The Merlin of Penang: Sjovald

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Austen Wilks recalls meeting Sjovald Cunyngham-Brown a former colonial servant in Malaya and merchant seaman of the age of sail who lived to see the development of modern Malaysia.

John Sjovald Hoseason Cunyngham-Brown(to give him his full name, though to most people he was Sjovald, pronounced “see-alt”) was a larger-than-life adventurer as well as a dedicated civil servant and diplomat. Of Shetland-Scottish extraction, he spent most of his long life in Southeast Asia, mainly in peninsular Malaya. He spent his latter days in Penang where I met him in the early 1960s when I was a teenager and he was the Honorary French Consul. In his autobiographical Crowded Hour, he asserts that he had a “dash of French blood” and that, together with his fluency in that language gained from long childhood periods in Paris and its environs, seems to have been enough to secure him the official position which admirably suited his retirement years.

He was a gifted linguist who also spoke fluent Malay and Tamil, enabling him to interact closely with native speakers of those languages in colonial Malaya. His work for the Malayan Civil Service fell into two periods punctuated by World War II, during which he had a number of hairraising adventures and close brushes with death. These, characteristically, enhanced his zest for life. I remember his telling me that he regarded all the years after 1945 as a “bonus issue” and that he was going to make the most of them.

Apart from his special professional expertise as a labour specialist – ensuring fair treatment for Tamil workers migrating from Southern India to Malaya and who occasionally returned when work dried up – his major interest in life was “messing about in boats”. Before taking the Civil Service exams in 1929 at the age of 24, he had run away to sea. He served before the mast of a square-rigged sailing ship and rounded the Horn in her. On her last voyage before she was broken up, he was promoted to third mate. Practically penniless in Antwerp, caretaking the ship on his own, he was rescued by his family and restored to the privileged background from which he had sprung.

A Rapid Change

He had signed on as a deck-hand upon dropping out of his medical training at Oxford. Although remarkable, this was not the most abrupt transition of his life: that was on the day in 1945 when he awoke as the “Sanitary Offi cer” (in charge of latrines) in a prison camp in Sumatra and went to sleep as the District Officer for North Perak. In the morning he was dressed in a loin cloth which fell off when he ran to greet Lady Mountbatten in the first relief plane to land at his camp. By the same evening, he was wearing the uniform of a full Colonel and puffi ng on a cigar as he reclined in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven offi cial car speeding towards his new job. The apex of Sjovald’s offi cial service was his short stint as Acting Resident Commissioner in Penang (that is, head of the government) in 1954.

Sjovald felt in some ways felt that he was born out of his time. He might have preferred, like Merlin, the mythical wizard at King Arthur’s court, to have lived backwards. He had a strong, and romantic, sense of history, pointing out that his great-grandmother, who was still living at the time of his birth in 1905, had been born “in the year of Trafalgar” (1805), when Penang was the fourth Presidency of India under the rule of the Honourable East India Company. He liked to think about the chain of human experience passing down through living generations, spanning vast changes in the world. For this reason, he was particularly interested in the fabric of Suffolk House in Penang as this was a link back to Captain Francis Light, the founder of George Town, a native of the English county of Suffolk whose name he gave to the pepper plantation on the same site as the present house, for long used as a residency of the Governor.

Houses of Heritage

When I was a boy, this house was rented to the Methodist Boys’ School, which I attended, and we used to have assemblies there. It was not in a good condition and could easily have been torn down when the school left but for the efforts of Sjovald and other like-minded people with respect for the past. In recent years, the house, and its setting beside the Sungei Pinang, has been very beautifully restored to its state in the early years of the 19th century, which surely would have pleased Sjovald very much indeed.

Our house at that time, a government bungalow in Scotland Road, was on the other side of the river, long since reverted to jungle in which huge snakes were sometimes seen and captured. Sjovald would often come to our badminton afternoons and my mother’s dinner parties and fill up our verandah with his huge personality. He was a magical story-teller, another aspect of his Merlinesque character. I remember hearing of his encounter with a wild tiger at one of these sessions. The incident is recounted in Crowded Hour where deep in the jungle of Johore as evening approached he almost jumped on top of the dozing beast. “With a sudden ‘WOOF’ the enormous thing sprang – not at me, but off into the undergrowth – and I fell, like a bag of jelly, into the sand-pit where he had been basking…” It is striking in the book, and made even more so because he then describes how on recovery of his legs he ran deeper into the jungle away from the safety of the road from which he had been trekking. So he had nerve himself to return, in the twilight, back past that “tigerhaunted spot (still smelling like a zoo).”

It was even more exciting and terrifying to hear this story at fi rst hand from that leonine head silhouetted against the tropical night, rich with the buzz of cicadas, almost under the spreading boughs of the sacred bohdi tree standing on the edge of the “river country”. In those days, such a tree was still the subject of animist worship and small mysterious offerings were often left under it. It has long since been felled and all its religious associations lost.


Sjovald was a man able to thrive in a changing world, and he re-invented himself as a writer. In his later years, in addition to Crowded Hour, he was able to publish The Traders… a fascinating “story of Britain’s Southeast Asian Commercial Adventure.” He had planned to collaborate with his friend Raymond Flowers on a history of Penang, but unfortunately he died suddenly at the age of 83 in 1988 before that project could be completed. Flowers’ book The Penang Adventure was published 20 years later, and it includes “narratives of colonial intrigue drawn from” Sjovald’s notes.

Lynda Davies, long-time resident of Penang, adds her personal reminiscences of Sjovald in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mrs Morgan, with whom my husband and I stayed, used to host regular Sundowners. It would entail a trip with the driver, Nee Voon, to Ali’s Store on Beach Street to stock up on Gin, Whisky, Crème de Menthe, and bottles of F&N soda, tonic, and ginger ale. I do remember that Sjovald always arrived at Mrs. Morgan’s (141 Batu Ferringhi, where the Seri Sayang property now is) for 6pm Sundowners about once a week. He would bring his dog (which I think was a bulldog, as it had a huge fl at face and dribbled badly) and always a smart-looking youth would be in tow who would sit quietly in the background.

There would be a small group consisting of the hostess, Betty (Elisabeth) Morgan, Sjovald, and Tom Allan, a gentleman who lived in Nepal but frequented Penang and would always be accompanied by a young Gurkha lad. Tom wore very traditional attire of the day – Burmah shorts (to below the knee) and a “Topi” hard hat, and always had a Himalayan walking stick. The vision of them all sitting around on the porch to me was like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel and their over-the-top British accents put the BBC to shame!

Sometimes another chap would also attend, an author called Leslie Alan. They would all sit on the front porch of the house in beautiful rattan furniture. The “live-in” housekeeper Ah Lan would bring up from the servants’ bungalow at the bottom of the hill, some Makan Kecil she prepared, and would serve whisky and soda (aka Stengah) or gin and tonic. They would all stay until sundown chatting about travels and updates on politics and shares. I think that Sjovald had been working in the Management of the David Brown estates.

He also frequented the Penang Swimming Club. He enjoyed treating my elder son Chris to a banana split if we were there. I remember one year, he and Leslie Alan had a bet on who could swim from the Swimming Club to Pulau Tikus. They completed the race and I believe Sjovald won!

Source: Penang International February/March 2014

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