The Straits Settlements, a British colonial administrative unit comprised of three city ports flourishing along the Strait of Malacca, was established in 1826 and administered from Penang, overseeing Malacca and Singapore. Penang, the first Straits settlement, was ceded to the English East India Company on August 11, 1786, by Sultan Abdullah Mukarram (r. September 23, 1778–September 1, 1797), the ruler of Kedah, who was eager to seek British protection from Siamese and Burmese threats.
As a trading center and port of call, Penang (in present-day Malaysia) left much to be desired. Despite the reluctance of the British government, Singapore, located at the southern tip of the Strait of Malacca, was sought, therefore, as an additional settlement by Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), a farsighted and industrious British colonial administrator. Notwithstanding Dutch attempts to forestall it, Singapore was successfully acquired from Sultan Hussein Muazzam Shah (r. February 6, 1819–September 2, 1835), the lawful but displaced ruler of Johor, on February 6, 1819. Malacca (Malaysia), the other settlement, was obtained from the Dutch through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of March 17, 1824, in exchange for the British colony Bencoolen (present-day Bengkulu, Indonesia) that was situated on the west coast of Sumatra. Among the three settlements, Singapore stood out as the most prosperous.
The British presence in the Far East came on the heels of the Portuguese and the Dutch. The efforts to seek a wider market for woolen cloth and other manufactured goods produced by the blooming industries in Europe brought the British government, through the English East India Company, first to India and later to the Malay Archipelago, which was popularly known as the East Indian islands. As a major sea route connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, the Strait of Malacca was indispensable because of the increasing trade between Europe and China in the eighteenth century. By then, tea had become a social beverage in Europe, and the growing demand for Chinese tea made a free passage to China a central concern of European merchants and governments.
For the British, the Strait of Malacca remained the most important sea route for Indian opium and Strait produce, such as pepper and tin, to be shipped to China in exchange for its tea. Fearing a possible monopoly of the burgeoning trade by the Dutch, the British government eventually searched for a staging post for both commercial and military vessels from British India to the Far East. Penang, located at the northern entrance of the Strait of Malacca, was chosen, owing to its strategic position.
As a new British settlement, Penang saw a rapid expansion of trade and immigrants; in 1805, it was made the fourth presidency of British India. The high expectations for Penang, however, remained unfulfilled. Not suitable as a dockyard due to the unavailability of quality timber nearby, Penang, in 1812, was abandoned as a naval base. The waning importance of Penang, however, lay chiefly in its unsuccessful bid to become a great trading center among the East Indian islands. Situated on the western edge of the Malay Archipelago, Penang failed to summon adequate trade to be financially independent and remained a constant drain to the coffers of British India.
When Singapore was established as a new British settlement in 1819, Penang's strategic value diminished even further. As a free port located closer to the center of the Malay Archipelago, Singapore became the darling of the day, endearing itself to local and international sea merchants. Singapore's success was made more distinct as it was the only settlement in the Straits Settlements able to foot its own expenditure. In 1832 it replaced Penang as the administrative center of the Straits Settlements. Under Penang's watch, the Straits Settlements had forfeited its presidency status and been reduced to a residency in June 30, 1830, because of financial strain.
As commercial interests in Singapore gained strength, its mercantile community began to demand more attention and voice over Singapore's affairs. However, the English East India Company, which administered the Straits Settlements, lost interest in Singapore after losing its monopoly on the China trade in 1833, and it took little note of the grievances of Singapore's merchants. The residents of Singapore were rarely consulted on such matters as the dumping of Indian convicts on the island to the proposed port tax that threatened the very foundation of Singapore's success as a free port.
The mercantile community eventually brought their concerns to the British Parliament, and after long decades of public meetings and petitioning, Singapore was finally made a crown colony on April 1, 1867, and received direct rule from the Colonial Office in London. With the advent of steamships in the mid-1860s and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Singapore's position as the port of call between Europe and China was further strengthened; it became at once "the Gibraltar and the Constantinople of the East."
Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Malaysia, 2nd ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.
Swettenham, Frank Athelstane. British Malaya: An Account of the Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya, rev. ed. London: Allen and Unwin, 1948.
Turnbull, C. M. The Straits Settlements, 1826–67: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony. London: Athlone, 1972.