The beautiful Seychelles islands once hosted several exiles, including criminals who attempted to assassinate Napoleon and Sultan Abdullah of Perak, Malaysia. Sultan Abdullah, one of the most renowned of Seychelles’s exiles, spent many years on the islands and enjoyed his time there. Sultan Abdullah was allegedly partly responsible for the murder of James Birch, the British Resident of Perak, so he was sent to the Seychelles as a punishment.
The sultan’s troubles began when conflicts arose between the local chiefs and the Chinese migrants over the lucrative tin trade, and it became difficult to restore law and order. Concerned about these problems, the young royal signed a letter to the British governor of the Straits Settlements (now Singapore) asking for Perak to be placed under British settlement. He also requested “a man of sufficient abilities to show (him) a good system of government”. In 1874, the British then installed Sultan Abdullah on the throne instead of his rival, Sultan Ismail, and the sultan agreed to the Pangkor Treaty which gave the British extensive powers in Perak. James Birch became the British Resident.
One of the chiefs stabbed Birch to death with a spear. Several historians argue that this was because Birch annoyed the local chiefs by refusing to accept local customs and traditions. For example, he refused to remove his shoes when he entered the palace. Three of the chiefs who planned his murder were sentenced to death, while others allegedly complicit in the assassination were sent with the sultan into exile.
In 1877, Sultan Abdullah arrived in the Seychelles to begin his long years of exile. An entourage of 37 accompanied him, together with their wives, families and servants. The sultan remained in exile for seventeen years.
During Sultan Abdullah’s time in the Seychelles, he played cricket, collected fine walking sticks and introduced some Malaysian fruits to the islands. His ability to speak English impressed the British, and he mixed with the elite. He joined the Victoria Cricket Club, and he played cricket with British military officers. He also enjoyed playing football and entering kite-flying competitions.
The enterprising sultan grew many native Malaysian fruits. The Seychelles islanders are especially grateful for his introduction of the plant, banane mille. This Malaysian banana plant sometimes produces 1,000 bananas in a bunch. And as a disease-resistant fruit, it helped to feed the population during the world wars.
Sultan Abdullah endured some sadness during his time in the islands when his beloved wife died. The sultan wrote to John Henniker Heaton, Conservative MP for Canterbury, describing how he resigned himself to “the will of the Almighty”, and he bore “in mind the Latin maxim “Per ardua libertas” (freedom through difficulties)”. His seven children – four sons and three daughters – comforted him.
The National Anthem of Malaysia
According to legend, the national anthem of Perak originated from Sultan Abdullah’s time in the Seychelles. Several versions of the anthem’s origins exist.
One version is that Sultan Abdullah’s daughters heard the popular tune, La Rosalie in Mahé. They played it for their brother, Raja Chulan, who often visited, and he learned to play it on the violin. He introduced it to his brother, Raja Ngah Mansur. A British official required the national anthem of Perak for the ceremonies when Mansur visited England for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1888. Mansur told the official that he hadn’t brought the sheet music of the song. He whistled the tune, and a musician transcribed the notes.
Some historians suggest that the anthem’s origins date from Sultan Idris Murshidul’adzam Shah’s visit to England for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1901. Sultan Idris represented the Malay Rulers of the Federated Malay States. A protocol officer asked him what his state anthem was. The sultan knew that his state didn’t have an anthem, so he quickly decided to hum La Rosalie. The popular tune then became the anthem.
According to another tale, the song Terang Bulan was composed by the sultan himself. He based it on the popular French tune, La Rosalie by Pierre Jean de Beranger, and he suggested that it should become the national anthem of Perak. This song was chosen as the national anthem of Malaysia by a committee in 1957 because of the “traditional flavour” of its melody. It’s now called Negaraku which means My Country.
Return to Perak
The Sultan always proclaimed his innocence during his exile in the Seychelles. Many of the local people agreed with him, so they signed petitions for his release. Even the Mauritians signed a petition asking for the sultan’s release. Sir Peter Benson Maxwell, the former Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements (now Singapore), also lobbied the British government for his release. Henniker Heaton also believed in the innocence of the sultan and fought for his release.
Sultan Abdullah was finally released and given permission to return home in 1894. He died in 1922.