Part 1: In Court and Kampong 19 Sketches – Old Malaya Peninsular by Hugh Clifford – An Introduction

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In Court and Kampong (Tales and Sketches of Malay Life in the Peninsula) by Hugh Clifford April 1897. 19 Sketches

Caption: Kampongs stretched along the Kallang River in the 1860s in Singapore, a nation Sir Hugh Clifford does mention in his stories. Kallang is an old Malay reference attributed to ‘orang laut’ or ‘people of the sea.’


Personal Introduction

I stay secretly adamant to have my dog-eared school textbooks of when I was 10 years old, returned to me, from where they have sadly been flung into a mysterious past.  This, with renewed fervour and rejuvenated longing. Then I promise to stack each unassuming paperback with its assortment of memories, benevolently atop my bedside table. Although my old-fashioned books are now imprisoned by time etching its high fences into oblivion; I can still remember the sunny classroom scenes when many years before our giggles stole the day.

I went to the Convent Klang in  Malaysia where our schoolteachers  were simply fascinating raconteurs, content to spill a yarn whenever the occasion demanded it.  Timetables were more relaxed than.  History would be considered an enthralling period where pupils took it in turns to narrate passages, spelling the lives and times of the brave and bold who arrived to herald the mastery of Colonial rule in Peninsular Malaya.  This notwithstanding, the odd stifled yawn, secret girly notes passed under desks or whispers of forbidden personal anecdotes.

The appropriate class teacher well-settled behind her fat wooden table, would afterwards supplement our thoughts of say, the likes of Sir Hugh Low, Sir Frank Swettenham – also a vibrant short story  writer in his time – and even Sir Hugh Clifford; all the British Colonial Administrators of English rule in the Tropics; with a calendar of mismatched foibles and colourful tales. If only I had listened harder then instead of falling under the popular flaws of daydreamer or chatterbox.

Now a lengthy duration later and while armed with a rusty brain, I may have just qualified for teacher’s pet. Of course, all those schoolmistresses would be now more concerned – bless them – about a restful twilight and merry dotage.  As for me, I suddenly just can’t get enough of Malaysian history, spelling  tall tales of adventure and danger; all attributed to the perils of European explorers and Asian merchants.

I have fallen in love with my country…not to love it but to be in-love-with it in that ravishing poetic way.  I cherish its spinework, its framework, it’s long lingering eyes…lashes still fluttering, guiding me somewhere far into the distant antiquarian era, still waiting with its strange, opulent elegance and outstretched arms.

Sir Hugh Charles Clifford

I gather the impression that Hugh Charles Clifford was a brave young lad and somewhat fearless in nature. He came to Malaya as a cadet for Pahang state when he was just 17 years old, in 1883, not yet 10 years after the British had taken over. I suspect he must have harboured dreams of sailing the high seas from when he was very little. I say this because Clifford actually derived from England’s upper-crust society and his family consisted of high ranking officials. His grandfather was a baron.

The era summed up one of extravagant luxury. Picture the manors, the dinner parties, the music, the dances, the entertaining, the picnics…

Yet, Clifford must have been  cajoled by the wanderlust bug that permanently shadowed his days. The desire to sail the high seas proved overpowering.

In all seriousness, the young gentleman was to have followed his father desecribed as a distinguished Colonel General, into the British Army without question. Instead, he stayed insistent on joining the Civil Service of the Straits Settlements (for the Protected Malay States), knowing that the very idea harkened to a posting abroad. How restless he would have been with everyday English life!

A relative Sri Frederick Weld and other prominent friends assisted him and used their influence for Clifford to come over to the Far East, to the Malayan Peninsula. I can’t help speculating on Clifford’s stubborness. His mother would have been all at sea with worry and his father a natural disciplinarian and possibly tough to convince. How did the boy get his way in the end? Clifford was after all, the only son. Were there tough dialogues and anxious conversations? Did any heated scenes result in the slamming of doors or footsteps marching out of a study? I wouldn’t put past the possibility. Yet Clifford’s father had himself served abroad in South Africa. He must have understood and been resigned to the idea of travel.

It was a time when the adventuring or wayfaring spirit headed into the unknown with an explorer’s wanderlust bug as his solitary guardian angel. Clifford was a writer also and after 1896, published, novels, essays and short stories. I believe his wanderlust bug would have overpowered his sense of reason. His acute observations on human life would have tickled his secret imagination.

What would have worked in his favour at the time would most likely have been the many British expatriates already present in the more modern Selangor and Perak states. Clifford declares it himself in his writings, that the local residents of Malaya at the time were by outward appearances, outnumbered by the Europeans in certain regions.  Thus, it was possible to never meet a native unless a handyman chose to  wash his clothes, wait at the table or  or drive his cab.

I am fascinated at the detailed outlook of life, that Clifford brought to Malayan history. I am held captivated by his meticulous descriptions of kampongs (villages) and jungle life just before the advent of the 20th century. The Wikipedia biography mentions that Clifford took pains to socialise with the Malays and studied their language and culture deeply. My heart is full of understanding when I think of that same yearning and desire I hold for East Africa as a whole.

Yet Clifford’s early descriptions of kampong life can be painfully unflattering. Patronising even. In the early accounts of his tales, Clifford provides supposedly shocking rueful accounts of  Malaya’s backwardness in the East Coast regions where only villages and rivers lay sleepily together with silent solemnity. Ironically, Malaya’s seduction never left him. After publishing his 19 sketches in London, he went on to serve in Borneo, land of the head-hunters. Later, he would be posted to Trinidad, the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). All the time he rose in  rank. Yet, he chose to return to Malaya as the country’s British High Commissioner from 1937 to 1940. Bound by a strange allure, he continued to pen several stories on Malayan life. What held him spellbound? What bait drew him back constantly?

I thought that I would review each of his 19 sketches in the weeks to come, one at a time…where he composes stories of fishermen, thieves, tigers, women and the aboriginal people among other issues; with the special empathy afforded to the slightly eccentric eclectic personality that was Sir Hugh Charles Clifford’s alone. – susan abraham


Credit: Picture of Rickshaw during the early years of an old Malaya is from MyIslandPenang.com
Credit: Picture of Kampongs situated along the Kallang River, Singapore’s longest river is from OpenDemocracyNet

Further Reading:

A new book from Stephanie Williams titled Governors of the British Empire 1857 – 1912 from Viking/Penguin. For more information & some thrilling bits of reading, please click HERE.Bookmark and Share

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