James W. W. Birch

James Wheeler Woodford Birch
1st British Resident of Perak
In office
4 November 1874  2 November 1875
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Frank A. Swettenham
Personal details
Born (1826-04-03)3 April 1826
Died 2 November 1875(1875-11-02) (aged 49)
Pasir Salak, British Malaya
Religion Christian

James Wheeler Woodford Birch, commonly known as J. W. W. Birch (3 April 1826 – 2 November 1875) was the first British Resident in Perak, Malaysia. He was appointed to the post on 4 November 1874 as the government custodian to the Sultan of Perak following the signing of the famous Pangkor Treaty on 20 January 1874, which established Perak as a British protectorate state. He was the Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements between 1870 and 1874.


Birch was killed on 2 November 1875 by followers of a local Malay chief, Dato Maharajalela including Seputum, who speared him to death while he was in the bath-house of his boat, SS Dragon, moored on the Perak river-bank below the Maharajela's house, in Pasir Salak, near today's Teluk Intan (Teluk Anson). Birch was assassinated because of the disrespect he showed to local customs and traditions, and conflict with local Malay chiefs. He was a 'bull in a china shop'. Birch was arrogant and disrespectful of local customs and even of the "pretender" Sultan Abdullah who soon tired of Birch and conspired with Sultan Ismail that Ismail should not surrender the royal regalia to him, Abdullah, or to the British, so that he could not be installed to the benefit of Birch and the British.

Richard O. Winstead in his "A History of Malaya" on page 226 published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, reprint 1986, wrote that a Malay deputation entreated with Governor-General Andrew Clarke in Singapore "to prevent the Resident from interfering with religion and custom, from acting without consulting Sultan and chiefs, and from depriving them of their property, namely fugitive slaves and feudal dues." Clarke had already observed on 25 March 1875 that, "I am very much annoyed with Birch and the heads-over-heels way in which he does things; he and I will come to sorrow yet, if he does not mind." On 21 July 1875 Abdullah the Pretender Sultan, in despair, called a meeting of chiefs where after a talk of poisoning Birch accepted the Maharajalela's offer to stab Birch to death.

To most Perak Malays, Dato' Maharajalela is generally celebrated as a folk hero, due to his substantial contribution and seen to be a symbol of the Malay resistance against attempted Colonialism.

In the aftermath of the event, the administration shifted to Taiping. Sultan Abdullah was deposed and sent to exile in Seychelles. His arch-rival Raja Yusuf was made Sultan. Dato Maharajalela and others involved in the incident were hanged. A new Resident, Sir Hugh Low, not Sir Frank Swettenham, was appointed and went about his administration of Perak in a more diplomatic way. Whilst still banning outright slavery, he gradually phased out debt-slavery and assuaged the feelings of the Ruler and chieftains by voting adequate monthly compensations for them.


Birch's grave is located near the site of British fort at Kampung Pasir Pulai, about 24 km from Pasir Salak. The Birch Memorial Clock Tower was built in 1909 and still stands in front of the Ipoh State Mosque. One of the 44 figures on the clock, an image of the Prophet Muhammad, was painted over in the 1990s due to religious sensitivities.[1] Roads in Kuala Lumpur and Taiping were thought to have been named after him (Birch Road), but this was for a different Birch (namely, his eldest son Ernest Woodford Birch, also a Resident of Perak). The same road was renamed Dato Maharajalela (Maharajalela Road; Malay: Jalan Maharajalela) after Malaysia's independence in 1957. Similarly Birch Road also appeared in several towns in Malaysia, they were Seremban, Penang and Ipoh, also found in Singapore.

See also


Political offices
Preceded by
Position created
British Resident of Perak
1874 1875
Succeeded by
Frank A. Swettenham
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