PETALING JAYA: Another day, another controversy. This time around, Winepak, a Malaysian distillery, has seen its award-winning whiskey Timah at the centre of a kerfuffle.
Certain quarters have taken offence at the name of the product, believing it to be a shortened version of the Arabic name Fatimah. Furthermore, the label on the bottle features a bearded man wearing what appears to be a skullcap.
A statement has since been released on the brand’s social media, pointing out that “Timah” actually refers to tin, an abundant resource in colonial days.
The man on the label is Captain Speedy, a British colonial officer known for his role in ending the Larut Wars.
Whether or not this statement will satisfy critics remains to be seen, but this is as good a time as any to delve into the backstory of this historical figure with a magnificent beard.
A jolly good time to be British
Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy was born in India in 1836, when the British Empire was reaching its zenith. After completing his education in Britain, he returned to India to enlist in the British Army there.
During his service, the Urdu-speaking Speedy was stationed in the northwestern regions, where he saw action in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
After the campaign, he was hired by Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia – now Ethiopia – who bestowed him the title “Basha Felika”, meaning “Commander Speedy”. But his employment abruptly ended after a falling-out with his employer, which forced Speedy to flee the country in 1861.
After lingering in the region for a bit, he sailed off to New Zealand in 1864, joining the conflict against the native Maoris and earning himself a promotion to captain.
In 1868, conflict broke out between the British Empire and Abyssinia. Given his knowledge of the country, Speedy was recalled by the army to join its military expedition.
Emperor Tewodros chose suicide over negotiation, leaving behind his young son, whom Speedy took under his wing in memory of his former employer.
From 1869 to 1871, Speedy spent his time in India in the city of Sitapur as a police district superintendent.
It was in 1871 that Speedy finally landed on Malayan shores, though at the time, he was nothing more than a police superintendent in Penang.
(Side note: the baobab tree that stands between Jalan Residensi and Jalan Macalister was planted by Speedy, and is supposedly the first non-indigenous tree to be planted in Malaya.)
Somewhere along the way, he visited England briefly to drop off the Abyssinian prince who wished to pursue his studies there. Unfortunately the young lad died of disease at age 18, much to the dismay of Speedy, who, according to most accounts, did genuinely care for the boy.
When Speedy returned to Malaya, it was somewhat more chaotic than he last remembered it, what with the sultanate of Perak being embroiled in a civil war. Two Chinese societies, namely the Ghee Hin and Hai San, were locked in a conflict over the tin-rich state.
To make things worse, the conflict escalated when the societies received support from two rival local administrators, Raja Abdullah and Ngah Ibrahim.
With the Larut War plunging Perak into anarchy, Ngah Ibrahim contacted the British to enlist their help in restoring order. Speedy was enticed by the offer, which came with a generous salary and an enviable position.
After recruiting a small force of Indian troops, Speedy arrived in Perak to restore order and, in 1874, the Pangkor Treaty was signed, granting the state a moment of respite. James Wheeler Woolford Birch – a man most Malaysians would remember due to his grisly fate – became the first Resident of Perak, with Speedy as his assistant.
During his tenure, Speedy divided Larut between the Ghee Hin and Hai San. The Ghee Hin were awarded the town of Kamunting, while the Hai San were granted a town Speedy named Taiping, meaning “everlasting peace”.
Afterwards, Speedy focused on improving the state’s infrastructure, building new roads and administrative offices. He also conveniently took time to erect a comfortable residence and headquarters for himself, and later invited his wife in India to come live with him.
His house still stands as a historical site in Matang, and one can see why Birch apparently called it “a very commodious residence”.
In 1878, Speedy felt it was time to move on. With his wife, he went on a months-long trip to Sudan, after which she wrote a book on their adventures there.
After some further service in Abyssinia, Speedy finally decided his time for adventure was over. He and the missus retired to England, where he would pass away in 1910 at age 73.
What’s the hubbub?
As for the reason behind Speedy’s appearance on the label of Timah whiskey – well, Speedy is said to have first introduced whiskey to Malaya.
Timah’s product blurb, available on the Winepak website, reads: “The spirit of adventure captured in the feats of Captain Tristram Speedy is warmly encased in the light embers of Timah.”
Given that Speedy has been dead for over a century now, there is something humorous, and sad, about the entire issue. Only time will tell if Winepak will stop receiving brickbats over its decision to use a respected figure from Malaysian history to market its product.Internet Explorer Channel Network