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James Wheeler Woodford Birch, The First British Resident Of Perak

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Subject :James Wheeler Woodford Birch, the First British Resident of Perak
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Location : Perak
Estimated Year : 1874
Media Type : Photograph
Source : Ian Anderson, Ipoh / Kinta Properties Group
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James Wheeler Woodford Birch (J W W Birch) was born on 3th April 1826 and was the first British Resident in Perak, Malaysia. He was appointed as Resident to the Perak Sultan following the signing of the Pangkor Treaty on 20th January 1874, which established a British protectorate over the state. The Resident was officially just an adviser to the Sultan, but the arrangement actually meant that the Resident had the last word in all matters other than religion.

It was the unrest in Perak due to a throne succession turmoil and rivalry between Chinese miners in Larut, had caused the British to interfere in the Perak administration. This led to the signing of the Pangkor Treaty which allowed Raja Abdullah to be appointed as the Sultan of Perak, while the incumbent, Sultan Ismail, was dethroned.

It was actually on the 4th November 1874, that J W W Birch was appointed as the first British Resident of Perak, to take over the Perak administration. He was instantly unpopular among the Malays as he treated them badly and had no regard for their culture or traditions and was always conflicting with the ideas and opinions of the local chiefs. For example he immediately implemented aggressive measures like the taking over of the collection of state taxes and revenues by government officers, a role traditionally undertaken by the Malay Chiefs.

A particularly difficult area was the question of slavery, which was a long-term element of Malay culture, but publically opposed, and eventually outlawed, by Birch, despite the fact that in his household he kept Malay women slaves for his own personal use, showing disrespect to the local customs and traditions.

Dissatisfied with forceful intervention by the British and the ill-mannered Birch, the Malays plotted to remove him and subsequently assassinated him on the 2nd November 1875 at the river in Pasir Salak.

The actual assassins who carried out the murder were Dato Maharajalela and his friend Pandak Endut, the latter who speared Birch to death while he was taking his bath alongside the Perak River in Pasir Salak.

Dato Maharajalela, became part of the plot as his income was derived from capturing and selling the aborigines or Orang Asli of Perak as slaves. In the aftermath of the event, the State administration was transferred to Taiping. Sultan Abdullah was deposed and sent to exile in Seychelles. Dato Maharajalela, Dato Sagor, Pandak Endut (the one with the spear) and others involved in the incident were hanged after a trial. The Perak throne was then succeeded by Sultan Yusuf.

Birch's grave is located near the site of British fort at Kampung Pasir Pulai, about 24 km from Pasir Salak. A memorial to his name (Birch Memorial Clock Tower) was proposed and steered through by his eldest son E W Birch who was the eighth Resident of Perak. The clock tower was erected in Post Office Road, Ipoh (now Jalan Dato Sagor) and officially dedicated in 1909.

Ipoh Remembered adds an acdote:

The whole story is of course too long to tell, but this much we can say: Birch was indeed arrogant and tactless but that’s not the only reason he was killed. One of the men who ordered his killing was Maharaja Lela — or rather, Orang Kaya-Kaya Maharaja Lela Tan Lela Putra — a high-ranking Malay chief who had been humiliated by other factions when he was not included in the Pangkor negotiations in 1874. Worse, in 1875, Sultan Abdullah, having already accepted the guiding hand of the British as the price of his title, now capitulated entirely and accepted direct rule by them. Maharaja Lela could not forgive these insults. He plotted and planned. When he had a chance to take revenge on his various enemies, he took it, absolving himself while blaming the killing on the Sultan. And indeed, he was not the only killer and others were punished as well, including the Sultan. But the point here is, the assassination was only partly a rebellion against Birch, the British, and their colonialism; it was equally an action against the other Malay chiefs. As Malaysian historian Cheah Boon Kheng has written, what the Maharaja Lela did “can only be understood within the context of the Malay feudal structure and the intense factional Malay politics among the chiefs of Perak in 1874 and 1875.”

In a nutshell: It was not “the Malays” who assassinated Birch; it was only some of them, and their reasons were several.

To read more about the Birch Memorial Clock Tower click here.

To see the detsiled description of the clock tower's four painted panels, click here.

To read more about Sultan Abdullah Muhammad Shah II, click here.

To read more about E W Birch click here.

Filename : 20070730-074