Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Straits Settlements

Look at Malayisa on the map and it appears a single, if odd shaped, state, but the situation in the 1860s was very different. Like "Germany" and "Italy", "Malaysia" did not exist, it was a hotchpotch of small kingdoms and sultanates, and also three British enclaves, Penang, Malacca and Singapore, grouped together as the Straits Settlements. These had been part of the East India Company, but as with India, it was clear that the Company was not up to the task, and it was decided to group Penang, Malacca and Singapore as a Crown Colony in their own right, which was finally established in 1867.

In 1865 John Cameron published a thorough and illustrated description of the Straits Settlements prior to their transfer to Crown status (for details see at the end), most of the quotations and the information below comes from his book.


A road near Penang 1865

In 1786 Captain James Light leased Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah on behalf of the East India Company, attracted by its commanding position at the head of the Malacca straits and fine natural harbour. He offered a lease of 6,000 Spanish dollars per year, and a promise to provide military aid against the Siamese and Burmese. Unfortunately it soon became clear that the EIC had no interest in wars against enemies it had no particular quarrel with, not even helping when Siam occupied Kedeh and Kedeh became effectively a Siamese vassal state. In fact, the status quo was confirmed by the Burney Treaty between Britain and Siam in 1826. It was only in 1909 that a further treaty transferred Kedah and three other states to the British sphere of influence.

Penang was set up as a free port in competition with the Dutch in Indonesia, and immigrants flooded in, though it already had thriving Chinese and Indian trading communities.  One of the first things the EIC had done was build Fort Cornwallis in the harbour, but this was just a small palm stockade. Then in 1800 Arthur Wellsesley, the future Duke of Wellington, was bought in to update the defences. He recommended leasing a stretch of land across on the mainland as the whole island was not very big, about 13.5 miles by 10 miles, and a new mainland site would add a wedge about 25 miles long, and 4-11 miles wide as a buffer against any attacks from Kedeh, or pirates based on Kedeh´s shores. This became Province Wellesley, and increased the rent paid to Kedeh to 10,000 dollars per year. Further more, between 1804 and 1810 a proper fort was built, anticipating attacks from the French, pirates, or from Kedeh itself. It was built of stone and brick with a moat 9m wide and 2m deep, although in fact it never once saw battle.

In 1805 Penang had been made a "Presidency" within the EIC, raising it to the level of Madras and Bombay, and then it was made the capital of the new Straits Settlements with Malacca and Singapore, though Singapore replaced it in 1837.Cameron remarks how the town was smaller, and the bustle considerably less, than Singapore and it suffered though having no wharf or jetty, everything had to be ferried to ships at anchor. However, whilst the wealth of Singapore came from trade, Penang and Wellesley Province was much more productive agriculturally., especially in rice and sugar, as well as the being the biggest export port of "penang" or bete nuts. The hills of Penag island had a reputation for their healthy and pleasant climate, though at sea level Penag had "a disagreeable heaviness or sultriness about the atmosphere".

 A paddy field in Wellesley Province 1865

In August 1867 Penang suffered 10 days of riots, basically a turf war between Chinese Triads. The Kean Teik Tong and Red Flag against the Ghee Hin Kongsi and the White Flags. With weak EIC policing the Triads had become extremely powerful, trading in opium and illegal immigration. The new crown Colony Governor Colonel Edward Anson was forced to call in sepoys from India to put down the riots.


Malacca historically had a strong Chinese connection, the Sultan even marrying a Ming Chinese princess in the 1400s and it became the dominant force in the area. In 1511 the city was conquered by a Portuguese expedition from Goa with 1,200 men and 17 ships, but they struggled to keep control, and in 1641 it had been taken over by the Dutch. Malacca´s decline continued though as the Dutch were more interested in developing Bataiva (Jakatrta), and in 1824 they traded it to the British in exchange for Bencoolen in Sumatra, which made more sense for both parties. Malacca joined the Straits Settlements, and in 1867 became part of the same Crown Colony as Penang. Although trade was increasing by the 1860s and there was a sizable export of tin, it still wan´t breaking even.


A view of Singapore 1865

In 1819 Thomas Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with the Sultan of Johor on behalf of the EIC to develop the south of Singapore island as a trading post. It was a perfect choice, with a deep water harbour, fresh water and abundant timber.  In 1824, the EIC settlement was expanded to the whole island, and in 1826 Singapore joined the EIC Straits Settlements. Before this the Dutch had more or less a monopoly in the area, and had imposed many taxes and restrictions, so when Raffles declared Singapore a free port, without port duties, trade flooded in. Even in 1825 it was turning over 22 million pounds per year. Singapore grew at a staggering rate, from about 1,000 in 1819 to 100,000 in 1869, mainly Chinese and Indian immigrants coming to work in the rubber plantations and tin mines. Unfortunately, administration, and especially policing, did not grow at the same rate. In 1850 there were only 12 policeman in the whole city, and as in Penang the Triads became very powerful. On the plus side, relations with the Sultan of Johor, inland from Singapore, were extremely good during this period. This was not least as the British had provided military support in disputes with his neighbours. The Sultan, or Temenggong, Abu Bakar was known for his diplomatic skills, as well as desire to modernise Johor, and he had toured both Britain and Turkey.

Defence of the Straits

 Singapore harbour 1865

The EIC traditionally relied on fortresses rather than manpower. Singapore, the capital and the most naturally defensive of the enclaves, had four forts, all built since 1857, except Fullerton which had been remodelled. Why 1857?  - because that was the time of the Indian Mutiny, and everybody was nervous. The primary function of the forts was to provide a safe refuge for European residents, defence against an invading power was a secondary priority.

a) Fort Canning
On a hill near the city and about half a mile from the beach, with 7x 68 pounders, 8x 8 inch shell guns, and 2x 13 inch mortars. Withing the ramparts were accommodations for 150 European gunners. Unfortunately though, its distance from the sea meant that it's guns did not protect all of the harbour.
b) Fort Fullerton
Built on a promontory at the entrance to Singapore river, with 9x 68 pounders, and one 13 inch mortar.
c) Fort Palmer
An earthwork overlooking the entrance to the New Harbour, with 5x 56 pounders, and
d) Fort Faber
Also overlooking the New Harbour, with 2x 56 pounders.

This sounds impressive until you consider that until 1864 there were only 50 gunners to man them, and even after that only 120. Consequently, the guns were poorly maintained. Cameron recalls a 7 gun salute attempted in the early 1860s at Fort Canning, in which the first three cannons failed to fire.  A similar situation applied to the infantry. New barracks had been built in Singapore to house 1,200 men, but in 1865 the entire infantry contingent in the Settlements consisted of 2 battalions of Madras Native infantry, split between 400 hundred sepoys  in Penang, 100 in Malacca, 100 in Labuan (in Brunai) and 400 in Singapore. Cameron also makes the point that not a single gun points inland, and so landing a few regiments in that direction would render many of Singapore's defences useless - given what was to happen 80 years later this is very prescient. As for Penang and Malacca, Cameron assumes them indefensible against any European power that could get past the Royal Navy.

Post 1867 the situation did not change very much, partly as there was no obvious external threat, partly because the Settlements themselves were expected to pay 90% of defence costs. It was more economic, and probably better strategy, to rely on the Royal Navy to deter any foreign power. Of course the rise of Japan changed everything, but that is another story.


It was often remarked that for the English at home, "Malay" meant "pirate". In the 1830s and 40s there were whole fleets of Malay pirates, even entering the harbours at Penang and Singapore. Gradually though it was reduced by aggressive British and Dutch patrolling and, especially, the use of steam ships. Sailing ships had generally been ineffective against the pirate galleys, apart from anything else their tall masts had given warning of their approach. Steamships however frequently overhauled and then destroyed the pirates,  as well as bombarding their bases, so that generally piracy became uneconomic. On the other hand, as John Murray reported in The Quarterly Review of 1862 (Vol.3 p487).

 A Malay village near Singapore 1865

"Although the piratical system has received a severe check, and may be considered as destroyed in some of its former haunts, it is still in full operation elsewhere. ; On the north-west coast of Borneo, the Dayaks have been reduced to order, but the Malays in other parts of the archipelago still carry on their depredations. Piracy is not merely a habit; it is a passion. The organisation of a community for this purpose is as formidable as it is complete. 
High up the stream of some beautiful river, presenting the most enchanting scenery, the banks exhibiting pictures of Arcadian simplicity and primitive innocence, are moored fleets of boats, waiting for the well-known signal to put to sea. The vessels are built to subserve the exact purpose for which they are intended: the largest are 100 feet in length, with a proportionate beam, carry a gun in the bow, swivels on each broadside, and are propelled by sixty or eighty slaves; others, drawing only a few inches of water, are designed to approach as swiftly as the swoop of a hawk, and to board some unsuspecting ship before her crew can make any preparation. 

 Malay pirates (Illustrated London News 1857)

The platforms of the larger prahus are crowded with men who, at the prospect of a fight, generally deck themselves in scarlet; and the spectacle is said then to be eminently military and imposing: the brass guns glitter on the bows, spears and double-handed swords gleam in the sun; the fighting men often appear resplendent in steel armour, and their courage is animated by the beating of drums and gongs. A defenceless trader has little hope of escape from such formidable enemies.
The Quarterly Review Vol.3 p487 1862. John Murray

* Our tropical possessions in Malayan India: being a descriptive account of Singapore, Penang, Province Wellesley, and Malacca : their peoples, products, commerce, and government (available as a free google ebook)

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