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Malay Archipelago In The 18th And 19th Century History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Accounts of the Malay Archipelago, particularly the Malay Peninsula prior to the official intervention of the British in 1874, were mainly written by officials and non-officials who were in the Archipelago on business or to carry out professional activities. Nevertheless the writings by the merchants, travellers and missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries are also means to enlighten us about the history of this part of the world before official intervention by western powers in Asia. This may be achieved by analysing selected writings and activities of the merchants, missionaries and travellers of the said period.


Merchants or traders were in Asia well before the arrival of the western powers, but the objective was mainly to trade and not to intervene in the affairs of the native states. The scenario changed in the 16th and 17th centuries with the emergence of nation states in Europe and the introduction of the Mercantile System. This spearheaded the age of exploration and led to merchants traveling to Asia intent on acquiring spices to be exchanged in Europe for gold and silver. The formation of the English East India Company (EIC), Dutch East India Company (VOC) and French East India Company led to active trading activities in Asia. The EIC was formed in 1600 under the charter of the Queen and traders received instructions from their respective companies. However, when civil war erupted in England in 1657, a new charter was issued by Oliver Cromwell, ordering the EIC traders to withdraw from Asian waters. The orders were not adhered to by many of the traders, thereby prompting King Charles II to repatriate the recalcitrants to England. His orders went unheeded, and the traders blissfully continued their Asian trade. These traders were known as country traders. The discussion below will highlight the importance of the country traders’ activities in providing clues to the history of the Malay Archipelago. The role of a number of prominent country traders will be highlighted to show how their accounts of this part of the world have become an invaluable source for the historical study of the Malay Archipelago.

Country traders played a vital role in the Malay states in an era when the official policy of the British in this part of the world was non-interventionist. Prominent country traders like James Scott, Francis Light and Thomas Forrest played important roles in the Malay Archipelago of the 18th century. It was only through information provided by them that the European imperial powers gained a better appreciation of the situation in the Malay Archipelago of the late 19th and 20th century, thereby enabling them to make successful political inroads in this part of the world.

The Prosperity of the Malay States

Country traders played a vital role in highlighting the richness of the Malay states in the 18th century. This was obvious from their reports to the Government of India. For example Captain Alexander Hamilton who called at Kuala Terengganu as early as 1719 gave detailed information on the economic activities of Terengganu. In his report, Hamilton stated that the important products of the state of Terengganu were pepper and gold, which were mostly exported to China.

Hamilton described Terengganu as an important flourishing port visited by traders of all races. Half of the town’s inhabitants were said to be Chinese, and some 4-5 Chinese junks were said to be calling at the ports annually. Besides that, Terengganu was also said to have established, cordial relations with Siam, Cambodia and Sambas. Its leaders were said to be friendly with foreign traders and willing to fulfill their needs. The accounts show that Malay rulers from as early as the 18th century had a policy of accommodation towards foreign traders.

Another important country trader was Captain Joseph Jackson, who visited Terengganu on 14 June 1764 en route to China. The intention was to collect the products of the Malay Archipelago to balance the trade with China which was not to Britain’s favour. His report provides a clear description of Terengganu of the time. It was said that the trade potential of Terengganu was equivalent to, or greater than that acquired at Coromandel or Malabar in India. The report provided information about the richness of the Malay states.

Francis Light who was also a country trader in his letter to the Governor General of India, Lord Cornwallis, dated 7 January 1789, gives a comprehensive picture of the Malay states around Penang and its products. The information provided by Light relates to all the Malay states and enriches the historiography of the region. Without such information much less would be known about 18th century developments in the archipelago.

The Accommodative Policy of the Malay Rulers

The cordial relations established by the country traders created the opportunity for the Malay rulers to implement a policy of accommodation towards foreigners. Prior to the arrival of country traders, Malay traders were forced to sell their products at prices dictated by the Dutch. Malay rulers could now sell their products to traders who were willing to offer a higher price. Furthermore, country traders were also willing to sell fire arms to local traders. Light was said to have sold 5 thousand riffles to the Buggies. James Scott was also involved in selling firearms to local rulers. The policy of open and free trading enabled local rulers to sign different treaties with country traders, even when they had already signed treaties with the Dutch. Before this the Malay rulers sold tin to the Dutch at prices dictated by the latter and could not conduct trade with anyone besides the Dutch.

It could be concluded that the relationship established by the country traders with Malay rulers gave the latter the opportunity to avoid Dutch intervention in their economy and the chance to sell their products to the country traders at a profit. The accommodative nature of the Malay rulers and their craftiness is evident in the written documentation attributed to the country traders; and this material has played an important part in clarifying the history of Malay Archipelago in the 18th century.

Laissez-Faire Policy in the Malay Archipelago

It was through the writings of traders operating in this part of the world that British officials first became aware that the laissez-faire policy had been in practice long prior to foreign commercial presence in this part of the world. G. Windsor, in his article which was published in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago in 1850, lists all the ports in the Malay Archipelago which practiced a laissez-faire policy. The laissez-faire policy in this part of the world had its own unique characteristics. If such a policy had not existed, foreigners would have employed gunboat diplomacy to achieve their ambitions. This would have proven costly, and many lives would have been sacrificed. The fact that most of the countries in Asia accepted indirect rule was very much related to the accommodative policy inspired by the laissez-faire system which had already been in place much earlier. Intervention was through negotiation and not force.

The existence of free trade and free ports in the Malay Archipelago was brought to light by Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. According to him,

When the Europeans first frequented the Archipelago, the trade had long collected at certain established emporia; of this Achean, Malacca and Bantam were the principal. Macassar on Celebes, had also become an emporium of the more Eastern Commerce. … the smooth seas of the Archipelago is readily conveyed to the most advantageous markets. Foreign traders in large vessels found it more to their interest to proceed to the emporia, where they might at once procure a full cargo. The foreign commerce was carried on with ease and safety and to manifest advantage of all parties.

The Malay Archipelago already had trade links with the outside world before the modern age. Local conditions suited the strategy of free trade and free ports which were used by the foreigners to develop settlements along the peninsula coast. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Spice Islands formed a well structured regional trade network. A number of important ports emerged in the Malay Archipelago, like Pedir, Pasai, Sri Vijaya, Demak, Tuban, Makasar and Malacca. The ports functioned as free ports and traded without restrictions. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, five trade zones emerged in the Straits Settlements. The first trade zone was the Bay of Bengal which began at the Coromandel Coast, South India and included Sri Lanka, the Northern Malaysian Peninsula and the North and West Coasts of Sumatra. The North and West Coast of Sumatra became important in the years after 1300 due to the global demand for pepper. Consequently, the entry port of Samudra Pasai on the east coast became an important supplier of pepper for the traders from the East and West.

When the Europeans came to the Malay Archipelago they did not create new trade routes, in fact they made use of the old ones. All the ports which were located in these trade zones, such as Malacca, Aceh, Pasai, Bantam, Macassar, Ayudhya experienced a rapid progress in trade. This freedom enabled the ports to attract traders from the East and West and to function collectively as a political, economic and social centre.

With the double attractions of an established trading network and free trade status, the British were encouraged to develop free ports in the Malay Archipelago in the late 18th and early 19th century. The emergence of Penang and Singapore as free ports was based on these factors.


The term traveller normally refers to those travelling to new places for recreation or pleasure and not for economic activities. Some came to the archipelago en-route to other destinations, while many others came either in an official or non-official capacity for business objectives. While ordinary travellers might, as observers away from their home environment, record their impressions of the people, landscape and events encountered, others, through their writings unwittingly contributed information which can today be considered as historical source material for the study of the Malay Archipelago, particularly the Malay states in the 18th and 19th century. Although the general perception about travellers is that they frame their perceptions within the cultural filters of their own cultures and based on patriotic sentiments, the same may not be said to apply to all the travellers. There are travellers who tended to speak their minds.

Travellers do make judgments on contemporary affairs which appeal to the modern historian, such as in the case of Isabella Bird, who’s The Golden Chersonese, the Malayan Travels of a Victorian Lady helps provide a better perspective on the events that were to unfold in the later decades. Another two travellers worth mentioning are G.W. Earl who penned Eastern Isles and Howard Malcolm, who wrote Travels in South-Eastern Asia Embracing Hindustan, Malaya, Siam, and China. The testaments of these authors will be discussed below to prove their validity as sources of historical information.

Isabella Bird – The Golden Chersonese, the Malayan Travels of a Victorian Lady, Singapore, Oxford University Press reprint (paperback), 1980.

Isabella is a traveller and writer who travelled to Malaya in 1879 at the age of 47, five years after official intervention by the British in Malaya. Her book The Golden Chersonese, which was published in 1883, comprised a series of letters written to her sister Henrietta in Edinburgh while travelling in the Malay States (for five weeks from January-February 1879). Her description and evaluation of certain historical events remains as a source for studying the history of Malaya in the 19th century. She recorded her impressions of every place she visited with extraordinary clarity. Isabella evidently had a talent for observation, description and an unquenchable thirst of information.

Views of the Malays

Isabella viewed the Malays as an enlightened race in contrast to the British administrators:

The Malays undoubtedly must be numbered among civilised peoples. They live in houses which are more or less tasteful and secluded. They are well clothed in garments of both native and foreign manufacture; they are a settled and agricultural people; they are skilful in some of the arts, specially in the working of gold and the damascening of krises; the upper classes are to some extent educated; they have a literature, even though it be an imported one, and they have possessed for centuries systems of government and codes of land and maritime laws which, in theory at least, show a considerable degree of enlightenment.

Her view contradicts British perceptions of the Malays as uncivilised. Frank Swettenham, who was the British Resident of Selangor (1876-82), Perak (1889-95) and later the Resident-General of the Federated Malay States (1896-1901) expresses the following in his book, The Real Malay: “There was a strong belief that Malays were treacherous by nature and pirates by trade, and that there were no special inducements for a white man to trust himself in such a barbarous country”.

Views of the Chinese

Isabella provided detailed information on the Chinese. She explained vividly the character of the Chinese and why they were dominant in Malaya. To quote her, “The Chinese promise to be in some sort the commercial rulers of the Straits. It is by their capital, industry and enterprise that the resources of the Peninsula are being developed”. It explains why the British administrators and capitalists developing the agriculture and mining sectors in the Malay states were so dependent on them.

It was no surprise that the Chinese came to play a vital role in the affairs of the Archipelago, particularly Malaya. Francis Light praised the Chinese in 1794 as, “… the only people of the East from whom a revenue may be raised without expense and extraordinary effort of government”. Raffles took steps to educate the Chinese in Singapore as they were seen as an asset to develop the island. The Chinese were generally preferred by the Europeans on account of their reliability and perseverance. As house servants with European families the Chinese were found to be particularly valuable. They were also employed to collect excise revenues. European trade in the Straits Settlements was managed almost exclusively by the Chinese.

Isabella highlighted the role of Yap Ah Loy, a prominent Chinese businessman who developed Kuala Lumpur in the 1880s without any official recognition. In her writing, Isabella accorded due recognition to his contributions to the expansion of Kuala Lumpur. He was said to have built Kuala Lumpur each time it was burned down as a result of disturbances. He built roads connecting tin mines with the town. His contribution was recognised by Mr. Syers, the Superintendent of Police, who believed that without Ah Loy’s support, Kuala Lumpur would not have been developed. Isabella considers Ah Loy to be the creator of the commercial interests of Selangor, and as a man of large aims with an enlightened public spirit. She therefore considered that he needed to be accorded due recognition for his services and awarded either the St. Michael or the St. George Medal?.

Incidentally, Yap Ah Loy’s place in history continues to be sidelined in modern Malaysian history. A local newspaper, the Sunday Star (dated 26th April 2009), carried a news item entitled “Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) makes proposal to honor Kuala Lumpur founder”. The MCA President declared that Yap Ah Loy had been overlooked, despite the fact that he had helped develop Kuala Lumpur into a commercial and mining centre, and contributed greatly to its advancement. The only reminder of this great hero is a small road in the city centre that carries his name. In view of this, the party’s Chinese Community History Consultative Bureau was directed to document Ah Loy’s contributions. It looks like the grouches pointed out by Isabella 100 years ago are being repeated by the Chinese community in the 21st century.

Views of the Indians

Isabella’s view of the Indian race does explain why Indians fail in modern day Malaysia. She compares them to the other races and her conclusion is that “….Klings [Indians] are active and industrious, but they lack fibre apparently, and that quick-sightedness for opportunities which makes the Chinese the most successful of all emigrants. Not a Malay or a Kling has raised himself either as merchant or in any other capacity to wealth or distinction in the colony”.

To this day, the Indians continue to be seen in this light in comparison to the Chinese. In a news report, (New Straits Times, 27 April 2009), the Government exhorted the Indian community to emulate the Chinese in grabbing investment and business opportunities. In other words, Indians are asked to be more like the Chinese, who according to Frank Swettenham “…are the bees who suck the honey from every profitable undertaking”.

View on Intervention in Perak, the Assassination of J.W.W. Birch, the first British Resident in the State of Perak and Intervention in Selangor

Isabella made political commentary, although it was not her business to have done so. She wrote about the reaction to the assassination of J.W.W. Birch, the first British Resident of Perak. Those who were involved in the murder were hanged, while the Malay rulers were exiled. Isabella was of the opinion that the British had failed to heed the views of the locals. To her, the British were ever imposing their superiority over the locals, without realising that the latter had a superior civilization:

A great mist of passion and prejudice envelopes our dealings with the chiefs and people of this State, both before and after the war. … If I may venture to give an opinion upon so controversial a subject, it is, that all Colonial authorities in their dealings with native races, all Residents and their subordinates, and all transactions between ourselves and the weak peoples of the Far East, would be better for having something of “the fierce light which beats upon a throne” turned upon them. The good have nothing to fear, the bad would be revealed in their badness, and hasty councils and ambitious designs would be held in check. Public opinion never reaches these equatorial jungles; we are grossly ignorant of their inhabitants and their rights, of the manner in which our interference originated, and how it has been exercised; and unless some fresh disturbance and another “little war” should concentrate our attention for a moment on these distant States, we are likely to remain so, to their great detriment, and not a little, in one aspect of the case at least, to our own.

In other word she admitted the natives had a superior civilisation. ARE YOU SURE?

She was also critical of the manner in which the British intervened in Selangor: “The history of the way in which we gained a footing in Selangor is a tangled one, as the story is told quite differently by men holding high positions in the Colonial Government, who unquestionably “are all honorable men”. This means she did not accept the official views of the British government which was considered to be the gospel truth with regard to intervention in the Malay states.

George Windsor Earl – The Eastern Seas, London, WMH, Allen & Co., 1837 with an introduction by C.M.Turnbull, Singapore, Oxford University Press reprint 1971.

Earl ( – 1865) was another British traveller who was a ship’s captain, lawyer, colonial official, linguist, antiquarian and writer. He travelled widely in the Malay Archipelago. His famous book was The Eastern Seas. He also contributed numerous articles in the Journal of the Indian and Eastern Archipelago (JIEA). The Journal contains many writings by merchants and traders and reveals the importance of all the states and islands in the Malay Archipelago. Besides that, it also brings to light the importance of each island state and its products, referring to traders who are trading there as well as trade policy carried out by foreign powers.

Writing in Earl’s journal conveyed valuable information about the region, and in some cases provided the stimulus for the advancement of Western colonization in Southeast Asia as well as other regions. These publications were widely read and were considered influential in shaping Western public opinion about the distant tropical east. Earl was also said to have been interested in the peoples of the Archipelago and mixed freely with the Asian population of the Straits Settlements.

His account of the Malay Archipelago, according to Mary Turnbull in her introduction of the reprint of the book, was the honest opinion of an intelligent and detached observer and a most humane man. Although there might be accusations that his views reflected those of the British government, for Turnbull they reflected the liberal ideas of the times, as manifested in the actions of the officials on the ground:

It reflects too the freshness and confidence of the best in British imperial idealism in the first half of the nineteenth century, before that confidence had toughened into arrogance of imperial power and the spirit of co-operation with the local population had coarsened into authoritarian command.

Earl was said to be a man of integrity, with a sense of compassion. He was against the idea of taking strong repressive measures against the Chinese secret societies, and instead succeeded in convincing the Straits officers to be moderate and lenient to the Chinese population.

Howard Malcolm – Travels in South-Eastern Asia Embracing Hindustan, Malaya, Siam, and China, Vol. 1, 1839, Boston, Gould, Kendall & Lincoln, 1839.

Malcolm (1799-1879) was sent out as the deputy and representative of one of the great American Missionary Societies to gather details on every area in which the Board lacked information. The information provided was very objective and without bias. A lot of information was provided about Malaya, such as that relating to piracy. According to Malcolm, Malays considered piracy to be honorable and many of their princes openly engaged in it.

This testimony also brought to light the fact that free trade policy was practiced in this part of the world before the advent of Western Powers. To Malcolm, Singapore was able to flourish as an important trading port in the 19th century due to the role played by local traders and trade routes which had existed for ages, well before the Europeans found their way into these seas.

Malcolm also explained in detail the kind of products collected by the local traders from various areas. For example, the Battaks collected camphor; the Sulu gathered pearls; the Malays looked for birds nest, nutmeg, clove, tripang and agar-agar; the Bugis functioned as traders and mariners; the Sumatran traders dealt in pepper; the traders from China contributed wealth and capital towards the prosperity of Singapore; while the West brought technology and arts to this part of the world.


Missionaries were generally interested in the native population and helped to increase the number of converts to Christianity. In addition they became pioneers of social change. In the case of the Malay Archipelago, many missionary societies were formed and they published many works on this part of the world. One notable example was the London Missionary Society, which was founded in London in 1795 with the objective of spreading Christianity to all nations and people, to publish and distribute scripture in the vernacular and to teach the young to read and write in a school environment. Missionaries were therefore encouraged to produce Christian books, propaganda and text.

The Origin of Missionary Activity in the Straits Settlements

In 1815, the London Missionary Society (LMS) established a printing press in Malacca named Mission Press, and branches were formed in Penang (1819) and Singapore (1822). In Malacca, evangelism was spearheaded by Rev. William Milne (1785-1822). When Milne left Malacca the task fell to Rev. Claudius Henry Thomsen, who carried out missionary work among the Malays. His Malay teacher was the famous scribe, Munsyi Abdullah. Thomsen’s publications include a small hymn book, and tracts on “human depravity”, ” the Being of God”, “An exposition on the Commandments” and a sixteen page treatise on the principal doctrines of the gospel. Thomson’s activities raised objections from the locals, especially the Hajjies of Singapore. They were said to have refused to accept Christian tracts and also made efforts to prevent others from receiving them.

Mission Press contributed not only to produce Christian publications, but also non- religious works. Their publications appeared in the various vernacular languages, and were mostly circulated in the form of tracts, broadsheets and books. Publications in the Malay language were mainly the Bible, interpretations of the Bible, religious treatises and prayers. In 1819, about 54,000 printed materials were published in Chinese and about 19,000 in Malay.

Rev. Thomas Beighton (1790-1844) was responsible for Mission Press activities in Penang. Works published under his direction included Religion of the Bible, Fourth Commandment, and The Beatitudes. There were also a few controversial publications like Comparison of the Religion of Jesus with the Religion of Mohammed, The Rise of Christianity and pamphlets with titles like Pengajaran [Spiritual Lessons].

In Singapore, C. H. Thomsen (1782-?) who came from Malacca, became the editor of a Malay magazine, and assumed responsibility for missionary work among the Malays. Thomsen left Singapore in 1834 when he sold the Press to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The American Board was responsible for the religious activities there. It was the American missionary movement which translated Hikayat Pelayaran Abdullah (Abdullah’s Travel Narrative) and the New Testament into English. One notable person, Benjamin Peach Keasberry came from USA to Singapore to work with the Malays under the American Board, and in 1839 joined the London Missionary Society. Keasbery was very much involved with publications in Malay. The LMS came to an end in the Straits Settlements when the Opium War broke out in China between 1838-1842. The Society then decided to shift its work from the Straits Settlements to China.

The Mission Press under Keasberry printed a few Malay manuscripts including Adat Segala Raja-Raja Melayu dalam Segala Negeri and Sejarah Melayu. With the help of Alfred North from the American Board, Abdullah was able to pen his experiences in Kesah Pelayaran Abdullah (The Voyages of Abdullah) and Hikayat Abdullah (The Narrative of Abdullah).

When Keasbery died in 1875, the press was bought by John Fraser and D.C.Neave Printers Ltd which survived until the Japanese occupation. With Keasberry’s demise, the Mission Press fell silent until it was revived by the Methodist William Girlestone Shellabear, who was responsible for its revival. He became a missionary for the Methodist Church Singapore, and started the American Mission Press, which later became the Methodist Publishing House in 1906, followed by the Malaya Publishing House in 1927. Shellabear was the one missionary who was largely responsible for enriching Malay historiography of the early 20th century. Among the publications produced was the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Reaction of Natives to the Spread of Christianity

It is interesting to note the reaction of the natives to Christian missionary activities in the Straits Settlements. The efforts failed to Christianise the Malays, although they were involved in the teaching of the Malay language to the missionaries. This poses an interesting question as to why such activities failed in the Malay States when it was successful elsewhere.

Thomas Beighton’s publications related mainly to Christianity, and included titles like The Trinity Revealed in the New Testament, The Rise of Christianity that is the Story of Resurrection of Jesus on the Third Day after his Crucifixion, Religion of the Bible, and Fourth Commandment. Beighton’s most controversial publication was Comparison of the Religion of Jesus with the Religion of Mohammed, the Rise of Christianity and a pamphlet with the title Pengajaran. Comparison of the Religion was an attempt to belittle Al Quran and praise the Bible. Malay leaders were of the opinion that these writings were crude, insulting and belittled Islam and its followers. They were disturbed by the way such materials were brought right to their doorsteps. The Malays complained to the Governor of Penang, S. G. Bonham and wanted Beighton to be restrained from distributing such materials. The latter was, however, able to convince the Governor that most of them were translation works intended to stimulate inquiry. The explanation was contained in his “Letter to Mohammetans”, in which he stressed that Abdullah Munsyi had helped in publishing the work.

It is also interesting to note that Beighton had even adopted a young Malay, baptised him and named him Thomas John Ince. When the boy died, he even published a book titled The Story of Tom that is Thomas J. Inche who was Loyal and Dedicated to Christianity as Stated.

The reaction of the natives towards Christianity is something which is not studied in Malaysian history. It is only through the writings of the missionaries that one could also acquire information with regard to how the natives reacted to the missionaries’ attempt to spread gospel or Christian teachings. As Milner rightly pointed out, “It must be investigated further the contribution which missionaries made to the ideological assault waged by the west against Malay culture in the early nineteenth century; the schools they established in their preaching and the missionary pamphlets they distributed throughout the Archipelago”.

The Writings of the Missionaries as Historical Sources

The Publication of Historical Works by Mission Press

Early historical works of the time were published by missionary societies, without whose efforts Malaysian historiography would not have been complete. Many professional historians who worked on the Straits Settlements and the Malay Archipelago relied greatly on such publications to shed light on the many events of the time. A number of notable historical publications of the societies are listed below;

Thomsen Claudius Henry, A Code of Bugis Maritime Laws with Translation, Singapore, Printed at the Mission Press, 1832.

Moor, John Henry, (Compiler), Notices of the Indian Archipelago, and Adjacent Countries; Being a Collection of Papers Relating to Borneo, Celebes, Java, Sumatra, Nias the Philippine Islands, Sulus, Siam, Cochin China, Malayan Peninsula & Etc, Singapore , Mission Press, 1837.

Reverend Thomas Beighton, Comparison of the Religion of Jesus with the Religion of Mohammed. Prophet of the Arabs in Mecca, printed in Penang by Reverend Thomas Beighton in the year 1839. (Translation)

Logan, The Journal of the Indian Archipelago, Vol. 1 & 2, Singapore, Mission Press, 1847.

The Story of Abdullah Abdul Kadir Munshi, Singapore, Mission Press, 1849. (Translation).

A number of the above publications need to be discussed in detail to show how they could be considered as historical sources for the study of the Malay Archipelago.

Moor’s Publication

John Henry Moor compiled Notices of the Indian Archipelago, and Adjacent Countries; Being a Collection of Papers Relating to Borneo, Celebes, Java, Sumatra,

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