James W. W. Birch
|James Wheeler Woodford Birch|
|1st British Resident of Perak|
4 November 1874 – 2 November 1875
|Succeeded by||Frank A. Swettenham|
3 April 1826|
South England, United Kingdom
|Died||2 November 1875
Pasir Salak, British Malaya
James Wheeler Woodford Birch, commonly known as J. W. W. Birch (3 April 1826 – 2 November 1875) was the first British Resident in Perak, Malaysia. He was appointed to the post on 4 November 1874 as the government adviser to the Sultan of Perak following the signing of the famous Pangkor Treaty on 20 January 1874, which established Perak as a British protectorate state. He was the Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements between 1870 and 1874.
Birch was killed on 2 November 1875 by followers of a local Malay chief, Dato Maharajalela including Seputum, who speared him to death while he was in the bath-house of his boat, SS Dragon, moored on the Perak river-bank below the Maharajela's house, in Pasir Salak, near today's Teluk Intan (Teluk Anson).
There is inconsistency as to the reason why Birch was assassinated. One view is that Birch's assassination was because he outlawed slavery in Perak. Dato Maharajalela, whose income depended on capturing and selling the indigenes of Perak or Orang Asli as slaves, was then incensed and plotted with some of the slave-traders to kill Birch by spearing him when he was taking his bath in the river. There is no strong basis for any part of this view. Maharajalela was a relatively minor chief in the third tier of the non-royal hierarchy. The 1st tier comprised 4 major chieftains, the 2nd tier comprised a further 8 chiefs. Maharajalela was one of 16 chiefs in the 3rd tier. However,his prominence was in his role and appointment as the Sultan's Defender. At that fateful point in time, he was Defender to Sultan Ismail who was elected sultan when the rightful heir, Raja Abdullah, did not dare officiate the funeral of the previous sultan for fear of being way-laid by a rival claimant, Raja Yusof. Ismail's ascension had been recognized by the British Crown but not by the machination of a new British Governor-General of the Straits Settlements, Sir Andrew Clarke based in Singapore and the Ghee Hin Chinese triad society chief in Singapore who was after a tin-mining concession in the Kinta valley of Perak, Raja Abdullah's claim to the Perak throne was revived and officially supported by the Governor-General, leading to the Pangkor Treaty which was not recognized by Sultan Ismail and several chiefs loyal to him including the Sultan's Defender, Maharajalela.
The more popular view among rightwing Malay historians indicate that Birch was assassinated because of his total disrespect to the local custom and tradition, and conflict with local Malay chiefs.He was a 'bull in a china shop'. Birch was arrogant and disrespectful of local customs and even of the "pretender" Sultan Abdullah who sooned tired of Birch and conspired with Sultan Ismail that Ismail should not surrender the royal regalia to him, Abdullah, or to the British, so that he could not be installed to the benefit of Birch and the British.
Richard O.Winstead in his "A History of Malaya" at p226 published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, reprint 1986, wrote that a Malay deputation entreated with the Governor-General Andrew Clarke in Singapore "to prevent the Residentfrom interfering with religion and custom, from acting without consulting Sultan and chiefs, and from depriving them of their property, namely fugitive slaves and feudal dues." Clarke had already observed on 25 March 1875 that, " I am very much annoyed with Birch and the heads-over-heels way in which he does things; he and I will come to sorrow yet, if he does not mind." On 21 July 1875 Abdullah the Pretender Sultan, in despair, called a meeting of chiefs where after a talk of poisoning Birch accepted the Maharajalela's offer to stab Birch to death.
To most Perak Malays, Dato' Maharajalela is generally celebrated as a folk hero, due to his substantial contribution and seen to be a symbol of the Malay resistance against attempted Colonialism.
In the aftermath of the event, the administration shifted to Taiping. Sultan Abdullah was deposed and sent to exile in Seychelles. His arch-rival Raja Yusof was made Sultan; Dato Maharajalela and others involved in the incident were hanged. A new Resident, Sir Hugh Low, not Sir Frank Swettenham, was appointed and went about his administration of Perak in a more diplomatic way. Whilst still banning outright slavery, he gradually phased out debt-slavery and assuaged the feelings of the Ruler and chieftains by voting adequate monthly compensations for them.
Birch's grave is located near the site of British fort at Kampung Pasir Pulai, about 24 km from Pasir Salak. Roads in Kuala Lumpur and Taiping were thought to have been named after him (Birch Road), but this was for a different Birch; ironically, the same road was later renamed after Dato Maharajalela (Maharajalela Road; Malay: Jalan Maharajalela) after Malaysia's independence in 1957. Similarly Birch Road also appeared in several towns in Malaysia, they were Seremban, Penang and Ipoh, also found in Singapore.
Sources and references
- WorldStatesmen - Malaysia
- Education Malaysia - Rewriting our history
- - History of Malaysia, a tale of Tussels, Tin and Tolerance
|British Resident of Perak
1874 – 1875
Frank A. Swettenham