The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars lasted only a few short decades. However, the effects on Southeast Asian politics were long lasting. These European conflicts permanently shifted the balance of power between the Dutch and British. The Dutch began sliding down the Wheel of Fortune, while the British began moving up.
Let us examine England’s colonial influence on Southeast Asia. Or should we say their Company’s influence? English investors formed the British East India Trading Company based upon the Dutch East India Trading Company’s model. Like the Dutch Company, the British Company was also a semi-autonomous political entity that was only loosely controlled by the central government. Because of the distances involved, the price of communication was exorbitant. As such, these international businesses made most of their decisions without consulting Europe, i.e. rulers and the royal advisors. No Internet then.
The Dutch and British companies were the precursors of the current international business community, a.k.a. the Cartel. There is one huge difference between the Cartel and the Companies. The Companies have written charters that legally bind them to a specific country. They also have a board of directors that consciously directs affairs and can even be held somewhat accountable.
In contrast, the modern Business Cartel has no charter, no country and no board of directors. No one is or can be held accountable. Yet as we shall see, the global power of the Cartel dwarfs that of the Companies. Indeed while Companies must ultimately answer to their respective countries, many modern nations answer to the Cartel. Even the United Nations must bow before this unnamed international business consortium from time to time.
But we are getting ahead of our story, perhaps foreshadowing future developments. The point of this introduction is that the Company is a political power that is relatively independent of the homeland from whence it originated.
The process of English colonization in Asia started when the British East India Company was able to conquer parts of India in 1750. From this time onwards, the southern subcontinent of Asia was absorbed piecemeal into the British Empire. Besides moving north into the interior of India, the Company also began moving eastward as well.
Like the Portuguese and Dutch before them, their first stop was Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a large mountainous island to the east of India in the Bay of Bengal. As a seafaring trading culture, their people influenced Southeast Asian culture just as did India’s. Ceylon, as it was then called, was a spreading center for Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia’s mainland. In fact, the Ceylonese monks were the first to transcribe the Buddha’s verbal transmissions into a permanent written record – the influential Pali Canon.
In addition to being a great spiritual center, Ceylon also had some exceedingly prosperous ports for the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. These exquisite flowers attracted the bees. They began swarming to extract her wealth.
The Portuguese were the first to conquer Ceylon and have their way with her, but not the last. She was conquered and ruled by a succession of European powers for the next 400 years. The pattern was always the same. Sailing in from the west with their merciless guns, they would first conquer Ceylon and then Malacca. After the Portuguese (1505->1658) came the Dutch (1658->1796), who were in turn followed by the British (1796->1947). Indeed those countries that were able to control these trading centers became world powers due to the ensuing wealth.
This infection of European political rule severely eroded Ceylon’s Buddhist practices. To purify and rejuvenate their Theravada traditions, the Ceylonese recruited Thai monks from Chiang Mai. Theosophists from the West even wrote a Buddhist textbook that is still used currently on the island.
From India, the English infection spread across the Bay of Bengal to western seaports of Southeast Asia. In 1786, the British East India Company, extending its reach, established their first English colony in the port of George Town on the island of Penang off the northwest coast of the Malay Peninsula. This was the real beginning of the British Empire’s incursion into Southeast Asia. They used this leading seaport as their foothold to spread their disease of exploitation.
The British came the same way the others had. The British East India Trading Company, the world’s second international corporation, first established a trading post on St. George’s Island off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. From this outpost, they assumed control of Ceylon. Understanding the economic importance of key trading ports, the British then seized control of Malacca to effectively dominate the Straits of Malacca. Shortly after, they also set up a new duty free port called Singapore. They also moved to dominate Sabah, a major port in Northern Borneo. This move completed the British domination of the major ports between India and China. To indicate the importance of these ports as a group, they became a crown colony called the Straits Settlement in 1867. The British knew if they could control these crucial entrepôts - the conduit for trade between Eastern and Southern Asia, that they would become wildly prosperous as the middleman between East and West.
The English bided their time - waiting for an opportunity to move in. Then the Napoleonic Wars began in Europe. Who could have anticipated this uprising of their working classes, even a decade earlier?
Taking advantage of the woes of their neighbors on the European mainland, the British seized the Dutch trade centers in 1795. This included Malacca, as well as the island of Ceylon. Although a relatively small event at the time, globally as well as locally, this was just the beginning of the British flu that was to have such a devastating impact upon Southeast Asian culture.
To understand what comes next, let us examine the life of Thomas Raffles. He is credited with establishing Britain's Far Eastern empire. For this accomplishment, he was even knighted in 1816.
Raffles was born at sea to a merchant captain’s wife during a voyage home from the West Indies. Growing up poor, he began working as a clerk for Britain’s East India Company at the age of 14 to support his mother and 4 sisters. Recognized for his industriousness, he was appointed assistant secretary of the aforementioned island of Penang with its British port of George Town at the age of 23. While at Penang, Raffles began his investigation into the language, history, and culture of the Austronesian speakers scattered over the thousand islands of the Indonesian archipelago.
Located on the northern entrance to the Strait of Malacca, Penang was significant as England’s initial foothold in Southeast Asia. When Napoleon conquered the Netherlands, the British East India Company had moved from this island to take over the Dutch ports. By this time in 1804, the Company was consolidating its position and considering further expansion.
Unfortunately Napoleon was also in the same mindset. Now in charge of Dutch-ruled Java, he hoped to use the island to undermine and even supplant the lucrative English trade in the region. Sensing this potential, Lord Minto, the governor-general of India, took steps to thwart French ambitions. To this end, he appointed Raffles to be his agent in the area due to his extensive knowledge of Southeast Asia’s island cultures. His task was to begin preparations for a naval invasion of the island.
Raffles established his headquarters in Malacca. His independent authority at such a young age aroused jealousy in the senior members of the Company. Although this envy was to ultimately have negative repercussions, Raffles was still under Lord Minto’s wing and sailed with him to Java as a member of his staff.
The naval expedition landed on August 6, 1811. After dispatching the Dutch-French forces in a brief but ferocious battle, the English took over the administration of Java. Minto acknowledged Raffles significant role in the British success. He also recognized Raffles’ organizational talents combined with his knowledge of and compassion for the Javanese and their culture. On September 11, Minto proclaimed Raffles lieutenant governor of Java.
At the age of 30, Raffles was in charge of not only Java but of the 1000 islands of the Dutch East Indies with its millions of inhabitants. He took it upon his administration to inaugurate a series of colonial reforms aimed at improving the living conditions of the indigenous population. As might be imagined, these costly reforms eroded profits and thereby placed him at odds with many of the East India Company’s directors.
Declining health and the death of his beloved wife eroded his effectiveness. Raffles was recalled after less than 5 years in Java and his reforms were abandoned. Due to his political accomplishments and extensive knowledge, Raffles was received as a mini-celebrity when he returned to London. He was both knighted by the monarchy and elected as a fellow to the renowned Royal Society in 1816.
Despite this personal acclaim from England’s elite classes, Raffles was now totally out of favor with the Company’s leaders due to their non-humanist profit-dominated mentality, especially after the death of his sponsor, Minto. Because Raffles was a compassionate man who was devoted to the welfare of humankind, the Company had lost confidence in his ability to generate profits. Accordingly, the Company assigned him to Bengkulu, a run down, fever-ridden pepper port on the west coast of Sumatra.
This is a clear cut example of the differing agendas of the Country and the Company. The Country values national service and scholarship. In contrast, the Company only values those who can maximize profits. As a further indication of how separate the political entities are, national fame does not lead to favorable treatment by the board of directors.
After Napoleon was defeated, the Dutch regained control of the Indonesian archipelago and began enforcing a policy of complete commercial monopoly. Raffles observed this process as it unfolded from his Sumatran outpost. With the purpose of protecting British interests in the area, he sailed to India where he sought an audience with Lord Hastings, the governor-general of India.
Employing his broad knowledge of Southeast Asian culture, Raffles persuaded Hastings that immediate action was required to prevent the Dutch from reassuming control of Southeast Asian trade. With Hastings’ prestigious authority behind him, Raffles sailed to the Malay Peninsula with the express purpose of establishing a port east of Malacca. Why was this a crucial strategy that demanded urgent attention?
At this time, the British Company controlled the ports of Ceylon, George Town on the island of Penang, and Malacca, which allowed them to dominate trade on the Indian Ocean. However, the Dutch Company controlled the ports of the East Indies. With their monopolistic practices, it was evident that the Dutch hoped to secure complete domination of the lucrative China trade. To prevent this eventuality, Britain needed an eastern port that would give them unrestricted entry to the Spice Islands and the China Sea.
In 1819, Raffles landed on a sparsely populated island named Singapore located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Singapore was founded in the 13th century by a Sumatran prince. He named it Singa Pur (Sanskrit for "city of the lion"). Evidently he mistook a tiger for a lion, because lions have never existed there. However, the city eventually took the Merlion, half lion, half ocean creature, as their symbol.
To indicate Singapore's early importance, Marco Polo even visited the port on his way home from China in the late 1200s. In the late 14th century, the Javanese sacked Singapore presumably to prevent an upstart Sumatran prince from establishing a power base. Undeterred, the Sumatran prince founded a port at Malacca, a hundred miles away on the Western side of the peninsula.
To entice Chinese trade, the prince made Malacca a free port, i.e. no tariffs or duties. Due to the ensuing prosperity, Malacca eventually became a major political power, even a mini-empire. During the many centuries of Malacca’s eminence as a premier international port, Singapore languished.
Singapore's modern history began with Raffles’ visit in January of 1819. With a vision of the city's strategic potential, he convinced Great Britain to purchase the territory, which they did in 1824. To stimulate development, Raffles turned Singapore into a free port, as Malacca had been. To indicate his commitment to the city, he was also known as Raffles of Singapore. The city quickly became a major British trading port in Southeast Asia. After fulfilling his destiny, Raffles died of a brain tumor in 1826 at the age of 45.
To complete their port-folio, pardon the pun, Singapore became a British crown colony, along with Malacca, George Town and Sabah in 1867. These 4 port cities were called the Straits Settlement as a group. Excluding Sabah, these port cities are located on the Straits of Malacca, a major trading route between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. The Straits of Malacca is the connection by sea between the East and West. Roughly speaking, these straits connect Southeast Asia with China and Japan in the East and India, Ceylon, Arabia, Northern Africa, and Europe in the West. The last port city of the group, Sabah, is located on the tip of Borneo in the South China Sea. The British East India Trading Company administered these properties. The ports of the Straits Settlement were the cities through which Britain wielded her power in Southeast Asia.
With the increased prosperity due to the British influence, Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asians began immigrating to Singapore in large numbers. The Chinese quickly outnumbered the rest. Despite the fact that the British were a minority, they continued to run Singapore as a colony for the next 100 years.
Malacca: “My golden age was long past by the time the British seized control and then established Singapore as their premiere port. However, my historic port was still important enough to be conquered. This conquest initiated the beginning of the end of my historical significance. From here I became part of the British Empire. Eventually the modern country of Malaysia absorbed me into her territories. I, the once world famous Malacca, was never to be a dominant global force again.
Ah, but what a history I’ve had - me - the legendary port of Malacca. First founded in 1400 as a duty free port by a Sumatran, I quickly became the global entrepôt of the era. Almighty China helped me get started by supporting my sovereignty against the Thai in 1405 and visited me regularly until her untimely retreat into her cultural cocoon - only a few decades later. My rise to global preeminence was also aided my founder’s conversion to Islam. He then formed the first Sultanate in our area around my growing prosperity.
However I wasn’t just another commercial port like Singapore, my successor. I was also a religious center like my neighbor, the island of Ceylon. I’m proud to say that my port and growing mini-empire became a spreading center for the religion of Islam to the rest of our world.
My rise to fame was mercurial, but my fall took centuries. Unfortunately my wealth was so renowned throughout the world that each of the series of European powers that entered our choice neighborhood seized my port. Attracted by my reputation as a world-renowned trading center, the Portuguese, the first Europeans in our area, conquered me in 1511. This was the beginning of my decline. However I was still important enough that the Dutch took it upon themselves to conquer me from the Portuguese over a century later, in 1641. Then another century and a half later in 1795, the British considered my port still sufficiently valuable to seize me from the Dutch. In their Anglo Dutch Treaty of 1824, I was formally ceded to Great Britain. I was proud that the English gave up the Dutch East Indies, but retained me. Then in 1826 the British East India Company formed the Straits Settlement, which included Penang, Singapore, and me - Malacca. From this point in time, Singapore grew in influence, while I faded into obscurity. But what a great history I had.
From here my significance fades into that of the Malay Peninsula. So to our dear patient Reader, I bid my final adieu, grateful that my time in the sun was briefly revived by these black and white scribbles on these thin pieces of reconstituted wood.”
Moon and Stars, tears streaming: “Hooray! Hoorah! You were great. We loved you. Encore! Encore!”
Malacca bowing: “Thank you. Thank you. But sorry - no reprise this time. My time is past. My rise and fall was rapid, somewhat akin to a shooting star. But this was good. My pride was humbled by my rapid demise. I’ve learned to appreciate the simpler things in existence. When I was valuable like an exquisite gemstone, everyone was fighting over me. But now that my importance and subsequent value has diminished, the superpowers leave me and my people alone to just relish the extreme excitement of Just Being.
Before I fade into obscurity, I would like to introduce our next speaker. It’s been my pleasure to have evolved with her over our green planet’s many millennia. From her I emerged and now I am happily absorbed back into her womb. Let’s hear it for the Malay Peninsula, my beloved mother. I’ll let her take up the story of the British entry into our world from here.”
Malay Peninsula: “Thanks. My history as a peninsula has been much less glamorous than the rest of my neighbors. Many of Southeast Asia’s great Empires have included my territory, but I was never a kingdom unto myself. I was under rule of the Khmer of Funan, the Sumatrans of Srivijaya, then the Javanese of Majapahit, and even the Thai with their capitol in Ayutthaya. My famous daughter, Malacca, provided me with my first claim to fame. However her sultanate only controlled part of my peninsula – and very loosely at that. Other sultanates formed rapidly after her success, but each of them was a political entity unto themselves. They were constantly warring between each other and the Thai kingdoms of the mainland. Their boundaries were constantly shifting and there was no sense of unity, whatsoever.
This was partly because of the lack of homogeneity. For instance in the 18th century - before the British arrived, the Buginese invaded from the Celebes Island and established the sultanates of Johor and Selangor, on my west coast. The sultanate of Malacca was between them. They were trying to circumvent the European influence. North of them was the sultanate of Perak. So we had 3 diverse cultures strung along my west coast - Malay, Buginese, Dutch, then Buginese again. The Sumatrans also established their own sultanate.
This complex situation was the state of affairs when the British arrived to add their culture into the mix. As mentioned earlier, my sultanates, while stable political entities, had constantly shifting borders. This drove the British crazy. They needed to know who to bribe to get control of my peninsula. They fixed boundaries and eventually created the Federated Malay States in 1895. Even though my people were still very diverse culturally, this was the beginning of our sense of nationalism. Just looking for the silver lining in a very dark cloud.
Initially, the British mainly kept to their ports - controlling the spice trade. Then tin was discovered in my interior. At this point their intentions changed. They realized, like their European cronies before them, that they could extract great wealth from our lands. This potential for profits was independent of controlling the trade. The European sickness grew slowly - gaining momentum as the money began to roll in. The British moved carefully to control my interior as well as the coast. My next resource was somewhat of a surprise. It had to do with rubber.
Rubber was first developed in the early 1800s as a byproduct of rubber trees, which originated in South America. The original use for rubber was quite limited - as an eraser for pencils, for the busy accountants of the day. This is how rubber got its name. Despite the limited use of this product, the Spanish and Portuguese, perhaps sensing the potentials, wanted to keep their monopoly. They passed laws forbidding anyone from removing the seeds from South America.
However, the English didn’t want to be trapped by this Latin monopoly. In the 1860s, Henry Wickham, a British citizen, smuggled some of the seeds from these rubber plants out of Brazil. He shipped them to Britain’s growing Southeast Asian Empire. It was at this time that they planted the first rubber trees in Asia - primarily in Ceylon and me, the Malay Peninsula. The income from these imported plants was limited at first, but not for long. With the invention and growth of the car manufacturing in the early 20th century, profits soared. Cars created the rubber industry - as 60% of rubber that is produced is used for their tires.
The British enslaved my local population to grow and harvest their plants. Of course they rationalized their behavior by saying that they provided jobs for my people - even though we had been doing just fine for the tens of thousands of years before they arrived. Eventually these transplants were so successful that now 90% of the world’s rubber comes from Asia. Further, 90% of the Asian rubber trees were sprouted from Wickham’s original seeds.
The British Company said all of this development was for our good. The truth was that the profits didn’t remain in our territory, but instead were transferred to England. The Company was in charge of all the international commerce. They continued to conscript my locals at gunpoint to do their dirty work - sometimes displacing families and villages to seize my natural resources Unfortunately this process of displacement is a universal practice amongst the Western Companies with their associated countries. This was very discouraging for me. The Europeans had disturbed the lives of my indigenous people, who had lived self sufficiently in my interior jungles since the beginning of time.
But my humiliation was nothing compared to that of Burma, who had a rich cultural heritage dating back nearly two thousand years. I’ll let her tell her own tale of woe.”