The Grand Duke, the tiger and the buffalo November 13, 2019 16:54

An extract from Imperial Creatures: Humans and Other Animals in Colonial Singapore, 1819–1942,

by Timothy P Barnard

Chapter Four: Defining Cruelty

In 1872 Alexei Alexandrovich, better known as Grand Duke Alexis, the fifth child of Czar Alexander II of Russia, visited Singapore along with a squadron of naval vessels. His sojourn in the capital of the Straits Settlements was part of a longer diplomatic journey that involved an extended tour of the United States as well as stops in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Batavia, and eventually Hong Kong, Canton and Shanghai. Grand Duke Alexis was headed to Japan, where he was to meet with members of the Meiji government and participate in discussions on Russo-Japanese diplomatic relations. While in Singapore he met with Governor Harry Ord and attended dinners and balls in his honor, amidst surging crowds and all of the trimmings of pomp and circumstance. The presence of foreign royalty brought some life to the colonial port. As one observer opined, it was “an agreeable interlude in the sleepy monotony and sameness which characterizes life in this so-called Paradise of the East.” The visit was originally scheduled for three days, but went so well the Grand Duke extended his stay for over a week, and even made a visit to Melaka.1

One of the highlights of this brief sojourn in the Straits Settlements occurred on 31 August. That morning, accompanied by the Governor and much of the elite of Singapore, Grand Duke Alexis boarded the government steamer Pluto and sailed around the island to the newly founded town of Johor Baru. The visitors alighted at the bungalow of the Maharaja of Johor, Abu Bakar, who was an influential supporter of the British presence in the region. The Johor royal family, Chinese entrepreneurs and the European elite of the port had been closely interlinked since 1819. The grandfather of the Maharaja was the Temenggong of Singapore who had signed the original treaties with Thomas Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd in 1819 and 1824 respectively, which transferred sovereignty of the island to the British East India Company. Abu Bakar and his father continued to support the colonial government and its policies in the following decades as they expanded their influence and agricultural policies into the southern portions of the Malay Peninsula. The Maharaja eventually became so intertwined with the imperial elite, and their culture, his British friends referred to him as “Albert Baker,” and the visit of the Grand Duke to Johor was part of the larger theater-state of colonial society in Singapore.2
The Maharaja greeted his guests upon their arrival and accompanied them to a large tent in the courtyard of the bungalow, where a sumptuous breakfast was laid out. After the meal and several speeches, everyone retired to an area behind the building, where they saw a large cage consisting of “long poles driven into the ground and tied together with thongs, and made firm by strong cross-pieces at the top.” The Maharaja of Johor was about to entertain his guests with a contest between a “royal tiger and a buffalo bull.”3

Such spectacles were commonly staged in royal houses throughout Southeast Asia in the premodern era. As Anthony Reid states in a survey of such entertainment, “No great feast passed at the courts of Java, Aceh, Siam and Burma without some spectacular fight between elephants, tigers, buffaloes, or lesser animals.” J.F.A. McNair, a Briton who served as Head Engineer for the Straits Settlements and attended the breakfast that morning in Johor, described such events as “the grand national sport” of Malay polities. It was not the first time McNair had attended such a contest in Johor. Only three years earlier, he was present when the Duke of Edinburgh witnessed a similar confrontation—which would have the same outcome—during his visit to the Straits Settlements.4

A curtain divided the cage in half and, after Grand Duke Alexis and the other guests were readied, the two animals were admitted into opposite sides of the pen. As described in a newspaper report:

The curtain was raised, but the tiger, a female, proved an arrant coward, and utterly indisposed to fight, seeing which the buffalo was inclined to let her alone, but after a while made a rush at her and jammed her against the poles of the cage. This was repeated several times, during which the buffalo received little or no injury, and the tiger then lay down and could not be urged on more. Fire-crackers were burned in the cage in the vain hope of getting her into a rage, but the tiger only moved away from them and again lay down. Seeing this, the Prince and party left the platform, after which the Malays let down a rope from the top of the cage, and a noose having been slipped round one of the tiger’s hind legs, she was suspended in the air, when the buffalo was goaded on and butted and gored the poor tiger till life was extinct.5

The outcome of the battle had been preordained. In these contests, it was important for the tiger to lose, as it was the symbol of danger, lawlessness and disorder. The representative of civilization—the buffalo —was required to defeat the wild, savage beast.6

Beyond the symbolism of such a contest in a Southeast Asian polity, this staged spectacle, held for the elite of the Straits Settlements in 1872, was also a metaphor for a shift in animals and their importance in Singapore. The tiger was no longer much of a concern for residents of the growing port. The jungle had been tamed, its predators destroyed, and in this case even converted into a form of symbolic entertainment. In contrast, the buffalo—or, more specifically its close relative, the bullock—was about to become the most important animal on the island, where it would play a role in transporting peoples and goods while reflecting attitudes towards animals that would reveal many of the permutations of British imperial rule in Southeast Asia as well as the development of colonial Singapore. The bullock thus would play a role in transforming the island during a period when animals provided much of the labor in transporting goods and people throughout the region, and power structures within the colonial government were becoming clearer. This also would be reflected in how humans perceived other animals, and treated them, particularly those that provided labor. 
1 CO273/59/10138: Arrival and Departure of Corvette “Sveltana” with Grand Duke Alexis Aboard; Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore,” ST, 7 Sep. 1872, p. 1; Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis,” ST, 31 Aug. 1871, p. 1; Anonymous, “Untitled,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 7 Sep. 1872, p. 11.
2 R.O. Winstedt, A History of Johore (1365–1941) (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1992), p. 137; Carl A. Trocki, Prince of Pirates: The Temenggongs and the Development of Johor and Singapore, 17841885 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007), pp. 128–60; Anonymous, “She Cannot Sue the Sultan,” The Chicago Sunday Tribune, 5 Nov. 1893, p. 1; Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore.”
3 Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore.”
4 J.F.A. McNair, Perak and the Malays (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 266–8; Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear, p. 14; Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680. Volume One, p. 183.
5 Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore.”
6 Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore”; Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, Volume One, pp. 183–91; Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear, pp. 146–66.
Enjoyed this excerpt? Buy the book here!