A Trengganu Man in Kelantan
In 1838, a meddlesome man known to us only by his title of the Panglima Besar, approached Abdullah Munshi and asked him quietly if he could tell him how to make gunpowder.
The meeting took place in the throes of the Kelantan civil war. The man is also now known to us by his other title of ‘Haji’, that is, someone who had made the journey to Makkah. I have called him meddlesome because he was actually a Trengganu man who had no business to stick his neck into the domestic affairs of a feuding neighbouring state.
An account of this meeting between Abdullah and the Haji is found in the Pelayaran, of Abdullah, a sea journey that also took him to Trengganu. He was on his way to Kelantan, on an errand for the Governor of Singapore on whose behalf he was carrying a letter, addressed to the feuding parties in Kelantan for the release of goods belonging to Singapore merchants. The man Haji who visited Abdullah on his boat was also on an errand for a disputant in the Kelantan war, the Raja Bendahara. The latter seemed to be having the upper hand at the time of Abdullah’s visit; he had had his enemies beseiged in their stockade and that was as far as things went for the time being.
By saying that Abdullah found the state in the ‘throes’ of war I may be guilty of an exaggeration. Things were actually at a standstill. For the Raja Bendahara in fact, and for his opponent in the stockade, the idea of war was quite a leisurely one. ‘This isn’t war,’ Abdullah declared in typically magisterial fashion, ‘it’s playing at war.’ He wrote:
”They fire four or five shots, and then both sides stop to eat and drink; and then they fire again. By their methods no decision can be reached — no not in ten years; each side sits in its stockade, and even if there were ten koyans of gunpowder it would not be finished.”What fascinates me about the meeting of those two men is the different kind of worlds that they seemed to inhabit. Abdullah was a ‘cultural’ Malay with one foot on the subcontinent and another in the tumult of the Malay world, and a keen and fascinated observer of the European mind. The Panglima Besar and Raja Bendahara were from a quieter rural tradition, men who were in no hurry for things to conclude for commerce to flow and the world made safe for wealth accumulation. Life for them was set in a pattern, and they themselves were parts of the pattern, not painters of the design.
“This business would be finished in a day if it were a European war,” Abdullah mused. “Men who go to war should not be afraid of death and dig holes in the ground to live in.”
The Panglima Besar did admit to having experimented with concoctions that, said Abdullah, ‘didn’t turn out too well.’ He probably did find some saltpetre and a bit of belerang (sulphur) but it probably did not produce a loud enough bang. Or he probably got his fingers burnt. But even if he were successful would he have used the stuff on his opponents?
Abdullah wasn’t much help with the gunpowder ingredients, saying that he had it all in a book (which also contained secrets of metal-plating, the eye-lotion, and loaf-sugar making) but which, alas, he had left in Melaka. But for the Panglima he devised a simple plan of burrowing a tunnel in the ground till they reached the area beneath the opponent Raja’s house. There Abdullah advised him to place ‘four or five barrels of gunpowder’ , run a long fuse, and then run as fast as they could to their own stockade to wait. And here Abdullah’s plan took a sinister turn:
”Then when they are all gathered together for food or whatnot, light the fuse. In an instant they will all fly skywards.”To his credit, the Raja Bendahara found the idea interesting but not attractive. When the Haji came back he told Abdullah that the Raja was delighted by the idea but “averred that he did not like to carry it out, as it would cause the deaths of so many of his own people; if only the other Raja were killed, it wouldn’t matter.”
As the Haji had earlier told Abdullah, past invitations made by one side to hand-to-hand fighting was simply ignored by the other, and then ignored in turn by the issuing side when — presumably after a decent interval — it was hurled back at them by the former recipient. But like my fellow Trengganu man that was sent as emissary to Abdullah, I am rather fond of the Raja Bendahara for his lack of thirst for blood, and for his relaxed approach to warfare.
The Raja Bendahara’s reaction to Abdullah’s gunpowder plan seemed to be totally in character. He himself had made challenges to the other for open combat that were happily ignored, and when he himself received the same, he too was reluctant. As he explained to the Haji (and reported by Abdullah):
”[T]he Raja Bendahara said that he did not wish to harm his subjects, and that kind of warfare would harm many of them, and so he preferred to besiege the enemy and prevent food from reaching them; in the long run they were bound to give up and come out.”
All quotations from “The Voyage of Abdullah”, English translation by A.E.Coope.