James W. W. Birch

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James Wheeler Woodford Birch
J.W.W. Birch.gif
1st British Resident of Perak
In office
4 November 1874 – 2 November 1875
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Frank A. Swettenham
Personal details
Born (1826-04-03)3 April 1826
Died 2 November 1875(1875-11-02) (aged 49)
Pasir Salak, British Malaya
Religion Christian

James Wheeler Woodford Birch, commonly known as J. W. W. Birch (3 April 1826 – 2 November 1875) was a British colonial official who was assassinated in the Malay state of Perak in 1875, an event that led to the outbreak of the Perak War and ultimately to the extension of British political influence over the Malay Peninsula.

Background[edit]

Born in 1826, Birch served for a short period in the Royal Navy before joining the Roads Department in Ceylon in 1846. His career in Ceylon was successful, and in 1870 he was transferred to Singapore to take up the position of Colonial Secretary.[1]

Following the Pangkor Engagement, under which the Raja Abdullah had agreed to accept a British political agent to be known as a "Resident" at his court, Birch was appointed to the post on 4 November 1874 as the government custodian to the Sultan of Perak.

Assassination[edit]

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).

Richard O. Winstead in his "A History of Malaya" on page 226 published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, reprinted in 1986, wrote that a Malay deputation entreated with Governor-General Andrew Clarke in Singapore "to prevent the Resident from 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 Raja Abdullah, in despair, called a meeting of chiefs where after a talk of poisoning Birch accepted the Maharajalela's offer to stab Birch to death.

Dato' Maharajalela, who was the individual chiefly responsible for Birch's death, is regarded by most Perak Malays as a heroic figure who resisted British imperialism. He and the others involved were hanged by the British.

Sultan Abdullah, who was also believed to have some complicity in the assassination, was deposed and exiled to the Seychelles. His arch-rival Raja Yusuf[2] was installed as Sultan in his place.

In the aftermath of the event, the administration shifted to Taiping. A new Resident, Sir Hugh Low, 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 allowing for adequate monthly compensation to them.

Memorial[edit]

Birch's grave is located near the site of British fort at Kampung Pasir Pulai, about 24 km from Pasir Salak. The Birch Memorial Clock Tower was built in 1909 and still stands in front of the Ipoh State Mosque. One of the 44 figures on the clock, an image of the Prophet Muhammad, was painted over in the 1990s due to religious sensitivities.[3] Roads in Kuala Lumpur and Taiping were thought to have been named after him (Birch Road), but this was for a different Birch (namely, his eldest son Ernest Woodford Birch, also a Resident of Perak). The same road was renamed Maharajalela Road (Malay: Jalan Maharajalela) after Malaysia's independence in 1957. Similarly, there are Birch Roads in several towns in Malaysia (Seremban, Penang and Ipoh) and in Singapore.

Historical interpretations of Birch's assassination[edit]

Malaysian historian Cheah Boon Kheng argues that while "in present-day Malaysian school history textbooks," Birch's assassination "is presented as an anti-colonial uprising, in which almost all the Perak Malays participated", in fact the political situation in Perak was more complex, with deep divisions between supporters of the two rival claimants to the throne of Perak, Raja Abdullah and Raja Ismail.[4] Cheah argues that Maharaja Lela's actions in contributing to Birch's death must be understood in the context of Malay feudal rivalries and not as an early example of resistance to imperialism.

Drama and film[edit]

Malaysian dramatist Kee Thuan Chye's 1994 play We Could **** You, Mr Birch is a dramatic reinterpretation of the events around the Birch assassination.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts to make a film based on the Birch assassination. The late Malaysian actor, director and politician Jins Shamsuddin, who was from Perak, announced plans in 2004 to make a film entitled The King of the River: Pasir Salak, which was to have been an epic production involving 1,500 extras.[5] However, it appears the film was never completed: Jins Shamsuddin commented in 2009 that making a film about Birch was a lifelong dream, saying, "I hope to complete my movie on the historical events that happened in Pasir Salak before I die."[6] Malaysian director Mamat Khalid, who is also from Perak, commented in December 2016 that after 18 years of preparation, his film about Birch, Pasir Salak would soon enter production.[7]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Barlow, Henry S. (1995). Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene. p. 63. 
  2. ^ Sultan Yusuf Sharifuddin Mudzaffar Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdullah Muhammad Shah I (1877–1887)
  3. ^ http://www.perak.info/kinta/Birch_Memorial_Clock_Tower.htm
  4. ^ Cheah, Boon Kheng (1998). "Malay Politics and the Murder of J.W.W. Birch, British Resident in Perak, in 1875: the humiliation and revenge of the Maharaja Lela". Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 71 (1): 74–105. 
  5. ^ "Coming: Epic English film on Perak War and Birch". New Straits Times. Singapore. March 17, 1994. 
  6. ^ "A filmmaker who is 73 going on 20". AsiaOne News. January 10, 2009. Retrieved March 2, 2017. 
  7. ^ Azizi, Mohd al Qayum (December 23, 1016). "Mamat Khalid Ambil 18 Tahun Buat Kajian Filem Pasir Salak". MStar. Retrieved March 1, 2017. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Position created
British Resident of Perak
1874 – 1875
Succeeded by
Frank A. Swettenham