Bencoolen’s British Relics & Other Attractions


“This is without exception the most wretched place I ever beheld. I cannot convey to you an adequate idea of the state of ruin and dilapidation which surrounds me.”

So said Stamford Raffles when he arrived in Bencoolen to take up the post of Governor General in October 1817.

A bit harsh? Probably not at the time. Even today, after 200 years of progress, an air of torpor hangs over the old part of Bencoolen, the part that Raffles would recognise, though to be fair the town (now called Bengkulu) has grown enormously and the newer districts are more vibrant.

By the time Raffles arrived, Bencoolen had already been a British possession in Sumatra for 132 years, having been established as an East India Company (EIC) trading post in 1685, reporting to the Bengal Presidency.

A combination of rampant malaria, depressingly damp climate, lazy and corrupt officials, economic mismanagement, earthquakes and a local population unwilling to toil unnecessarily for foreign masters meant that Bencoolen was one of Britain’s least successful colonies.

Raffles had just arrived from a successful stint in Java and despite his negative first impression of Bencoolen he set about making a go of it with his customary talent and energy. He abolished slavery and gambling, he planted nutmeg and coffee, freed up the pepper trade and repaired strained relations with local chiefs.

Eventually however even Raffles was worn down by Bencoolen. The nutmeg and coffee crops were losing money and four of his children died here from fever, presumably malaria, which almost took his life too. Gradually his attention shifted towards a new settlement that he had established on a small island called Singapore which he saw as having greater potential.

Bencoolen was soon afterwards handed over to the Netherlands as part of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 in exchange for giving up any Dutch claim to Malacca and Singapore. The Dutch East India Company may have been master traders but they were less canny when it came to swapping territories. Not only did they swap Bencoolen for Singapore, the Dutch wanted the tiny nutmeg growing island of Run so badly that they exchanged it for New York! Of course I am over-simplifying.

On my recent trip to Bengkulu I looked for the remnants of British Bencoolen together with any other tourist sights. Here is what I found.

Fort Marlborough

Fort Marlborough Bengkulu in 2016

Bencoolen’s top British relic is undoubtedly Fort Marlborough which was built by the East India Company between 1714 and 1720. It replaced an earlier fort called Fort York which had been built in the wrong place and was later abandoned. Despite its age and its location in an earthquake prone area Fort Marlborough remains in remarkably good condition with thick, robust walls arranged in a star shape and surrounded by dry moats.

Tombstone of George Shaw at Bencoolen

Three large tombstones are propped up against a wall just inside the entrance. This one remembers George Shaw who served as a factor in Bencoolen from 1699 until he was ‘removed by death’ in 1704.  The other headstones are of Richard Watts and Henry Stirling.

ancient graffiti at Bencoolen

A piece of ancient graffiti has been carved into the wall of one of the former cells or barracks. Written in Dutch, presumably by a soldier or prisoner, it has been translated as “Whoever observes this compass, don’t get angry to the one who makes this scratching. Remember that the misery and time make me scratch here, and when I write this.”

View from Fort Marlborough

Nice views from the walls of the fort.

Parr Memorial

Parr Memorial, Bencoolen

A short distance from the fort is the Thomas Parr Memorial. Parr was the British Resident of Bencoolen, one of Raffles’ predecessors. He arrived in town in 1801 with instructions to cut costs, thereby alienating a lot of the locals who depended on EIC handouts, including his Bugis bodyguards. He was murdered and beheaded. The memorial looks rather shabby and serves as a skateboard park for the town’s youths but I suppose he is lucky to be remembered at all after all these years.

Hamilton Memorial

Hamilton Memorial

Another Brit has his own memorial, usefully serving as a traffic roundabout. The plaque on the memorial reads “Underneath this obelisk are interred the remains of Captain Robert Hamilton who died on the 15th December 1793 at the age of 38 years in Command of the Troops and Second Member of the Government.” Promotion in the EIC would have come fast In Bencoolen where disease was rife and long term survival prospects for the British inhabitants were bleak.

British Cemetery

British Cemetery, Bengkulu

Those Brits who succumbed to malaria, cholera, dysentery, small pox and the rest ended up here, the Makam Inggris tucked away in the back lanes next to a church. Hundreds would have been buried here over the centuries including Raffles’ four children but probably less than 50 graves are still visible. and many of these no longer have any inscription. After Bencoolen was handed over to the Dutch this became their cemetery in the same way as the Dutch Cemetery in Malacca became used by the British after the Dutch left.

Raffles’ Residence

Raffles’ Residence in Bengkulu?

This grand house in the heart of town is the Bengkulu Provincial Governor’s Residence.  Some say that this was Raffles’ Residence which I suppose is a possibility allowing for a few renovations over the years. It is certainly the sort of location he would have chosen – very close to the fort and facing a padang, now used partly as a deer park and partly as a public space with a rather stunted and tatty modern observation tower in the middle.


Raffles built himself an idyllic country house called Permatang Balan at a place called Bukit Kabat (Hill of Mists) some 12 miles out of town. He retreated here with his wife and children and spent some of the happiest times of his whole life. Unfortunately I was unable to find out exactly where this house was and whether any traces still remain.

Bengulu mountain

There is a spectacularly shaped hill close to Bengkulu, like Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain, as shown in this photo taken from the Fort. Perhaps Raffles’ country house was in that direction.

Rafflesia Arnoldii


While Raffles was stationed in Bengkulu the giant, stinky parasitic flower now known as Rafflesia arnoldii was discovered in tropical forests near Lubuk Tapi. An excursion to visit the flower is one of the top things to do in Bengkulu but they only bloom in November/December so my timing was wrong.

Kampoeng China


In the shadow of the Fort is this gateway decorated with dragons marking the entrance to Kampoeng China.

Kampoeng China, Bengkulu

China Towns are often the most lively and bustling parts of any city in South East Asia but that does not appear to be the case here. Admittedly it was a hot Sunday afternoon but it seems in Bengkulu the centre of gravity has moved away from Kampoeng China to newer districts.

Bung Karno’s Residence

Bung Karno’s Residence, Bengkulu

Soekarno (Sukarno), affectionately known as Bung Karno, was Indonesia’s first President and he led the country’s struggle for independence from the Dutch from the 1930s onwards. He was a thorn in the side of the Dutch and they exiled him, first to Flores and then to Bengkulu where he stayed in this house from 1938-1942. It is now a small museum and contains his well-thumbed book collection, his bicycle, his furniture and various photos and portraits

Ibu Fatmawati Soekarno House

Ibu Fatmawati Soekarno House

In a nearby street is the house of Fatmawati who Sukarno met during his exile and later married.

Fatmawati Soekarno

It is said that he was unable to attend his wedding ceremony so he sent along his dagger to represent him and she married that. Perhaps that explains her somewhat sad look in this picture. She is accredited with sewing the first Indonesian flag from two strips of red and white cloth and her sewing machine is one of the exhibits in the house.

Bung Karno Mosque

Bung Karno Mosque, Bengkulu

This mosque, also called Masjid Jamik, was remodelled under the guidance of Sukarno who was an architect among his many talents.

The Beach

The Beach at Bengkulu

Bengkulu has a very pleasant beach called Pantai Panjang (Long Beach) stretching about 7km with a brick and concrete footpath running its entire length. Needless to say I walked from end to the other. I didn’t see anybody swimming. Dangerous currents perhaps?

On the horizon is Rat Island. It is the best place for snorkelling in this area.

Turtle on the beach at Bengkulu

I was excited to see a turtle on the beach but sadly, on closer inspection, it was dead.

Dead turtle in Bengkulu

Pantai Panjang beach at Bengkulu

The beach is pretty empty in the heat of the day but gets busy with the locals in the early evenings who come to sip a coconut, have a meal or just enjoy the sunset and cooling breezes.

Bengkulu's malaria problem

I hope I have not painted too negative a picture of Bengkulu. It has improved a lot since Raffles’ day. It is a nice place to visit and the people are super friendly. They need to do something about the malaria though. This newspaper headline while I was there says that Bengkulu tops the league table for malaria cases in Indonesia. Plenty of insect repellent required.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 4: Palembang, Sumatra


Alfred Russel Wallace visited Sumatra only once and stayed a relatively short time, from November 1861 to January 1862, which is perhaps surprising given that the island is massive (more than double the area of Great Britain) with, at that time, vast swathes of barely explored rain forest.

Wallace's Route from Batavia to Palembang

This is how he described his journey to Palembang:

“The mail steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or as on English maps, “Minto”), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I stayed a day or two, until I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits, and all the river to Palembang.”

The tin mining island of Bangka was for a time annexed by the British and it was Stamford Raffles, in a blatant act of sycophancy, who renamed Muntok after his East India Company boss Lord Minto, Governor General of India. When the Dutch resumed control of Bangka the name Minto was quietly dropped.

On his voyage, Wallace would have passed by the island of Billiton (now Belitung), another former tin mining centre whose name lives on in the giant mining company BHP Billiton.

The Musi River at Palembang.

“A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang river where, at a fishing village, a rowing-boat was hired to take me up to Palembang–a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water.”

That’s a long way in a rowing boat!

Map of Palembang in 1885.

“The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles.”

Palembang is a much bigger city now with an area of 142 square miles and a population of over 1.7 million. The Musi River is still the life blood of the city and its banks are lined with houses, mosques and shops on stilts.

“Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this turns into a little hill, the top of which is held sacred by the natives, shaded by some fine trees,and inhabited by a colony of squirrels which have become half-tame.”

Wallace may have been referring to Bukit Siguntang, an archaeological site and the highest point in the city (just 37 metres above sea level). Didn’t see any squirrels though.

Wallace found little to collect in the vicinity of Palembang and went further inland for 50 miles or more to the south west on the road towards Bencoolen. He spent time near the villages of Lorok, Moera-dua (Muara Dua), Lobo Raman (Lubuk Raman) in search of specimens.

I decided not to try to replicate Wallace’s journey to these villages since I thought it would be irksome for little reward. Instead I flew on to Bencoolen (Bengkulu) which I’ll write about in a later blog.  However you can read the account of someone who did make the journey to Lobo Raman in 2012 here:

While staying in the interior Wallace found time to write a letter to Charles Darwin expressing his frustration with the poor collecting conditions:

Sumatra, 100 miles E. of Bencoolen

Here I have had to come 100 miles inland (by Palembang) and even here in the very centre of E. Sumatra the forest is only in patches and it is the height of the rains so I get nothing – a longicorn is a rarity and I suppose I shall not get as many species in 2 months as I have in 4 days in a good place. I am however getting some sweet little Lycaenidae (gossamer winged butterflies) which is the only thing that keeps my spirits up.

long- tailed parroquet
Long Tailed Parroquet. Source: Gould, John, 1804-1881

While in Lorok he obtained a parroquet:

“The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long- tailed parroquet (Palaeornis longicauda)”

These dried mounted Papilio Memnon butterflies at Putrajaya Natural History Museum appear to have lost their ashy blue markings.

“During a month’s collecting, I added only three or four new species to my list of birds.In butterflies I was rather more successful, obtaining several fine species quite new to me, and a considerable number of very rare and beautiful insects. The first is the handsome Papilio memnon, a splendid butterfly of a deep black colour, dotted over with lines and groups of scales of a clear ashy blue.”

Leaf Butterfly
Leaf Butterfly Kallima Paralekta. Photo: D. Gordon E Robertson

He was amazed by the leaf butterfly:

“In its position of repose it so closely resembled a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it. I captured several specimens on the wing, and was able fully to understand the way in which this wonderful resemblance is produced.”

CHIEF’S HOUSE AND RICE SHED IN A SUMATRAN VILLAGE. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago

Wallace described the decorative Sumatran village houses.

“The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west.”

Minangkabau Style architecture at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra

I didn’t see any of this type of building in Palembang but here is one I photographed in Bukit Tinggi near Padang in 2013.

“In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting anything to eat…. fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year.”

Happily things have improved and there is a wide variety of fruits on sale nowadays, at least in Palembang. And there’s always Pizza Hut.
The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood's Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).
The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood’s Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).

“A very curious ape, the Siamang, was also rather abundant. I purchased a small one, which had been caught by the natives and tied up so tightly as to hurt it. It was rather savage at first, and tried to bite; but when we had released it and given it two poles under the verandah to hang upon, securing it by a short cord, running along the pole with a ring so that it could move easily, it became more contented, and would swing itself about with great rapidity. It ate almost any kind of fruit and rice, and I was in hopes to have brought it to England, but it died just before I started. It took a dislike to me at first, which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever.”

In recent years here have been sightings of Siamangs on sale at Palembang’s main market Pasar 16 (sold illegally for meat/brains) but thankfully I did not see any.

“Another curious animal, which I had met with in Singapore and in Borneo, but which was more abundant here, is the Galeopithecus, or flying lemur. This creature has a broad membrane extending all around its body to the extremities of the toes, and to the point of the rather long tail. This enables it to pass obliquely through the air from one tree to another.”

This stuffed Flying Lemur specimen is on display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

I would have to conclude that Palembang is not the best place to go in search of Wallace. There is little sense of him in this built-up city with few green spaces but there are a few tourist attractions in Palembang and I will write about these in my next post.

Longevity and Knees

Stamford RafflesRaffles

Stamford Raffles was an exceptional man. Best remembered as the founder of Singapore, he had vision, energy and ability. The only thing he lacked was longevity and he died at the relatively young age of 44.

No doubt the rigours of living in the tropics in the early 19th century took their toll on his health but could it have been something else?

Finite Energy Theory

It was a commonly held belief in Britain at that time that people were born with a finite store of energy and that this energy should be conserved and not expended in unessential activities like exercise. Raffles had boundless energy and his contemporaries might have speculated that this is why he burnt up his reserves too quickly and died early.

Lifespan Measured in Breaths Theory

This way of thinking is similar to some Indian philosophies where it is thought that our lifespan is measured in breaths and that we are destined to live a set number of breaths and once we breathe our last allotted breath, time’s up.

This could be why yogis place so much emphasis on controlling our breathing. If we could slow down our breathing by half we would live twice as long, according to that thinking.

When we exercise vigorously, we breathe faster. Does this mean we are actually shortening our lives? Could this be why so many professional footballers and other sportsmen seem to die young?

Most experts would discount these theories and argue that it is proven beyond doubt that the benefits of exercise outweigh any negatives.


IMG_2059But does the same apply to kneecaps? And hip joints? Are kneecaps designed to last for only a certain number of movements, say five million steps, and after that limit is reached they are worn out and need replacing, like a car part? Or are kneecaps capable of regenerating themselves and, if so, is continued exercise of the knees a good thing?

I ask this as someone who has probably used up his quota of steps and suffers from occasional knee pangs. Any expert opinion would be welcome.