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11-04-2015, 06:24

The British Base and Prison on the Island of Singapore

On 30 January 1819, Abdul Rahman, the elderly Temenggong of Johore, signed a treaty with Sir Stamford Raffles, the former governor of Java, permitting the British to set up a trading post at Singapore, an island that was by no means uninhabited at the time of the British descent. Twenty gambier plantations were established there, some worked by Malays, others by Chinese. Gambier, from the gambeer tree, was harvested and sold as an essential ingredient in the dyeing and tanning industries. A few of the Temenggong’s followers lived on the island, as well as a handful of Malay and Chinese fishermen. Unusually in the history of Empire, there is no record of anyone objecting to the British arrival.

Abdul Rahman was essentially a sea lord, one of the heirs to the great maritime empire of Johore that stretched across the many-islanded waters between what are now Malaysia and Indonesia. The Temenggong’s principal base had been at Riau, on the island of Bentan, but he had recently been forced off the island when the Dutch, returning to the area in 1816 at the end of the European war, had given their support to a rival group, the Bugis.

Singapore was just one small participant in a large-scale ‘pirate’ organisation under the Temenggong’s loose control, based off the island of Galang, south of Bentan. For the Malays living on this great lagoon, the sea had always been a more significant territory than the land.1 The arrival of the British introduced a more dynamic and repressive element into their lives than they had been accustomed to during the Dutch era. The Malay ‘sea gypsies’, as they were sometimes called, lived off what the British chose to describe as ‘piracy’; in 1819 they were about to have their age-old operations terminally disrupted.

Had these sea-going people formed a kingdom on land, they would simply have been exacting tolls and customs duties from those who travelled across their territory, though both would have been obnoxious to the free-trading British. Yet when their wholly legitimate interference with free trade took place on the ‘high seas’, it was described as ‘piracy’. This had been the charge against the Qawasim in the Persian Gulf, and over the next thirty years, ‘piracy’ was to be the chief act of rebellion against British rule in the strategic waters off Singapore. British warships were soon to be based there for the sole purpose of eradicating the ‘pirates’.

Raffles expressed the same optimism he had shown when seizing Java eight years earlier. The new trading post had a bright future. ‘Singapore bids fair to be the next port to Calcutta, he wrote. ‘This is by far the most important station in the East; and, as far as naval superiority and commercial interests are concerned, of much higher value than whole continents of territory.’

In making a deal with the British, Abdul Rahman had allied himself with two colonial servants, Raffles and Colonel William Farquhar, for many years the British Resident at Malacca, with similar interests to his own. All three men had been dislodged recently from Dutch enclaves, and all had a common interest in establishing a new base. The Temenggong had lost his headquarters at Riau; Farquhar and Raffles were ousted colonial governors looking for fresh territory. Raffles, thrown out of Java, had consoled himself with the tiny prison enclave of Bencoolen on the island of Sumatra, which he was shortly to lose to the Dutch, who had already recovered Farquhar’s base at Malacca. Farquhar now took up a new position as the Resident at Singapore.

Abdul Rahman and his successors were to have an ambivalent relationship with the British. Although promised a large annual salary, he had no intention of giving up his earlier trade as a facilitator of ‘piracy’. Colonel Nahuijs, a Dutch offlcer who visited Singapore in 1823, explained the nature of Abdul Rahman’s relationship with the ‘pirates’: ‘The Temenggong is generally said to still have good understanding with his elder brothers, the pirates, and to maintain an active correspondence with them, giving them regular news of the comings and goings in Singapore harbour, and the destination, cargo and strengths of the different ships.’2

In the early years, Abdul Rahman believed that his deal with the British would benefit his followers. The increased trade that the British would bring to Singapore would assist his informal tax-collectors out at sea. Formally incorporated into the Empire in 1819, Singapore remained a lawless place, as a contemporary Malay report of 1823 makes clear:

All the inhabitants were dismayed by frequent incidents, houses catching fire, robberies taking place in the high noon, people getting stabbed. When morning came, people would be found stabbed and wounded to death. The Temenggong’s men, the Sultan’s men, and the foreigners of all races, went about fully armed; some of them robbed people in broad daylight, some broke into houses and stole people’s property, for they were afraid of nothing. . .3

Slaves were still being landed and sold, in spite of the Empire-wide ban imposed in 1807. The trade continued briskly in Singapore, as in Mauritius. When Colonel Farquhar was asked if he realised that slave-dealing was now a crime, he replied that in ‘a young colony’ like Singapore it would be unwise to be too particular. Raffles thought otherwise, and the slave trade was formally prohibited in May 1823.

In March 1823, Sayid Yasin, a Muslim merchant from the established Malay community in Singapore, stabbed Colonel Farquhar as he walked in his gardens. The stabbing was not fatal, but the Sayid was only prevented from completing his task by the prompt arrival of the colonel’s servants, who killed him immediately.

When the Resident was stabbed, the Europeans assumed immediately that the Sayid must have been acting in the name of the Temenggong Abdul Rahman, now a salaried local ruler.4 This was not so. The Sayid and Colonel Farquhar had a semi-private dispute. When the Sayid had proved unable to pay his debts, the Resident had sent him to gaol. Such a fate was humiliating to a Sayid, and he had sought revenge.

Raffles, who had come to Singapore from Bencoolen a few months earlier, argued that an attack on an offlcial should be met with an exemplary punishment. He called for the Sayid’s corpse to be put in an iron cage and exhibited publicly for a fortnight. Yet the Sayid’s grave at Tanjong Pagar soon became a shrine, and remained a place of pilgrimage for many years. Many Europeans thought that Raffles had endangered their lives by needlessly antagonising the Malays.

Farquhar was replaced as Resident by John Crawford, the old Java hand who would later turn up in Burma. Crawford forced a new treaty on the Temenggong in 1824 that effectively obliged him to leave the island. The old ‘pirate’ ruler died the following year.5 He was succeeded by Ibrahim, his fifteen-year-old son, and Temenggong Ibrahim continued as an influential ‘pirate’ operator until the 1840s, when he moved his men into the new trade in gutta-percha.

When, in the 1830s, slavery was finally abolished throughout the Empire, Singapore became one of its many prison islands. Convicts from India provided a steady supply of cheap labour for public works, and in later years Chinese convicts were also brought in. Forced labour, that essential ingredient of empire, was now readily available.6 Tapping the unlimited supplies of cheap labour available in Hong Kong and south China after 1840, the British entirely altered the demographic nature of their colony. Singapore went through an extraordinary transformation, and by the end of the nineteenth century its population had risen to 250,000, of whom three-quarters were Chinese.7