Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Research Article

‘Strangers’ and ‘stranger-kings’: The sayyid in eighteenth-century maritime Southeast Asia

Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells


Sayyidi ‘strangers’ and ‘stranger-kings’, borne on the eighteenth-century wave of Hadhrami migration to the Malay-Indonesian region, boosted indigenous traditions of charismatic leadership at a time of intense political challenge posed by Western expansion. The extemporary credentials and personal talents which made for sāda exceptionalism and lent continuity to Southeast Asian state-making traditions are discussed with particular reference to Perak, Siak and Pontianak. These case studies, representative of discrete sāda responses to specific circumstances, mark them out as lead actors in guiding the transition from ‘the last stand of autonomies’ to a new era of pragmatic collaboration with the West.


Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells, Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge, was Professor of Asian History, University of Malaya. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: or ‘Serendip’, Illington, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 1RP. This is a revised version of a paper originally presented at a workshop on ‘Stranger-kings in Southeast Asia and elsewhere’ held in Jakarta in June 2006. The author is grateful to KITLV, Leiden; ARI, the National University of Singapore; LIPI, Indonesia; and IIAS, Leiden, for their invitation and joint sponsorship of my participation.