British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

Berkeley of Upper Perak
Hubert Berkeley
I was reminded of someone I came to know about when posted in 1948 as A.D.O. at Kroh in the Upper Perak district of Malaysia near its border with Thailand (formerly Siam), the headquarters of which was at a place called Orik.

Upper Perak will always be associated with one of the most extraordinary Englishmen who ever served the Empire. Hubert Berkeley was appointed its district officer in 1891 and remained there until his retirement to England in 1925, a record thirty-four years. Berkeley believed passionately in rural as opposed to technological economic progress and conceived himself as having a mission in helping Malays to become better bumiputra (sons of the soil). One of his achievements was to establish new settlements for Malays in the vicinity of Kroh following its annexation under the treaty of 1909 with Siam; and here he introduced irrigation projects on a large scale, being much interested in the cultivation of wet padi (rice) and convinced that good agriculture was the only vocation fit for a Malay. In order to achieve his ideals he refused all offers of promotion out of his beloved district, his post being periodically up-graded to reflect his growing seniority. He knew his people intimately, some of them for three generations, and ruled them as a benevolent autocrat, a role which in my time it would have been impossible to sustain. But in days when the Hulu (hinterland) had barely been touched by western ideas - and he had no intention that it should be - it was possible in a remote district to become lost to the outside world for years on end and consequently to do what one liked. More than this, Berkeley spurned interference from the British Resident or from any other quarter, and got away with it.

Berkeley of Upper Perak
Official Duties
Once, when the Resident got about half way to Grik, his car was stopped by a tree deliberately felled across the road on Berkeley's orders. Naturally no-one could be found or persuaded to move it, and the Resident gave up the struggle and returned to Ipoh. A successor, a man named Hume managed to penetrate as far as Grik and noticed that many thoroughfares had names, Whitehall where the district office was situated. Downing Street where Berkeley lived at No. 10, Piccadilly, Rotton Row and of course Berkeley Square, where several roads met at the padang (open space). Hume enquired why no road was named after himself and Berkeley promised to put the matter right. Thereafter an observant visitor might have spotted a narrow alley-way running for a few yards between two shops and then soon ending in thick undergrowth, where a rough, wooden sign announced it as Hume's Mews. As one of several reminders of Berkeley's reign, the street signs were still there when I first visited Grik in 1948. As for the High Commissioner, the only time when this potentate plucked up courage to attempt a visit, he received a telegram shortly before leaving Singapore purporting to warn him against floods and containing the cryptic message "no bridge at the forty-second mile - Berkeley". There never was a bridge and His Excellency never came.

Berkeley never married officially nor became a Muslim, but he lived, dressed and ate as a Malay. When acting as D.O. for a few weeks in 1949, I saw at Grik some fair-skinned young Malays who, I was told, were descended from his progeny. His spirit still permeated the district at all levels with elderly Malays recalling wistfully the great days of old as if they had lived in some kind of Arcadia.
Berkeley of Upper Perak
Travelling by Elephant
For the transportation round the district of himself and others Berkeley kept a herd of tame elephants, of which I found two survivors, and noticed that Rotton Row was the path between their grazing ground and the district office. He introduced an Upper Perak coat-of-arms consisting of an elephant rampant superimposed by a motto in Malay which he compiled - Koh dahulu (look before you leap). He had the arms embossed on plates and other things some of which I found still in use. He caused to be worn by all penghulus (village headmen) and other officials a district badge, incorporating the same design, one of which together with a plate remains in my, I suppose, illegal possession.

It was a privilege and quite an experience to be invited to stay at his unusual "menage", where European guests had to be prepared for some surprises; for it was full of Malays of both sexes whose life-style Berkeley adopted together with some modifications of his own. There were two thunder-boxes (commodes) set together in his bathroom opposite the Shanghai jar (for bathing) - all retained for old-times sake certainly up to 1949, one for himself, the other for his guest, where each morning arrangements for the coming day were discussed as nature took its course.

In addition to roads, machines, motor-cars, newspapers and money-lenders, he especially detested lawyers. There was a rare occasion when a lawyer had the audacity to come to Grik to defend a man charged with theft. Sitting as magistrate, Berkeley listened for a minute or two as evidence was produced, then stopped the proceedings by saying: "I do not want to hear anymore. He's guilty". To the lawyer's protest that the defence had not been called, he replied: "Of course he's guilty. He always was a cattle thief, as were his father and grandfather before him". Berkeley's ideas of legal procedure were also idiosyncratic. One day when about to leave on an elephant ride, the Court Clerk came up to him to say that there were some cases for hearing. On Berkeley enquiring how many, the clerk replied that there were twenty-five all pleading guilty to the same offence. "All right," said Berkeley, "odd numbers discharged, even numbers fined five dollars". Then he rode off. He greatly preferred his own summary justice to that of the Indian Code. When a boundary dispute arose, he adjourned the court and summoned the litigants to accompany him to the site. Here he formed them into two teams and held a tug-of-war contest using rotan creepers from the jungle, awarding the disputed land to the winning team. To an enquiry about the use to which a particular building was put, he replied: "This is the court-house. Here we dispense justice but not law".

He affected almost royal airs. Coming as he did from an aristocrat background, he regarded himself as a combination of a Malay chief and an English squire. He sometimes went all the way to Kroh to bathe at a spot called Ayer Panas (hot springs), not on an elephant which would have been too slow, but in an English landau and pair with a Malay postilion dressed in a garment coloured to correspond with the Berkeley family livery. Even when outside the district he travelled with liveried guards and a large private tent. Eccentric he undoubtedly was, but as was later testified by one of his Malay subordinates, "he was a real gentleman who always supported those in need usually from his own pocket," and who was kind and benevolent in his autocratic way. Within the district he was respected and obeyed without question. Outside he evidently had his enemies. Years later I learnt from someone whose father had known Berkeley that there were many who considered his eccentricities to go well beyond the bounds of propriety.

British Colony Map
1962 Map of Northern Malaya
Colony Profile
Malaya Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 57: April 1989


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by Stephen Luscombe