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Swettenham’s ‘Anthropology’ of The Real Malay

argues that the Resident’s stories ‘are history as entertainment, a picture tinged with romanticism, and in Swettenham’s case – condensation’. Nevertheless he stresses that those writing the history of Malaya have been able to retain objectivity. Unlike the Residents, historians are not the compilers and/or subjects of the writings and so are able to remain detached.37 Historians who cite Swettenham’s and Clifford’s fictional stories are not detached because they do not question the view of women put forward, the fantasy element in many of the stories, the multiple versions of the same stories, or the class, race and gender theories informing the texts. Nor do they question the imperialist discourses resonating throughout the texts; colonial stories written by the colonial officials were originally constructed as frontier stories published for newspapers to suit the historical mode that justified British colonisation of Malaya. The stories were built around the domination of European power.38 Malay rulers were portrayed as despots with no sense of good governance.39 Many of Clifford’s stories resembled exotic fairy tales where sexy bodies were utilised as metaphors for race degeneration or objects of desire. In this context the Resident’s stories were more like reflections of their own fantasies and desires based on power structures between the colonised and the colonisers as will be highlighted in the following sections.40 Nonetheless, acceptance of the veracity of the Resident’s stories ‘were so frequently expressed that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they were genuine and not merely introduced at a later date in an attempt to justify British intervention’.41

Swettenham published one collection of Malayan stories but revised the edition three times before his death in 1949. The work consists of the same set of stories rewritten with further descriptions, and ‘historical’ context added with each revision. In the collection, the stories are arranged in the sequence of an anthropological study. The first story, which is also in the set of stories collated by Roff for the Oxford in Asia Press outlines the author’s credentials, the next is ethnography of the Malay subject, followed by a history of British intervention into Malaya and the subsequent murder of the first British Resident.42 The remaining stories are about Malay society at the time of British intervention.43 It is necessary to examine these stories in order to highlight the ways women were portrayed or ignored by colonial Residents.

‘Getting Into Harness’ traces Swettenham’s employment in the Colonial Service in Malaya. According to Swettenham, he was one of the few officers who could speak and understand Malay and his excellent interpreting skills enabled him to get a good position at the beginning of the colonial period.44 Swettenham recalls his first trip to Selangor when he accompanied a lawyer friend searching for a young Chinese girl kidnapped by a Chinese secret society. According to Swettenham, ‘the state was and had been for years, the war playground of a number of Malay Rajas, whose pastime was fighting and intriguing to gain control of rich districts in Selangor where Chinese, and a few others were mining tin’.45 His text emphasises the unruly, violent nature of the district seen from ‘the gaze of the civilised Westerner’:

The next day, while Davidson was making his enquiries, I wandered round Kuala Lumpur and went into what appeared to be an empty hut: it was quite empty,

42 See Swettenham, ed., Stories and Sketches by Sir Frank Swettenham.

43 The first three stories have been examined in depth but the readings of the subsequent stories are selective and only those relevant to women in Malaya are included in this discourse analysis.

44 Swettenham was taught Malay by Mohd Said bin Dada Mohyidden, the editor of the first Malay newspaper, Jawi Peranakan, and the author of a number of Malay schoolbooks. Swettenham, Footprints in Malaya, 16. For scholarly information in regard to Mohyidden’s writing see Milner and Hooker.

45 Swettenham, ed., Stories and Sketches by Sir Frank Swettenham, 8.

except for a dead Chinese, with a bullet in his chest, who was sitting on the red earth with his back against the wall.46

‘The Real Malay’ the following story was published as an anthropological study of the Malay race. Here, Swettenham clearly spells out his position as an anthropologist:

It is often said that a European cannot understand the character of an Eastern, or follow the curious workings of the brain. I doubt whether the Eastern is any more difficult to understand than the Western, when once you have taken the time to study him, as you would prepare yourself for the consideration of any other subject of which you did not know the rudiments.47

The arrogance contained in this statement is refuted by today’s standards, but for Swettenham the ‘rudiments’ of the Malay character and culture was a subject that could be studied and understood like any other.

Thus, Swettenham’s short stories reflected contemporary European interest in social sciences.48 From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, naturalists and anthropologists competed with each other to produce a classification of people, places, flora and fauna based on the assumption that the human races could be studied in the same way as the natural sciences were.49 Development of evolutionary theories privileged the European over the non-European.50 Malays are portrayed in Swettenhams’ stories as being at the

46 Ibid., 9.

47 Frank Swettenham, The Real Malay: Pen Pictures (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1900).

48 Henrietta Lidchi cited in Stuart Hall, ed., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 161. As Smith argues, all levels of representation of historic events to the depiction of landscapes, people, and inanimate objects were influenced by the scientific theories of the day. Bernard Smith, Imagining the Pacific, In the Wake of Cook's Voyages (Melbourne:

Melbourne University Press, 1992), 39.

49 During the nineteenth century, there were rapid changes in means of communication and travel which gave imperial powers more movement. After 1848 there was also a series of revolutions and reactions, which gave rise to nationalisms and rivalry between countries in Europe. It was a period when empire building got under way and as a result, the last thirty years of the nineteenth century saw European nations scrambling for colonies throughout Africa and Asia. Scott B Cook, Colonial Encounters in the Age of High Imperialism (New York: Longman, 1996).

50 According to the British, the industrial revolution, the decline of the aristocracy and the introduction of democracy in Europe meant that the European was the most civilised in terms of progress through time.

lower levels of human development, unable to govern their own peoples in a just and democratic manner and unable to control their sexuality.51 According to popular evolutionary thinking of the time, sexuality was associated with the desires of the body.

Races with higher levels of civilisation were able to control their bodily desires and behave in modest ways. Peoples with lower levels of civilisation were not able to control their sexuality. The vulgarisation of Darwinian theory forms a subtext to Swettenham’s erotic adventure stories of Malay life as exemplified by the fact that Malay ruling-class men kept harems and were constantly engaged in trying to kidnap women or steal poorer men’s wives to satisfy their carnal desires.52 In this case, existing sterotypes about the Middle East were conveniently transferred to Southeast Asia.

In the story ‘Silver Point’, parallels can be drawn between its subject matter and novels being produced during the same period in Europe.53 The Malay ruling-class equates with the European aristocracy as feudal rulers blocking progress of the middle-classes.

Upper-class English women appear in romantic and gothic novels such as Dracula as both victim and temptress, needing to be repulsed or rescued by the emerging middle-class male.54 Women of the Malay ruling-class were portrayed in similar fashion with

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather, Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest (New York:

Routledge, 1995), 37-8.

51 By the end of the nineteenth century, natural scientists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace challenged the earlier creation theory with a convincing theory of evolution. This produced an evolutionary view of society in which races were judged on the time travelled through nature to a stage of progress such as that acquired by the European (civilised) race. For further information on Cook’s and Bank’s voyages, journals and drawings of ‘noble savages’ see Smith, Imagining the Pacific, In the Wake of Cook's Voyages.

52 These characteristics are embedded in both Clifford’s and Swettenham’s stories. Jeffrey has noted that the British were concerned with slavery and harems as they highlighted the uncivilised side of Southeast Asian ruling classes. Leslie Jeffrey, Sex and Borders: Gender National Identity, and Prosititution Policy in Thailand (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002), 5-9.

53 Holden, Modern Subjects/Colonial Texts, Hugh Clifford and the Discipline of English Literature in the Straits Settlements and Malaysia 1895-1907, 157.

54 Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981). Anne Cranny Francis, "Sexual Politics and Political Repression in Bram Stoker's Dracula," in Nineteenth Century Suspense, ed. Clive Bloom, et al. (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1988).

the colonial officers filling the role of protector.55 Colonial authors had the motif of the exotic to provide extra adventure for European readers. Exotic Malay female bodies were framed in romantic tales as sexual symbols to highlight the licentiousness of the native.

Stories such as ‘Silver Point’ portray the Malay ruler’s decadent and uncivilised ways and leave the reader with no doubt that before British intervention, Malaya was in a state of anarchy.56 As viewed by the British, Malay practices such as mysticism and Malay amok were part of the portrayal of pre-modern society.57 Primitive practices such as amok were considered to be a sign of barbarianism. The term amok in this context means uncontrollable rage, mania, obsession and paranoia and is aligned with the term fetish which also means mania and obsession. As William Pietz argues:

by inventing the primitive, studies of deviance in Europe came to serve a peculiarly modern form of social discipline. Fetish worshippers in the colonies and sexual fetishists in the imperial metropoles were seen as the living evidence of evolutionary degeneration. Identified as atavistic subraces within the human race, fetishes were, all too often, seen as inhibiting an anachronistic space in linear time of evolutionary progress, warranting and justifying conquest and control. In this way, the colonial discourse on fetishism became a discipline of containment.58 In ‘The Real Malay’, the amok fetish is a signifier of the bloodthirsty Malay male.

Swettenham describes the Malay man as ‘being intolerant of insult’ and when in this state is a lover of ‘bloodshed’.59 Malay men were portrayed as bloodthirsty and the degree of anarchy was emphasised by highlighting the numbers of weapons they carried

55 Holden’s work on Clifford’s fiction also demonstrates this point. Holden, Modern Subjects/Colonial Texts, Hugh Clifford and the Discipline of English Literature in the Straits Settlements and Malaysia 1895-1907, 82.

56Swettenham, British Malaya, 39-42.

57 According to the colonial definition, the word amok in relation to Malay men means an unexplained outburst of rage usually leading to uncontrollable violence.

58 William Pietz, The Historical Semantics of Fetishism: A Phenomenological Introduction, unpublished manuscript, as cited in McClintock, Imperial Leather, Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest, 182.

59 Swettenham, ed., Stories and Sketches by Sir Frank Swettenham, 19.

with them: ‘in 1874 every Malay had as many weapons as he could carry: say two daggers in his belt, two spears in his hand, a gun over his shoulder, and a long sword under his arm. The boys were usually content with two or three weapons.’ Swettenham was also keen to point out the ‘uncouth’ character of Malay youth: ‘the young Rajas and other gilded youths took to top spinning, cock fighting, gambling, opium smoking, lovemaking and some of them to robbery, quarrelling and murder’.60

The level of violence associated with Malay amok was also recorded in various documents including court case reports. In one such report, in 1894, a Malay man was brought to court for the murder of four people:

A Malay was tried for causing grievous hurt with a dangerous weapon and severely punished. He was intriguing with a married woman and when remonstrated with by the husband drew a knife on him. The man promptly broke off a piece of fencing and in self-defence struck his would-be assailant across the forehead, and absconded.61

The assailant then killed two innocent people passing by, one an old woman, another an old man. According to the police, the man claimed he was ‘blood mad’.62

These stories and reports produced a representation of Malays that accorded with public opinion at the time of the murder of the first British Resident, James Birch. In ‘James Wheeler Woodford Birch’, Swettenham points out that he was murdered because he enacted democratic changes, which the ruling class resisted.63 According to Swettenham these changes were mainly in relation to taxation but Hugh Low (the third British Resident in Perak, 1877- 1889) presented a different story.64 Low stressed that Birch’s

60 Swettenham, British Malaya, 136.

61 Senior District Officer, "Monthly Letter for April," (Kuala Langat: 1894).

62 Ibid. In many of the stories that include Malay amok the persons killed are often old people and/or women and children.

63 Swettenham, ed., Stories and Sketches by Sir Frank Swettenham, 74-97.

64 Emily Sakda, ed., The Journal of Sir Hugh Low, Perak, 1877 (Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS, 1954), 25.

problems were in relation to Malay debt-bondage and slavery.65 According to Low, a number of Birch’s guards and the police, as well as Malays from the Straits Settlements seduced the Sultan’s ‘slave’ women.66 Birch’s removal of slave women from the Sultan’s compound, whether it was their choice or whether they were abducted, violated Clause Six of the Pangkor Treaty which protected Malays from British intervention into Malay religion and custom.67 Sultan Abdullah criticised the British for interfering in Malay custom and pointed out that slavery was not part of the Pangkor Treaty.68 Not long after, Birch was murdered. This provoked a series of battles between the English and Malay ruling class. In order to teach the Malays a lesson, the British brought in additional army recruits (1200 soldiers came from other British colonies) to apprehend the offenders and burn the villages and compounds of those considered responsible. The campaign ended in the death and exile of most of the Malay ruling-class men, especially those who were viewed as resisting colonial intervention.69 Birch’s murder provided the British with the justification they needed to enter Perak and eliminate those who stood in the way of British ‘progress’ and intervention. In a later report, Swettenham agreed that Birch’s murder and the short occupation of the state by British soldiers secured a permanent tranquillity that ten or fifteen years of advice by a Resident could not have secured.70

However, Swettenham’s account completely ignored the slave women, noting that:

65 McNair (Colonial Official) also includes the slave incident in his book. For further details see J F McNair, Perak and the Malays (Singapore: Oxford University Press [1st edition published 1878], 1972), 368-69.

66 Burns and Cowan, eds., The Journals of J W W Birch 1874-1876, 400-4. According to Cowan, citing Winstedt, Birch’s residency became a place of refuge for runaway female slaves, much to the anger of their owners, who regarded Birch as a thief. Cowan, Nineteenth-Century Malaya: The Origins of British Political Control, 217.

67 Sakda, ed., The Journal of Sir Hugh Low, Perak, 1877, 24-5.

68 Ibid., 25-6.

69 Not all British colonists thought the ‘treaty’ was fair to the Malays. Sir Peter Bensen Maxwell wrote critically of the Perak Wars in a contentious pamphlet called ‘Our Malay Conquests’. Barr, Taming the Jungle: The Men Who Made British Malaya, 51.

70 Ibid., 7-20.

Mr. Birch was assassinated solely and entirely for political reasons, for the reasons I have already given. He was White, he was a Christian and a stranger, he was restless, climbed hills and journeyed all over the country, he interfered with murderers and other evil-doers, he constantly bothered the Sultan about business and kept pressing him to introduce reforms, while every change is regarded by the Malay with suspicion and distrust. That was his crime in their eyes; of personal feeling there was none, wherever Mr. Birch went there were people who had to thank him for some kindness, some attention. The Malays have always admitted this, and, if it seems strange that I should make a point of the motive, it is because Europeans who did not know have suggested that the Resident’s murder was due to non political causes, a suggestion for which there is not a semblance of foundation.71

In Swettenham’s story he went to help Birch hang up proclamations in Perak, Birch was murdered but Swettenham escaped down the river. After the punitive expedition he was sent home but returned after a short period to be put in charge of Selangor, for six years.

Swettenham then instigated his ideas of progress in the colony and taught the Malays orderliness and punctuality, which he considered more important than education. In this story, Birch’s murder exemplified the lawlessness in the state of Perak and the primitive nature of Malay rulers. On the other hand, the movement of 1200 (armed) British troops into Perak was portrayed as the British simply bringing law and order to Malaya.

Swettenham’s Portrayal of Exotic Malay Women

Both slave and ruling-class women were involved in the history of Malaya but both were silenced in many of Swettenham’s later writings.72 In British Malaya, Swettenham stressed that he does not discuss the Malay woman ‘not because I count her as a negligible quantity, but because, as a matter of history, she never had much to do with those affairs with which this book is mainly concerned’.73 This assertion reflects Swettenham’s consciousness and his partial knowledge of Malay social and political

71 Swettenham, ed., Stories and Sketches by Sir Frank Swettenham, 76.

72 Cowan, Nineteenth-Century Malaya: The Origins of British Political Control, 219.

73 Swettenham, British Malaya, 150.

structures. After the removal of the ruling-class men, women for many ruling-class families became the link between the Malay regime and the British administrators such as Hugh Low.74 The colonial administrators, who had already directed Malay ruling-class income into British revenue, had to pay compensation to the families of the exiled rulers and it was the women who set up negotiations for compensation.75

According to the Pangkor Treaty the ruling Sultans had full jurisdiction over Malay custom and family practices. In this case, the colonial system had no jurisdiction over Malay women who were protected within the family, which was outside the realm of British domination. This meant that women had more space to resist than their husbands and sons. Malay women became a threat because they played the roles as mothers and sisters of the generation who resisted colonialism. Women could also and often did resist the British in more immediate ways. According to Swettenham’s account of the Birch incident, ‘Toh Puan Halimah [wife of the Menteri of Larut] showed uncompromising hostility to the British government, to its officers and all their works’.76 When the British exiled most of the ruling class Halimah refused to leave with her husband, the Menteri.77 Instead she continued to live in Perak under ‘reduced circumstances’.78 Halimah’s life changed considerably, especially after her husband was exiled to Singapore and her property, a large house in Perak, was used as an army barracks and jail. After a new barracks and jail were built, the house became a hospital to house the large number of

74 In Malay feudal society women were divided into ruling class, peasants and slaves. Aristocratic women did not work in the economic sector, but many controlled land (customary land), owned tin mines and invested in trade and debt bondage slaves. Jamilah Ariffin, Women and Development in Malaysia (Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur: Pelanduk Publications, 1992).

75 Sakda, ed., The Journal of Sir Hugh Low, Perak, 1877, 76-86.

76 Gullick, Malay Society in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Beginnings of Change, 218-9.

77 Many of the women moved to be near their husbands and family members while others stayed in Perak.

There are numerous annual reports noting the subsistence money paid to Indigent Malay Ladies. Resident General, "Subsistence Money for Indigent Malay Ladies," (Kuala Lumpur: British Residency, 1904).

There are reports on the Homes for Indigent Malay Ladies. District Officer, "Home for Indigent Malay Ladies at Bandar: Inmates Report," (Kuala Langat: 1903).

78 Gullick, Malay Society in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Beginnings of Change, 219.