Friday, August 19, 2005

A 19th c. Resident on Penang and Malacca

When I say Resident, I mean 'Resident', not resident in lower case. For that was what the head colonial administrator in Singapore was called from 1819-1826. Yesterday I had the pleasure of perusing former Resident John Crawfurd's account of his Embassy to the kingdoms of Thailand and Vietnam, entitled: "Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China", a mission he undertook in 1821 and 1822 on behalf of the British East India Company. He was a longtime employee of the British East India Company. Born in Scotland in 1783, like William Jardine, he was also trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh, and also joined the service of John Company. Unlike Jardine, though, he was not posted on board ship but was rather sent to the North Western provinces of India. He later was sent to Penang for three years in 1808, where he became fluent in Malay.

As the Napoleonic Wars were on, Britain sailed in to storm (oops I mean protect) the Dutch colonies from French interference, and so from 1811 to 1816 he served under Sir Stamford Raffles in his administration of Dutch Java under the auspices of the East India Company. After retiring to Britain for a few years to write a 3-volume book, he was sent back out for this mission, and was soon after appointed Resident of Singapore from 1823 to 1826.

His Journal provides some fascinating insights into the man that was soon to shape Singapore's future (he in fact was the one that put pen to paper with the Sultan of Johore, securing the rights to Singapore island in perpetuity, instead of just as a leasehold, of which arrangement had been created by Raffles and Colonel Farquhar, the first Resident). It is clear he had divide-and-rule on his mind when commenting on the agricultural industry in Penang:
The landed proprietors of Penang consist, however, of persons of all the races which inhabit it; but the chief arboretors, and the only improvers, are the two most industrious classes - the European and the Chinese.
He also had very practical views on the administration of such a colony, and on how to generate revenues for the treasury - chiefly, through a tax on gambling. Politicians in Singapore discussing the logistics of the Integrated Resorts on Sentosa may wish to consider they are reviving an old debate. Crawfurd writes of Penang:
In former times a tax was levied on gambling more productive than all the rest put together; but on the institution of the Court of Justice, it was presented by the Grand Jury as a nuisance, and abolished. This was, perhaps, being too fastidious. The Chinese, the Malayas, native Christians, Burmans and Siamese, are violently, and without a revolution in their manners, not certainly to be brought about by mere municipal regulation, incurably addicted to gambling. The Chinese especially, habitually repair to the gaming-table after a day of severe toil. It would, perhaps, have been better to have regulated and controlled this propensity, than vainly to have attempted to eradicate it. The consequence of attempting the latter has been, that gaming still goes on clandestinely - heavy fines are levied by the police, and its officers are afforded a pretext, for vexatious interference in the private concerns of the inhabitants.
So Crawfurd here alludes to the problem of corruption that arises when you try to prevent something that he views as in the nature of the Chinese.

When he heads to Malacca, he demonstrates that he very much views the administrative tasks of the colonial power as the 'white man's burden', and demonstrates that he is rather against Europeans 'going native' in the course of their duties in the East. Here is an example of his railing against the Dutch going 'tropo' in their colony of Malacca:
Out of 37 [Dutch] ladies, two or three only were Europeans, and the rest born in the country, with a large admixture of Asiatic blood. The female dress, of the younger part, was in the English fashion; and a very few only of the elderly ladies dressed in the Malay kabaya, a sort of loose gown, or wore their hair in the Malay fashion. The long residence of the English in the Dutch colonies, the influence of the French, and lately, of their own more polished countrywomen - have nearly banished these external marks of barbarism. Before the last 10 years, the habits and costume of the female Dutch colonists partook more of the Asiatic than the European. Instead of Dutch, they spoke a barbarous dialect of Malay; they were habited, as I have described, in the dress of that people; they chewed the pawn-leaf publicly, and even in the ball-room each fair dame had before her an enormous brass ewer to receive the refuse of her mastication.
Crawfurd clearly felt that such concessions to Asian culture and practices were letting down the side. And no phenomenon seemed to disturb him more greatly than that of mixed-race Portuguese left behind in Malacca after the Dutch conquest of it in 1641. He writes:
The Portuguese amount to 4,000 and are all of the lowest order. Although with a great admixture of Asiatic blood, the European features are still strongly marked in them. I have no doubt there are among them many of the lineal descendants of the haughty, intolerant and brave men, who fought by the side of Albuquerque; but they certainly inherit no part of the character of their ancestors, and are a timid, peaceable and submissive race. They offer to us a spectacle not frequently presented in the East - that of men bearing the European name, and wearing the European garb, engaged in the humblest occupations of life, for we find them employed as domestic servants, as day labourers, and as fishermen.
Note that his theories of racial eugenics precede those of social Darwinists later in the century, and indeed the books of Darwin himself.

There is much more I have read on his travels, but will not tax you overly with their details, which I find fascinating, but perhaps you may not. Gaaah! His influence is telling even in the sentences I write. Should you want to hear more about his theories on race in Singapore, I should be happy to oblige with his incendiary observations...

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