What lured Malays to Sri Lanka?

By B. A. Hussainmiya

       Malays in Sri Lanka Series Part 3
Mastan, a Malay trader.
Robert Brownrigg, Governor of Ceylon 1812-1818.
Areas of origins of Sri Lankan Malays.
There were some good reasons for the Malay migration to Sri Lanka until the early half of the nineteenth century. They moved not just as individuals, but brought along their families and children by uprooting themselves from their indigenous environment.
No other Eastern community did so in such numbers. For instance, when the British administrators enticed the Chinese into Sri Lanka to take advantage of their industriousness, only very few of them could be attracted, and those who did were confined to dentistry.
The Chinese sought good fortunes in Singapore, Malaya and even Brunei.
Malays, on the other hand, found affinity with Sri Lanka owing to climate, promise of good living and guarantees to practise Islam and their traditional ways of life.
During Dutch times (1656-1796), they came as sailors, storekeepers and in other minor occupations. However, many had been conscripted to fight the Dutch wars in the colonies when the entire 'Malay/Javanese' villages surrounding the Dutch Fort of Batavia became depopulated to fill the army.

Malays who came to Sri Lanka under the British patronage did so voluntarily, except in rare cases of being 'Shanghaied'.
The roaming Malay families of the Archipelago searching for better livelihood in the Straits Settlements were easily netted in to work in Sri Lanka.
Unsettled conditions in the early 19th century Nusantara region made life for the ordinary Malays miserable compounded by internecine wars, colonial inroads and rapacious chieftains who squeezed everything out of their subjects. Those who dared sought solace elsewhere.
The Malay settlers expected to find peace and wealth, albeit by joining the military in Sri Lanka, considered the new El Dorado. As a local Malay folk song indicated "the Malays came to Sri Lanka in order to purchase two elephants for a price of one cent"! But soon they discovered the deception while in the island when they were offered the British one-cent coins that carried the imprint of elephants on both sides!

At any rate, the Malay recruits to the army received generous terms of enlistment in the beginning. For example, when first joining the men received bounty money, a sum of (Spanish) Rix dollars 21 and Pice 34 besides the monthly pay of 3 Rix dollars and 74 Pice. Their wives and children also received additional bounty monies.
When the men become unfit for service because of injury or old age they were placed in an invalid establishment and thus assured a comfortable maintenance during the remainder of their life. Those who fell in battle had their families placed under protection of the Government. Their children could take their fathers' places and good education awaited them in the regimental schools.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the hapless Malays who led miserable lives under some of the rapacious Malay Rajas must have found these terms very attractive, especially the prospects of earning cash remunerations and a degree of social security.
They were recruited in special depots set up in Penang and Singapore. Additionally, the British Governors sent special naval missions to comb the East for suitable Malays. In 1803 Lieutenant Rofsi's mission to Prince of Wales Island received the blessings of the Sultan of Kedah who sent nearly 300 of his subjects to Sri Lanka.
The second governor, Thomas Maitland (1805-1811) became prejudiced against the Malays treating them as scapegoats for the defeat of the British in the 1st British- Kandyan War of 1803. His attempts to abolish the Malay Regiment failed due to resistance from the community and the military officials.
Nonetheless, in 1808 he forcibly repatriated more than 300 Malay royal exiles and their families to their original homes, as they were a pecuniary burden on the government. Thus the community lost its cream.
Some relatives and the descendants of royals who married other local Muslim-Moors did stay behind. And that reinforces the claims of some present-day Malay families to royal lineages.
The next governor Robert Brownrigg (1812-1818), having an eye on annexing the last Sinhalese Kingdom of Kandy, boosted the numbers of the Malay settlers. In 1813, his agent Captain de Bussche visited Lieutenant Governor Stamford Raffles in Java requesting help to enlist Javanese soldiers.
A reluctant Raffles argued that "the Javanese were needed more for agricultural pursuits than for becoming soldiers." Yet, he contacted his friend the Raja of Madura. As a result, 412 fine soldiers (accompanied by 214 women and 208 children), mostly Sumanapers from the island of Madura left to Sri Lanka from the Javanese port of Surabaya. They remained by far the best quality recruits in the Ceylon Malay Regiment, followed in 1816 by a further batch of 228 Javanese from Semarang and Gresik off the northern coast of Java. This was the largest groups to arrive and integrate well into the existing Malay community. Thereafter until about 1850 there were irregular arrivals annually an averaging of about 30 or so Malays from the Straits Settlements.

A soldier earned 8 pence a day in 1815, which increased only by a penny in 50 years. Rising prices of commodities shrink the soldier's income, making the profession less attractive. Hence few Malays volunteered to go to Sri Lanka after 1840s.
During the hard times when the Regiment faced closure owing to a dwindling number of recruits, Captain Tranchell of Ceylon Rifle Regiment came all the way to Brunei in 1856-57 in the hope of recruiting Malays from Kampong Ayer, who were the last to leave their homes for greener pastures.

The obliging Brunei Sultan Abdul Mumin ordered his harbour master Pengiran Shahbandar to assist the English Captain who succeeded in collecting only seven Malays from his entire tour of East including Labuan, Pahang, Trengganu and Kelantan.
As a pungent British officer put it: "This expedition and the expenditure compared with the net proceeds of it must show these four or five Malay recruits to be about the most expensive in the British army."

Another writer commented that "the old Malay birds.picking up corn worth a dollar or so on their own feeding grounds were not to be caught with the chaff of nine pence per diem from the soil of Ceylon." And that was the beginning of the end to Malay migration to Sri Lanka.
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