Murdered in the Bath

Early on the morning of 2 November, 1875 James Wheeler Woodford Birch, the first British ‘Resident’ of the Malayan state of Perak, chose the wrong time and the wrong place to take a bath. 

For more than a year, Birch, an abrupt cantankerous man, had been struggling to impose his authority on the young state ruler Sultan Abdullah. Birch was under tremendous pressure. Recently widowed and with four young children to support, he was heavily in debt. Although he was building a house in Bandar Bahru fit for a Resident, he was unaware that Governor Sir William Jervois was pondering whether to have him replaced. Birch and the Sultan had clashed repeatedly.  ‘We are unfortunate in the Sultan,’ he wrote to colleagues in Singapore: ‘He riles me awfully. He is so childish.’ Birch deplored Abdullah’s use of opium, and refusal to give up slavery. For his part, the Sultan resisted Birch’s efforts to bring good government to his state or sort out claims by rival rulers. By the beginning of November, the Muslim festival of Hari Raya Puasa, rumours had reached Birch that trouble was brewing. At midnight, on 1 November,  Birch accompanied by a small company of Sepoys, a Lieutenant T.F. Abbott and his interpreter Mat Arshad moored at Pasir Salak on the Perak River. Early the next day, while it was still cool, the Resident moved the ‘Naga’ to the other side of the river and tied up alongside a riverside bath house owned by a Chinese goldsmith. This was a modest affair – a wooden frame sheathed in pam leaves. While Lt. Abbott set off to do some hunting, Birch sent Arshad to post proclamations declaring in no uncertain terms that he was determined to ‘administer the Government of Perak in the name of the Sultan…’. It was now very hot and Birch, after posting a sepoy to stand guard, disappeared inside the little river side bath house. As he set to work nearby, cluctchig an armful of proclamations, Mat Arshad was attacked by a large party of at least 50 Malays, many armed with spears. As the interpreter fled, the Malays surrounded the hut. Birch splashed happily inside. As the men with spears closed in, the sepoy panicked and hurled himself into the river. The Malays thrust their spears through the thin palm leaf walls of the bath house. Birch, taken by surprise, naked and vulnerable, died instantly. His blood gushed into the sluggish waters of the Perak as his assassins hacked another sepoy to death. The other sepoys managed to reach the boats and make their escape as Birch’s bloodied corpse floated past. Wounded, Mat Arshad swam desperately to one of the fleeing boats, was dragged on board, but died soon afterwards. A few days later, Birch’s mutilated corpse was recovered and sent to Bandar Bahru where, on the spot he had planned to build his official residence, he was buried with full military honours. When his son Ernest visited Pasir Salak ten years later, he met many people who said they had known his father. One local man handed over the murdered Resident’s gold watch and gun.