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And the award of a Victoria Cross to a Goorkha officer

The British colonial advance into Malaya

Because of her onerous and expensive imperial obligations in India Britain made a fairly slow colonial advance into Malaya, now named Malaysia.  By 1826 the Crown Colony of The Straits Settlements – Penang, Malacca and Singapore – had been established but little imperial interest had been shown in the remainder of the Malayan peninsula.

But lawlessness on the peninsula along with piracy off its coast began to threaten the stability of the Straits Settlements, and in 1874 the Pangkor Engagement was signed.  This treaty between Britain and Sultan Abdullah of Perak, whose territory was seriously disturbed by warfare between opposing gangs of Chinese tin miners, opened the gateway to British administration of the peninsula by British Residents.  Local Sultans agreed to receive advice from the British Residents on aspects of government that excluded local cultural and religious matters.  ‘Protection’ was also offered.  The British intention was to control and govern Malaya by positioning governing ‘advisors’ on the ground under the patronage of local compliant Sultans.  In this intent the British eventually succeeded but only after military operations had been mounted in various parts of the peninsula. 

The British selection of Sultans that treaties were signed with was not always viewed favourably by Sultans who had failed selection and their Rajahs and chiefs.  In Perak Sultan Abdullah had been recognised by the British, but another Sultan, Ismail, lived up-river and claimed the Sultanship, whilst even further in the interior Rajah Mudu Jusuf also claimed it.  The British had thought Abdullah to be the most amenable Sultan but after his appointment Abdullah let his people know that he did not want the British in Perak; this influenced Malay Rajahs and chiefs, who were thick on the ground in Perak, to ignore British advice.

(For the Maps please click HERE)

The Perak Sikhs

Perak was a state that stretched about 160 kilometres down the coast in between Penang and Malacca, and ran inland for around 80 kilometres.  In Malay Perak translates as “silver” – the colour of tin.  The Larut area of Perak was rich in tin which was a commodity in great demand because of western industrialisation.  The local Malay administrators imported experienced Chinese miners into Perak to exploit this mineral wealth, but the Chinese brought their own fierce inter-clan rivalries with them and large-scale disturbances and fighting broke out which the Malays were unable to contain.

In 1873 a larger-than-life British colonial adventurer named Captain Tristram Speedy resigned his post as Penang Superintendent of Police in order to take up a new job as Chief of Police in the Larut area, where he worked under the local Malay Sultan’s administrator known as the Mentri.  Speedy went to Lahore in India and returned with just over a 100 Sikh, Hindu and Muslim ex-soldiers of the Indian Army.  This force was called the Perak Armed Police but became known as the Perak Sikhs, although many members at that time were not Sikhs.  The Mentri financed the arming of these policemen, including the purchase of two Krupps field guns, and the force was deployed around Perak to enforce the ruler’s authority.  Unfortunately the speed of the deployment prevented centralised training of these men in both police and military disciplines relevant to the Malayan geography and population.  Also many of the Sikhs did not at first learn to speak the Malay language.

The killing of the first British Resident in Perak

As a result of the Pangkor Engagement the first British Resident in Perak, James W.W. Birch, was appointed on 4th November 1874.  James Wheeler Woodford Birch was a brusque intolerant man with considerable administrative experience in Ceylon but not in Malaya, and he had not learned to speak Malay.  He quickly became frustrated with what he regarded as local intransigence and lack of interest in his advice.  In July 1875 the villagers of Kota Lama threatened Birch with firearms and drove him away when he arrived, without an escort, to perform his duties.  Malay chiefs and officials feared that Birch would threaten traditional customs such as debt-slavery.  Resentment against the Resident’s appointment, fuelled by Sultan Abdullah’s negative stance towards the British, grew until it was decided to kill Birch with the hope that the British would then go away.  The only men that Birch could call upon to help him in his duties were the dispersed, ill-trained and only partially disciplined Perak Sikhs.

On 2nd November 1875 James Birch, twelve months into his Residency, landed with three boats at Pasir Salak on the lower Perak River to pursue his policy of enforcing British administration in the region.  A local leader, the Maharaja Lela, was determined to challenge Birch physically, and a large group of Malays armed with spears, swords and knives gathered to support the Maharaja.  Birch instructed his interpreter to post notices but these were immediately torn down whilst the armed crowd shouted verbal abuse.  On hearing this Birch instructed that the notices be re-posted, whilst he bathed in the river in a small screened-off floating bath house.

Left: Malays travelling by elephant

The interpreter was then attacked and mortally wounded as he re-posted the notices; he staggered into the river and called for help from one of Birch’s craft that took him aboard until he died.  Meanwhile a group of men surrounded Birch’s bath house and speared the Resident through the screens.  A Sikh sepoy on the bath house, armed with a revolver, jumped into the river without warning Birch and swam to a friendly craft.  Birch surfaced once outside the bath house and a Malay swordsman struck him on the head, sinking the body.

Although Birch’s party had been well-armed with a 3-pounder brass gun, a cohorn (portable) mortar, Snyder rifles and revolvers, no precautions against attack had been taken.  The commander of the 12-man Sikh escort, Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Francis Abbott, Royal Navy (HMS Thistle), had in fact been shooting game on the opposite bank of the river when the attack occurred.   On the river some of the Sikhs had refused to open fire during the attack because they had not received orders to do so.  On hearing of the attack Abbott retreated down the river eight kilometres to the Residency fort at Banda Bahru which he defended with four seamen from the Thistle and around 50 Sikh sepoys.  Four men had been killed – Birch, his interpreter Arshad, Sepoy Hit Sersing and boatman Dim Laroot.  Six men had been wounded – Corporal Chet Singh, Sepoys Karet Singh and Mya Singh and boatmen Doola, Mahomed and a second Mahomed.

The insurgent Malays planned an attack on Banda Bahru the same night but abandoned it as heavy rain fell; also they received news of Abbott’s fortifications which consisted of a cheval-de-frise of sharpened stakes enclosing positions for a Vavasour 9-pounder gun, a brass 12-pounder howitzer and a mortar.  A friendly Raja later recovered Birch’s body, which displayed ten wounds, and the former Resident was buried at Banda Bahru on the night of 6th November with military honours.  The senior Assistant Special Commissioner for Perak, Frank Swettenham, had arrived at Banda Bahru the previous day and he requested military assistance from his superior in Penang.  The Governor of the Straits Settlements, fearing a general uprising, telegraphed India requesting 1,500 troops.  India was not under obligation to assist but did so rapidly and troops were despached from the sub-continent, Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong.  Meanwhile the Royal Navy responded enthusiastically and deployed available ships.  A British Resident had been murdered and in retribution the power of the Empire had to be seen to be applied with a vengeance.  The Perak War had begun. 

Above: The Sri Menanti Valley, Malaysia

The repulse of an immediate British advance

Reinforcements from Penang arrived quickly at Banda Bahru.  Captain W. Innes, Royal Engineers (Head of the Penang Public Works Department) arrived on 6th November accompanied by Lieutenants Thomas George Booth and Armstrong William Elliott with 60 of their soldiers from the 1st Battalion the 10th Regiment (North Lincolnshire).  Superintendent Plunkett of the Penang Police also came with around 25 policemen who were probably a mixture of Malays, Chinese and Indians.  Frank Swettenham had 20 Malay and local Chinese scouts and intelligence agents with him.

On 7th November this force advanced up-river towards Pasir Salak.  The British had two firing troughs for old rockets with them but had abandoned the plan to take a couple of howitzers.  The reason for this was that the boats being used had to be poled up-river and the guns were without proper mounts, therefore the direction of the guns had to be determined by the men using the poles, and tests proved that accurate direction could not be achieved by this method in a strong current. The force disembarked five and a half kilometres before Pasir Salak and advanced on foot along the river bank.

Swettenham and his scouts led followed by an advance guard of four men of the 10th Regiment under Corporal Anderson; after an interval Lieutenant Booth and 21 men formed the leading half-company; then came Captain Innes with Sub-Lieutenant Abbott and the four seamen from the Thistle who controlled labourers carrying rockets; Plunkett’s Penang Police came next; and Lieutenant Elliott’s 25 men of the rearguard came last.

Left: Map showing sites of engagements

Opposition had not been expected until Pasir Salak was reached and so it came as a surprise to the British when contact was made after only two kilometres of marching.  Upon leaving a corn field an unexpected stockade was encountered and the insurgents inside engaged the British force with muskets and rifles.  The naval 9-pounder rocket team came into action but its fire was ineffective, and Frank Swettenham could hear the insurgents jeering as the rockets went over the top of the stockade.  Meanwhile the Penang Police and the Sikh sepoys were clustered behind a large tree, firing uselessly and wildly and wounding other British soldiers.  A basic problem was that no officer present could give orders to the sepoys in the Urdu language.

Lieutenant Booth was severely wounded in the foot and Lieutenant Elliott ordered a charge on the stockade.  The British soldiers reached the ditch surrounding the stockade but could not cross it.  Men were going down including Captain Innes who was killed and Lieutenant Elliott who also was severely wounded, and a retreat was decided upon; the Penang Police had already left the battlefield stating that this was not their line of work.  The total of the British dead was four – Captain Innes, Private Fay of the 10th Regiment, a Sepoy and a Malay Scout.  Innes’ body was recovered but Fay’s was not. 

Two officers and nine soldiers of the 10th Regiment were wounded as was one sepoy.  That evening another military funeral buried Captain Innes alongside Birch.  The next day Private Fay’s body came floating down the river and was recovered for burial.

The destruction of the Pasir Salak stockade

The British then heard that the insurgent chiefs were planning to withdraw from Pasir Salak and so an attack was mounted to forestall the withdrawal.  Men in the assembled force were from:

·     the Royal Artillery - 20 men and a brass 12-pounder howitzer.
·     the 10th Regiment - 3 officers and 125 men under Captain William Whitla.
·     the Royal Navy - 15 Royal Marines and 70 seamen from the Thistle and the Fly with two 12-pounder howitzers and two 24-pounder rocket tubes.  Selected boats were fitted with howitzer and rocket tube mounts and a 7-pounder gun and a cohorn mortar were each mounted on separate transport boats. 
·     Frank Swettenham again provided local scouts and intelligence agents.  Neither the Sikhs nor the Penang Police were listed as being present, but Sikhs would have been employed on the line of communication.

The expedition poled away from Bandar Bahru on 14th November and by good use of both the boat-mounted weapons and the artillery piece on land successive insurgent strongpoints were seized.   On 16th November  Pasir Salak was hastily evacuated in the face of a determined British attack.  Bugle calls coordinated the guns on the river with the attacking British force moving up the bank; the defenders fired a volley and withdrew to a rear stockade, but the sight of a line of bayonets rapidly closing on them caused the belligerents to disappear into the jungle.  A total of five insurgent guns were found abandoned.  The stockade and the Maharajah Lela’s house were burned down and a party crossed the river to burn other houses.  Here the only British casualties were sustained when a spearman severely wounded Police Inspector Laggis and the Reuters correspondent, Mr. Cope, also was wounded.  The expedition returned down-river to Bandar Bahru that evening. 

The advance to Kinta

In early December the British Army commander in China and the Straits Settlements, Major General Francis Colbourne CB, arrived from Hong Kong to command the Perak Field Force.  Working with Captain Alexander Buller, Royal Navy, Senior Officer Straits Division, a plan was made to push far up the Perak River towards Kinta to capture the withdrawing insurgent leaders who were travelling on elephants. 

Colbourne’s command consisted of:

·     40 gunners from the Royal Artillery with two guns.
·     100 British infantrymen from the 1st Battalion of the 10th Regiment under Captain Whitla.
·     a further 100 British infantrymen of the 80th Regiment (Staffordshire Volunteers) under Major Charles Frederick Amiel.
·     A company of the 1st Goorkhas under Lieutenant Colonel P. Story.
·     a Naval Brigade of 70 seamen with two guns and two rocket tubes drawn from the crews of the Modeste and Ringdove
·     Major Dunlop, Royal Artillery, Her Majesty’s Commissioner for Perak, organised transport from friendly chiefs in Banda Bahru and obtained sufficient river boats with Chinese polemen.  Four boats were converted to mount the naval guns and 24-pounder rockets, and flat-bottomed boats sent from Singapore were used to convey rations and stores. 
·     as before Frank Swettenham, a fluent Malay speaker, acted as the force Intelligence Officer and was accompanied by his scouts and agents.

The force set off from Banda Bahru on 8th December 1875 but quickly found that the river current was running at 4 knots per hour, and this combined with the hot sun and the heavy loads on the 45 boats reduced the distance that the flotilla could cover to 12 kilometres per day.  There were many deep holes in the river and sometimes submerged sharpened stakes were encountered, whilst sudden surges of water when poles could not touch bottom often sent boats down-river again.  The Chinese polemen, regularly assisted by seamen, earned their pay.  Blanja was reached on 13th December without any enemy contact.

Left: Jungle stream in Malaysia

The chief insurgent leaders, Lela and Ismael, had recently departed from Blanja on the road to Kinta and so Colbourne and Buller quickly re-configured their force to march on land.  As the available porters were required to carry artillery guns, rations and stores the Naval Brigade had to carry the two rocket tubes and equipment themselves, and the road ahead was very rough and swampy.  One officer and 50 men of the 10th Regiment were left to garrison Blanja accompanied by 22 naval officers and men who remained in charge of the boats, whilst the remainder of the force pressed on through the jungle. 

The jungle track had to be regularly laid with cords of wood to get the guns through waist-deep swampy areas, and proceedings became lively three kilometres beyond Blanja when the advance guard under Lieutenant Patton, 10th Regiment, broke through a defended obstacle on the track.  Accurate fire from a 24-pounder rocket tube and an artillery gun assisted Patton in clearing the obstacle.  During this skirmish Doctor Randell, Principal Civil Medical Officer, Straits Settlement was severely wounded with a shot through the thigh.  At around 1600 hours that day, 13th December, a defended but partially completed stockade was arrived at, but a rocket dispersed the defenders.  It was obvious that the retreating insurgents were not far ahead and a big effort was made to catch up with them, but a halt had to be made by a water source when darkness fell at 1930 hours.  Eleven kilometres had been marched.

The following day was spent resting the British personnel whilst stores were brought forward by Malay and Chinese porters; the fact was that a British column marching in these jungle conditions could not cover the same distances that elephant-borne Malays could cover.  On 15th December 10 kilometres were marched to Papan Mines, the British infanteers assisting the seamen in carrying rockets and tubes.  The column lived of tinned meat and the occasional wild buffalo that was shot, and slept under waterproof sheets and a blanket that each man carried.  The uniforms were of white cloth which was disadvantageous when skirmishing in the jungle, but doubtless the muddy conditions soon added a camouflage tint.

Above: The Camp at Pasir Salak, Perak River

Frank Swettenham reconnoitred Kinta with a friendly Rajah and 40 of his Malays, and the main body caught up with him on the 17th December.  After dislodging the defenders of a stockade outside Kinta the town was entered and nine bronze cannon were seized, some of them having been thrown into the river.  The insurgents had retreated up the Kinta River by boat towards Patani, then a dependency of lower Siam, now named Thailand.   Colbourne left garrisons of soldiers and seamen at Kinta and Blanja and took the remainder of the column down-river again to Banda Bahru.

Back on Colbourne’s line of communication the Sikhs were being used to guard supply ships moving up the river, and an incident had occurred.  A boat was fired into from the bank and a Sikh and a Chinese boatman were wounded, the Sikh mortally.  Lieutenant Henry T. Wright of the Modeste and Lieutenant Hougham Charles Huntley of the 10th Regiment mounted an attack on the nearest village which lay three kilometres below Blanja.  Thick jungle prevented a surprise attack, but the occupation of the village led to the headman handing over two men who were alleged to have fired the shots at the supply boat.

The advance of the Larut Field Force on Kota Lama

Brigadier General J. Ross CB had arrived with these troops from India:

·     Head Quarters and 600 men of The 3rd Regiment (The Buffs) under Lieutenant Colonel Talbot Ashley Cox CB.
·     Head Quarters and 400 men of the 1st Goorkha Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel R. Sale Hill (although two other Lieutenant Colonels were on the regimental strength and present in Malaya).
·     A Royal Artillery detachment with four 7-pounder steel mountain guns and two 5.5-inch mortars; there were 500 rounds per piece and two rockets.
·     A Field Telegraph of 160 kilometres of wire with a Superintendent and 10 Signallers.
·     A company of the Madras Sappers and Miners.
·     A Medical Officer with doolies (covered litters) and doolie-bearers.

Colbourne assigned Ross to command the Larut Field Force and to disarm Kota Lama, the very anti-British village on the upper Perak River where Birch had been earlier driven away; the houses of known insurgents were to be destroyed.  Ross worked with Commander Edmund St. J. Garforth, Royal Navy, of the Philomel to mount an operation from Kuala Kangsar against Kota Lama.  The soldiers and seamen rafted up the Larut River and then marched overland to Kuala Kangsar on the Perak River.   Garforth’s Naval Brigade consisted of 107 officers and men from Modeste.

Kota Lama was located 2.5 kilometres up the Perak River on the opposite bank to Kuala Kangsar.  On 4th January 1876 Ross ordered advances on both banks and up the river.  On the left bank, the Kota Lama side, Lieutenant Colonel Cox commanded 12 artillerymen and one 7-pounder gun, 10 men of the 3rd Regiment (The Buffs), and 25 men of the 1st Goorkhas; also with Cox was Mr. Maxwell, the British Deputy Commissioner for the region.  On the right bank Captain G. Young (Goorkhas) commanded 50 men of The Buffs and 20 men of the 1st Goorkhas.  Captain Speedy with some of his Sikhs supported Young.  On the river Commander Garforth led three boats containing three naval officers and 29 seamen; Ross and his staff were also in the boats.  Young had been ordered not to destroy property as the village he was advancing to, opposite Kota Lama, was deemed to be friendly.

Right: The Perak War Memorial in Bukit Chandran Cemetery

Garforth’s boats landed just above Kota Lama.  Leaving nine seamen as guards the remaining sailors went towards the village with Ross and his staff expecting to meet Cox and his group.  Lieutenant John Hare, Royal Engineers, joined them with 4 Goorkhas who had been assisting Hare in measuring distances along the river bank.  In fact Cox and his men had already searched the village and then followed tracks into the jungle.

As Ross’s group encountered houses they searched them for weapons and then moved on towards the centre of the village.  After around 90 minutes spent searching empty houses some were found containing women and children.  At that moment, about 1100 hours, around 50 Malays rushed out of the nearby jungle, a few carrying firearms and the rest holding spears.  The Malays swept right into the British group, killing three men and wounding four others.  Ross and his men were shocked, and as they were nearly surrounded they fought a withdrawal action.

Surgeon Townsend, Army Medical Department, was attacked by three Malays; he shot one with his pistol who fell over knocking Townsend down.  The other two Malays moved in for the kill but Able Seamen Harry Bonnett and Henry Thompson rushed forward and killed the attackers. 

The Brigade Major, Major Henry Lumsden Hawkins, Bengal Staff Corps, was killed by a spear.  The Buffs’ Surgeon-Major William Collis reported: “spear wound two inches below the apex of heart; spear transfixing the chest and lungs, passing downwards and wounding diaphragm and liver, passing out below 10th and 11th rib at right angles”.  Able Seaman David Sloper stood by Major Hawkins and killed two Malays before Hawkins ordered him to withdraw to safety. 

Ross’ orderly, Goorkha Sepoy Baskur Rana, fought bravely, saving Ross’ life; other Gurkhas named for exceedingly good behaviour during the fight were Sepoys Kishanbir Thapa and Chanderbir Garti.  Seaman Gunner William G. Loam of HMS Philomel and Goorkha Sepoy Jangbir Basnait were also killed by spears.

Besides Surgeon Townshend three others were wounded by spears: Private Jasper Ball, Royal Marines, who died 18 hours later, and Goorkha Sepoys Jhagru Thapa and Karak Sing Tapah.  The wounds of all the casualties testified to the close-quarter of the fighting whilst the Goorkha casualty list testified to the aggressive combat spirit of the Nepalese.

The Malays swiftly returned to the jungle leaving five dead behind.  Cox’s group appeared from the jungle without having fired a shot and burned Kota Lama down.  Across the river Young had searched his village without opposition.  Ross’s group spiked and threw into the river a big iron 12-pounder gun and returned to Kuala Kangsar with a large quantity of spears, muskets and small wall-pieces (cannon with mounts for walls).  Ross and Garforth garrisoned Kuala Kangsar and then withdrew.

The advance of the Malacca Column to the Bukit Putas Pass

Whilst the Perak River and Larut River columns were operating in reasonable proximity to each other another column was operating much further to the south in Sungei Ujong, a region located between Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.  This was the Malacca Column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel E. Bertie Clay (Goorkhas), which marched deep into what is now the state of Negeri Sembilan.  Clay worked with Commander Francis Stirling, Royal Navy, of HMS Thistle.  Battalion Headquarters and around 250 sepoys of the 1st Goorkhas marched with this column.

Above: The Encampment at Bandar Bahru

Clay’s mission was to remove obstacles to the rule of Chief Dato Klana who was recognised by the British, by advancing into the regions of Sri Menanti and the Sungei and Lakut Rivers in order to destroy stockades and disperse insurgent groups led by rival Chief Tunku Antah.  A smaller British force commanded by Lieutenant Henry Charles Hinxman (10th Regiment) had, despite capturing and destroying stockades at Paroe on 7th December, been forced out of Tunku Antah’s Terrachi region leaving the Tunku’s men holdinging the strategic Bukit Putus Pass, the gateway to the Terrachi-Sri Menanti region.  

Clay first sailed from Penang to Malacca where he left 100 Goorkhas as a garrison under Captain Rankin; the remainder of the column disembarked at the mouth of the Lukut River and marched to Rassa where the British Resident, Captain Patrick James Murray, lived.  Two columns were then formed, one under Clay that was destined for the enemy-held Bukit Putas Pass and the other under Lieutenant Colonel R. Sale Hill who commanded the 1st Goorkhas; Hill’s column was to march along the Moar River through Langkap and get to the rear of the Bukit Putas Pass before Clay attacked the pass.  Beyond the pass lay Sri Menanti where the centre of the insurgency lay.

Clay took in his column:

·     Lieutenant Rigg, Royal Artillery, commanding 22 artillerymen, one gun with 100 rounds, one mortar with 72 rounds and 36 9-pounder rockets.
·     Lieutenant William North, Royal Engineers with a stock of entrenching tools.
·     Lieutenants Henry Charles Hinxman and Charles Talbot Peyton of The 1st Battalion the 10th of Foot with 41 rank and file.
·     Captain G.N. Channer (Goorkhas) who commanded Lieutenant G.P. Churchill and a detachment of The 1st Goorkhas, the sepoys carrying 200 rifle rounds per man.
·     The 70-man strong Arab Contingent commanded by Captain de Fontaine, a former midshipman of the French navy.  This unit contained some African Seedie Boys (crewmen on ocean going vessels) but most of the men were Arabs recruited in Singapore for duty in Selangor, but diverted to Malacca.  Amongst the Malays the Arab Contingent possessed a reputation for ferocity.

Hill’s column consisted of:

·        A Naval Brigade from HMS Thistle under Commander Sterling consisting of Navigating Sub-Lieutenant M.S. Beatty, Assistant Paymaster T.F. Harrison and 30 seamen and marines, with 36 24-pounder rockets and one tube.
·        Lieutenant Henriques, Royal Artillery, commanding 10 artillerymen and a 17-pounder steel gun with 100 rounds.
·        Captain C. Mercer (Quartermaster) and 120 sepoys of The 1st Goorkhas, the sepoys also carrying 200 rounds per man.  

Hill left Rassa on 19th December 1875 and entered the Moar valley, having to cross the river 17 times.  The insurgents had created obstacles including sharpened stakes in the track, and some unfinished stockades were met that Hill destroyed. Unfortunately the column saw no insurgents who wanted to fight and so the ammunition load, particularly the rockets, could not be legitimately lightened.  However part of the country was rich in crops, domestic buffalo, goats and poultry; although all the farms were deserted, thus preventing payment, it is difficult to imagine that the column went hungry.  After several days of very hard marching Hill approached Sri Menanti but too late to support Clay’s attack on the pass; Hill destroyed an unmanned stockade and met up with Clay’s column on 23rd December as it descended down the east side of the pass.  

Above: The Sungei Ujong campaign memorial in Melaka, Malaysia

Clay’s Column and the action at Bukit Putas Pass

Clay had left Rassa on 18th December 1875 and after difficulties in obtaining sufficient porters his column reached the foot of the Bukit Putas Pass two days later.  That afternoon Captain G.N. Channer and 50 Goorkhas, accompanied by Lieutenant North, Royal Engineers, were sent to reconnoitre the fort that controlled entry through the pass.  Three hours later Channer sent a message by runner to say that the jungle was so dense that reconnaissance of the fort was impossible from a safe distance.  Clay replied by runner telling Channer to get as close as he could to the fort and to estimate ranges for the guns and rockets.

What happened next was aptly described in an announcement in the London Gazette of April 14, 1876:

“The Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention to confer the decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned Officer, whose claim to the same has been submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, for his gallant conduct during the recent operations against the Malays in Perak, as recorded against his name, viz. :-

Bengal Staff Corps

Captain (now Brevet-Major) George Nicholas Channer

For having, with the greatest gallantry, been the first to jump into the Enemy’s Stockade, to which he had been dispatched with a small party of the 1st Ghoorka Light Infantry, on the afternoon of the 20th December, 1875, by the Officer commanding the Malacca Column, to procure intelligence as to its strength, position, etcetera.

Major Channer got completely in rear of the Enemy’s position, and finding himself so close that he could hear the voices of the men inside, who were cooking at the time, and keeping no lookout, he beckoned to his men, and the whole party stole quietly forward to within a few paces of the Stockade, which was of a most formidable nature, surrounded by a bamboo palisade; about seven yards within was a log-house, loop-holed, with two narrow entrances, and trees laid latitudinally, to the thickness of two feet.

The Officer commanding reports that if Major Channer, by his foresight, coolness, and intrepidity, had not taken this Stockade, a great loss of life must have occurred, as from the fact of his being unable to bring guns to bear on it, from the steepness of the hill, and the density of the jungle, it must have been taken at the point of the bayonet.”

Left: Birch Monument

On hearing the firing as Channer’s party fought to take the fort, Clay pushed up the pass at 1700 hours with the officers and men of the 10th Infantry but obstacles placed 35 metres before the fort severely hampered progress.  Then a sudden volley in the rear of the column was fired by Captain De Fontaine’s Arab Contingent.  Clay went back to investigate and found that the Arab Contingent had mistakenly fired at some of Channer’s Goorkhas seen above in the jungle.  Clay’s party then climbed up to join Channer who was engaging two stockades from the captured fort, one of these stockades was sited to block entry through the pass.

Channer had crept up to the fort and discovered that all the 25 or more defenders in the fort, including the sentries, were eating a communal meal.  Channer jumped inside the fort and shot a Malay dead with his revolver; Sepoys Balbir Gharti and Jitman Thapa followed and each shot a Malay.  The remaining Goorkhas then jumped in and fought, causing the defenders to flee leaving six bodies on the ground.  Naick Bhagat Sing Rai was killed, Sepoy Duljeet Thappa was severely wounded in the neck and died of wounds, and two other sepoys were wounded in their feet by enemy ranjons (caltrops of sharpened sticks tied together with at least one spike pointing above).  The attackers’ fire then drove the remaining insurgents out of the other two stockades, and all the enemy defences were destroyed.

Left: Birch Monument panel


The major actions in the Perak War were concluded by the end of 1875 and the war was declared over in March 1876, recalcitrant Sultans and Chiefs having accepted defeat.  Three insurgent leaders were hanged and three others were banished from Malaya.  British Imperial might had been swiftly concentrated and used over some very difficult terrain, and the Royal Navy had shown its flexibility in the support that seamen provided up rivers and in jungles.  Britain had enlarged its Empire in a region rich in minerals and agricultural land.  However the Malays understandably did not forget that their country and its wealth had been taken from them by force, and today the insurgents are viewed by many as heroes who resisted invasion.  A British memorial marks the place where J.W.W. Birch was killed, but so also does an indigenous memorial that records the event.

The Sikhs of the Perak Armed Police were now trained effectively and reinforcements were recruited from the Punjab, with a few local Malay volunteers being accepted.  The unit progressed into becoming the Malay States Guides which fought in Aden during the Great War. 

The 1st Goorkha Regiment returned to India and reached its Dharamsala base on 15th April 1876 with two souvenir Malay brass cannon.  The Regiment had taken seven casualties in battle and had lost one Goorkha officer and four sepoys who died of disease.  After this first overseas deployment the Indian Army Goorkha Regiments went on to become world-famous light infantry men in most operational theatres around the world, as they still are.

Above: The medals of Captain Francis Stirling of HMS Thistle


·        In Bukit Chandran Cemetery, Kuala Kangsar there is a large memorial inscribed on one side:

In Memory of the Officers and Men who fell in the Perak War 1876-77.

On the other side 15 names are listed and the individual graves of these men lie within the cemetery.

  ·        Near the waterfront and the Melaka Museum (the old Malacca Club house) is an oblong granite memorial pillar with each face inscribed.  The leading inscription states:

Erected by their Comrades in memory of those who lost their lives on active service against the Malays in Sungei Ujong 1875-6.

On the other three sides are engraved the names of the fallen from 1st Battalion Her Majesty’s 10th of Foot (four men), the 1st Goorkha Light Infantry (two men), and the Arab Contingent (six men).


As well as receiving his Victoria Cross, Captain George Nicholas Channer, Bengal Staff Corps, was brevetted to Major, as was Captain William Whitla of the 10th Foot in recognition of their services during the recent operations against the Malays in Perak.

Goorkha Sepoys Balbir Gharti and Jitman Thapa received the Indian Army Order of Merit (Second Class).

Brigadier General Ross’ orderly, Goorkha Sepoy Baskur Rana, was put forward for a medal but he was awarded 50 Rupees instead.

Able Seamen Henry Thompson, Harry Bonnett and David Sloper were awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

For services rendered during recent operations against Malays in the Straits of Malacca Royal Navy officers Commander Francis Stirling, Lieutenant Henry Townley Wright, Sub Lieutenants Thomas Francis Abbott, Richard Poore and Walter Travers Warren, and Surgeon Anthony Gorham MD were all promoted (Surgeon Gorham’s promotion was subject to his passing the qualifying examination), and the name of Lieutenant Robert Thomas Wood was favourably noted.

A clasp engraved PERAK was authorised by the Queen to the India Medal of 1849.  Although the southern Sungei Ujong Campaign had been a separate political issue it was bundled under the coverage of the PERAK clasp.   The qualifying dates for the Army were from 27th November 1875 to 20th March 1876.  The Royal Navy had slightly different dates and two different time periods authorised.  A total of 1103 medals and clasps were awarded.

An interesting recipient of the medal and clasp was Royal Navy Cadet Mansfield George Smith of the Modeste (above Left) , who probably served either as a naval liaison officer or as an aide-de-camp to General Colbourne.   In later life Smith was better known as Sir Mansfield Cumming or just ‘C’, the founder of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.

Top: Bukit Putus Pass today


Eventually Britain controlled the whole of Malaya by a variety of political arrangements.  In the 1930s The Malaya Regiment was formed composed of ethnic Malays, and elements of the regiment fought heroically during the Japanese invasion of 1941-42.  The Japanese beheaded several Malay Regiment officer prisoners who refused to join the Imperial Japanese Forces. During their invasion the Japanese made good use of the inland route from the Siamese border down the Perak River to Kuala Kangsar.

(We acknowledge and thank the copyright holder, Roll of Honour website, for the use of the photograph of the Perak War Memorial in Bukit Chandran Cemetery.  We also thank Dix Noonan Webb, Auctioneers and Valuers, for the use of the image of Captain Francis Stirling’s medals.)


Ø     London Gazettes dated February 1st, 18th, 23rd,28th & 29th of 1876, March 10th 1876, April 11th & 14th of 1876, November 23rd 1877, and November 8th 1878.
Ø     Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India, Volume VI Expeditions Overseas, Chapter XXIII.  (
Ø     British Intervention in Malaya 1867-1877 by C. Northcote Parkinson (University of Malaya Press 1964).
Ø     Malay Sketches, Chapters XIX, XX, XXI. by Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham (
Ø     The Golden Chersonese and The Way Thither by Isobella L. Bird (
Ø     Recent British Battles on Land and Sea, Chapter I by James Grant ( Ø     The Making of Modern Negeri Sembilan, Chapter II by Sherifa Khan (
Ø     British & Indian Armies in the East Indies (1685-1935) by Alan Harfield (Picton Publishing Chippenham Ltd 1984).
Ø     Forgotten Regiments – Regular and Volunteer Units of the British Far East by Barry Renfrew.
Ø     History of the Malay States Guides (1873-1919) by Inder Singh.
Ø     The 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles, The Malaun Regiment, 1813-1921 by F. Loraine Petre OBE.
Ø     A Dangerous Game, Volume II, British Colonial Warfare on the Indian Sub-Continent 1854-1892 by Brigadier B.A.H. Parritt CBE and Joachim M. Waibel (Loose Page Publishing 2010).
Ø     British Battles and Medals, 7th Edition by John Hayward, Diana Birch and Richard Bishop.
Ø     Symbol of Courage – A Complete History of the Victoria Cross by Max Arthur.
Ø     British Rockets of the Napoleonic and Colonial Wars 1805-1901 by C.E. Franklin.
Ø     History in Camera – Victoria’s Wars by I.F.W. Beckett.
Ø     The Military Engineer in India by Lieutenant Colonel E.W.C. Sandes (Naval & Military press reprint).
Ø     Illustrated London News – Perak War Despatches.
Ø     The Colonial Wars Source Book by Philip J. Haythornthwaite.
Ø     The Quest for C by Alan Judd (HarperCollinsPublishers 1999).
Ø     Hart’s Army List 1875 and 1876.

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