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To’ Janggut – Malay rebel

The events of the 1915 ‘Singapore Mutiny’ are relatively well known. Some of the other rebellions that sent ripples of alarm through the minds of colonial administrators that same year are less familiar – certainly for British readers…. Just two months after the Singapore Mutiny, at the end of April, trouble erupted in the isolated district of Pasir Puteh about
30 miles south from Kota Bahru in Kelantan, not far from the border with Terengganu.[1] (Both Kelanatan and Terengganu were ‘unfederated’ Malay states.) 
There were very few
Europeans living in this region. The British maintained a few police posts
and a District Office mainly to monitor cross border smuggling. So it came as a
shock when the British Advisor W. Langham-Carter sent an urgent message to
Singapore that he was under attack. The leader of the uprising was Haji Modh.
Hassan bin Munas, known as To’ Janggut: a Silat martial arts master with an
impressive, chest length beard. (Janggut
means beard in Malay.) At the time, the colonial authorities characterised the
Kelantan Uprising as a ‘tax riot’ – and to be sure, the British had, following
the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, imposed a new land tax in Kelantan. The tax
was unpopular, especially in times of hardship. In April 1915 To’ Janggut had
organised protests and the District Officer, an unpopular Singapore Malay
called Pasir Puteh had been killed. When local police tried to arrest To’
Janggut, he escaped and a mob of 200 people sacked the Pasir Puteh District
Office and began burning the bungalows of European plantation owners. Governor
Sir Arthur Young reacted swiftly. Remote, underdeveloped Kelantan was best
reached by sea. On 5 May, HMS Cadmus landed nearly 300 troops on the Kelantan
coast along with 20 Malay policemen. The SS Calypso arrived in Kota Bahru with
250 Malay States Guides. To’ Janggut’s rebels fought a hit and run war – just
as the Communists would three decades later. But on 23 May, a party of Malay
State Guides cornered 50 or so rebels and slaughtered them. It is, of course, a
hard lesson learnt by all guerrilla leaders that pitched battles should be
avoided at all costs.  To’ Janggut had
claimed that he was immune to infidel bullets: but following the 10 minute
skirmish, the very dead body of a ‘venerable bearded man’ was found next to an
elephant gun behind a hedge. The body showed unmistakeable signs of
elephantiasis. To’ Janggut’s dejected followers lost heart; the Kelantan
Uprising was over. In a macabre foreshadowing of British counter insurgency
tactics in the Emergency period,  the body
of To’ Janggut was hauled to the banks of the Kelantan River and crucified on a
wooden frame. It has been claimed that the rotting corpse was not removed for
many days as a grisly warning to any Malays contemplating rebellion. Cheah Boon
Kheng disputes this allegation on the grounds leaving a body unburied would be
very offensive to Muslims. According to the police officer A.G. Morkill, whose
remarkable photographs of the dead man, are held at Rhodes House in Oxford, the
Sultan ordered the body to be
publicly hung by the feet ‘for four hours’ as a proof of loyalty. The Kelantan
uprising is a fascinating almost forgotten colonial sideshow – with many
intriguing dimensions that Cheah Boon Kheng has explored in depth. In the
aftermath of these bloody events, the Acting Colonial Secretary William Maxwell
criticised Langham-Carter for the crass way he had managed the introduction of new
taxation system. But he also noted that ‘His Highness the Sultan [of Kelantan]
has ever since the Singapore mutiny believed that the downfall of the British
Empire was at hand…’ So taxes, onerous though they must have been, were just
one factor behind Uprising. Even in this remote, rural and sparsely populated
corner of Malaya, darker forces appeared to be at work. The time had come to
act. To’ Janggut it seemed had been a dangerous Jihadist with much grander
ambitions than mere tax reform.


[1] The most informative account of this little
known episode is ‘To’ Janggut: Legends, Histories, and Perceptions of the 1915
Rebellion in Kelantan’ (2006) by Cheah Boon Kheng. See also ‘The Kelantan
Uprising; Some Thoughts on the Concept of Resistance in British Malayan
History’, J. de V. Allen, Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 9, No. 2
(Sep., 1968), pp. 241-257

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