of course be argued that Swettenham in his condescending bombast was merely reflecting the spirit of his times. Indeed, other colonial administrators of the period had occasionally expressed similar views. Yet few can have expressed themselves publicly in a manner so calculated to offend those whom they were addressing.

Swettenham's account of the conference hinted at cracks in the edifice. He referred in it to representations from the Sultans and wrote of his wish 'to redeem a promise made to the Sultan of Perak in reference to his speech at the close of the Federal Conference' (Swettenham, 1907, p. 304). If further evidence were needed of the poor relations between Swettenham and the two senior sultans of the Federated Malay States at this time, one needs only to look at the group photograph taken on this occasion. Both Sultan Idris and Sultan Ahmad appear to be distancing themselves physically from Swettenham.

The 1903 durbar showed that while the British wished to combine the Federated States into an ever tighter administrative unit, such measures would not be welcome to the rulers. But that was a problem for Swettenham's successors.

A final irony?

What did the future now hold for Swettenham? Theoretically he had another two and a half years before retirement. If the 1903 durbar was any indication, it would be marked by increasingly outspoken criticisms by Sultan Idris as the proponent of decentralization. The fact that Swettenham had reached a dead end in his dealings with the Malay rulers must have been a major contributory factor in his premature departure from the Straits. On 15 December 1903, an official announcement was made that Swettenham would be retiring on 12 January 1904. It was a sad end to a career which in many ways had been outstandingly distinguished.

There is no evidence that Swettenham maintained significant links with successive Sultans of Perak after his retirement. However, in a final irony, in the months immediately before his death, aged 96 in June 1946, Swettenham made common cause with Malay students in London, such as Ismail Mohamed Ali and Mohamed Suffian Hashim, in a spirited fight against the postwar imposition of the Malayan Union. No evidence survives to show whether he appreciated the irony. Did he perhaps wish to atone for his leading role in circumscribing the powers of the Sultans at the Pangkor Engagement and its aftermath, followed by Federation?
Further reading:

Barlow, H. S. 1995. Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene Sdn Bhd.

Cowan, C. D. 1951. (ed.), ‘Sir Frank Swettenham’s Perak Journals, 1874–1876’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 24/4 (157), 1–148.

Lim, C. K. and H. S. Barlow. 1988. Frank Swettenham & George Giles Watercolours & Sketches of Malaya 1880–1894. Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian–British Society.

Swettenham, F. A. 1907. British Malaya: An Account of the Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya. London: John Lane.


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University of Malaya,
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