Why are these PDRM trucks called Black Maria?


At any large protest in Malaysia, you are likely to see police officers and with them police trucks. Those police trucks have become a familiar sight over the years, and you might have seen or heard them being called Black Maria in the headlines.

Bad news, a lot? Img by Malaysiakini

So yes we wanted to know how the Black Marias got their names, and see if the guy who invented the trucks named them after his wife or something. It turns out that the trucks were named after someone …

Black Maria Lee was a strong and independent woman

Not the best photo of her, but there REALLY not many. Img by simplyforgotus

According to the July 10, 1931 issue of the Canberra Times, a version of Black Maria’s origin story looks like this:

The expression Black Maria with application to a prison van originated in America over 60 years ago. A tall black woman called Maria Lee ran a sailor’s shelter in Boston, the men were generally unruly, and Maria was often called in to help lock them up.

There is a lot to unpack here. The sailors of the 1800s did not seem like a gentleman to us, and life at sea, by all accounts, was filled with hardship and physical labor. It’s hard to imagine a lady who is basically the owner AND bouncer for this sailor’s house, sort out the messy sea men (heh heh) who took it all in his face. Imagine the kind of super strength you would need to overpower these dudes.

They look stylish anyway. Img by Maritime Aloft

An older account of Maria Lee’s story comes from the October 22, 1912 issue of Lodi Sentinel, where she doesn’t just keep her boarding house tidy. The story begins with Maria bringing in three troublemakers from her old motel, and apparently she was so good at it that the Boston cops asked him to take care of the sailors they couldn’t. It’s badass.

Her ability to hold back rowdy criminals was so legendary that the vehicles used to do the same were named after her, but of course they didn’t start out as trucks or vans, but rather …

The original Black Marias were horse-drawn carriages

This baby has 2 horses. Img by Boggo Road Goal

When the Black Marias first entered service, they were cars painted black or very dark blue with fiery red wheels instead of gasoline blowing machines. The first Black Maria registered in Saint Paul, Minnesota entered service on January 21, 1883 and it costs around 600 USD to build. It’s worth around $ 17,000 (RM70.5,000) today… which costs about the same for a low-spec Toyota Vios. It was then pulled and sold, and after changing hands a few times, the Saint-Paul city council managed to buy it back for $ 10,000 in 1986.

Over time, police vehicles became motorized, replacing horse-drawn carriages. Nowadays, Black Marias are still used around the world, but they have different names in different countries:

  • Western Australia – Divy Van
  • Russia – Party Van or “Kibitka”
  • Denmark – Salad platter or “Saladfed”
  • Sweden – Butchers Van or “Slatkarbussen”
  • United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore – You guessed it, Black Maria!

This guy is really giving a helping hand. Img by PakDin

Malaysian Black Marias are what they look like – black heavy trucks equipped with cages. The cages are not there to demean anyone who has been arrested; there has been a case in the past where an officer was attacked by a prisoner. To avoid a repeated incident, cages have been installed for create a separation between those arrested and the police.

In general, no one would say that riding in a Black Maria is a good thing because it means you are in trouble with the law, but the more superstitious among you might be worried …

They say the Black Maria are “suey”

Fast & Furious 10: Ladang Sawit. Img by Peraktoday

Before we wrap up this one, there are whispers in the vineyard that Black Marias also has symbolizes bad luck. Supposedly, anyone who has gone for a ride in one of these police trucks will be haunted by misfortune afterwards. Whether or not you believe in this creepy kind of stuff, surely it’s suey enough to kena tangkap and get stuffed into a Black Maria in the first place?

Either way, even though she passed away, Maria Lee’s great strong arms survive to this day… in the form of the long arm of the law.

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