Monday, February 19, 2018
Text Size

Search our archive

The Straits Settlements

National History - The Straits Settlement

The Straits Settlements was a tripartite group of British territories located in Southeast Asia .

Originally established in 1826 under the authority of the British East India Company, the Straits Settlements came under direct British control as a crown colony on 1 April 1867. The colony subsequently was dissolved as part of the British reorganisation of its South-East Asian dependencies following the end of the Second World War.

The original individual settlements were Malacca,Penang (also known as Prince of Wales Island), and Singapore. From 1907, Labuan, off the coast of Borneo, was included in the group. With the exception of Singapore, these territories now form part of Malaysia.

History and government

The establishment of the Straits Settlements followed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, by which the Malay Archipelago was divided into a British zone in the north and a Dutch zone in the south. The British settlement of Bencoolen (on Sumatra) was exchanged for the Dutch colony of Malacca and undisputed control of Singapore. Its capital shifted from Penang to Singapore in 1832.

On 1 April 1867 the Settlements became a British crown colony, making the Settlements answerable directly to the Colonial Office in London instead of theCalcutta government based in India. Earlier, on 4 February 1867, a " Letters Patent" had granted the Settlements a colonial constitution. This allocated much power to the Settlements' Governor, who administered the colony of the Straits Settlements with the aid of an Executive Council , composed wholly of official (i.e. ex-officio) members, and a Legislative Council, composed partly of official and partly of nominated members, of which the former had a narrow permanent majority. The work of administration, both in the colony and in the Federated Malay States, was carried on by means of a civil service whose members were recruited by competitive examination held annually in London.

Penang and Malacca were administered, directly under the governor, by resident councillors.

British control over Dindings and Province Wellesley

The Dindings, consisting of islands near the mouth of the Perak River and a small piece of territory on the adjoining mainland, were ceded to the British government under the Pangkor Treaty of 1874. The islands,sparsely inhabited and altogether unimportant both politically and financially were thus left in the hands of the government of Perak.

In 1800, the sultan of Kedah leased the district of Seberang Prai (Province Wellesley) on the coast opposite Penang to the East India Company in return for an increased pension. It was administered by a district officer, with some assistants, answering to the resident councillor of Penang. Province Wellesley consisted, for the most part, of fertile plains, thickly populated by Malays, yet sugar plantations and other similar agricultural industries encouraged the presence of Chinese and Tamil labourers. About a tenth of the whole area was covered by low hills with thick jungle. Large quantities of rice were grown by the Malay inhabitants, and between October and February there was snipe-shooting in the paddy fields. The province was connected to other areas within the colony via an inter-state railway, which began from Butterworth, opposite Penang, running into Perak, and thence via Selangor and Negeri Sembilan to Malacca, with an extension via Muar through to Johor Bharu.

The governor's wider role

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands (which were settled and once owned by a Scottish family named Clunies-Ross) and Christmas Island, formerly attached to Ceylon, were transferred to the care the government of the Straits Settlements in 1886 along with the addition of Labuan in 1906.

Apart from controlling the Straits Settlements, the governor played the role ofHigh Commissioner to theFederated Malay States on the peninsula as well as British North Borneo (Sabah) and the sultanate of Brunei and Sarawak in Borneo. Since the incorporation of Labuan, previously a protectorate of the British North Borneo Company, he was also governor of Labuan.

The Residential System

British residents controlled the native states of Perak,Selangor, Negri Sembilan andPahang. On 1 July 1896, when the federation of these states was effected, a resident-general, responsible to the (governor as) high commissioner, was placed in supreme charge of all the British protectorates in the peninsula.


The colony was dissolved with effect from 1 April 1946, withSingapore becoming a separate crown colony (and ultimately an independent republic), whilePenang and Malacca joined the newMalayan Union (a predecessor of modern-day Malaysia). Labuan was briefly annexed to Singapore, before being attached to the new colony of British North Borneo.

The Cocos or Keeling Islands and Christmas Island, originally made part of the crown colony of Singapore in 1946, were transferred to Australian administration in 1955 and 1957 respectively.


The following table charts the area and population, with details of race distribution, of the Straits Settlements. The figures are derived from the census of 1901:

Area in square miles

Population in 1891

Population in 1901







Other nationalities











Penang, Province Wellesley and Dindings






























In 1867, the date of the transfer of the colony from the East India Company to the Crown, the total population was estimated at 283,384.

This number swelled to 512,342 in 1881, and had in 1901 reached a total of 572,249 inhabitants. As in former years, the increase was solely due to immigration, chiefly that of the Chinese, though a considerable number of Tamils and other natives of India had also settled in the Straits Settlements. The total number of births registered in the colony in 1900 was 14,814, and the ratio per 1000 of the population during 1896, 1897 and 1898 respectively was 22-18, 20-82 and 21-57; while the number of registered deaths for the years 1896-1900 gave a ratio per 1000 of 42-21, 36-90, 30-43, 31-66 and 36-25 respectively, the number of deaths registered during 1900 being 23,385.

The comparatively higher mortality rates may be due to the fact that the Chinese and Indian populations, which numbers 339,083, or over 59% of the whole, was composed of 261,412 males and only 77,671 females, and a comparatively small number of the latter were married women and mothers of families. Male Europeans also outnumbered the females by about two to one; and among the Malays and Eurasians, who alone had a fair proportion of both sexes, infant mortality was excessive due to early marriages and other causes.

The number of immigrants landing in the various settlements during 1906 was:

Singapore: 176,587 Chinese
Penang: 56,333 Chinese and 52,041 natives of India
Malacca 598 Chinese

Making up a total of 285,560, against 39,136 emigrants, mostly Chinese returning to China.


The revenue of the colony in 1868 amounted to $1,301,843. This figure increased dramatically in 1906 to $9,512,132, exclusive of $106,180 received on account of land sales. Of the remaining sum, $6,650,558 was derived from import duties on opium, wines and spirits, and licences to deal in these articles, $377,972 from land revenue, $592,962 from postal and telegraphic revenue, and $276,019 from port and harbour dues.

Meanwhile, expenditure, which in 1868 amounted to $1,197,177, had saw a steep increase 1906 as well to $8,747,819. The total cost of the administrative establishments amounted to $4,450,791, of which $2,586,195 were personal emoluments and $1,864,596 miscellaneous charges. Apart from this, military expenditure (the colony paid 20% of its gross revenue to the British government by way of military contribution) amounted in to $1,762,438; $578,025 was expended on upkeep and maintenance of existing public works, and $1,209,291 on new roads, streets, bridges and buildings.


Add comment

Security code


English Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) French Japanese Malay