Colonial Port Cities and Towns, South and Southeast Asia

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Colonial Port Cities and Towns, South and Southeast Asia

The term colonial port city evokes, in a Southeast and South Asian context, images of sprawling cosmopolitan urban centers, with their polyglot trading communities, linking long-distance maritime trading and shipping networks with regional movements of people, commodities, and ideas. Such cities are also seen as foreign enclaves, socially, morphologically, and culturally distinct from their hinterlands, but exercising economic and political control over them, tying these areas into imperial and global economic modes of production and consumption. Historically, they often served as regional or imperial capitals for the various European empires of the region.

In nineteenth- and twentieth-century South and Southeast Asia, such cities included Aden, Karachi, Bombay, Madras, Colombo, and Calcutta along the littorals of the Indian Ocean; Penang, Melaka and Singapore along the Straits of Melaka; Batavia, Semarang, Surabaya, and Makassar around the Java Sea; and Saigon, Hong Kong, and Manila on the South China Sea.

While the origins of these cities can be traced to the fortified Asian and European-controlled port towns established in these regions between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the colonial port city can easily be distinguished from their predecessors out of which they developed. They differ not only in terms of size and morphology, but also in terms of the extent of control colonial cities exercised over their hinterlands, the scale and scope of the commercial, financial, administrative, and socio-cultural functions they handled, and their role in integrating their respective hinterlands into broader structures of the colonial economy.


The commercial functions of the European port towns, including Manila, and their political and economic environments shaped the towns' social and physical morphology and their roles between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Foremost among the factors that defined these port towns was their cosmopolitanism. Rhoads Murphey (1989) has argued that this cosmopolitanism was inextricably linked with the commercial functions of such towns. It was an outgrowth of the European trading companies' desire to gain access to preexisting structures and networks of trade in Asia, and was reinforced in the early modern period by the social structuring of trade and occupations in the region along ethnic, religious, and, in the case of the Indian subcontinent, caste lines.

Attracting particular ethnic trading communities and artisan groups to the new European port towns was often seen as crucial to the towns' success. In Southeast Asia, these port towns were usually polyglot centers with Chinese, Arab, Malay, Bugis-Makassarese, Balinese, and Javanese communities. However, it was the Chinese who were the most important migrant community in the development of port towns in Southeast Asia, from the Dutch-controlled Batavia, Semarang, Surabaya, and Makassar, to the Spanish port town of Manila and the British port towns of Penang and Singapore. This was because of their connections with China and Chinese trading networks (especially maritime trade), and their relative amenability to control, despite several major revolts and massacres in Batavia and Manila respectively. Chinese based in the port towns not only mediated regional and transregional trade with China, but also brokered the movement to these port towns of Chinese laborers and artisans, many of whom were ultimately responsible for the construction of new towns and the expansion of old ones into the hinterland. They were usually part of established networks of peranakan or localized Chinese, many of whom had converted to Islam. This pattern of urban development was replicated in the northern Javanese port towns of Semarang, Surabaya, Jepara, and Tegal.

In South Asia, too, diasporic trading communities, both regional and trans-regional in origin, were crucial in the establishment and functioning of the European port towns, especially Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and Pondicherry—although the Dutch ports, Paleacat and Negatpatnam, because of their monopolistic policies aimed at protecting Dutch East India Company (EIC) trade, tended to view such communities as competitors. The founding of Bombay and the establishment of Madras by the English East India Company were followed by attempts to attract Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Parsi, Jewish, and Armenian Christian merchants from neighboring ports, through offers of trading privileges, customs exemptions, freedom of religion, and corporate privileges. Families and networks from other regions of South Asia, such as the Gujaratis, Rajasthanis, Telegus, and Marwaris, were also active in the trade between these port towns and their hinterlands. Prominent Jews in Cochin were central in transactions between the local ruler and the Dutch EIC, and even established contacts with Dutch Jews in the Netherlands.

Religious freedom and religious tolerance were both important dimensions of the port towns' cosmopolitanism. Except in the Philippines—where Catholicization was one of the main colonial objectives, notwithstanding the presence of Chinese and other non-Catholic traders—the promotion of religious tolerance as a way of attracting and holding different merchant groups was a key European trading company policy. The Dutch, after defeating the Portuguese in the port town of Cochin, granted religious privileges and liberties to the Jewish merchant community. Religious differences remained important as a marker of communal distinction, however, although this did not prevent people from marrying out of their religion. While there was a general tolerance of religious diversity in the Dutch port towns, there was also a drive to "Europeanize" local forms of Christianity. The Dutch Reformed Church attempted to socialize local Christians, either Catholics or new converts through marriage, into what was considered to be proper Christian society in the Indies. The churches in the port towns were seen by trading company officials as important bastions of European society and ideals.

The administrative organization of European port-town society along ethnic, religious, and in the case of India, caste lines was reinforced by the segregated residential patterns of the different communities. As with their Asian counterparts, such as Surat, Masulipatnam, Melaka, Ayutthaya, and Makassar, the South and Southeast Asian port towns were organized in a manner that reflected the limited ability of Europeans to fully administer them, due to the European's lack of social and cultural capital, and the costs of any such attempt at direct control. A policy of semi-autonomous governance, with more important matters handled through consultation between the trading company councils and community leaders, was the usual practice.

In the Dutch port towns of Batavia, Semarang, Surabaya, Tegal, and Makassar, hierarchies of ranked leaders (from lieutenant to major) were set up for each ethnic community, while in some instances, as with the Chinese in Batavia and Semarang, communal bodies like the kongkoan were established to administer cases involving the local Chinese community. Where this kapitan system was not used, as in the Straits Settlement ports of Penang and Singapore, informal structures involving different communal organizations (based on shared place of origin, language, and family clan names) and secret societies were used by the Chinese communities for organizing themselves and by the state for maintaining order.

In Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Pondicherry, and Cochin too, each of the religious, ethnic, and caste communities were allowed to set up their own panchayats or councils for the governance of affairs related to their respective communities. They also tended to congregate around symbolic centers, especially shrines, temples, mosques, or churches, associated not only with their religious affiliation as a whole, but also with their places of origin and with other ethnic or caste markers.

Despite this segregation along ethnic, religious, and caste lines, the growth of mestizo (mixed-marriage or hybrid) populations was also an important feature of these European port towns. In Batavia and other Dutch EIC port towns in the archipelago, intermarriages between trading company officials and local women, often Indo-Portuguese mestizos or slaves, were common and seen as inevitable. So was the practice of concubinage, because of the disproportionate gender ratio in migrant populations. The Portuguese, and later, the Dutch, saw this group of mestizos as crucial to the establishment of a community with links and loyalty to the Europeans.

The emergence of peranakan society in Java and other parts of the East Indies through the marriage of local women to Chinese men—who chose to retain their "Chineseness," albeit in rather hybrid cultural forms—paralleled the growth of the Chinese mestizo populations in Manila and its environs. In the ommelanden or suburbs of Batavia, intermarriage between different ethnic communities from the Indies, and the residential patterns of these groups, often frustrated the attempts of the Dutch to segregate them, leading to groups with mixed ethnicities, even among groups commonly labeled as native.

Such hybridizations often presented problems for the Europeans in the port towns in their efforts at classification and taxation, and in the administration of legal cases. It also led to rivalries between the different communal hierarchies and structures established in these towns with the blessing of the European rulers. In Makassar, for example, there were disputes between the Captains of the Malay and Chinese communities over the relative status of men and women who married across the ethnic divide, especially for Chinese peranakan who chose to remain Muslim. The control over people was crucial to the power and authority of ethnic community leaders. In certain cases, like the Malay community, the leader was obliged to render and coordinate labor services for the colonial administration.

These European port towns, perhaps with the exception of Manila, never came to dominate the trade or the populations of their respective regions or subregions, nor attain the scale and scope of their Asian counterparts, or of the later colonial port city. Despite their morphological differences from Asian port towns or other settlements in parts of South and Southeast Asia, they had only a limited impact on their hinterlands and political environment.

Their claims to commercial monopoly, even in the area of spices like cloves and nutmeg, was continually undermined by the various Asian and private trading networks, even where they managed to control the "hinterland" producing these items. The European trading companies depended on local rulers and local merchant networks in the hinterland for access to various products—as in Cochin, where they were forced to deal with the raja and other local rulers in order to obtain commodities such as textiles and peppers.

Even in regions where Europeans had port towns, such as Bombay and Calcutta in the case of the British, they maintained factories in Asian port towns controlled by petty rulers or inland empires—such as the towns Surat and Masulipatnam, at various times under the sway of the Mughals and Marathas—or their respective representatives or tributaries. In Calcutta, and Bengal as a whole, the English EIC had to operate through a network of local rulers—like the Nawab of Bengal and other local princes—purporting to act for inland empires (such as the Mughals), and with a host of trading communities organized along ethnic as well as kinship lines.

While European port towns did influence the politics and trading patterns of the hinterlands by their presence in regional markets, and sometimes through violent means, their direct impact in terms of restructuring relations and trade was mild compared to the colonial port cities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their aims were fundamentally different, and in the case of the European trading companies, commercial and limited.


The emergence of the colonial port city was predicated on changes in imperial vision that became more evident by the middle of the nineteenth century. These were not sudden or momentous changes, but the culmination of a series of overlapping processes. Their beginnings can be found in the eighteenth century and in the convergence of several factors that reinforced the position of certain European port towns and transformed them into rapidly expanding port cities operating within new political, economic, and technological frameworks. The military, political, and administrative incorporation of the hinterlands of the port towns into their respective imperial frameworks meant, in different places, varying degrees of transformation of the relationships between the colonial state, local rulers and elites, and society-at-large in the hinterlands, leading, in turn, to changes in the relationships of land-ownership, production, and trade.

The eighteenth century saw the extension of British and Dutch control in the hinterlands of strategic parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, namely on the east coast of the Indian Subcontinent and the west coast of Java, respectively. The context and pretext was the decline of inland empires, namely the Mughal in India and the Mataram in Java, and the subsequent political instability created by aspiring powers (like the Marathas in India) and contesting claimants in imperial, regional, and local contexts. Nevertheless, the aims of the British and Dutch remained conservative. In both these regions, they claimed, at least in principle, to be the representatives or diwan for the declining Mughal Empire and the Kartasura court, respectively, and continued to operate through established local rulers or "political entrepreneur" princes.

The integration of these hinterlands into new political and administrative structures was a long-term process, accelerated by the taking over of the British and Dutch trading companies' interests and territories in South and Southeast Asia in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by their respective national governments in Europe, after the collapse of the Dutch EIC in 1799 and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. This process saw the incorporation of local elites and rulers into a new system of governance, in which their executive powers were much diminished or restricted to cultural or religious spheres, alongside an expanding European bureaucracy. Many local rulers lost their previous sources of income, which were mainly derived from tribute and other forms of direct fiscal exactions, and received instead a fixed income from the state, which they thus became dependent upon. This process was paralleled by a codification of laws concerning land, settlement, and movement of people that was based on European legal notions and understandings of local customs, and put the relationship between the colonial state and local elites on a new footing.

These changes paved the way for the economic transformation of the hinterland, first through trading company and state-sponsored enterprises, such as the cultivation system in Java and West Sumatra, and subsequently through the influx of western capital into the new extractive industries and plantation economy of east Sumatra, Java, Malaya, and the islands of Riau, Bangka, Belitung, and Borneo. The industrial and agricultural revolutions in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, especially in Britain, changed the patterns of Eurasian trade, in terms of mass production capability and by creating the affluence that increased demand for tropical foods, beverages, and other consumption items, as well as raw materials.

These revolutions reinforced the importance of colonial port cities by making them gateways into the new hinterlands for investment capital, labor, and technology. This was evident in the mass migration of Chinese and later Indian and Javanese labor to Malaya, and of Chinese and Javanese labor to Sumatra. It was also reflected in the creation of new satellite towns linked to the port cities of Singapore and Penang and Kuala Lumpur-Klang in northwest Malaya, which became the main collecting, distributing, and processing centers.

Technological changes in maritime and land transport and communications strengthened the positions of the colonial port cities in their regional contexts. The advent of the steamship and the growing traffic of cargo and shipping resulted in a rapid increase in the draught, tonnage, and sophistication of the ocean carriers, which were well beyond the capabilities of the existing ports. The costs of building specialized port facilities, whether through state enterprise or through private corporations, or both, often meant that such facilities were concentrated in areas of highest traffic.

Port cities also became important regional centers for industrial production and for the distribution of manufactured products from the metropoles. This led to the expansion of the cities beyond their old physical confines, namely the town walls and forts. Their architectural appearance also achieved a certain uniformity, as part of a colonial style. This was a very drawn-out process, which in the case of primary colonial cities like Batavia and Manila had begun much earlier. As cities developed industrial economies, distinctions in terms of class became as important as the divisions of ethnicity and religion.

The effects on the hinterland were evident in the increasing migration into the cities in search of opportunity. The port cities also began to take on cultural, social, and economic roles vis-à-vis the hinterland to a much greater extent, especially through their monopoly of print media and through becoming the site of new secondary and tertiary educational institutions. New patterns of migration also created new divisions within and changing attitudes toward existing migrant communities. The growing number of women migrants resulted in changing attitudes toward the mestizo and peranakan communities.

Marriage between European men and local women became increasingly frowned upon, as was concubinage, due to a growing ethnic divide based on racial (rather than cultural) conceptions and associations of Asia with weakness and moral debasement. The peranakan Chinese communities in Indonesia and in British Malaya were also coming to terms with the sociopolitical implications, in some quarters, of the cultural differences between an English-educated peranakan elite and the Chinese-educated business and intellectual elite.

Thus, just as these port cities became sites of ethnic and cultural mixing, like the older colonial European port towns, which made them socially and morphologically distinct from their environs and hinterland regions, they also became sites of ethnic competition and conflict. The growing scale of foreign migration (European, Chinese or Indian depending on the region in question) after the 1870s, and the increasingly apparent class and economic divisions along ethnic lines in these cities, provided the seeds for ethnically charged politics during the nationalist period.

It was in the colonial port cities that important branches of emergent nationalist and political organizations were formed. These cities were important sites and nexuses of movement, first for commerce, work, and administration, but later, also religious, educational and in terms of print and media. They gradually encapsulated both "foreign" diasporic networks, as well as local and regional systems. Thus, they became important channels for the movement of ideas, technology, and people between the region and the world, especially the colonial metropoles, and other Asian capital port cities (colonial or otherwise). They became the sites in which these "new" tools were harnessed to ideologies and movements that challenged the colonial order.

They provided the contexts for the creation of new elites whose educational background and professional or commercial dealings allowed them to straddle different worlds—the local-regional environments and the different European and Asian diasporas. This was as evident in Colombo and Calcutta in the Indian Ocean rim as in Singapore, Batavia, and Semarang east of the Bay of Bengal. In colonial Java, the port city of Semarang hosted the first meeting of the socialist Indische Partij in the Dutch East Indies and was also the base of one of the radical branches of Sarekat Islam influenced by the communists. Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, to different degrees, were also sites of such cultural dialogues and debates, with important consequences for emerging nationalist movements in India.

Port cities also came to play important roles as gateways for new ideas and new types of political and social consciousness, from Europe as well as from other Asian centers, such as Mecca, India (for Indonesia and British Malaya), China, and Japan. Circles and movements associated with socialism, nationalism, modernism, and religious reformism often emerged in these port cities due to the cities' population size and economic and social characteristics.


The colonial port city can be distinguished from the European port town in terms of its dominance over the hinterland, the scale and scope of economic, administrative, and port functions arrogated to it, and its function in linking the hinterland to a global and regional colonial political economy oriented toward a metropole in Europe. This concentration of functions was a reflection of the earlier strategic importance of the towns and of the relative success of the European trading companies and their successor colonial states, as well as of various technological developments, which began in the eighteenth century but accelerated after the mid-nineteenth century.

Parallel to these processes, new port hierarchies developed. Malacca, the old maritime stalwart of the Straits bearing its name, came to be displaced by the new British ports of Penang and Singapore, due to a combination of factors in the late eighteenth century. These included Anglo-Dutch rivalry and diplomacy, the nexus between English and European country trade networks and Asian shipping networks, and the regional politics in the Straits and Java Sea region in this period. Penang became the center of the northern Straits region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, while the founding of the other free port of Singapore, further challenged the position of Dutch-controlled Malacca. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty led to British control of these three ports on the peninsular side of the Straits of Malacca.

In the course of the nineteenth century, Singapore, due to its free trade environment, its strategic location in terms of maritime routes with China and with the eastern archipelago, and the operations of the European country trade (especially with respect to opium, became the primary port in the Straits region. The gradual concentration of administrative, technological, and other functions in the settlement further augmented its importance in the peninsular economy. Penang, in the context of Singapore's rise as the main entrepôt for Malaya and the western archipelago, was able to maintain its position due to the extension of colonial rule over its economic development of its hinterland under colonial auspices, by predominantly Chinese labor, capital and enterprise, of first tin mining in the northern Malayan hinterland in the late nineteenth century. It was followed by the influx of European capital and technology, first in the tin fields, and subsequently in the rubber industry after the late 1890s.

In Java, the establishment of Batavia as the main stapling port for the Dutch East India Company in its Asian trade, and the gradual territorial expansion of the Company after the 1670s, both along the north coast of Java and in the hinterland, led to the subordination, through force and then policy, of the other major maritime centers on the northern coast. This included Semarang, Surabaya, Japara, and Cirebon, among others. It restructured the hierarchy of polity and trade in the region. Nevertheless, these ports remained important in the regional trade, namely within the Java Sea, and with the Straits of Malacca.

Furthermore, Company policy and development of the hinterlands into centers of production for the European market changed the relationship between coast and hinterland yet again, as Mataram, the major inland power in central Java was gradually fragmented and subordinated to Dutch rule and sovereignty from the coast by the mid-nineteenth century. The gradual creation of the colonial state in Java with Batavia as the administrative, communications and transport capital, first under the East India Company and state-sponsored enterprises, and subsequently private European corporate ventures, saw the reinforcement of its position within the coastal port network.

Nevertheless, policy and economic changes after the 1870s, which saw the influx of European capital and technology into the Dutch possessions in the east, saw the further transformation of the regional ports into major players in the regional market. The development of the plantation economies, especially sugar, and tobacco, led not only to the resurgence of ports like Cirebon, Semarang and Surabaya, but also to the development of new port centers like Deli (now Medan) on the northeast coast of Sumatra.

In South Asia, Colombo outstripped Galle (with its better harbor) because of its access to the commercial agricultural areas in the southwest of the island, and the construction by the British of port facilities and a road and rail network oriented toward it. British imperial success no doubt led to the growth of Britain's colonial port towns on the subcontinent—namely Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay—relative to other European port towns like Pondicherry, Cochin, Paleacat, and Negatpatnam, as well as Indian ones like Surat and Masulipatnam.

In the Philippines, the continued importance of Manila was based on similar processes of colonial expansion, concomitant with infrastructural, commercial, and economic transformations, as seen in Java, Malaya and Ceylon. It reflected the geopolitical patterns of territorial expansion by the Spanish, as well as the ways in which the Spanish (and Chinese) commercial systems based on Manila connected with regional trading networks. The development of the hinterland and expansion to the other islands outside Luzon expanded the networks of ports, but Manila nonetheless retained its importance as the commercial, administrative, religious, and cultural center for the colonial Philippines.

The convergence of various political, administrative, economic, and technological forces in the nineteenth century determined the fortunes of earlier European port towns, and bound the selected ones that made the transition to colonial port city status more closely to the hinterland than their predecessors ever had been. The new port cities were also able to dominate their hinterlands to a hitherto unprecedented extent, and to play a leading role in shaping the economic and even sociopolitical landscape.

They played leading roles in mediating the flow of capital, people, ideas, and technology between Europe and Asia, as well as across colonial (and often linguistic) boundaries in Asia. Ironically, these cities also provided the contexts and nexuses for political and ideological movements that challenged the colonial order, often with concepts, methods, organizations, and technologies, derived from the metropole and Europe.

Nevertheless, the continued importance of these colonial port cities in the postcolonial period underlies the deep foundations of the hinterland/port city relationship and its centrality to the new nation-states, which despite their supposed antithesis to the colonial state and colonialism, retained many of its functions, structures and attitudes. The position of many of these port cities, especially the capital cities, have been strengthened rather than weakened in the post-colonial period.

see also Batavia; Bombay; Calcutta; Freeburghers, South and Southeast Asia; Singapore.


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