Can empires of 'race' succeed in containing 'Islam'? Britain, the Pahang War, & the 1902 Siam-Malaya boundary

Event details

PSC Seminar Series

Date & time

Thursday 19 August 2021


ANU Canberra


Amrita Malhi


Maxine McArthur

In 1874, Britain installed a Resident in Perak, its first colony on the Malay Peninsula. It then quickly added more territory to the south; and yet to the north, for two more decades, it maintained an open frontier with Siam, which claimed several Malay polities as tributaries of its own.

This balance became untenable from 1890, however, when a serious uprising – the Pahang War – began in Britain’s new colony of Pahang, in whose hinterland its officials had begun restructuring relationships between people, land, and forest.

By 1894, the war had cost Britain a fortune, and yet bands of rebels remained at large in Terengganu, a frontier polity between Pahang and Siamese Patani, where they found shelter with the Sultan’s Shaykh al-Islam, his chief religious official. Pursuing the rebels took British officials into their first close encounter with Terengganu, a refuge for rebels and refugees and a centre for holy war (perang sabil).

Terengganu had to be pacified, and by 1902, Britain and Siam had hastily created a boundary between the territories each side claimed. Some British officials proposed a racial boundary to contain the Peninsula’s Muslims on the British side, but the results were ambiguous, and partly thwarted by geopolitics.

Dr Amrita Malhi is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change. She works on Muslim movements and Malay politics, and how Islam and race compete and intersect in colonial Malaya and contemporary Malaysia. She is also a senior policy adviser in the International Development sector.

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