Part 2: In Court and Kampong by Hugh Charles Clifford – The First of 19 Sketches

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Right-hand Caption: An everyday kampong scene that fringed the era of Sir Hugh Charles Clifford’s residency in Malaya.

Please see my earlier post featuring A Personal Introduction & Sir Hugh Charles Clifford.

Book: In Court and Kampong by Hugh Clifford – Being Tales & Sketches of Native Life in the Malay Peninsula

The East Coast – 1st Sketch

I’ve linked this sentence to a first-class  map and one excellently preserved, of the Malaya Peninsula with its painstaking detailing.  This, courtesy of the British EmpireCo.UK.  The East Coast region  is on the right-hand side of the top-hand corner of the old map of South-East Asia. It faces directly onto the South China Sea.

Thoughts on the Opening:

Hugh Clifford opens his sketches with dramatic inclination.  He is determined to impress upon the naive reader, that life for British Colonial Administrators in the 19th century, proved anything but safe.

Through the earnest scribblings of his pen, Clifford fancied himself and that of his colleagues who were situated on the Straits Settlement which formed for the treasure chest and one of several conquests of the British Empire as a whole; of having adopted memorable breathtaking strides; what with their gregarious adventuring exploits which in turn, reduced Robinson Crusoe’s solitude to a tame affair.  Each open declaration victory obtained from having subdued trecherous jungle terrain and stormy voyages, hinged at throwing up a wild card.  Through reflections, he may have been tempted to afford himself a congratulatory pat on the back.

Among several other boasts, Clifford proceeds to ask the reader if the Empire didn’t successfully trample down the merciless Equatorial jungles, slap down beaten roads to an obedient humility and stride up rivers with remarkable ease.  Before inciting a personal defence, I realise that  there could be more to Clifford’s observations when under the same breath, the explorer suddenly mocks civilisation, labelling the term a dead leavel of conventionality.

The first sketch is no hint to any kind of an absorbing tale. The East Coast – although rambling in length –  is drawn up with amusing dinner-table mannerisms, so as to prepare the unsuspecting reader  for stranger stories.  I gather that the outline is meant for the introspective absorption of the curious English mind who may have otherwise, dismissed each tale for its complications.  Problems arose from a  heaped foreign flavour and inconceivable Asian culture.  In Court and Kampong was first published by Grant Richards at 48, Leicester Square, London in April 1897.


On the description of Village Laws & Subsequent Burdens of the Humble Malay Native Apparent Towards the Last Quarter of the 19th Century.

There seemed to be no question about it. European explorers during that era were considered The Whites while the local kampong folk were addressed as The Natives.  This definition provided clarity for a starched if not, pompous class structure. “We are the conquerers of your alien land and you – not that we have anything against you people – stay the conquered.”  In this essence, Clifford begs to differ. He writes of the stiff garments of European conventionalities measured against the naked, brown limbs of Orientalism.

The expression stiff convinces me that Clifford was not in favour of crisp British formality nor its daily punctilious protocol. He may have felt slightly smothered by the constant adherence to the exactness of courtliness and show of correctitude.

Caption: A lady in the Victorian era holds her parasol.

Remember that this was the peacful and prosperous *Victorian era, held during the period of Queen Victoria’s reign.  Gentlemen went to dining clubs with increased frequency. Gambling at cards proved popular with social establishments while entertainment derived toward the theatre, dramatics and the Arts, varied. The latter depended on one’s social class. Meanwhile, the mushrooming of brass bands, musical recordings and the fashionable study of Nature (Natural History), became all the rage and a necessary novelty.

On the other hand, Clifford was kinder in his descriptions of the kampong folk, observing them as honest and industrious.  Not that Clifford displayed any obvious empathy. He described bluntly through mesmerising fables some of which appear partly autobiographical, of all he saw… both good and bad. Joseph Conrad, one of Europe’s greatest novelists and the Congo’s legendary explorer and adventurer,  described Clifford as a writer whose manuscripts were more known for their blunt truths, rather than any form of artistry.

Now in this first sketch that warns of all to come, what gets Hugh Clifford’s goat up,  is his presumption of an ancient feudal system that stayed strongly entwined in the East Coast regions which were then made up of Senggora, Petani, Jambe, Jaring, Raman, Legeh, Kelantan, Trengganu, Pahang, and Johor states.  In his introductory writings of the 1st sketch, Clifford was clearly aghast at all the politicking that took place.  How he railed against the rigid bureaucracy that ruled village life.  But let me explain the feudal system as the writer himself outlined it.

Senggora and Legeh which lay further down the coast, lay under the protection of the Siamese Government.  Johore, Kelantan and Terengganu claimed to be independent although it was noted that each state  faithfully sent on a golden flower – bunga emas in the Malay – to Bangkok once in three years, without so much as a whimper.

Now, the Golden Flower ritual was  a bit like protection money in the sense that the delivery signified a silent adherence to the Siamese Government. The ‘gift’ was fastidiously sculptured into a precious ornamental plant  with leaves and flowers. It was created in gold and silver. Because the value of the valuable ornament was estimated at US$5,000 ordinary Malay citizens which comprised male adults were required to act as contributors. As such a banchi or poll tax was collected.

According to Clifford, the exact significance of these gifts resembled different connotations. The Siamese Government insisted jovially that the dowry gifts represented an admission of authority created by the Siamese Government, which was then acknowledged from the respective state rulers. Whereas the Rajas comprising beleaguered rulers desperate to secure their seats at all costs, reiterated that the gifts formed nothing more than a gesture of friendship.  According to Clifford, even Perak got caught in the fray and until 1926, sent on a bunga emas gift  to Bangkok with astute regularity.

Sometimes, concessions had to be made. At the time of Clifford’s writing of these sketches, a flag with a picture of  a White Elephant still stood diligently at the mouth of the Kelantan River on state occasions, although the administration duties contined to lie under the dominance of the Raja and his Chiefs.

I often imagined Hugh Clifford swearing under his breath come what may, when things didn’t go smoothly enough.  The Middle Ages…The Middle Ages…I’d expect him to mutter.  After all, his introductory sketch is full of this lamentation, a scornful complaint which Clifford directed to the East Coast’s Feudal System.  Naturally, a subsequent annoying red tape  was bound to be encountered, in the running of essential errands.  The writer makes no bones about the shocking comparison.

Caption: A glimpse into the lawlessness that Hugh Clifford lamented about often, in his comparisons with Malayan East Coast folk and 13th century England in the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages in England stretched from the 11th to the 13th centuries.  It proved an era of relative calm where battles by the Barbarians had reached its close end and even the Vikings had settled down with nary a sound in the British Isles. Heresy rose with the promise of a new materiaslistic era and sects attuned to urban culture and a rebel to religion, were formed.

At the same time, Catholicism rose also and Monasticism reached its element. The 12th century saw the rise of the Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as the Cistercian and Benedictine Orders. The 13th century saw the rise of the Franciscan Friars, hermit nuns known as the Carmelites, the Dominican Order and hermit friars known as the Augustinians. The Orders were rigid and puritannical.  Then there was the rise of heavy calvary duty in the role of a different series of Knights, that encouraged the development of tournaments.

Often those who wrung their hands with dismay and hung their heads down with hopelessness, were the lower classes and country folk, subject to the unsympathetic hands of lawlessness Ruthless tax collectors practiced no conscientious rules beforehand.

In the same way, Clifford would now observe a similar pattern in Malaya’s East Coast region. The British Resident remarked that the Sultanate churned out a similar protocol too close to home, to what was often the case with Royalty in Mediaeval Europe. He deplored the current situation where  the Raja assumed the whole country as his personal property and its inhabitants, his slaves.

Each state was divided into districts that were religiously looked after by the Raja’s own men, his Head Chiefs or Orang Besar, who performed an almost military service. They were handed spears that only needed to be returned to the royal threshhold,  at the time of its owner’s death. Like Europe, high treason was the obvious crime that would be seen as a punishable offence.  The subject of forfeiture would  come into play. The districts were now  divided into sub-districts, looked after by District Chiefs or Dato Muda. Below this officer came the rank of  Headman or Penghulu, often an elderly authority figure who watched over his respective village commune with careful authority.

What tended to pull at Clifford’s heartstrings were the plight of the village folk, the common people called the rakyat.  Quite simply, the rakyat suffered most of all.  They commanded no rights to person or property and were often asked to step in with demanded contributions of any kind at all.  These included the sacrfice of wives, daughters,  homes, siblings, land and cattle to strangers in power. From time to time, the rakyat would also be commanded to perform forced labour.  Of course, it was sickening that  supervisors would always be waiting in the shadows,   ready to grab the credit.

Here Clifford wrote:

“By the latter, the village Headmen and their able-bodied räayat[1] were called together, the free-holders in each village being bound to the local Pĕnghûlu[2] by ties similar to those which bound him to his immediate Chief. In the same way, the Râja made his demands for money-grants to the Great [5]Chiefs, and the räayat supplied the necessary contributions, while their superiors gained the credit attaching to those who fulfil the desires of the King. Under this system, the räayat of course, possessed no rights, either of person or property. He was entirely in the hands of the Chiefs, was forced to labour unremittingly that others might profit by his toil; and neither his life, his land, his cattle, nor the very persons of his women-folk, could properly be said to belong to him, since all were at the mercy of any one who desired to take them from him, and was strong enough to do so. This, of course, is the weak point in the Feudal System, and was probably not confined to the peoples of Asia. The chroniclers of Mediæval Europe tell only of Princes and Nobles, and Knights and Dames—and merry tales they are—but we are left to guess what was the condition of the bulk of the lower classes in Thirteenth-Century England…”

He then goes on to plead caution… “…we should be cautious how we apply our fin de siècle standards to a people whose ideas of the fitness of things are much the same as those which prevailed in Europe some six centuries agone.” – In Court and Kampong

I must copnfess that I found these lines intriguing. As a child growing up in Malaysia, I watched scores of period films in Malay on television, where bereaved fathers were forced to sacrifice their daughters as concubines for princes and kings. Parents would be tormented on how to break the news to their children.  The daughters were often beautiful maidens in the prime of their virginal youth.

Now that I am all ears once more, I shall definitely seek out the titles of this forgotten cinema while on a short return to Malaysia in October.

Yet Clifford was full of amusement for the East Coast folk. He often felt pleased that they were a robust lot and great survivors. By his estimation, the West Coast natives… those who lived in Perak and Selangor for example, were considered dull and limp with their civilisation and he pondered the fact that they had no idea at all of the tough hand-to-mouth existence,  their East Coast counterparts were forced to engaged in with steely survival measures.

Caption: The poorer country folk representing the lower classes often had it tough during England’s Middle Age.

Hugh Clifford with his True Writing and Adventuring Spirit.

I myself, am an adventurer, a traveller and a writer.  These pursuits have begun to colour my life more and more, as the years wear on. Naturally, Clifford in his creative element, would straightaway appeal to my senses. Perhaps this was the magic line that  endeared me to his Sketches when he wrote here..

“…As you crush your way out of the crowded roadstead of Singapore, and skirting the red cliffs of Tânah Mêrah, slip round the heel of the Peninsula, you turn your back for a space on the seas in which ships jostle one another, and betake yourself to a corner of the globe where the world is very old, and where conditions of life have seen but little change during the last thousand years…”

Can’t you just picture the writer just now, wrestling his way through noisy crowds of merchants, tradesmen and hawkers.   Then he suddenly turns his back at that magic moment, after crossing hurriedly and maybe a little clumsily, into the Peninsular. He would be perspiring no doubt, the sun would be burning down his back, beads of sweat raining down his face.  What meets his eye? Oh my!  The crystalline ocean glittering from afar, coming to life with its flamboyant exhibition of ships, fishing trawlers, chug boats, sampans and junks, as Clifford says, all jostling one another, to make headway in what may hopefully prove, a profitable seafaring life. In a nutshell, Clifford has managed to paint the exotica that surrounds him. Clifford reflects with great tenderness on the masts and the turtles, the monsoon and the graceful casuarina trees that fringe a beautiful coastline.

Caption: The crowd of old sailing ships marked a common sight in ports.

On reading this, I feel that it would be at such a moment, that Clifford recognises the  special place in his life and offers up a silent cheer on having sailed the high seas.

How well I comprehend his magic moment. Everytime, I go to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, East Africa, the same hotel suite is zealously reserved for me.  It boasts splendid bay views of East Africa’s ancient harbour port, still alive with colour and ships and still surreal with its old-fashioned charm and zeal. How often have I paused for long minutes at a time, stupefied, just staring at the magnificent view of the waterfront, that makes for the estuary of the Indian Ocean and the vast sea ahead.

The rest of the sketch is spent on Clifford waxing lyrical about the dark green jungles which he declares, “…the most wonderful things on earth.”  He spins a dreamy tale about the immense closeness of the trees, of how branches lash and bind together, of the tangled underwood, the green canopy, the brilliant butterflies,busy ants and gaudy parrots. He writes of the damp, moist soil and the decay of cool dead leaves under one’s foot. Here then is an explorer clearly seduced by the Tropics.

There were no roads than so Clifford explains about how it was possible to wander from district to district from just following a river’s course. If you followed a river upstream on foot while it lay deep in thick jungle terrain, then as a rule,  you would never get lost, for you would surely happen upon a village where you would be given food and rest.

Caption: The Lipis Jetty in Pahang which Sir Hugh Charles Clifford would have been familiar with.

It’s rarely possible now but what appeared suddenly thrilling, was the trumpeting of faraway elephants which was common to Clifford and other adventurers, as they lay down to sleep in the jungle. He could always tell when dawn was round the corner – not easy in a forest – as the monkeys would turn default alarm clocks, leaping noisily from branch to branch.

I have witnessed both the leaping monkeys above my tent and also heard the astonishing sound of elephants but only at a National Safari Park, somewhere close to Kenya.  Another memory I fished out from the mind’s attic, was the remembrance of a pheasant’s regality when it strode in its colourful coat though the trees, in Taman Negara, Pahang sometime in the Nineties.  I was so fortunate to see this. Just the lingering sight of a colourful glimpse but clear enough to catch an arrogant strut and then it was gone. I recalled this with a smile when I read what Clifford wrote…

“Then, as you lie listening through the long watches of the night, sounds are borne to you which tell that the jungle is afoot. The argus pheasants yell to one another…”  Without a doubt, how well I have tasted that magic. I was startled too, that the first sketch had closed off on a high note of romanticism after a series of rebukes at the start. – susan abraham

Further Reading:

*Victorian Era – Gender Theory attributed to the Victory Era and its desired notions of Masculinity, Femininity & Varied Sexual Identitites. (I have placed this link for the benefit of the reader so as to derive a sharper clarity on the lives of British Colonial Administrators, including that of Sir Hugh Charles Clifford while he wrote these sketches.)

Credits: i) Free Picture of Old Sailing Ships from, ii) Picture of the Lipis Jetty is from the CeritaDariLipisBlogspot, iii) Picture of Kampong during the Era of Hugh Charles Clifford is from DigitalLibrary.Upenn.Edu, iv) Both drawings of the Middle Ages in England from & v) Free clip art of Victorian lady in parasol, courtesy of GraphicsFairyBlogspot.
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