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British Malaya

National History - British Malaya

British Malaya loosely described a set of states on the

Malay Peninsula and the Island of Singapore that were colonized by the British from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Before the formation of Malayan Union in 1946, the colonies were not placed under a single unified administration. Instead, British Malaya comprised the Straits Settlements , the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States . Malaya was the world's largest producer of tin and later rubber .

Initial British involvement in Malay politics

The British first became involved with Malay politics when it tried to set up trading posts in Penang, formerly a part of Kedah, in 1771, and in Singapore in 1819.

Penang and Kedah

In the mid-18th century, British firms could be found trading in the Malay Peninsula. In April 1771, Jourdain, Sulivan and de Souza, a British firm based in Madras, India sent Francis Light to meet the Sultan of Kedah, Muhammad Jiwa Shah, to open up the state's market for trading. Light was also a captain within the British East India Company.

The Sultan faced multiple external threats during this period. The chief instigator of pressure was Siam, which saw Kedah as its vassal state and frequently demanded reinforcements to sustain its war with Burma.

Through negotiations with Light, the Sultan agreed to allow the British firm to build a trading post and operate in Kedah, provided the British agreed to protect Kedah from external pressure. The British, however, rejected the proposal.

Two years later, Sultan Muhammad Jiwa died and was replaced by Sultan Abdullah Mahrum Shah. The new Sultan offered Light (who later became a British representative) the island of Penang in return for military assistance. Light informed the British East India Company of the Sultan's offer. The Company, however, ordered Light to take over Penang whilst maintaining a neutral position with regards to the aid that Sultan Abdullah sought after. Light carried out the orders without conveying the decision to the Sultan until June 1788, when the Company declared it would withhold military assistance.

Feeling cheated, the Sultan ordered Light to leave Penang, but Light refused. Light's refusal caused the Sultan to strengthen Kedah's military unit and fortify Prai, a stretch of beach opposite Penang. Recognizing this threat, the British moved in and razed the fort in Prai. The British then forced the Sultan to sign an agreement that legally allowed the British to occupy Penang; in return, the Sultan would receive an annual rent of 6,000 Spanish pesos. On 1 May 1791 the Union Jack was officially raised in Penang for the first time. In 1800, Kedah ceded Prai to the British and the Sultan received a further 4,000 pesos to his annual rent. Penang was later named Prince of Wales Island while Prai was renamed Province Wellesley.

In 1821, Siam invaded Kedah, sacked the capital of Alor Star, and occupied the state until 1842.

Expansion of British influence (1800s)

Before the late 19th century, the British largely practiced a non-interventionist policy. Several factors such as the fluctuating supply of raw materials, and security, convinced the British to play a more active role in the Malay states.

From the 17th to the early 19th century, Malacca was a Dutch colony. During the Napoleonic Wars, between 1811 and 1815, Malacca, like other Dutch holdings in Southeast Asia, was under the care of the British. This was to prevent the French from claiming the Dutch possessions. When the war ended in 1815, Malacca was returned to the Dutch. In 1824 the British and the Dutch signed a treaty known as the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The treaty, among other things, legally transferred Malacca to British administration. The treaty also officially divided the Malay archipelago into two separate entities and laid the basis for the current Indonesian-Malaysian boundary.

Johor and Singapore

see Johor Sultanate

Straits Settlements

After the British secured Singapore from the Dutch through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, the British aimed to centralize the administration of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. To this end, the Straits Settlements framework was established with Penang as its capital in 1826. Later, in 1832, the capital was moved to Singapore. While the three principal holdings formed the backbone of the Settlements, throughout the years Christmas Island, Cocos Islands,Labuan and Dinding of Perak were placed under the authority of the Straits Settlements.

The Straits Settlements were answerable to the British administrator of the East India Company in Calcutta. However, the Settlements' administrators were dissatisfied with the way Calcutta was handling their affairs (the Company had tried to annul Singapore’s free port status in 1856) and they complained to London. Following the dissolving of the Company in 1858 and India’s new status as a crown colony, the Settlements were placed directly under the power of the Colonial Office in London in 1867. The declaration gave the colony considerable independence and power within the British Empire.

In 1946, after the Second World War, the colony was dissolved. Malacca and Penang were absorbed into the Malayan Union, while Singapore was separated from the Union and made into an independent crown colony. The Malayan Union was later replaced with the Federation of Malaya in 1948, and in 1963, together with North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore, formed a greater federation called Malaysia.

Northern Malay states and Siam

Prior to the late 19th century, the British East India Company was interested only in trading, and tried as much as possible to steer clear of Malay politics. However, Siam's influence in the northern Malay states, especially Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan and Pattani, was preventing the Company from trading in peace. Therefore, in 1826, the British through the Company signed a secret treaty known today as the Burney Treaty with the King of Siam. There were no Malay representatives present during the signing of the agreement. In that treaty, British acknowledged Siamese sovereignty over all those states. In return, Siam accepted British ownership of Penang and Province Wellesley and allowed the Company to trade freely in Terengganu and Kelantan.

83 years later, a new treaty now known as the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 or the Bangkok Treaty of 1909 was signed between the two powers. In the new agreement, Siam agreed to give up its claim over Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan, while retaining Pattani, now divided into Pattani proper, Yala and Narathiwat. Perlis was previously part of Kedah but during the Siamese reign it was separated from Kedah. Kedah's district of Satun however was annexed by Siam in the same agreement. Ultimately, Siam King Chulalongkorn cooperated because In view of the increasing French pressure on the eastern border of Siam, Siam King Chulalongkorn wished to avoid inciting further antagonism from the British powers. Earlier in 1893, Siam had lost the Shan region of north-eastern Burma to the British. This demarcation as stated in the agreement remains today the Malaysia-Thailand Border.

The Malay rulers, on the other hand, were too weak to resist British influence. After the signing of the Bangkok Treaty, George Maxwell was posted by the British in Kedah as the sultan's advisor. The British effectively took over economic planning and execution. A Kedah-Siam rail line was built in 1912 while land reforms were introduced in 1914. Only in 1923 did the ruler of Kedah, Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Syah, actively seek to incorporate Western aspects of government.

Perlis had a similar experience. The ruler did not recognize the 1909 treaty but the British were de facto administrators of the state. It was only in 1930 that the ruler, Raja Syed Alwi, recognized the British presence in Perlis by admitting Meadows Frost as the first British Advisor in Perlis.

The 1824 Pangkor Treaty and Perak

Perak is a state on the western shore of the Malay Peninsula. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was discovered to be rich in tin, with the richest alluvial deposits of tin in the world. This discovery was timely as it coincided with the European industrial revolution. The British as well as the Dutch were active in the states, each seeking to monopolize production of tin and other commodities. However, Perak’s volatile political atmosphere raised the cost of tin mining operations. For instance, in 1818 Siam ordered Kedah to attack Perak, forcing the British to intervene in defence of Perak in 1826.

Following this, Perak experienced a shortage of labour as it increased its mining operations. Looking to solve the problem, Malay administrator Long Jaafar invited the Chinese in Penang to work in Perak, particularly at Larut. By the 1840s, Perak's Chinese population exploded. The new immigrants were chiefly members of Chinese secret societies, of which the most active were Ghee Hin and Hai San. These two groups frequently came into conflict as they sought to gain dominance in Perak. These skirmishes were getting out of hand, so much so that even Ngah Ibrahim, the Menteri Besar (chief minister) was unable to enforce the rule of law.

Meanwhile, a power struggle ensued in the Perak royal court. When Sultan Ali died in 1871, the crown prince, Raja Abdullah was not present during the burial of the sultan. As with the case of Tengku Hussein of Johor, Raja Abdullah was rejected as the new sultan by the ministers of Perak in favour of the second in line, Raja Bendaraha Raja Ismail.

Enraged, Raja Abdullah organized political support from various channels, including several of Perak's local chiefs and several British personnel with whom he had done business in the past, with the secret societies becoming their proxies. Among those British individuals was British trader W.H.M. Read. Furthermore, he promised to accept a British representative in his court in return for assistance to reclaim the throne.

Unfortunately for Raja Abdullah, the Straits Settlements governor at that time was Sir Harry Ord, a friend of Ngah Ibrahim, who had unresolved issues with Raja Abdullah. With Ord's aid, Ngah Ibrahim employed sepoy troops from India to prevent Raja Abdullah from actively claiming the throne and extending control over the Chinese secret societies.

By 1873, the London Colonial Office, aware that the Settlements were increasingly dependent on the economy of the Malay states, including Perak, dismissed Ord and sent Sir Andrew Clarke to rectify the situation in the Malay states. After Clarke's arrival in Singapore, many British traders including Read became close to the governor. Through Read, Clarke learned of Raja Abdullah's problem and seized the opportunity to expand British influence. First, he called all Chinese secret societies together and demanded a permanent truce. Later, through the signing of the Pangkor Treaty on 20 January 1874, Clarke acknowledged Raja Abdullah as the legitimate sultan of Perak while forcing Raja Ismail to abdicate. Immediately, J.W.W. Birch was appointed as a British resident in Perak.


Along with Perak, Selangor, another Malay state just south of Perak, had considerable deposits of tin around Hulu Selangor on the north, Hulu Klang in the central area and Lukut near Negeri Sembilan to the south.

By the 1850s, under the administration of Raja Jumaat from Riau, Lukut emerged as one of the most modern tin-mining settlements on the Malay Peninsula apart from the Straits Settlements. At one point, there were no less than 20,000 labourers, most of them ethnic Chinese imported from China. His death in1864, however, created a leadership vacuum and Lukut gradually slid into obscurity.

Meanwhile, as Lukut's economic importance was slowly declining, that of Hulu Klang was rising, precipitating the relocation of Chinese immigrants who had worked in Lukut to the new tin mining area. As Hulu Klang prospered, several settlements were established by the late 1860s. Two of them were Kuala Lumpur and Klang. A Chinese kapitan named Yap Ah Loy was instrumental in developing Kuala Lumpur.

As in Perak, the rapid economic development in these regions had a significant influence on the Settlements. The British were thus concerned to safeguard Selangor and its surrounding divisions from disturbances that would harm the interest of their tripartite colony.

One such major disturbance, amounting to a civil war, was the Klang War which began in 1867.

In November 1873, a ship from Penang was attacked by pirates near Kuala Langat, Selangor. A court was assembled near Jugra and the suspected pirates were sentenced to death. Concerned over the lack of security, the sultan appealed to the Settlement administration, which appointed Frank Swettenham to serve as the sultan’s advisor. Approximately a year later, a lawyer from Singapore named J.G. Davidson was appointed as British Resident in Selangor. The civil war ended in 1874.

Sungei Ujong, Negri Sembilan

Negeri Sembilan came into being as a loose confederation of migrant Minangkabau settlements, or ‘states’, in the 15th century under the protection of the Malacca Sultanate, and later under the protection of its successor, the Sultanate of Johor. As Johor weakened in the 18th century, attacks by the Bugis forced the Minangkabaus to seek protection from their homeland. The Minangkabau ruler, Sultan Abdul Jalil, obliged by sending his near relative, Raja Melewar, who became the ruler of Negeri Sembilan. The Sultan of Johor confirmed his position by granting the title Yang di-Pertuan Besar Negeri Sembilan (He Who is Highest Lord of the Nine States) in 1773. After Raja Melewar's death, a series of disputes arose over the succession. For a considerable period, the local nobles applied to the Minangkabau ruler in Sumatra for a ruler. However, competing interests supported different candidates, often resulting in instability and civil war.

In 1869 a power struggle transpired between Tengku Antah and Tengku Ahmad Tunggal, as both aspired to become the next ruler of Negeri Sembilan, the Yamtuan Besar. This conflict between the two princes divided the confederation and threatened the reliability of tin supply from Negeri Sembilan, which was a major producer of tin.

Sungai Ujong , in particular, was the site of many important local mines and was ruled by Dato' Kelana Sendeng. However, another local chieftain named Dato' Bandar Kulop Tunggal wielded more influence as he was supported by both the local and Chinese miners at Sungai Ujong. Dato' Kelana's limited popularity made him dependent on another chieftain named Sayid Abdul Rahman, who was the confederation's Laksamana Raja Laut (royal sea admiral). The strained relationship between Dato' Bandar and Dato' Kelana caused frequent disturbances in Sungai Ujong.

The years before 1873 were relatively calm as Dato' Kelana had to contend with Rembau, a rival state within the confederation which had tried to wrest the Linggi river from Sungai Ujong's control. A high volume of trade passed through Linggi daily as it was connected to Malacca; whoever controlled it would gain wealth simply through taxes.

Later that year, Dato' Kelana Sendeng died and was replaced by Sayid Abdul Rahman. The new Dato' Kelana was deeply concerned with Dato' Bandar's unchecked influence, and actively sought ways to counter his adversary's power.

With the British reversion to interventionist policy in 1873, Dato’ Kelana immediately lobbied for the support of the British in Malacca to fortify his position in Sungai Ujong. Sir Andrew Clarke responded the following year by entering into a treaty with Dato’ Kelana, acknowledging him as the legitimate chief of Sungai Ujong and binding him to rule Sungai Ujong justly, protect trader and importantly, prevent any anti-British action.

Dato' Bandar had not been privy to the agreement and hence asserted that he was not bound to its terms. Moreover, he and the locals disapproved of the British presence in Sungai Ujong.

A company led by William A. Pickering, of the Chinese Protectorate from the Straits Settlements, was sent to Sungai Ujong to assess the situation. He reported the predicament back to the Straits Settlements and this prompted the British to send troops to Sungai Ujong to assist in deposing Dato' Bandar. At the end of 1874, Dato' Bandar fled to Kepayang. The British paid him a pension and granted him asylum in Singapore.

As the year progressed, British influence in local affairs increased and a resident was eventually installed to assist Dato' Kelana with the governance of Sungai Ujong.


The British became involved in the administration of Pahang after a civil war between two candidates to the kingdom's throne between 1858 and 1863.


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