A History of the Malay Peninsula

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Golden Chersonese

Portuguese Conquest

The Johor Empire

Dutch East India

The Straits Settlements

The Kedah Blockade

The Selangor Civil War

The Perak War

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British Malaya

The Straits Settlements

For various reasons, the English East India Company had for some time been considering the establishment of a factory near the Straits of Melaka. The only British post in the East Indian islands was established in 1685 - Bencoolen on the west coast of Sumatra. However, it was too far off the trade routes to be of much value. What was needed was a port on the route between India and Canton, where the East India Company had built up their most valuable trade by exchanging opium for a new beverage that was fast becoming all the rage in England - tea. British vessels engaged in this trade had to pay heavy tolls if they called at the Dutch ports to re-fit and to take on fresh provisions. Another factor was that the Coromandel coast of India was dangerous to sailing-ships during the northeast monsoon from November to March, and ships were forced to make long and expensive voyages to Bombay to gain shelter during this season. A port in the lee of the Malay Peninsula would be a much more convenient place to re-fit, both for merchant shipping and men-of-war. Finally, the British had always resented the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade and wished to gain a share in this lucrative traffic.

When Britain's thirteen colonies in America erupted in open revolt in 1776, the need for a naval presence on the Straits became more urgent. Britain was now at war with France, Spain and Holland, who had come to the aid of the rebellious American colonists. In 1781 a large fleet commanded by Admiral Bailli de Suffren arrived at the French naval base at Mauritius and, for the next three years, challenged British naval command of the Indian Ocean and blockaded British ports. One of his victims was a merchant, Francis Light, who was sailing in his ship, the Blake, to Madras with a cargo of rice when he was intercepted by one of Suffren's frigates and captured.

Fortunately, the Blake was recaptured by the British. The lesson of this naval campaign, however, was not lost on Light or on the Company, who realized more strongly than ever the need for a base near the Straits of Melaka. The British had been negotiating with Johor for an outpost at Riau but these plans were shattered when the Dutch defeated Raja Haji and established a garrison there. Light, during his trading expeditions, had kept in close touch with Kedah, where a new Sultan had come to the throne. From this ruler he obtained the offer of the island of Penang in return for protection from his enemies and compensation for loss of trade. He landed there with a small force of sepoys and, on 11th August 1786, raised the Union Jack - the first step towards what was to be 171 years of British rule on the Malay Peninsula.

Just a few years after Francis Light founded Penang, thousands of miles away on the other side of the globe, France erupted into revolution, beheaded her king and the French Republic was born. This upheaval soon involved all Europe in a series of wars which Britain entered in 1793. The revolutionary armies of France took the offensive , and among the countries which they overran was the Netherlands. Here a Batavian Republic dependent on France was set up, and the former ruler, William V, Prince of Orange took refuge in England. The resources of the Dutch and their Navy came under French control, and England feared that the Dutch colonies might be used as bases for attacks on Britain's trade and empire. It was therefore decided to occupy them as a precautionary measure. The Prince of Orange agreed with this policy and wrote letters to the Governors advising them to hand over control to the British, who had promised that the colonies would be returned when the war was over. It was a difficult decision for these Dutch officials, but most of them accepted it, and the Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon and Melaka were all occupied with varying degrees of reluctance. The most notable exception was Java, where the Government of the Netherlands East Indies still obeyed their republican masters at home, and acted as open allies of the French.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon had become ruler of France and his struggle with England had become a world war, stretching from the American continent and Caribbean to its easternmost front in the Straits of Melaka and the East Indies. In this world-wide struggle, both France and Britain sought any means to strike at each other and Napoleon especially had many schemes for attacking the commerce which was at the root of power for England - what he called "a nation of shopkeepers". He used French bases in the islands of Bourbon and Mauritius and Dutch naval forces in Java to threaten British shipping and trade in the East. For this purpose he had sent a French-trained soldier, Marshal Daendels, to strengthen the Dutch hold on Java and build up an army there.

The British had also been active. Their fleets still dominated the Indian Ocean, and expeditions from India took the Moluccas in 18o8 and Bourbon and Mauritius in 1810. Java still remained a threat, and the British Governor-General in India, Lord Minto, assembled a large invasion force at Melaka consisting of 100 ships and 11,000 troops. A great camp stretched along the sea-shore from Melaka's northern suburbs to Tanjong Kling. In 1811, Lord Minto arrived to lead the expedition in person, accompanied by his Secretary, Stamford Raffles. A landing was made without opposition and Batavia was occupied. The Dutch General Janssens (who had succeeded Daendels) withdrew to a prepared position at Cornelis seven miles inland. After only a week's fighting this stronghold was successfully stormed and Java now passed under British rule for nearly five years. Lord Minto returned to India, leaving Raffles as Lieutenant-Governor of Java and Sumatra.

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Raffles had hoped that Java might be retained by Britain but, much to his bitter disappointment, the Dutch returned to take over the government of Java and its dependencies. Britain still retained Bencoolen but it was too far away from the shipping routes to make any dent on the Dutch monopoly in trade, and the Dutch firmly held the two approaches to the archipelago by the Straits of Sunda and Melaka. The heads of the East India Company in London and Calcutta were opposed to any adventures in the archipelago which might involve them in expensive little wars, and the British Government would certainly have not approved any quarrels with the friendly Netherlands Government in Europe. If Raffles had not forced their hands, it seems fairly certain they would have done nothing to prevent the Dutch completing their control over Malay Peninsula as well as the whole of the East Indies islands.

Raffles, however, was convinced of the necessity of breaking the Dutch monopoly. Raffles was inclined to attempt to open the Straits of Melaka by arranging to exchange Bencoolen for Melaka and establishing a new port at Riau if this could be done without a quarrel with the Dutch. The Governor-General in India, Lord Hastings, decided to let Raffles carry out this plan. After Raffles had left, Hastings changed his mind and wrote that he was to "desist from every attempt to form a British establishment in the Eastern Archipelago".

However, before this message reached Raffles, he had already carried out his original orders. His small squadron assembled at Penang and Major Farquhar, the Resident of Melaka (who had just returned that town to the Dutch) joined Raffles as the officer chosen to take charge of the new settlement. He had recently visited Riau and made a commercial treaty with the Sultan and Raja Muda there, but this had resulted in the Dutch occupying the island and forcing the Malay rulers to promise to exclude all other nations from their dominions. With Riau no longer an option, Raffles negotiated with the Sultan for a concession in Johore. There seems to be little doubt that Raffles already had in mind "the site of the ancient city of Singapore " as the chosen spot - and he needed to get there before the Dutch. Raffles landed in Singapore on 28 January 1819 and left Farquhar there to establish a settlement.

As was to be expected, the Dutch were furious. Raffles had in fact disobeyed his orders, which said that he could only make an agreement with Johore if the Sultan was not under the authority of the Dutch. In fact, the Dutch claimed that he had been under their authority since the treaty Of 1785 and this had been renewed by the treaty they had made with Sultan Abdul Rahman in 1818. There was a great danger that they might send military forces from Melaka or Batavia to seize Singapore. Farquhar, who had only a handful of troops, asked for reinforcements from Penang but, without direct orders from Calcutta, this was refused. The English tried to conciliate the Dutch by saying that Singapore would be given up if the Dutch proved their claim to it, but they pointed out that when Melaka was surrendered to the British in 1795 they had themselves said that Riau was an independent state and that Johore and Pahang were not a part of it. It followed that when Riau was restored to them, it was without such dependencies.

In March 1824 the Governments of Great Britain and the Netherlands signed in London a treaty which was intended to settle all outstanding differences between the two nations in the East. By this Britain gave up Bencoolen and promised not to establish any other settlements in Sumatra. In return, the Dutch gave up Melaka and undertook not to interfere with any of the states of the Malay Peninsula. The result was to define clearly the sphere of influence of each power - with the Dutch in firm control of what was to become modern Indonesia and the British on the path of moulding what was to become Malaya.

The Treaty of 1824 was also a blessing in disguise for the Malay world - in particular Johor. The defeat of the Bugis by the Dutch in 1785 completely destroyed any power the Johor Empire wielded. Johor - and perhaps much of the Malay peninsula as well - lay helpless at the feet of the victorious Dutch. Britain's recognition of the independence of the Johor Sultanate restored some of the old Empire's lost freedom and dignity. Johor was to remain fiercely independent for the rest of the century and blossomed into what was arguably the first modern Malay state.

Prince of Wales Island

Britain plants its flag in the Malay world

The Battle of Prai

Second Naning War

Penang under attack


From den of pirates to port city

Agent of Empire

The English East India Company

Betel Nut Island

Origins of the name Penang

Malay pirates of
the Indian Ocean

From 'The Pirates Own Book' (1837)

Pirate Hunters

Pirate Hunter

Britain's answer to the dreaded Malay pirate

War on Terror
in the Straits

The US attack on Kuala Batu

The First Naning War

First Naning War

The Malays in revolt

The Second Naning War

Second Naning War

The Empire strikes back

About the Author

Write to the author: sabrizain@malaya.org.uk

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