British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Gullick
Signed, Sealed and Delivered
Malay Seal Imprint
In the Sixteenth Century the Portuguese introduced the written treaty to the statecraft of South-east Asia. The local rulers took to it with enthusiasm, as they already exchanged elaborate and beautifully written formal letters, each bearing the impression of the state seal, which as a royal heirloom passed from each ruler to his successor.

Malay seals of the old type are superb artefacts and often, like the coins of Roman emperors, make political statements. The traditional seal is metal, sometimes silver, on which the ruler's titles are inscribed by cutting into the surface, so that the text is left white and the background is coloured, when the seal has been blacked in the flame of a lamp and applied to the paper. In modern times however some rulers adopted an embossed seal, with a hand press, to make an impression, or even a rubber stamp to be used with an ink pad. Until, in the 20th century, the rulers were able to sign their names, their 'mark' (a cross) was made on treaties with European powers.

Between 1946 and 1948 HMG retreated from an ill-conceived and highly unpopular Malayan Union constitution and agreed to replace it with a federation of the Malay states. Like all formal engagements with and by Malay rulers, the new regime was to be inaugurated by treaty, ie a treaty with the ruler of each state and a collective federal treaty with them all. As all parties had to be provided with an original of the treaties they had sealed - and there are nine Malay states - they were going to seal a lot of documents.

Signed, Sealed and Delivered
Royal Malay Seals
The ceremony was to take place in the dining room of King's House, Kuala Lumpur (Malay susceptibilities did not permit the governor's residence in a protected Malay state to be designated 'Government House'). I was at the time secretary to the Resident Commissioner of the state of Negri Sembilan, which is itself a federation, so that any treaty to which it is party has to be executed by its six rulers. The royal dynasty and its cadet branch provided two personages who considered themselves a cut above the nonroyal ruling chiefs (known as Undang) of four districts, but all six had to play their part.

On all previous occasions of making a treaty to which several Malay states were parties, the treaty had been taken round the royal capitals for each ruler to seal there. But in January 1948 it was decided that Mohamed would come to the mountain, and all the Malay rulers would assemble in Kuala Lumpur for a simultaneous accession to the new arrangement. My job was to get the four Undang 'to the church on time.' A formal letter of invitation to each of them had asked them to bring with them their seals. They all turned up punctually at the rendezvous and we went in to King's House in very good time. The dining room, with the long table, was a scene of chaos. The ceremony was to be filmed and the room was full of cameras and lights. Unless, like Agag in the book of Samuel, you 'came delicately', you would trip over the cables amid the curses of the technicians. However we got the Undang safely to their allotted places at the table. I then asked to see their seals. Three, who were younger men fairly new in office, produced rubber stamps, with ink pads, to replace older seals lost during the Japanese occupation. However the Undang of Johol was an elderly man, long in office in a district that was regarded as a stronghold of ancient custom. He was a real old fashioned type, courteous and most anxious to cooperate in this rather bewildering tamasha. He produced a bundle wrapped in a sheet of a Malay newspaper to reveal a metal, incised seal, and a lamp, filled with coconut oil, for blacking it.

Signed, Sealed and Delivered
Signing Federation Document
An expert on the TV Antiques Road Show might have been ecstatic but I was in some dismay, and took the old Undang back into the kitchen, where the cooks were preparing bakemeats for the bunfight to follow the ceremony, and we lit his lamp and did a dummy run.

It was awful. Getting the seal blacked, for each impression, was messy, took time and produced a very blurred outline. At the ceremony copies for sealing would be coming down the table at speed, like a game of 'pass the parcel'. In despair I borrowed an ink pad from one of the other Undang, and tried the Johol seal with that. The result was at least no more of a smudge than resulted from the use of lamp black, and it was much more expeditious.

So we went back to the dining room where royal rulers and their attendant dignitaries had now gathered, resplendent in Malay national dress of brightly coloured silk and satin. The sealing began and the Negri Sembilan team did its part without a hitch, or delay. No one commented on the imperfect Johol seal impression. I could not bear to think what the assembled Rulers' reaction would have been if we had set the Johol lamp alight on the table and blacked the seal with it. A plane was waiting to take back to London HMG's copies of the treaties - meeting that deadline was all that mattered. After it was over everyone had his nice cup of tea and a sugary cake, and went his way. So the new federation was born.

Somewhere the Foreign Office presumably keeps all the treaties to which Britain has been a party - in a warehouse in the back of beyond, I suppose. Fortunately no one has any reason to look at the smudge (and of course the signature) that records the accession of the ruling chief of Johol to the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

British Colony Map
Map of Colonial Malaya
Colony Profile
Malaya Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 94: April 2008


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