The Establishment of Colonial Singapore: 1819-1867

The History of Singapore. Editor: Jean E Abshire. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

The founding of Singapore as a colony of the English East India Company (EEIC), based in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, was an outcome of the global political and economic competitions of its time. With Napoleon having been defeated in Europe and the Netherlands once again independent, the Dutch were resurgent in Southeast Asia and once again a threat to Britain’s trade with China. This trade was crucial to Britain because it was seen as the country’s path to ever greater prosperity.

The Context for Colonization

For many years, the sole British holding in the region was Bengkulu (formerly Bencoolen) on the island of Sumatra. Initially established because it was far enough away from the Dutch trading center of Jakarta (formerly Batavia) but close to lucrative pepper-growing areas of Sumatra, the Bengkulu settlement proved over its 140 years to be a disappointment. Too far from main trading routes and largely a financial drain, it was considered a remote venue where ineffective EEIC staffers could cause little harm. Still, the British were loath to abandon the outpost because it was a toehold in a valuable region dominated by the Dutch. In 1818 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the person primarily associated with the founding of Singapore, was posted there. Previously, Raffles had been posted to Penang on the Malay Peninsula, where the British established themselves in 1786. In Penang, Raffles learned the Malay language and history, and he maintained a correspondence with Malay nobles. This prior experience, combined with what he found in Bengkulu in terms of the expanding influence in the area of the Dutch, were chief motivations for Raffles in advocating for the establishment of an EEIC colony in Singapore. Given how the colony developed, however, it is also worth noting that Raffles was an idealist and a visionary, and his idea for the new colony was to create a place where liberal, Enlightenment ideas could be applied (ending slavery, providing education, etc.). While commercial interests were foremost in creating a new colony, these idealistic notions were further impetus for his efforts.

Initially, Raffles sought to work from Penang to establish a secure trade route for EEIC trade with China. He believed if peace could be made with Aceh, which was across the Strait of Melaka from Penang, then that could serve as the company’s route. He soon realized, however, that Penang was too far north of the critical narrow part of the Strait and that an EEIC holding in the area of the narrows would be required to secure reliable trade free of Dutch interference. While he had never visited Singapore in any of his previous travels in the region, Raffles had a familiarity with the early history of Singapore and was aware of the Malay Annals that identified Singapore as the original location of the still active Johor-Riau Sultanate. His interest in this historical legacy may also have heightened his interest in Singapore as the location for a future colony. The historical record is mixed, with some documents lacking any references to Singapore but others suggesting Singapore was in Raffles’s sights all along.

In addition to international political and economic considerations, the political turmoil of the indigenous peoples also facilitated the colonization of Singapore. A succession dispute threw the Sultanate of Johor-Riau into disarray. Problems were bubbling already at the turn of the nineteenth century when the temenggong, a traditional, very high-ranking position of Malay nobility, roughly comparable to a minister of justice or defense, left the Riau area where the sultan was based. Temenggong Abdul Rahman had his traditional authority undermined by the strong influence of the Bugis in the court. Temenggong Abdul Rahman set up his own operations in Singapore, just far enough away from the sultan’s power center where he could have a fairly high degree of autonomy within a small area of influence. This development occurred in the first decade of the 1800s. In 1812 the puppet-sultan of the Bugis, Sultan Mahmud of Johor-Riau died, leaving behind no heirs born of royal mothers. His two sons, the elder Hussein, also known as Tengku Long and the younger, Abdul Rahman (the same name as the Temenggong but not the same person) were both born of commoner mothers. There are indications that succession was intended for the elder. For example, prominent marriages had been arranged with daughters of the Temenggong and another high ranking official in Malay courts, the bendahara, a title comparable to prime minister and commander in chief. However, the powerful Bugis supported the succession of the younger son. This was a logical choice for the Bugis; the marriage arrangements of the older son would create family ties between him and the formal titleholders of the Malay nobility who were the chief rivals of the Bugis for influence. The Bugis support was sufficient to leave Abdul Rahman the de facto successor; however, no official coronation could occur because the late sultan’s royal wife supported the succession of the elder son, Hussein. She would not turn over the royal regalia (e.g., musical instruments supposedly dating back about five centuries to Queen Sakidar Shah) that were necessary for a legitimate coronation and rule. Thus, the situation remained unsettled until Hussein removed himself from the court environment and went to a remote location in the Riau islands, leaving Abdul Rahman to act as sultan.

The Establishment of the Colony

In order for Raffles to realize his vision for establishing a new colony, he had to gain the approval of the EEIC. He pitched his idea to the Governor-General of India, Lord Hastings, who approved limited authority to secure British trade through Melaka. Raffles went to Penang and enlisted the assistance of his long-time associate Colonel William Farquhar, sending Farquhar south with a small fleet of ships to investigate options. Raffles joined him a short time later, and after ruling out other locations such as Karimun Island in the middle of the Strait, Raffles and Farquhar weighed anchor off the coast of Singapore. The next day, on January 30, 1819 they landed near the mouth of the Singapore River and met with the Temenggong, quickly signing an agreement with him permitting the British to establish a trade settlement on the Singapore River. Documents show that early international traders had knowledge of Singapore’s natural deep-water harbor, today known as Keppel Harbour, which is what eventually made Singapore such an outstanding site. However, Raffles seemed to have no idea of the excellence of Singapore’s port offerings. Previous trade activity took place on the River and the Kallang Estuary, and evidence suggests that this is what Raffles imagined Singapore had to offer as a port. It seems that after Singapore fell into relative obscurity after the sultanate moved to Melaka, then Johor and Riau, the awareness of the deep-water harbor was lost to the international trading community.

Prior to his work with Raffles, Farquhar had been the Resident (chief administrator) of Melaka for more than a decade while the British held it for the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars. This gave Farquhar, like Raffles, an intimate understanding of Malay culture and language. He had, in fact, married a Malay woman. His local insights meant that he was also familiar with the power struggle and succession crisis that was going on within the Sultanate of Johor-Riau. It is likely that the Temenggong also considered the strategic advantage that cooperation with the British could have in settling that matter in his favor. Since Abdul Rahman was de facto sultan, Farquhar was sent to ask his approval for the establishment of a trading settlement in Singapore. This was a rather sensitive effort, since Farquhar, as Resident of Melaka, had signed a treaty with Abdul Rahman providing for the security of British shipping and in signing the treaty effectively acknowledged Abdul Rahman as the new sultan. The Dutch, who held considerable influence with Abdul Rahman, were reasserting their authority in the Riau Archipelago and insisted the treaty be annulled. When Farquhar reached Bintan, where the court was based, Abdul Rahman denied him permission for the settlement. However, in the interim the Temenggong summoned the rival successor for the sultanate, Hussein, to Singapore. On February 6, 1819, Raffles signed an agreement with Hussein and the Temenggong in which the EEIC affirmed Hussein as Sultan and granted him $5,000 per year and the Temenggong $3,000 per year in exchange for the right to establish a trading settlement at Singapore.

The Dutch were angry when they heard of the British actions. The head of Dutch operations at Melaka recommended attacking the British and removing them from Singapore, an act that could have been accomplished with ease, given the tiny British force in Singapore and the enormous strength of Dutch troops and watercraft in the region. To make matters even more uncertain, Sultan Hussein and the Temenggong both wrote letters to Abdul Rahman and other officials, in an effort to cover their own perceived misdeeds, claiming that they had been coerced by the British into signing the treaty.

What likely staved off Dutch military action and allowed the British to establish a hold on Singapore were the mixed messages given by EEIC and British government officials to the Dutch. While Raffles and some in the EEIC were deeply concerned about keeping the Dutch away from Britain’s China trade, others were instead contemplating turning away from Southeast Asia and granting it to the Dutch in exchange for Dutch holdings in India. The EEIC governor of Penang, who had not supported Raffles’s mission to establish a more southern colony in the area, suggested to the Dutch that the EEIC would not agree to Raffles’s arrangements with Hussein and the Temenggong. Moreover, the EEIC office in London had sent word to Kolkata forbidding the mission, although the word arrived too late; and the British Foreign Office told the Dutch government that Raffles had authority to establish commercial arrangements but not political ones. This led the Dutch to be more moderate in their response to the treaty, but the EEIC headquarters in Kolkata embraced the treaty and ordered more defensive forces sent to Singapore. The Foreign Office had been alarmed at what it would have to do to save face if the Dutch forcibly removed the British from Singapore, but when the Dutch failed to do so, the Foreign Office, too, supported the treaty. Thus, the little colony was established and largely unchallenged by the Dutch forces that could so easily have reversed Raffles’s work.

Surviving the initial political uncertainties did not, however, guarantee Singapore an easy path. Raffles left Singapore almost immediately after signing the treaty, appointing Farquhar as Resident and leaving a series of instructions for how the colony should be established, specifically defensive arrangements and the policy designating Singapore a free port with no tariffs for trade. The first few months were difficult, with too little food to feed the additional mouths of the British. The local population numbered probably in the upper hundreds, with Malays making up the largest number of households, followed by various Orang peoples, and a small group of resident Chinese.1 They had a subsistence existence gathering fruit and catching fish; the increase in numbers of people to feed was initially problematic. Combining that with the security threats from the Dutch and from local pirates, the new administration had numerous challenges. Farquhar, utilizing his ongoing connections in Melaka (despite it being in Dutch hands), sent for food and traders, and the Melakans responded. By April there was adequate food, and trade was beginning with settlers coming from Melaka. Raffles returned in June of 1819 and made more logistical arrangements, including another treaty with the Sultan that defined the territory of the British trading settlement, bordered on the west by Tanjong Malong, on the east by Tanjong Katon, and extending as far inland as a cannon shot. He also began city planning in Singapore, designating specific residential areas for the different ethnic communities and appointing people of each community to have oversight, maintain order, and settle disputes within their community. The Temmengong and Sultan had that responsibility for their respective followers, while Resident Farquhar had final decision-making authority in cases of appeal.

The Early Years

With basic orders and provisions in place, Raffles returned to his governorship in Bengkulu. Farquhar was to report to him, but communications were poor at best, with Raffles often not replying to Farquhar’s queries. Thus, aside from Raffles’s basic policies, Farquhar was largely left alone to shape the development of the new colony. The most critical provision, Raffles’s insistence on free trade at the port, had both its positives and negatives. Trade and immigration grew. Fed in part by Farquhar’s reputation in Melaka, settlers flowed in to the burgeoning settlement. Immigration was further fed by Chinese who had settled in Southeast Asia to pursue private trade. They tended to move wherever trade conditions were favorable, and Singapore offered that through the lack of tariffs and the application of consistent laws and policies. A large group of disaffected Bugis, concerned about Dutch control of Riau, also moved to Singapore, which helped Singapore capture a significant portion of the substantial Bugis trade. However, on the negative side, the lack of tariffs also created severe financial restraints for the colony’s administration. Raffles insisted on extremely lean budgets because he feared that the EEIC would not support the development of Singapore if it were a financial drain. Lacking financing from the company and prohibited from raising funds by charging for trade, Farquhar was left to find creative solutions. His efforts at cost restraints were so successful that administrative salaries for Singapore for a year were less costly than Bengkulu for a month.2 To pay the bills, Farquhar implemented small port fees. He also disregarded Raffles’s idealistic social mandates relating to moral behavior and raised additional funds by auctioning monopoly rights to the sale of opium, liquor, and gambling operations. Some of the funds were used for public works, which lent a sense of security to Singapore’s future. Farquhar also arranged for the development of a local police force, funded in part by contributions from European and Asian merchants, to address the developing problem of lawless behavior.

Raffles returned to Singapore in the fall of 1822 as a last stop before retirement due to poor health. Finding a thriving colony on his return, he reportedly felt reinvigorated and became active in the administration of Singapore. While he was pleased by Singapore’s growth in population and thriving trade, he was extremely displeased by many of the choices Farquhar had made about policies for the colony and his revenue-seeking tactics. Raffles’s idealism shone through clearly during this time, proving he was a visionary, although not necessarily a practical administrator. Within a few months, Raffles denounced Farquhar to Kolkata as incompetent, further humiliated him by reassigning some of his duties to more junior staffers, and finally, in spring of 1823, removed Farquhar as resident to take on the job himself and then stripped Farquhar of his military leadership role. Kolkata later restored Farquhar’s good name and chastised Raffles for his poor treatment of Farquhar but not before Farquhar left Singapore, albeit with a warm send-off from the local merchants.

With the practical Farquhar out of the way, Raffles pursued his vision for the colony. Public works soon followed, including leveling a hill and filling in the southwest side of the Singapore River, which was too swampy to be useful. This reclaimed area, today known as Boat Quay, soon became the commercial center for the town. Raffles also relocated the Temenggong’s settlement away from the River, which freed the waterway for trade and also distanced the Temenggong’s followers, some of whom were problematically unruly, from the commercial center. Raffles also divvied up land to other groups. The Chinese were expected to comprise the bulk of future residents, so a significant area west of the River near the commercial center was set aside for them, with additional subdivisions for the different Chinese dialect groups.

Other major governance changes introduced by Raffles included easing the Sultan and Temenggong out of public life. In accordance with Malay tradition, Farquhar had let them have considerable influence within their communities and in the colony’s affairs. Raffles, however, saw their involvement as an impediment to his goals for the colony and made efforts to marginalize them, even buying out their judicial authority over their followers and any land rights beyond their designated areas. Raffles also strongly reaffirmed Singapore’s free trade status. He determined that the judicial system would be based on English law, except for situations relating to marriage, inheritance, and religious practice. In these practices, Malay laws could apply unless they were “contrary to reason, justice, or humanity.” A small measure of representative government was introduced by granting Europeans not affiliated with the EEIC a role in governance and legislation.

Issues of morality and social well-being also caught Raffles’s attention. He focused on the prevention of crime and the rehabilitation (rather than punishment) of convicts. He banned carrying weapons hoping to decrease violence. He also banned what he considered to be the worst of the social ills: gambling and cockfighting. He levied heavy taxes to discourage the use of opium and alcohol and forbade men from living from the earnings of prostitutes. Raffles also banned slave trading in Singapore, which was mostly carried out by the Bugis, and declared that no one who had come to Singapore since the British first arrived could be considered a slave. He also limited indentured servitude. Finally, shortly before his final departure from Singapore in 1823, he used some of his personal funds to open a school for the non-European population, the Singapore Institution.

Upon Raffles’s retirement, Singapore’s status in the EEIC shifted, coming under direct control of Kolkata, rather than being overseen from Bengkulu. Raffles departure from Singapore and the company also led to the appointment of Singapore’s third administrator, Resident Dr. John Crawfurd. Like Farquhar, Crawfurd was a pragmatist. He dismissed many of Raffles’s goals and policies as unreasonably idealistic and reversed them. Raffles’s plans for education, representative government, the justice system, and his moral standards fell by the wayside. Believing that gambling and cockfighting could not be eradicated, Crawfurd decided the government should profit by them and set up licensing agreements. He also earned revenue from opium and alcohol operations by setting up “revenue farms,” strictly regulated, government-sanctioned monopolies that were sold by auction. After winning the auctions, the owners of the revenue farms also had to pay regular rent to the government, providing ongoing funding. Opium for export was freely traded, but that destined for the domestic market was too lucrative to be left unregulated. In fact, the colony’s income from local opium operations usually constituted between 40 and 60 percent of locally collected revenue. This was a significant departure from Raffles’s vision. Gambling was eventually outlawed in 1829 and remained illegal on moral grounds despite recurrent discussions of restoring it for revenue purposes; however the opium dens remained open, thriving, and lucrative.

In contrast to his views of Raffles’s idealism, Crawfurd strongly supported his predecessor’s ideas relating to free trade and city planning, and he also worked to suppress slavery. Through a treaty in 1824, he further decreased the power of the Malay nobility; they were forbidden from engaging in any relations with other territories without EEIC consent. Crawfurd offered the Sultan and Temenggong a further significant financial reward if they would leave Singapore because he wanted the colony completely free from the ongoing intrigues of Johor-Riau politics and to finalize Britain’s hold on Singapore. In case the financial enticements were insufficient for the Sultan and Temenggong to leave Singapore, he also sought to make their lives uncomfortable. For example, he ordered the construction of a road through the Sultan’s compound. They did not leave, but they were removed from Singapore’s governance.

Singapore’s first official census occurred in 1824 and stands as testimony to the enormous development of this young colony. There were 11,000 residents that year with the largest population being Malay, then Chinese, then Bugis. Indians comprised the next largest group and then Europeans, mostly British, and even a few Armenians and Arabs. Already, in Singapore’s fifth year of modern existence, it was the diverse, globalized society one sees today. Twelve European trading companies, mostly related to the EEIC, had established operations in Singapore by then. Another 1824 landmark achievement was the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London, through which Singapore became fully and securely a permanent British holding. In exchange for leaving Bengkulu and staying away from Dutch activities south of the Singapore Strait (leaving the Dutch all of today’s Indonesia), the Dutch left Melaka and gave over the Malay Peninsula to British influence. The new colony had survived.

Singapore Grows as Part of the Straits Settlements

Kolkata’s oversight of Singapore soon brought other changes. With the opportunity to develop the Strait of Melaka region, Kolkata decided in 1826 to integrate the three Malay-area colonies, Penang, Melaka, and Singapore, into one administrative unit, the Straits Settlements, with the headquarters in Penang. Administratively, this proved to be disastrous. There was a lack of clarity over roles and levels of authority, provisions for travel between the settlements, and titles. Moreover, in the face of increasing financial pressures for the EEIC, particularly after it lost its exclusive access to trade with China, the company reduced staffing levels, leaving the administrative apparatus understaffed, overworked, unmotivated, and largely ineffective. The administrative problems were heightened by the growth that the Straits Settlements (particularly Singapore) continued to experience. In 1827 the population had risen by more than 5,000 people from the census just three years earlier to a total of 16,634. By 1840 the population numbered 35,389, and by 1860 it had increased to 81,734. Likewise, Singapore’s trade more than tripled between 1830 and the mid-1860s. Thus, as administrative staffing faced drastic cuts, the tasks of the administrators increased significantly. The situation became so grave that the Governor General of India declared in 1859 that the administrative problems were “the greatest evil” in the Straits Settlements.

Despite these problems, Singapore prospered, as indicated by the growth in population and trade. Chinese immigration, as Raffles had anticipated, outstripped other groups and by 1867 comprised 65 percent of the population. They primarily came from southeastern China, many as merchants, but some as agricultural laborers, tin miners in the Malay interior, or craftspeople, such as tailors, carpenters, or goldsmiths. The Malay population likewise grew, although not at the pace of the Chinese. Many of the Orang peoples that comprised a significant portion of Singapore’s pre-colonial population were assimilated into the Malay community and added to its numbers. Immigration from India also increased. In 1845 Indians represented 10 percent of the population, but by 1860, they had become the second largest ethnic group in Singapore. Coming primarily from southern India, for a long time these immigrants were mostly young men who intended to return home after earning money as traders or laborers or, for a few, serving in the military. Many of the Chinese, too, did not intend to immigrate permanently to Singapore, planning to work hard, save money, send funds to family in China, and later return home. As often happens with such migrant communities, some return home, but many remain, eventually becoming permanent settlers. Europeans, primarily Britons, also increased in population, although their numbers remained quite low relative to their status and influence. By the 1860s, there had never been more than 500 Europeans at a time in Singapore, although they exclusively staffed the upper levels of the administration and provided much of the capital for trade. The only group that did not experience growth in the first decades of Singapore’s administration by the EEIC was the Bugis. With a majority of this population growth occurring due to improving commercial opportunities, it is clear that Singapore’s demographic development, creating a diverse ethnic composition that is still present today, was due to the international economic forces of globalization, driven heavily by the colonial activities of the English East India Company and its lucrative trade between China, India, and Europe, with Singapore conveniently positioned in the middle of the eastern half of the commerce route.

In addition to population growth, Singapore received several other boosts in prominence in the 1830s. First, in 1832, Singapore replaced Penang as the capital of the Straits Settlements. The second was due to its strategic location for the military. The Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) were Britain’s successful attempts to gain power in China and to reverse its trade imbalance that left, in the minds of the British, too much silver bullion being paid in the direction of China. Britain tried to counter monetary payments by shipping tons of opium produced in Britain’s Indian holdings, leading to the growth of extensive opium dens in China, in particular in Guangzhou (formerly Canton). While opium import and use was illegal in Britain due to its harmful effects and addictive nature, the British had no qualms about pushing opium trade in other societies. The opium revenue reversed the imbalance of trade, tipping it in Britain’s favor and facilitating the affordable import of Chinese manufactured goods, particularly silk and porcelain, and tea.

The Chinese government banned the import of opium in 1836 and worked hard to eradicate the opium dens. In 1839 Chinese officials in Guangzhou turned back a British merchant ship, and the British responded by sending warships in 1840. The British navy’s greater military strength and technology overwhelmed the Chinese, who suffered a profound and humiliating loss. They were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which gave all advantage to the British. Not only were Britons in China not subject to any Chinese laws, Britain was freed of payments to the Chinese imperial administration, gained free access to five ports, claimed control of Hong Kong, and was no longer subject to any trade restrictions with China. As a result, opium imports to China more than doubled in the next 30 years. The Second Opium War began in 1856 after Britain claimed treaty violations in the form of some trade restrictions in the five open ports. The second war resulted in further humiliation for the Chinese and further hastened a decline in imperial power. Because of Singapore’s strategic location, it was the departure point and supply center for British naval forces involved in the Opium Wars and thus played a significant role in Britain’s successes over China. For the first time, Singapore became an important center for the military operations of the British Empire, which highlighted Singapore’s geographic value for British military influence from Southeast Asia to East Asia. Despite that, Britain decided to use its new territory of Hong Kong as its premier naval base in the region.

While population increases, administrative changes, and military strategy all added to Singapore’s growing prominence, the most significant change for Singapore, because it drove so many of the other changes, was the expansion of trade through the free port. The nature of Singapore’s trade was what is formally called entrepôt, which means that little was actually produced in the port area; it was almost solely a transshipment port where goods were brought in from one location, traded in the port, and then shipped out to the purchaser’s destination. Singapore was central for the trade between China, India, and Europe; but it was also an important regional entrepôt site for trade (some of it smuggled to avoid Dutch restrictions and fees on goods traded through Singapore) between Thailand and various islands of Indonesia. The most typical commodities were foods, medicines, tea, porcelain, pottery, and silk from China, Vietnam, and Thailand; opium from India; cotton goods and firearms from Britain; and rice, spices, mother-of-pearl, rattan, and camphor from Indonesia. There was relatively little importing done on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, but the east coast had ports where supplies and opium were brought for colonies of Chinese tin miners and traders in gold, tin, produce, and spices; this more regional trade also went through Singapore.

The growth in trade occurred in an environment of international trade system change, particularly with regard to the English East India Company. Pressures for increased competition led to two acts of the British parliament that incrementally weakened the company, yet ultimately opened other doors for trade. The first, an 1813 act of parliament, even before Singapore’s establishment as a colony, ended the EEIC’s monopoly on trade between Britain and India. That had been a lucrative special arrangement, and other merchants wanted access and profits. As soon as the monopoly ended, new trading houses, import/export firms independent of the EEIC, grew and moved into the Britain-India market. Similar commercial lobbying pressures arose regarding the China trade, and in 1833 another act of parliament ended the EEIC monopoly with China and EEIC trading activities. The company retained governing functions, but its role as a global economic power was gone, and new trading houses rose up to take its place in commerce. The mercantile community in Singapore, like in other areas once exclusively controlled by the EEIC, formed chambers of commerce to advance their trading interests and influence policies. Singapore’s chamber was established in 1837 and, as one example of its activities, joined with other comparable chambers in Indian cities to praise a specific political pressure group, the London East India and China Association. This group successfully lobbied for duties on sugar to be the same whether it came from the East or West Indies and in general represented the local mercantile communities’ interests to the British parliament. This dynamic of multiple commercial organizations competing and lobbying is a significant shift from the monopolistic control by the EEIC. By 1846 there were 43 trading houses in Singapore, of which 20 were British, 6 Jewish, 5 Chinese, 5 Arab, 2 Armenian, 2 German, 1 Portuguese, 1 American, and 1 Parsi-Indian. Trade in Singapore was a global endeavor; however, certain groups were especially prominent in certain roles, specifically the British with their capital and the Chinese in exchange. The Chinese were the intermediaries between the British traders and other groups, including fellow Chinese traders as well merchants from other parts of Asia.

While trade grew, it was not considered steady or reliable growth by participants in the merchant community. Singapore was subject to the fickle turns of trading trends that will befall international commerce but particularly in the case of an entrepôt port like Singapore with few local commodities on which to rely. Several practices and events affected Singapore’s fate. One was the development of clipper ships, which were extensively used for trade between India and China by the 1830s. These ships, with much more effective sails than earlier vessels, made shipping less dependent on monsoon winds that only allowed seasonal trips between India and China and thus permitted more trips per year. The clipper ships could also travel faster, meaning lesser need to stop at intermediate ports like Singapore to restock supplies. This fundamentally advantaged Britain’s opium trade with China, but was not helpful to Singapore.

Moreover, the Dutch, not eager to facilitate British trade and profits, restricted trade from its Indonesian holdings that would transit through Singapore, for example extra fees were charged. With time, the Dutch eased the restrictions, which should have helped Singapore’s situation, except the easing of restrictions also opened Dutch-held ports in Indonesia to freer trade. This created greater competition for Singapore because these new ports offered some of the same trade advantages as Singapore, giving merchants more options. Similarly, Singapore’s trade was affected by the outcome of the Opium Wars, which produced a boon for Singapore at the time of the wars as a military supply port, but once Britain won access to five ports in China and took complete control of Hong Kong, it created more competition for Singapore and gave merchants still greater options for trade, drawing some away from Singapore. There were various junctures in the decades of the 1830s through the 1850s when Singapore, buffeted by international trade shifts beyond its control, was dismissed as having peaked in its prominence and value as a trade colony. However, all the doomsayers were ultimately proven wrong and, despite the fluctuations, trade grew. In 1824 the value of Singapore’s trade was 11 million Spanish dollars (the currency conventionally used for trade in Southeast Asia), but by 1869, the annual value of trade was 89 million Spanish dollars.

Beyond trade, there was one area of significant local economic activity: pepper and gambier farming. These two plants grow together, and by the 1830s, a sizable portion of Singapore’s interior was comprised of pepper and gambier plantations. Gambier, a shrub with leaves that are useful in dyeing and tanning leather, was first exported extensively to China, but by the mid-1830s, a European market for the product developed and remained through the rest of the century. Singapore became a regional center for growing and exporting pepper and gambier, and it is estimated that these plantations employed a meaningful portion of Singapore’s Chinese laborers by the 1830s. These farming operations were owned by the Chinese, who also controlled much of the unskilled labor coming to Singapore through Chinese secret societies. These major economic spheres of farming and labor, combined with owning the revenue farms for opium and liquor, whose customers were mostly poor laborers, meant that an enormous amount of economic power and wealth became concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of elites in the Chinese community. That combination of wealthy backers, secret societies, and vice contributed to a number of social ills.

The Dark Sides of Early Colonial Singapore

Aside from international trade shifts and economic ups and downs, perhaps the biggest threat to Singapore’s ever-important trade came from ongoing piracy in the area. Pirates had long thrived in and around Singapore’s waters, and a major gathering point for one pirate fleet was just off Singapore’s coast, but the problem did not lessen with the region’s increase in maritime traffic. This was just too ripe an opportunity for pirates to ignore, and over time, pirates from as far away as China and the Philippines joined local pirate activity around Singapore. By the early 1830s pirates attacked ships just outside the harbor in the middle of the day and moved around the town openly trading in weapons and stolen goods. Legitimate trade along the east coast of the Malay Peninsula was almost brought to a halt, and the Bugis threatened to abandon Singapore as a port unless the piracy could be brought under control. Some of the pirate attacks were large-scale, such as a fight between a 30-boat pirate fleet and boats from the HMS Southampton and an EEIC ship. The merchants repeatedly asked for protection because pirates caused considerable losses in a trading system where merchants would normally buy goods on credit and would only recover their money if they were able to sell the goods without loss. However, despite their appeals for help, the merchants were once again in the position of taking the lead where government could not due to lack of funding and restrictions on jurisdiction (captured pirates had to be transported to India to stand trial, for example). In 1832 and 1833 the Chinese merchants banded together to charter vessels, arm them, and patrol the harbor area to try to protect their investments. The difficulty of dealing with the pirates was heightened because of their association and support from the Temenggong (by then Ibrahim, son and successor to Temenggong Abdul Rahman who held that office at the time of Raffles’s arrival), who was profiting from the piracy as had been a tradition in the region for centuries. The government in India finally responded to pleas from the merchants and the local administrators and in 1837 sent the HMS Wolf to support the EEIC steamer Diana. This was the pirates’ first experience with a steamship, which was not at the mercy of the sometimes calm winds of the Strait of Melaka; and the change in strategic advantage alarmed the pirates and their leader, the Temenggong, to such a degree that they largely abandoned their operations.

While it is on the surface easy to condemn such activities as simply illegal behavior, it is worthwhile to note that in the local cultures of Southeast Asia, piracy was not considered an obviously criminal or even shameful activity. The Malay nobility considered gaining the financial benefits of piracy to be a right of their station and birth and considered the seas part of their rightful domain. Raffles himself attempted to sway the Sultan and Temenggong to engage in commerce rather than supporting piracy and was told quite bluntly that trade was less honorable than raiding ships. Indeed, even outside of the regional context, Europeans and Americans used privateering, a government-authorized seizing of private ships and their cargo by other privately-owned ships, as a wartime strategy and considered it perfectly legitimate if one’s own ships were the privateers rather than the targets.

The waters were relatively free of pirates for a time, however, piracy flared up again in the 1850s, primarily from Chinese pirates that were able to prey on larger boats than earlier pirate gangs and pirates from the Mindanao area of the Philippines. This spike in piracy caused an incredible disruption in trade between Singapore and China and southern Vietnam (then known as Cochin China), and as during the earlier wave of pirate activity, Singapore was once again a primary lair for pirates to purchase weapons and sell their booty. What eventually put an end to the second wave of extreme levels of piracy was international cooperation in antipiracy efforts through formal treaties. The British in the areas around the Malay Peninsula, working with the Dutch in Indonesia, the Spaniards in the Philippines, and Chinese in and around China, finally overwhelmed the power of the largest and most effective pirate forces.

In addition to the recurrent scourge of pirates, the vast wealth disparity created troubling conditions for both elites and the masses living in poverty. In general, wealth brought enormous advantages. Life for the wealthy featured frequent outdoor sports activities such as horse racing, cricket, sailing regattas, and other entertainments like dances and dinners. Even better, wealth sheltered people from the diseases that cost many lives of the poor living in crowded slums. However, the elites became concerned about the possibility of an uprising of the poorer peoples of Singapore, and there were decades of discussion by administrators in India and Singapore about the need for some sort of fortification to serve as a refuge for the Europeans living there should an uprising occur and to protect Singapore from potential attack from an enemy. The lack of an obvious enemy left the administration in India slow to act in providing defenses (most of those proposed by Raffles were never built), and it was not until 1859 that Fort Canning was constructed. Such was the location and nature of the fort that it would provide a refuge in the case of local civil unrest, but it would not be especially useful in repelling an enemy attack or even to assure the safety of commerce, particularly as some trade was moving away from the Singapore River area to the deeper natural port, known as New Harbour (today Keppel Harbour), southwest of the city center between the main island of Singapore and the islands of Pulau Brani and Sentosa. The threat of civil unrest was the only thing marring an otherwise luxurious lifestyle.

In contrast, for those with a less privileged existence, life was not as fine. The vast majority of immigrants to Singapore were poor, lacking education and job skills, and above all unmarried and male, creating an unstable, transitory population. Ongoing poverty, malnutrition, overcrowding, and opium abuse were rampant; in 1848, a European doctor concerned with social reform estimated that 20 percent of the adult population of Singapore and more than 50 percent of Chinese adults were addicted to opium. There were some attempts to persuade the administration, the European elite, and wealthy Chinese merchants to take action to stem opium use, highlighting its connection to many health and social problems, but these efforts were dismissed. There were deaths from starvation, and until a wealthy member of the Chinese community, Tan Tock Seng, donated funds for its construction, no hospital existed where poor, common people could seek treatment for widespread cholera, smallpox, and other illnesses. There was nothing of any significance done to address high rates of illiteracy, and Singapore lagged other British territories in that respect as well.

Crime was another social problem, and again the government was not effective in its responses. There were several factors feeding this problem. One was the proliferation of Chinese secret societies, which had grown up in relation to domestic events in China, specifically organized opposition to imperial rule. The societies were linked to kinship networks and regions of origin in China and some of the more prominent ones, such as the Heaven, Earth, and Man Society, or Triad, had thousands of members in Singapore. The societies offered some social benefits and, thus, were left alone by administration officials; in particular, they assisted new immigrants to Singapore, providing them with a support network and helping them find jobs. The societies also addressed disputes within their communities, which was likewise convenient for British officials. However, the secret societies were also linked to considerable violence. There was opposition to Christian conversion and society gangs killed 500 Christians and destroyed 30 agricultural operations (gambier and pepper plantations). The societies were connected to prostitution, human trafficking, and indentured servitude. Gangs of hundreds of secret society members staged regular raids in the city, stealing, destroying property and even killing people. They targeted the Malay community first and foremost but also Indians and Europeans. In 1843, the violence became so severe that non-Chinese merchants had a protest meeting. The government responded and appointed a superintendent of police, Thomas Dunman. Dunman was able to make some improvements and the incidents of violent crime decreased, but the ongoing lack of funds hampered his efforts. In 1854, serious fights broke out between the secret societies, of which there were at least 12 by 1860; and while the worst of the conflict remained within the Chinese community, the open conflict between the societies was nevertheless a concern. It was only after 1857, when Dunman was appointed full-time police commissioner that he was able to make substantial progress in creating a police force that could help provide order.

Another social concern that developed in the 1850s was the presence of high numbers (3,000 by 1857) of convicts, primarily from India, although some also arrived from China and elsewhere. The Dutch in Indonesia also sometimes shipped undesirable persons to Singapore. After 1837, when architect George Drumgold Coleman was put in charge of public works, deported convicts provided inexpensive labor for many public projects, including draining swamps for land reclamation, building roads and government buildings, and later constructing large projects such as Fort Canning and St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Initially many of the convicts integrated well into society once their sentences were served, and female convicts, in particular, were sought after as brides in a society where there were extremely few women. However, that ease of transition lessened with time, and it was noted in repeated articles in the newspaper, Singapore Free Press, that Singapore had become home to many with a sordid past. In one article from 1851, the paper opined that the Straits Settlements had become, “the common sewer … for all the scum and refuse of the populations of nearly the whole British possessions in the east.” Connected to the globalized nature of Singaporean society, there developed fear among European immigrants that social unrest in China and India would spill over into Singapore and threaten their lives and well-being. The concerns were heightened by civil war in China against the Manchu imperial rule, which brought in rebels from China after events such as an uprising in Amoy in 1853 and another uprising in 1857 in Kuching that fueled fears of spreading anti-British sentiment. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, when Indian troops mutinied against British rule, caused general colonial alarm and increased fears of more convict deportations to Singapore. Finally, local unrest in 1854 secret society conflicts in the Chinese community and more unrest and riots in 1857 among Chinese and Indians in Singapore over implementation of government policies further fueled worry for many European residents. It was not an accident that this coincided with the construction of Fort Canning.

Most of Singapore’s problems during its first decades as a colony were attributable to two sources. The first was a weak administration hampered by financial constraints that left it understaffed and underfunded. There were repeated suggestions to impose various forms of charges to raise revenue from trade, but this was unwaveringly and vehemently opposed by the merchant community that feared losing its competitive advantage of free trade. The supervisory administration in India, facing serious decline itself, was reluctant to invest the sums of money that were needed to fund government programs to provide education, social assistance, and security that would have improved the situation of the masses. Thus progress in this area was left to a large degree to private efforts that only emerged when situations became intolerable. Moreover, one of the biggest sources of revenue for the limited administration was from opium, which also helped create a number of the social ills.

The second source of many of Singapore’s problems was the nature of the immigrant society itself. People did not come to Singapore with the intention of putting down roots, building a home and family, and making a new life. Young, single, males came to Singapore to work, earn money, and then go back home. Almost no women were in the early immigrant waves, which made virtually impossible the development of a stable society based on family units, which are extremely important across Asian cultures. Instead, Singapore was like a American frontier town with drugs, poverty, crime, and an anything-goes attitude. It was a climate where the Chinese secret societies, violent, yet useful in providing a sense of connection and support for Chinese immigrants, could thrive. Moreover, Singapore’s weak administrative structures also fed the problems of a rootless, lawless society.

Despite all these difficulties, however, Singapore in the first decades of its existence as a British colony managed to thrive in many respects. Population grew despite problems, and trade grew, proving Singapore to be a desirable port of call for traders from all over Asia and as far away as Europe and the United States. The administrative issues, however, gave rise to calls for restructuring the nature of British governance of Singapore and, in 1867, fundamental changes were made.