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1824-1870 - The Straits Settlements

For a half century after the British became the paramount power in Malaya their interests remained little different from those of the Dutch and the Portuguese before them. They came to trade, and all extensions of political relations and administrative responsibilities were regarded simply as unwanted expenses. The Settlements were important to the British mainly for the command of the Strait and as links in the long chain of bastions protecting the shipping lanes from Gibraltar to Hong Kong. The only war with a Malay state resulted from a misinterpretation in 1830 of the established relation between the Dutch and Naning and ended in the annexation of Naning to Malacca. The Naning war was costly; later, its major significance lay in the frequency with which it was cited as an argument against future intervention in the Malay states.

The Settlements came to dominate fairly extensive hinterlands. As the British established peace in the area, the populations of the ports grew rapidly and the demand for labor led to large-scale immigration of Chinese and Indian workers. Within 6 months after Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, he reported that the population had reached 5,000, mostly Chinese who came to profit from the trade of the new port. By 1825 the trade of Singapore was double that of Penang and Malacca together. Singapore's rapid development can be attributed largely to the policies of its founder.

Raffles was one of Britain's first advocates of colonial responsibility, the predecessor of a type of colonial officer met more frequently in the later nineteenth century. A scholar of the Malay language, for which he compiled a dictionary, and a respecter of Malay ways, he was convinced that the extension of British influence could bring nothing but benefits to war-ravaged Malaya.

Within a few months he drew up plans for a model town to replace the sprawling port community, and in 1823 Singapore was rebuilt. Around Government Hill were separate kampongs (Malay villages) for each group of residents: government workers, merchants, Hindus, Arabs, Chinese and Bugis. The Malays lived apart, to the southwest of the city. Over each group was placed a headman responsible for keeping the peace. Twelve European magistrates heard cases not settled within the separate communities, and, as later became usual in Malaya, they administered laws adapted from local custom, British law and Indian law. Raffles abolished slavery and instituted the policy of free trade years before either of these measures was adopted elsewhere in the British Empire.

Raffles left Singapore permanently some months before the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 ensured that the island would remain in British hands. The combination of its position, efficient administration and the policy of free trade rapidly made it the dominant center for both local and entrepot trade. Penang was too far north to achieve such prominence, and Malacca was prevented from becoming a major competitor by the gradual silting of its harbor. In 1832, Singapore was made the capital of the Straits Settlements.

Until 1851 the governor was responsible to the governor of Bengal Presidency; after that, to the governor general of India. In 1858, when the East India Company was deprived of its governing powers, control of the Settlements came under the India Office in London. Throughout the period, the civil service in the Settlements was staffed by members of the Indian Civil Service, and the law administered was adapted from that of India.

By the 1860's so many changes had occurred that the older pattern of administration no longer fitted. The value of Singapore's trade in 1825 had been £2.6 million; by 1864 it was £13.3 million. The population of the Settlements had increased tremendously as thousands of Malaysian peoples migrated from the Archipelago and more thousands of Chinese came to profit from the expansion of trade. The Chinese immigrants posed an increasingly difficult problem; frequent fights between members of rival Chinese secret societies disrupted public order; in one such battle in 1854 over 4,000 Chinese were killed.

Other problems resulted from the fact that the members of the Indian Civil Service seldom learned much about the Malays, and even less of the Chinese, for they considered assignment to Malaya a temporary lull in their careers. Inhabitants of the Settlements grew bitter when the Indian Government tried to impose taxes on the merchants, to substitute the rupee for the Straits dollar and even to impose duties on ships entering Singapore harbor. In 1867 the British Government agreeing to requests, transferred the Settlements to the jurisdiction of the British Colonial Office.

With this change the Straits Settlements, together with Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands and Labuan, became a Crown colony and remained so until 1946. A Malayan Civil Service was formed, for which men were specifically trained. Otherwise, the basic government of the Settlements continued much the same. Whereas the governor consulted both an Executive Council and a Legislative Council, the majority of the members of each were appointed and were official—that is, their votes could be commanded by the governor if necessary. Some representatives of the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities participated as unofficial members of the Legislative Council, on various advisory boards, and on the harbor and school boards, but local representation extended no further until after World War II.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, while the Settlements were more or less prospering, the internal conditions of the rest of Malaya continued to deteriorate. Siam, stronger than at any previous time, continued to encroach on the northern Malay states, and the war between Kedah and Siam which had begun in 1821 continued intermittently. Twice the British cooperated with Siam to prevent the return of the Malay Sultan of Kedah. Finally in 1824 the Governor of Penang mediated the dispute. The Sultan returned, but three areas were carved out of Kedah: Setul, which reverted to Siam in 1909; Kubang Pasu, which was later rejoined to Kedah; and Perlis, which has remained a separate state.

Perak, in 1822, with the aid of the Sultan of Selangor, threw off the Thai yoke, and for the following 3 years a war between Siam on the one hand and Perak and Selangor on the other threatened to lay waste the country. Faced with the threat of Thai control over the tin-rich regions of lower Perak and Selangor, the British intervened in 1826 to gain a promise that Siam would not attempt to seize either of those Malay states. Finally, too, the British Governor of Penang promised the long-sought aid to the Sultan of Perak in the event of invasion; this put an end to Siam's claims of suzerainty. The treaty with Siam guaranteed the British the right to trade in the vassal states of Kelan- tan and Trengganu. Both states attempted to rid themselves of Thai influence; in practice, the British treated Trengganu as a nearly independent state, while recognizing stronger Thai influence over Kelantan.

In the central and southern states wars of succession raged through- out the period, this time as outgrowths of the division in 1824 of the Riau-Johore Sultanate. Although the Sultanate had never been a truly united kingdom, the ruler of Johore had often had a deciding voice in the choice of succession in the states owing allegiance to him These states did not recognize the British-supported Johore Sultanate, and in almost every state a local ruler's death was followed by a war contesting the succession; such wars depopulated Pahang and Trengganu in the 1860's. Factions from outside states supported rival candidates in Selangor, a state growing in importance as its output of tin increased.

Economic change resulting from British policy in the Settlements further complicated the internal Malayan scene, particularly the development of tin mining, largely achieved by Chinese capital and the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants. As in the Settlements, Chinese immigration created new problems; the members of one society frequently fought with those of others, and from tune to time fighting broke out between Chinese and Malays.

These various quarrels throughout the central and southern states could not fail to affect the British colonies. As the British Government continued in general to reject intervention in Malay affairs, except where some injury was received by a British subject, the outcry from the trading groups in Singapore and Penang grew. One official dispatch of the period noted that only in Johore and the states under Siamese suzerainty was peace preserved.

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