Empire came to the Malayan archipelago not through the application of official policy but as the result of startling individualistic action by two far-sighted adventurers Stamford Raffles and James Brooke. In the early 19th century, the Dutch had long dominated the area, and the British, now officially allied to the Dutch in the war against Napoleon, had no ambition to challenge them. But Raffles undeterred by short term political considerations, won company support and backed by its troops, drove ahead with his own empire-building programme to found Singapore in 1819. Thirty years later, James Brooke by pure force of personality, manipulated himself into a position of power in strife-torn Borneo, and after twenty years won a place for his territory, Sarawak within the Empire. Meanwhile John Clunies-Ross, a forceful Scottish sea-captain had established himself on the previously unoccupied Cocos Islands 700 miles out in the Indian Ocean. It was a footnote to the chapter of private adventuring that turned Britain into the dominant power in South East Asia.
The spirit of the legendary Raffles of Singapore dominated Britain’s 19th century empire in the far east. Romantic, adventurous, ambitious and individualistic, he turned his dream of permanent British authority in south East Asia into a reality. At his chosen base, Singapore, which was in 1819 no more than a Mangrove swamp inhabited by only a few hundred fishermen he laid the foundations of a port that within 25 years was to become the “gateway to the east“.
Thomas Stamford Raffles was born in 1781 the son of a sea captain. He joined the East India Company in 1795 as a fourteen year old clerk with a modest salary of £70 per year. He was brilliant with an astonishing will to learn and an inexhaustible supply of energy. For the next ten years he read voraciously in his spare time. His employers recognized his ability and dedication in 1805 at the age of 24 he was appointed an assistant to help administer Penang Island off the Malayan peninsula. Around the time of his appointment, a dark striking widow of thirty-four, Mrs. Olivia Fancourt came to the office of the East India company to claim a pension owing since the death of her husband. Raffles, though ten years her junior proposed almost at once and they were married in march 1805, a month before departing for the East Indies.
Soon afterwards, war in Europe, gave need for further extension of company control. In 1794, the French overran Holland. It seemed possible that they might one day seize Dutch overseas possessions. To safeguard their position in the far east, the British occupied Dutch Malacca, down the coast from Penang. This was the situation in the area at the time of Raffles departure for the east. The country was only a little larger than England and three quarters of the land area consisted of mixed forestry densely packed with exotic ferns and rich flowers. The area lay at the hub of trade for many different races and religious groups including Chinese, Indian and Arab traders. Many settled there bringing their own religious and cultural traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
British interest in the area through the East India company was prompted by three factors (a) the need for a secure conveniently situated port of call for the ships trading with China and India, (b) the need for a naval base for the refitting of British ships, (c) the attraction of the largely untapped sources of wealth of the south east Asian market. The company bought Penang from a local ruler in 1786.
As soon as he arrived at Penang Raffles set out to demonstrate his efficiency and among the junior administrators there as no one to rival him and soon he became indispensable. In March 1807, he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Governor. Raffles was not only knowledgeable and efficient he was also popular, courteous and with an excellent disposition. He was extremely affable and liberal.
At this point in time Raffles was awarded the post of “Agent to the Governor-General in Malaysia”. His abilities brought him to the attention of Lord Gilbert Minto the East India Company’s governor general of India. Minto and Raffles sailed with the invasion fleet that left Mallaca on June 11th and arrived at Batavia in Java seven weeks later. The invasion was a walkover and Raffles was appointed Lieutenant-Governor on a salary of £8000 a year. He turned out to be an exceptional ruler and the Javanese rapidly came to idolize him because he showed a deep and passionate interest in the land and the people.
During a period of sick leave in Mallaca, Raffles wrote a lengthy report favouring the retention of Malacca which was in doubt at that time, but also suggesting the extension of British power into Java, another Dutch base that may one day be seized by the French.
Following an attack on his personal conduct of affairs by General Gillespie, a former commander of troops in Java, serious doubt was cast on Raffles future career and two years later it was almost ended by three strokes of ill fortune, his wife Olivia died in circumstances about which nothing is known, his friend and protector Minto also died of pneumonia, and after the French were defeated at Waterloo, Java was handed back to the Dutch. Raffles found himself out of a job and prepared to return home. He left Java in 1816. On his way to embark, according to his aide-de-camp he was “accompanied by all the respectable citizens and inhabitants of Batavia who took their leave of him with tears”.
Raffles arrived in London to find himself a celebrity. In March 1817 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society and the same April he published his history of Java, which he dedicated to the Prince Regent and in May he was knighted. The directors of the East India Company had no alternative but to clear his name officially. His reinstatement was however not complete and he was offered the relatively minor position of Lieutenant Governor in the backwater of Bencoolen in Sumatra.
THE NEXT PHASE - BENCOOLEN AND SINGAPORE
He arrived in Bencoolen in 1818, he was very concerned about the manner in which the Dutch were regaining the upper hand in the area and that their position would soon be unassailable. He found that among his admirers he could count Lord Moira the new Governor General and found in him a willing accomplice to the bold plan he had formulated, to slip ashore on a strategically placed island not already occupied by the Dutch and negotiate with the local ruler an agreement to establish a trading post. Only in this way, Raffles argued could the China trade be secured and prevent the East Indies becoming and exclusively Dutch preserve.
He set sail in December 1818 from Calcutta but was immediately frustrated by finding out that his first choice of Rhio had already been occupied by the Dutch. So Raffles ordered his small fleet to sail for Singapore Island where he landed on January 29th 1819.
At the height of his fame. Raffles of Singapore was a hero to the young and few worshipped him more than James Brooke who was to become the first of the “White Rajahs of Sarawak”. Born in 1803 near Benares, the son of an East India Company civil servant , Brooke joined the army at the age of sixteen but he longed to rid himself of authoritarian shackles; he craved lone adventure. Inspired by Raffles famous article on Borneo, Brooke developed an ambitious scheme for a British settlement in the north of the island. Normally such ideas would have been dismissed as a wild dream, but Brooke’s own conviction of its worth was infectious. He also let it be known that he was prepared to invest personally in the project, as he had inherited a large sum when his father died in 1835. Brooke and his scheme attracted considerable attention in London and the Dutch duly noted the appearance of yet another dangerous young English adventurer on the stage of far eastern affairs.
Brooke believed that commercial prosperity could only be guaranteed by territorial possession and any government instituted for the purpose, must be directed to the advancement of the native interests and the development of native resources, rather than by a flood of European colonization.
The ‘Royalist’, Brooke’s personal ship, set sail on 26th October 1838, the territory Brooke had decided to investigate first was the province of Sarawak, part of the powerful empire of the Sultans of Brunei. The current sultan, Omar Ali was feeble minded and the Muslim overlords in Sarawak ruled only to extort as much as the could from the weaker indigenous races such as the gentle Land-Dyaks and Muruts and to a lesser extent from the fiercer tribes such as the Kayans and the much feared head-hunting Sea-Dyaks.
Brooke threw himself into the existing complicated turmoil and hustle for power with an energy even Raffles might have envied. He aligned himself with the Sultan’s heir the Rajah Muda Hasim, who was also the Sultan’s regent in Sarawak. Brooke quickly made his gifts for organization, and the resources of the “Royalist” indispensable for the suppression of the Sea-Dyaks and the pirates. So much so, that Hasim offered to invest him with the province of Sarawak and confer on him the title of Rajah. As success mounted, Hasim began to harbour doubts about his promise, although the heir, he had no legal right to dispose of Brunei territory; and when Brooke claimed his promised reward, al he got was a permit to settle in Sarawak. Brooke was furious but reacted with inspired pragmatism. He set out immediately to win over the warring factions of the province and indeed, the natives soon regarded him as their deliverer.
RAFFLES SUFFERS A SETBACK
Sri Krishnan Temple, Singapore
Brooke sailed to Kuching, sighted his guns on Hasim’s palace, landed with a small force and requested an immediate interview with the bewildered and frightened Regent. He managed to convey the impression he was capable of taking the country by force as a rebel leader. On November 24th 1841 in a long and elaborate ceremony Brooke was proclaimed Governor and Rajah of Sarawak.
KING OF THE COCOS ISLANDS
The would-be utopia set up on the Cocos (or Keeling) Islands by John Clunies-Ross in 1827 was another example of - bizarre, though minor one - of the empire-building spirit of the era. Lying in the middle of the Indian Ocean 1,200 miles west of Singapore and 550 miles west of the Christmas Islands the Cocos Islands were first discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company. They consist of 27 small coral islands in two separate atolls. The largest island Home Island, covers an area of barely five square miles. No one has ever been able to say why John Clunies-Ross chose to take possession of these particular islands and he himself never offered an explanation.
He was born in a crofters cottage on the island of Weisdale in the Shetlands in 1786. He went to sea early and worked mostly on whaling ships. In 1813, whilst in the Pacific he took a post on a ship owned by a merchant Alexander Hare. Hare, an acquaintance of Raffles took Clunies-Ross with him as second in command when he took over the Banjermassin settlement on the south coast of Borneo on behalf of the East India Company. Hare was a charming, idle and dishonest adventurer with no sense of discipline and less of duty. Due to his lack of diligence, the station lost money, and when it began to emerge as a subject of political contention with the Dutch, the British government was eager to let it go.
Hare and Clunies-Ross apparently formed a partnership in business planning to buy pepper and spices in the East when prices were low, store them at Cocos and ship the cargo to England at first news of a shortage. Clunies-Ross made the first attempt in Hare’s new ship the ‘Borneo’. At this stage neither man had settled on the island and when Clunies-Ross returned in 1827 accompanied by his wife, mother-in-law and several other possible colonists he was astonished to find Hare already in residence. Hare had with him a few man servants and a very large harem including women from Sumatra, Borneo, Bali, Java, Celebes, China, New Guinea, South Africa and India. Hare saw himself as an oriental potentate with his women. Clunies-Ross settled on another island. There was friction as Hare had all the women and few men and Clunies-Ross the opposite. Nature took its course, the men started to raid Hare’s harem bringing the women back . Finally Hare had had enough and retreated to Batavia where he died in 1832. Darwin visited the islands in 1836 during his voyage in the ‘Beagle’ when there was a population of 175 only 20 of whom were Europeans. Like Brooke, Clunies-Ross spent futile years trying to acquire British protection for the island. Life on the islands however stagnated due to a lack of vision on the part of Clunies-Ross. Clunies-Ross died in 1854, three years before the islands became part of the British Empire. Finally in 1955 the islands became Australian territory.
The more he considered Singapore, the more determined he became to settle the island “It positively takes nothing from the Dutch and is to us everything” he wrote. “It gives us the command of China and Japan, Siam, Cambodia, Cochin, etc. “. The island was about 200 square miles in area, mostly flat and had a population of about 300 fishermen, pearl hunters and pirates. Ruled by the Temenggong of Johore with whom Raffles signed a preliminary agreement that gave the Temenggong British protection and allowed the British to establish a “factory” or trading station. The Temenggong was however, merely a local ruler and without the endorsement of the Sultan of Johore who owned the island, the agreement was insecure. To add to the difficulties there was in effect no Sultan as the old one had died in 1812 and the succession has been in dispute for years by his two sons. Raffles decided to “hurry matters along“ and summoning the elder son, Tunku Long he convinced him to assume the Sultanate, and on February 16th 1819, a treaty drawn up by Raffles was stamped with the seal of the new Sultan and the Union Jack hoisted. Singapore began to grow and prosper and the more it prospered, the more the company felt about the correctness of Raffle’s Coup.
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