Perak can lay claim to some of the most ancient roots in Peninsular Malaysia, thanks to archaeological findings in the Lenggong Valley that date back to the Palaeolithic era.
Today’s sultanate of Perak dates back to the early 16th century, when the eldest son of the last sultan of Melaka, Sultan Muzaffar Shah, began a new dynasty on the banks of Sungai Perak (Perak River). The state’s rich tin deposits quickly made it a target of both covetous neighbours and foreign forces.
Dutch efforts in the 17th century to monopolise the tin trade were unsuccessful, but remains of their forts can still be seen on Pulau Pangkor (Pangkor Island) and at the mouth of Sungai Perak. In the 18th century, the Bugis from the south and the Siamese from the north made concerted attempts to dominate Perak, but British intervention in the 1820s trumped them both.
The British had remained reluctant to meddle in the peninsula’s affairs, but growing investment in the Strait settlements, along with the discovery of tin ore in Perak in 1848, encouraged their interest. The mines also attracted a great influx of Chinese immigrants, who soon formed rival clan groups allied with local Malay chiefs, all of whom battled to control the mines.
The Perak sultanate was in disarray, and fighting among successors to the throne gave the British their opportunity to step in, making the first real colonial incursion on the peninsula in 1874. The governor, Sir Andrew Clarke, convened a meeting at Pulau Pangkor at which Sultan Abdullah was installed on the throne instead of Sultan Ismail, the other major contender. The resultant Pangkor Treaty required the sultan to accept a British Resident, and to consult him on all issues other than those relating to religion or Malay custom. One year later, Sultan Abdullah was forced, under threat of deposition, to accept administration by British officials on his behalf.
Various Perak chiefs united against this state of affairs, and the Resident, James WW Birch, was assassinated at Pasir Salak in November 1875. Colonial troops were called in to fight the resulting, brief Perak War. Sultan Abdullah was exiled and a new British-sanctioned sultan was installed. The next British Resident, Sir Hugh Low, had administrative experience in Borneo, was fluent in Malay and was a noted botanist – he even had a pitcher plant named after him (Nepenthes lowii). He assumed control of taxes from the tin mines and practised greater intervention in state affairs. In 1877 he introduced the first rubber trees to Malaysia and experimented with planting tea and coffee as well. The sultans, meanwhile, maintained their status, but were increasingly effete figureheads, bought out with stipends.
The first railway in the state, from Taiping to Port Weld (now known as Kuala Sepetang), was built in 1885 to transport the wealth of tin; the result was rapid development in Taiping and Ipoh. In 1896 Perak, along with Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan, became part of the Federated Malay States. The system of British Residents (and later Advisers) persisted even after the Japanese invasion and WWII, ending only when Perak became part of the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Perak joined the new independent Malaysia in 1957.
When the tin industry declined in the 1980s, once-thriving towns began to empty and Kuala Lumpur drew increasing numbers of jobseekers out of Perak. Tourism is slowly helping Perak to bounce back, with steadily increasing visitor numbers throughout the late 2010s.