Friday, 11 April 2008

Mat the Ripper- A 19th Century Malay in an English Town

I HAVE a semi-romantic fascination for the Victorian Age, despite its colonialist overtones. It was a time when the glories of industrialisation rode hand in hand with the golden age of art, literature and poetry. There was the British Raj, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, the steam engine, Around the World in 80 Days, Phantom of the Opera and the Elephant Man. And Jack the Ripper. In autumn 1888, a series of five ritualistic murders in the Whitechapel area of London awakened Victorian society from its opium-clouded dream. The exploits of the murderer, nicknamed Jack the Ripper, have fascinated the world for more than a century. Jack the Ripper is said to have never been caught and has been the subject of much speculation. Among the suspects was Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward (known as Eddy to his friends). But at the time of the Ripper murders, there were no theories presented to link Eddy to the crimes. In 1970, Dr Thomas Stowell published an article in The Criminologist called A Solution using the private papers of Eddy's physician Sir William Gull as his primary source material. According to Stowell, Eddy was suffering from syphilis, contracted in the West Indies, and that this infection drove Eddy insane and compelled him to commit the murders. Hollywood offered its version through the film From Hell starring Johnny Depp. The film unravelled a chilling alleged conspiracy involving the highest powers in England - the royal family and the Freemasons. Another theory is that of the 'foreigner suspect'. There was a common and arrogant belief at that time that 'no Englishman was capable of doing such a thing, hence the suspect must be an immigrant'. As a result, the Jewish community living in Whitechapel at that time came under suspicion. When I first arrived in London some years ago, my friend Michael mentioned in passing something which I took an interest in. He said that one of the suspects in the Jack the Ripper case was a Malay man. Recently, while researching on the Malay diaspora to gather materials for the London Malay Festival, I came across the case again. The London Times dated October 1889 reported that a Malay man who worked as a cook aboard ships had threatened to kill Whitechapel prostitutes, but he then disappeared. The Malay suspect was said to have gone by the name of Maurice. Now most of us would know that Maurice is neither a Malay nor Muslim name. I wondered perhaps his name could have been Mat Rais or Mat Deris. Mat is the abbreviation of Ahmad or Mohammad - a commonly-used Muslim name. The Anglo corruption could have possibly twisted Mat Rais or Mat Deris into Maurice. Just like how the Arabic Straits of Jabal Atar became the Straits of Gibraltar. But imagine, if one day, through some 'newly discovered evidence', Jack the Ripper turned out to be a Malay man. History would have to take a revolutionary turn to the Orient. Books would have to be re-written, scripts changed and films remade. And, who knows, perhaps there would be fresh openings in the film industry. And talents like my friend, the gifted poet and actor Rafaat Hamzah, or even myself, may jolly well get a role in a new Hollywood film about Jack the Ripper. But I would have to insist that it be renamed 'Mat the Ripper'. This article appeared on The New Paper as 'Is Jack the Ripper really a Mat?' By Art Fazil August 17, 2005

No comments:

I Said Something Yesterday