This walking cane top comprises a gold base beautifully chased with typically Chinese battle scenes with soldiers mounted on horses fighting against a backdrop of conifers and temples, with an inset gold top that is monogrammed with the emblems and title of the Maharaja (later the Sultan) of Johor (also spelt as Johore).
The cane top is a rare example of Riau or Johor-made gold by local Chinese goldsmiths. Such goldsmiths served the local Malay rulers and the wealthy peranakan or Straits Chinese community who commissioned elaborate gold belt buckles and the like from local artisans. The base of the cane top has a reddish hue which accords with local Malay tastes. This was achieved by staining the gold with tamarind.
The style of the cane top is overtly Chinese but it is not unusual that an Islamic Malay ruler at the time would have had such an item. Many such rulers invited in Chinese merchants to help develop their sultanates. Intermarriage was not unusual as well.
Johor is the southern most state of peninsular Malaysia and is separated from Singapore by the very narrow Straits of Johor. As such, Johor is the most southerly point of mainland Asia. Johor became a sultanate, which during its peak, ruled over neighbouring Pahang state, the present day Indonesian territories of the Riau archipelago, and part of Sumatra island.
Abu Bakar ruled Johor from 1862 to his death in 1895. He became the sovereign ruler of Johor when his father, Temenggong Daing Ibrahim died in 1862. Six years later, Abu Bakar changed his official title from Temenggong to Maharaja. In 1885, Abu Bakar received permission from Queen Victoria to adopt the formal title of ‘Sultan’, and was proclaimed as such in 1886.
Abu Bakar was a reformist and a moderniser. He implemented a state constitution and developed a British-style system of administration. He also built – using Chinese contractors – a large palace, the Istana Besar, which overlooks the Straits of Johor, and which today still serves as the official residence of the Sultan of Johor. To help develop the local economy, Abu Bakar encouraged the immigration of Teochiu Chinese merchants from southern China. In 1885, he even married a Chinese woman who converted to Islam. Abu Bakar’s reforms earned him the moniker ‘Father of Modern Johor’ and he is one of the most celebrated of the Malay sultans.
Abu Bakar travelled widely. He was the first Malay ruler to visit Europe when he visited England in 1866. (He also visited Turkey on that same trip where the Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz presented him with a Circassian princess whom Abu Bakar took back to Johor and married her to his brother.)
He subsequently enjoyed a close friendship with Queen Victoria, a friendship which influenced Johor’s relationship with Britain, such that by the end of the 19th century, Johor was the only Malay state that had been able to maintain autonomy over domestic affairs in the face of British colonial expansionism.
Abu Bakar’s son Ibrahim succeeded him in 1895, but in 1904, the British forced Sultan Ibrahim to accept a British advisor and Johor’s place in the British Empire was confirmed.
The Sultan was able to retain some privileges. Johor was the first state and currently the only Malay to have its own military force. The Johor Military Force or ‘Timbalan Setia Negeri’ still exists today as a private army of the Sultan of Johor.
Deciphering the cane top:
The large, central ‘M’ refers to ‘Maharaja’ and with the H’s on either side, the plaque can be read as ‘His Highness the Maharaja of Johore’ . The ‘M’ allows for an approximate date of the cane top: Abu Bakar had the formal title of Maharaja between the years 1868 and 1885, after which he was proclaimed a Sultan.
The form of the star and crescent on the top of the cane top is mirrored in the Crown of Johor that was made by the London jewellers JW Benson in 1885 for his coronation as a sultan.
The letters GCMG and KCSI refer to Abu Bakar having been appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) and a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star or India (KCSI).
The Arabic writing to either side of the star and crescent is in Jawi, the localised form of Arabic. It reads: ‘Yang Maha… Mulia… / Maharaja Johor’