by Jean-Marie Metzger
Spices were at the centre of European interest in the East, especially in the Malay World. Indeed, it is a recurring theme in our tours. However, it was local political events in Europe that shaped the patterns of European colonial ventures.
Why the Portuguese?
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 made the Asian land route for spices more costly and difficult, prompting Portugal to seek out the source of these spices. Before this, Portugal had been exploring new territories in the West coast of Africa for about 40 years and had developed maritime skills and ships especially designed for exploration purposes. Venice, the traditional distributor of spices in Europe, was a maritime power but its sphere of influence was predominantly within the Mediterranean Sea. Its ships, known as galere, though skilfully built and very efficient at war, were of an antique Roman type and could not carry heavy cargo. The Portuguese’s technological leap was the result of the passion of a young prince, Henri, later nicknamed the Navigator. Though he did not navigate much himself, he inspired and financed exploration ventures along the western coasts of Africa and sponsored navigational schools and shipbuilding research. This led, 20 years before the fall of Constantinople, to a new design of ship, the caravelle (Flor de la mar is one example), which would sail the seas for more than 150 years. Therefore, when the need arose to find the source of spices, the Portuguese were, among the Europeans, the best equipped to search for them.
Why the Dutch?
At the beginning of the sixteeth century, when the Portuguese conquered Malacca, Charles V of Habsburg was one of the most powerful sovereigns in Europe, reigning from the Netherlands and Flanders to Spain, Naples, Burgundy, and later, the Holy Roman German Empire. But in the last years of the 16th century, the Dutch decided to break-away from the Spanish rule of Philippe II, heir of Charles V (freedom of religion was the main cause of the secession from an ultra-catholic king). Around the same time, a succession crisis arose in Portugal; the King of Spain claimed the throne and, after defeating the Portuguese army, established himself as King of Portugal. The Dutch used to get spices from Lisbon for trading purposes in Northern Europe. When Spain took over Portugal, it banned Dutch ships from Portuguese ports in retaliation to the secession of Dutch provinces. So the Dutch became enemies of Spain and Portugal, having become a friend (or part) of Spain, naturally became an enemy of the Dutch. Deprived of spices, the Dutch decided to seek and buy them at their source in the Malay world (Celebes, Java and Sumatra first, then Malacca) and break the Portuguese monopoly in the process.
Why the British?
Despite an attempt to establish themselves in Aceh and Ambon in the early years of the seventeenth century, the British had a weak presence in Asia and concentrated their efforts on the exploitation of India (and a ‘factory’ in Sumatra which provided pepper). Valued spices from the Celebes were either traded from the Malay Archipelago or seized from Dutch ships by officers of the East India Company (EIC), who acted more as buccaneers than traders. The rise of British power in the eighteenth century, together with its presence in all Asian seas, was heralded by the introduction of a new fashionable and highly profitable commodity: tea from China (and opium used to pay for tea in place of silver bullions). Far away, European politics were again about to influence Asia: the American war of independence (which started with a customs dispute on tea) saw the Dutch and French aligning with the American insurgents and becoming enemies with Britain (something politically new for the Dutch but not the French). They started to annoy the British by attacking their trading ships, wherever they could, mostly in the Gulf of Bengal (the French from Mauritius and the Dutch from Batavia and Malacca). After the loss of their American colonies, the British increased their colonial interest in Asia. The need to protect their China trade route to India (and Europe) and their will to economically challenge the Dutch, pushed the British to establish a presence at the northern mouth of the Straits of Malacca (the VOC went bankrupt in 1799, while the EIC, though not in much better condition, was bailed out by the British government in 1788 and was able to continue its operations for seventy more years).
And what about the French (and the Germans)?
While the Portuguese, Dutch and British were active in the Malay Archipelago, the French were notably absent: their only colonial venture was concentrated in India during the late seventeenth century, but their presence was drastically limited by British military and diplomatic action. The French had no direct impact but many of their political choices had an indirect impact on colonial policies in Malaya.
First, the French conquered the Netherlands, making them a République batave, and Napoleon made them a kingdom for his younger Brother, Louis. The British, as usual, were enemies of the French while the Dutch, defeated by the French, found themselves allied with the British again. The Dutch Stadthouder, exiled in London, asked the British government (the Kew Letters in 1795) to look after the Dutch colonies and this gave the British in Malacca, a second (though temporary at the time) foothold in the Malay Peninsula.
In the nineteenth century, while Britain was present in Burma and in the Straits Settlements (established by the EIC, and later under the control of the British Colonial office), the British policy of non-intervention in Malay affairs was prompted by the willingness to preserve Siam as a buffer state, thereby restraining potential French colonial expansion which started in Indochina in 1858 (the same year the Straits Settlements became a Crown colony). Even after the establishment of the Federated Malay States under the Residential system, the policy of non-intervention continued, for the same reason, with the northern states (later to become the Unfederated Malay States).
But all this changed when, after nine centuries spent annoying (and fighting) one another, France and the United Kingdom declared a new friendship – Entente cordiale. Faced with the German Empire threatening the stability of Europe, a series of treaties and protocols were signed in 1904: South-East Asia was affected through the ‘third protocol’, which while safeguarding the independence of Siam, split the country into two ‘spheres of influence’, east of the Chao Phraya river for France, west for Britain.
Five years later, Germany showed renewed interest in Siam and planned a project to build a canal at the Isthmus of Kra. Britain could not accept what would have been a direct threat to its shipping activities in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. This could also have been the start of a colonial move challenging British presence in Malaya. Under the guise of formally recognising the independence of Siam, the kingdom was prompted into signing a treaty abandoning the northern Malay States still under its influence (in November 1909, Edward VII received the Bunga Mas from the former Siamese vassals which became known as the Unfederated Malay States). As usual the British diplomacy, (see Penang, Sabah, etc.) money (a £4 million loan to build a railroad to the south), was put on the table to help the medicine go down and some sultanates, such as Patani or Setul, were left to Siam. For the second time in less than a century (after the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824) the British had divided the Malay world. In addition, and probably more importantly in the British eyes, an additional exchange of letters specified that ‘the Siamese government shall not cede or lease, directly or indirectly, to any foreign government any territory situated in the Malay peninsula south of the Monthon of Rajaburi or in any island adjacent to the said territory’. Now being directly present in Burma and Malaya and being a controlling foreign presence in Southern Siam, the British had a hold on the whole of the Malay peninsula.