A 1897 photograph of Tuanku Muhammad Shah with his chiefs and followers said to be taken at Sri Menanti Palace.

“TUANKU Abdul Rahman Tuanku Muhammad. That is an early photograph of our nation’s first Yang di-Pertuan Agong,” the proprietor murmurs softly as I single out a postcard-sized photograph from a cardboard box of images on the table.

A closer look confirms the seller’s statement. Trying hard to suppress my excitement, I continue searching with the hopes of finding more. Vintage photographs related to Negri Sembilan are severely lacking in my personal collection and I’m hoping to hit the mother lode this time.

“You’re in luck. Someone just sold me these photographs yesterday and I’ve not had the time to go through them yet. Choose carefully and bring those that you select to me once you’re done,” instructs the middle-aged man before walking off to attend to another customer.

Unable to get over my good fortune, I eagerly pick up Malaya’s first Supreme Head of State’s photograph and give it a second look. Dressed in traditional Malay attire and with his consort standing beside him, Tuanku Abdul Rahman certainly looks very dignified and resplendent.

Placing the photograph aside, I continue sifting through the pile. Half way down, I manage to uncover a few more images of the monarch and several rare picture postcards showing earlier rulers of the state and various scenes of Seremban.

A 1920 photograph of Tuanku Muhammad Shah taken at Sri Menanti Palace.

A secret unfolds

Another surprise awaits me when I finish. Under all the photographs is a folded piece of paper. Although looking the worse for wear, the barely legible typewritten notes contain very useful information.

The contents not only chronicle the early rulers of Negri Sembilan but contain interesting anecdotes about the monarchs. I can’t believe my good fortune. The previous owner is indeed a dedicated student of history.

Negri Sembilan or the Nine States is a confederacy unknown to the Portuguese d’Eredia in 1613, to the author of Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) in 1612 and to the Dutch merchants in their Daghregister or daily journal, which was in print until 1682. There were no historical references recorded prior to the arrival of Raja Melewar, the founder of the present royal house.

The confederacy of Sungai Ujong, Rembau, Jelebu, Johol, Ulu Muar, Inas, Gunung Pasir, Terachi and Jempol was only created in 1773 upon the arrival of Raja Melewar. The people who had settled in these nine states prior to his arrival were mainly agriculturists hailing from Sumatra’s Pagar Ruyong region.

Researchers discovered that Rembau had installed a Minangkabau prince hailing from the east coast of Sumatra as its king as early as 1677. Unfortunately, he was dethroned a few years later after being exposed as an imposter. The next Minangkabau prince summoned by the Sungai Ujong, Johol and Jelebu nobles was quickly sent packing after he was found ignorant of the prevailing Adat Perpatih (matriarchal custom).

Two more Sumatrans, Raja Adil and Raja Khatib, arrived in quick succession before the latter was vanquished in combat by the greatest Minangkabau prince of them all, Raja Melewar. After his victory, Raja Melewar took up residence in a village called Penajis, situated along the banks of the Rembau River before he was invited to the throne by the four Undangs (territorial chiefs).

I’m sure the four Undangs of 1773 were wary of people claiming to have blue-blooded ancestry turning up at their doorstep. Fresh from being duped by the imposter Raja Khatib, they were surely more meticulous when dealing with Raja Melewar’s claim.

In order to prove the authenticity of his standing in the Pagar Ruyong court and among the independent states in the ‘Nusantara’, Raja Melewar produced an impressive list of credentials affixed with royal seals from the Sultan of Minangkabau and the rulers of Palembang, Jambi, Indragiri, Indrapura, Siak and Acheh.

During the pertabalan (installation) ceremony, the four Undangs offered Raja Melewar the same terms similar to the rulers in their Sumatran homeland. The royal household was to maintain the Adat Temenggong (patriarchal custom) while all subjects of the state were to remain matrilineal.

Just like in Pagar Ruyong, Raja Melewar couldn’t own any land or levy taxes. According to the law at that time, if the Yam Tuan Besar (supreme leader) attempts the latter, he would be cast out ‘upon a waveless sea and a grassless field’ or in plain language — be expelled.

In return, Raja Melewar was bequeathed a palace and fixed annual tributes. As Yam Tuan Besar, he took on the role of Caliph, head of the Muslim faith. During his 22-year rule, Raja Melewar was acutely aware of his weak position as a newcomer prince. He deftly tiptoed around the Bugis-controlled localities as well as the Dutch-held neighbourhood of Melaka and avoided the rich Sungai Ujong and Jelebu tin fields. He employed the tactic of discretely building up a strong supporter base by electing insignificant and harmless chieftains.

Raja Melewar died in 1795, the same year the British first discovered Negri Sembilan when they temporarily took over Melaka from the Dutch who were distracted with the Napoleonic War in Europe. Instead of selecting Raja Melewar’s son as their new leader, the four territorial chiefs journeyed to their ancestral land in search of a successor.

A 1950 photograph of Tuanku Abdul Rahman inspecting a guard of honour.

Genealogy of rulers

They returned with a Pagar Ruyong prince named Raja Hitam. After his installation as the new Yam Tuan Besar (supreme leader), he married Raja Melewar’s daughter, Tengku Aishah. Raja Hitam ruled for 13 years before his death in 1808. As his official marriage with Tengku Aishah bore no kin, the leaders of Negri Sembilan once again returned to their Minangkabau homeland in search of a replacement. This time, the Raja of Pagar Ruyung sent his son, Raja Lenggang.

Like his predecessor, Raja Lenggang took a local wife after his installation. His consort was Tengku Ngah, Raja Hitam’s second child from another marriage with a commoner. The couple had two sons, Tengku Radin and Tengku Imam.

Before his demise in 1824, Raja Lenggang explicitly stated his wish for Tengku Radin to be proclaimed the next Yam Tuan Besar. This edict marked a significant departure from tradition. The Undangs no longer had to travel to Pagar Ruyong. This also meant that for the first time in its history, Negri Sembilan had a hereditary leader!

Yam Tuan Radin ibni al-Marhum Yam Tuan Lenggang passed away in the Sri Menanti palace in 1861, leaving behind two sons, Tengku Antah and Tengku Muda Cik. The four Undangs’ invitation for Tengku Antah to ascend the throne was turned down by the young prince as he felt he lacked the maturity to lead the people. He then agreed to have his uncle, Tengku Iman, take his place.

Yam Tuan Iman ibni al-Marhum Yam Tuan Lenggang ruled for eight years, before passing away in 1869. His demise plunged Negri Sembilan into a period of uncertainty when his son, Tengku Ahmad Tunggal and Tengku Antah fought over the throne.

In the interim, from 1869 to 1872, a Sri Menanti noble named Datuk Siamang Gagap elected Tengku Puan Intan, the late Yam Tuan Iman’s consort as regent. That was the only time in the entire history of Negri Sembilan, and also Malaya in general, when a female became a ruling Head of State!

Finally, the Undangs made the decision to favour Tengku Antah but his rule, however, was fraught with many challenges. Most significant of all was the dispute between local chieftains, namely Datuk Kelana Syed Abdul Rahman and Datuk Bandar Tunggal which opened the doors for British intervention. The former sought British protection in April 1874 leading to the arrival of Martin Lister a year later. He took up office as Resident and assisted Datuk Kelana with the governance of Sungai Ujong.

Yam Tuan Antah passed away in 1888 and was succeeded by his son, Tuanku Muhammad Shah ibni al-Marhum Yam Tuan Antah. The installation of Tuanku Muhammad Shah as the seventh ruler of Negri Sembilan was attended by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Cecil Clementi Smith.

On March 18, 1889, an agreement was signed between Clementi and the Negri Sembilan nobles to unite all the districts into a single state. At the same time, a British Resident was appointed to oversee all matters in Negri Sembilan except those concerning the Islamic religion.

Foreign powers were attracted to the rich tin deposits in Negri Sembilan during the late 19th century.

Moving on to the present

Some eight years after the unification, on April 19, 1898, Tuanku Muhammad Shah was formally appointed the first Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. He played an important role in calling for the formation of a Malay Regiment. As a result of his efforts, the first 25 recruits were enlisted on March 1, 1933.

The notes on the paper end with the installation of Tuanku Abdul Rahman on April 25, 1934 after the demise of Tuanku Muhammad Shah. As if on cue, the shop-owner appears just as I’ve selected my pickings from the box. While lauding my keen sense of observation, he decides to make me a fair offer to purchase the entire collection.

“No point keeping the rest when you’ve taken the cream of the crop. I’m just glad that they are going to a good home. Make sure you come again when you’re in Ipoh next time. Perhaps I can offer you more wonderful stuff,” he says after I agree to his asking price.

I stay on to chat with him and am gratified that he’s well-versed with Negri Sembilan’s royal history. I soon learn that after Tuanku Abdul Rahman’s demise in 1960, his son and heir-apparent, Tuanku Munawir ibni al-Marhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman ascended the throne that very same year and ruled until 1967. After that, Tuanku Munawir’s brother, Tuanku Ja’afar ibni al-Marhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, was chosen to be the next ruler, by-passing Tuanku Munawir’s son, Tengku Muhriz, who was just 19 at that time and considered a minor.

Tuanku Jaafar remained on the throne for 41 years. During that time, he served as our nation’s 10th Yang di-Pertuan Agong. After the death of Tuanku Jaafar in 2008, the Undangs voted to re-instate Tuanku Muhriz ibni al-Marhum Tuanku Munawir as Negri Sembilan’s 11th and present ruler.

What a fascinating trip! I think to myself as I leave. It’s been quite an experience learning about one of Malaysia’s main ruling houses that is backed by a rich cultural heritage still practiced till today. And to think the fascinating snapshots of history are all contained in that humble cardboard box I carry carefully in my hands.

Home of the British Resident in Seremban.

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