Captain Speedy

by Eric Lim

Early this month, after a round of golf, a friend invited us to his farm for lunch. In the midst of enjoying the food, another friend arrived bringing a bottle of whisky and immediately announced that it is a product of Malaysia!

Indeed the whisky is distilled, blended and bottled in our country. The only difference is the spelling of whisky, which in this case is spelt ‘whiskey’. It carries a name ‘Timah’, Malay for tin, and, on the bottle, there is a picture and a brief write up on Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy. In August this year, ‘Timah’ won a silver award at the San Francisco World Spirit Competition 2020. Intrigued, I decided to do a search on Captain Speedy, in short, and barely twenty-four hours later, there was a news article about a plea to restore a colonial structure in Taiping, and that structure was none other than the former residence of the man!

James Speedy was 17 when he joined the Bengal army in 1828 where he stayed until 1835. In October that year, James married Sarah Squire, daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel, in Agra and he re-joined his regiment, which had moved to Meerut near Delhi in 1836. It was here that Captain Speedy was born on 26 November 1836. 

1854 – 1871 (India, Abyssinia, Sudan, New Zealand)

Captain Speedy had his education in England and following his father’s footsteps, he joined the army at seventeen. He was sent to join the regiment in Meerut in 1854. He served in India until 1860, and during this time, he was awarded two medals for his regiment’s involvement in the Indian Mutiny in Punjab and Eusoffian Expedition. Here, he learned to speak Urdu.

He then left the army and moved to Africa where he was employed by King Theodore of Abyssinia (Ethiopia today) to train his army. He was given the Amharic name of ‘Basha Felika’ (meaning ‘speedy’). He worked here for eighteen months and he picked up Amharic. After a falling out with the King, he fled the country in autumn of 1861. He reappeared in 1863 in Kassala, a city in neighbouring Sudan, where he met Captain Cameron who was then the British Consul at Massawa, a port on the Red Sea coast (today Massawa is also known as Mitsiwa, and is in Eritrea). Captain Speedy was offered the post of Vice Consul and he worked until January 1864.

Next, he travelled to New Zealand where his parents had emigrated eight years ago and he was a member of the Waikato militia that fought in the New Zealand Wars. He was promoted to Captain and was awarded a medal for his service and land grant in the Waikato of confiscated lands. He later sold the land to Bill Cowan.

Speedy in New Zealand. Image Credit: Wikitree Free Family

Meantime, the relationship between Britain and Abyssinia had worsened. King Theodore had captured some Europeans and diplomacy had failed to release the prisoners. This led Britain to arrange a military mission to be headed by General Sir Robert Napier. Captain Speedy was found in Australia in 1867 and he was recruited into the mission in Abyssinia. Captain Speedy made a return to Africa in 1868 but this time as acivilian interpreter where his knowledge of the country and languages proved valuable. On 13 April 1868, British forces stormed through the stronghold of King Theodore at Magdala and discovered that the King had committed suicide. Empress Tiruwork Wube died a month later on the way to the coast, leaving behind an eight- year-old son, Dejatch Alamayou (Prince Alamayou) under the care of Napier. Having been friends with the late King during his service in 1860, Captain Speedy offered to look after Alamayou and Napier agreed. The Abyssinian War gained the fourth medal for Captain Speedy.

Upon his return to Britain, Captain Speedy was appointed as Guardian of the young Abyssinian prince by Queen Victoria. On 15 December 1868, Captain Speedy married Cornelia Mary, daughter of Benjamin Tennyson Cotton, a wealthy Isle of Wight landowner, at Freshwater and Alamayou was a groom. A few months later, in 1869, Captain Speedy returned to India with his wife and Alamayou. He was appointed the District Superintendent of the Oudh Police from 1869 to 1871. Captain Speedy had accompanied the Duke of Edinburgh who was the second son of Queen Victoria, on a shooting trip in Nepal. Captain Speedy had big game shooting experience in Sudan, when he fled from Abyssinia in 1861. He was given a kukri with an ivory handle by the Chief Minister of Nepal. Kukri is a type of machete with a distinct recurve in the blade and originates from the Indian subcontinent.

1871 – 1877 (British Malaya)

After his two years in India, it was time to move again. In 1871, Captain Speedy arrived at Penang to work as the Superintendent of Police. His first contribution to Penang was the planting of a baobab tree. This is regarded as the oldest non-indigenous tree planted in our country. When Frank Swettenham met them, he said ‘the boy (Alamayou) was in good hands, for Speedy and his wife were very fond of him’.

In December, Speedy escorted Alamayou to England where he was sent to Cheltenham College in the care of its headmaster, Dr. Jex Blake. Captain Speedy then returned to Penang while Alamayou continued his studies in England. In 1874, when Dr. Jex Blake moved to Rugby School, Alamayou followed him. Alamayou left in 1878 to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and after a year, he left to Leeds to study under Cyril Ransome, a master whom Alamayou had met at Rugby School. He then contracted pleurisy and died on 14 November of 1879. He was eighteen years of age. The funeral took place a week later at the St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and Captain Speedy were present at the funeral. By the order of Queen Victoria, a brass plaque to his memory was installed and it bears the words ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in’.

Prince Alamayou and Captain Speedy. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Long Jaafar was a tax collector in Larut. It was here that he accidentally discovered tin ore, first, while bathing in a stream and second, when he found his elephant! In 1848, Long Jaafar encouraged Chinese to mine in his land and, subsequently, Chinese capitalists from the Straits Settlements invested in these mines, bringing an influx of Chinese immigrants to Larut. Long Jaafar prospered and the Sultan made him the administrator of the district of Larut, Matang and Selama in 1850. He died in 1857 and he was succeeded by his son, Ngah Ibrahim, who was granted even more powers by the Sultan; he was installed as the Orang Kaya Mantri and given control over Larut.

At its peak before 1872, there were 40 000 Chinese working on the mines in Larut. The Chinese were divided into two rival clans – Hai San, comprising mostly Hakka and Hokkien, and Ghee Hin, predominantly Cantonese. They vied for control over the tin mines. The Malays were also fighting among themselves over collection of taxes and, like the Chinese, they were also divided into two groups, Ulu (up-river); and Hilir (down river). When Sultan Ali died in 1871, they also fought for the throne of Perak. The two Chinese groups allied with different Malay factions and the conflicts between the factions resulted in the Larut War.

With the situation getting out of control, Ngah Ibrahim went to Penang to offer an appointment to Captain Speedy to restore order in Larut. He was made an offer of a salary and one-third of the revenues of Larut. Captain Speedy immediately resigned from his police post and left for India on 27 July 1873 on a mission to recruit sepoys for his troop in Larut. He returned with a force of 110 sepoys in late September. The frequent clashes of the Chinese caused the disruption of the supply of tin and this led to the British intervention in January 1874. Organized by the then Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Andrew Clarke, the Pangkor Treaty was signed on board the HMS Pluto, near Pangkor Island. It managed to solve the Chinese tin mining conflict and the Perak succession dispute. The treaty also marked the start of the Resident programme in the Peninsular. 

Captain Speedy in Larut. Image Credit: Wikitree Free Family

James Wheeler Woodford Birch was appointed the Resident of Perak and Captain Speedy as the Assistant Resident at Larut. Speedy’s top priority was to restore mining production. Next, he divided Larut into two – North (Klian Bahru) was awarded to Ghee Hin and the town was known as ‘Kamunting’; while the more prosperous South (Klian Pauh) was given to Hai San and Captain Speedy named the town ‘Thai Peng’ (Chinese for Everlasting Peace, it is Taiping today). Next, Captain Speedy started construction of roads and erected Government buildings and quarters, which also included the new government headquarters-cum-residence completed in early 1875. Sir William Jervois who took over from Sir Andrew Clarke in 1875 commented that the residence was ‘a large and very comfortable house’ and Birch said it was ‘a very commodious residence’.

Cornelia arrived in the middle of 1874 to join her husband, as did Speedy’s younger brother James Havelock Speedy who spent about 18 months in Larut. At the end of May 1876, Captain Speedy took 6 months leave to return to England to settle the inheritance left behind by Cornelia’s father who had recently died. The Speedy’s were now ‘very comfortable off’. They returned to Larut in early December 1876 by which time, the post of Assistant Resident of Larut was held by W.E. Maxwell. Captain Speedy was then moved to Durian Sebatang in Lower Perak where he stayed until he resigned at the end of 1877. The Speedys left British Malaya for good in January 1878 – his superiors were happy to see him leave!

Captain Speedy’s residence, 9 October 2004. Image credit: www.penang-traveltips.com

1878 – 1910 (Sudan, Abyssinia)

They arrived in Sudan where they stayed until July 1878. It was during this trip that Cornelia wrote letters back home to her mother, and shared with family and friends, and was later published into a book titled My wanderings in the Soudan in 1884. They also met some Germans and within a week, Captain Speedy could speak with them fluently in German, showing he had the gift of languages. In December of 1883, he was again called upon to join a diplomatic mission to Abyssinia (for the third time) as an interpreter, which he was ‘most happy to offer my services’, this time under the command of Vice Admiral Hewett. He was paid until January 1885. In March 1897, Captain Speedy took his final mission to Abyssinia under Rennell Rodd. The mission was over by the end of May. Cornelia had bought a house in the picturesque village of Chatsworth in Shropshire where they stayed until Captain Speedy died in August 1910 at the age of 73. Cornelia died seven years later at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

References

John M. Gullick / Captain Speedy of Larut / Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society / Vol.26 No.3 (163) Captain Speedy of Larut (November 1953) / https://www.jstor.org/stable/41503024

Plea to restore colonial structure in Taiping by Ivan Loh / Page 4, Starmetro – The Star / 8 October 2020

Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy (1836 – 1910) / Wikitree Free Family /wikitree.com

Captain Speedy’s bungalow, Matang, Perak, Malaysia / www.penang-traveltips.com

Malaysian whisky ‘Timah’ wins medal at San Francisco World Spirits Competition / Entertainment and Lifestyle – The Sun Daily / 13 August 2020

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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