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10-08-2015, 16:07

The Colonial Takeover of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia had been one of the first destinations for European adventurers en route to the East. Lured by the riches of the Spice Islands (at the eastern end of presentday Indonesia), European adventurers sailed to the area in the early sixteenth century in the hope of establishing contacts with societies in the area and seizing control of the spice trade from Arab and Indian merchants. A century later, the trade was fast becoming a monopoly of the Dutch, whose sturdy ships and ample supply of capital gave them a significant advantage over their rivals. In 1800, only two societies in Southeast Asia were under effective colonial rule: the Spanish Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. The British had been driven out of the Spice Islands trade by the Dutch in the seventeenth century and possessed only a small enclave on the southern coast of the island of Sumatra and some territory on the Malay peninsula. The French had actively engaged in trade with states on the Asian mainland but were eventually reduced to a small missionary effort run by the Society for Foreign Missions. The only legacy of Portuguese expansion in the region was the possession of half of the small island of Timor. During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, European interest in Southeast Asia grew rapidly, and by 1900, virtually the entire area was under colonial rule (see Map 2.1). The process began after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when the British, by agreement with the Dutch, abandoned their claims to territorial possessions in the East Indies in return for a free hand in the Malay peninsula. In 1819, the colonial administrator Stamford Raffles founded a new British colony on a small island at the tip of the peninsula. Called Singapore (“City of the Lion”), it had previously been used by Malay pirates to raid ships passing through the Strait of Malacca. When the invention of steam power enabled merchant ships to save time and distance by passing through the strait rather than sailing with the westerlies across the southern Indian Ocean, Singapore became a major stopping point for traffic to and from China and other commercial centers in the region. During the next few decades, the pace of European penetration into Southeast Asia accelerated. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the British had sought and received the right to trade with the kingdom of Burma. A few decades later, the British took over the entire country and placed it under the colonial administration in India. The British advance into Burma was watched nervously in Paris, where French geopoliticians were ever anxious about British operations in Asia and Africa. The French still maintained a clandestine missionary organization in Vietnam despite harsh persecution by the local authorities, who viewed Christianity as a threat to internal stability. In 1857, the French government decided to force the Vietnamese to accept French protection to prevent the British from obtaining a monopoly of trade in South China. A naval attack launched a year later was not a total success, but the French eventually forced the Vietnamese court to cede territories in the Mekong River delta. A generation later, French rule was extended over the remainder of the country. By the end of the century, French seizure of neighboring Cambodia and Laos had led to the creation of the French-ruled Indochinese Union. With the French conquest of Indochina, Thailand was the only remaining independent state on the Southeast Asian mainland. During the last quarter of the century, British and French rivalry threatened to place the Thai, too, under colonial rule. But under the astute leadership of two remarkable rulers, King Mongkut (familiar to millions in theWest as the king in The King and I) and his son King Chulalongkorn, the Thai sought to introduceWestern learning and maintain relations with the major Euro- pean powers without undermining internal stability or inviting an imperialist attack. In 1896, the British and the French agreed to preserve Thailand as an independent buffer zone between their possessions in Southeast Asia. The final piece of the colonial edifice in Southeast Asia was put in place in 1898, when U.S. naval forces under Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. PresidentWilliam McKinley agonized over the fate of the Philippines but ultimately decided that the moral thing to do was to turn the islands into an American colony to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Japanese. In fact, the Americans (like the Spanish before them) found the islands convenient as a jumping-off point for the China trade (see Chapter 3). Not all Filipinos were pleased to be placed under U.S. tutelage. Led by Emilio Aguinaldo, guerrilla forces fought bitterly against U.S. troops to establish their independence from both Spain and the United States. But America’s first war against guerrillas in Asia was a success, and the resistance collapsed in 1901. President McKinley had his stepping-stone to the rich markets of China.