Singapore’s National Library has a fascinating exhibit that’s on till end-February. Letters of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), maps and engravings tell the story of Singapore’s birth (1819) against the background of European competition for trade supremacy.
Mainly to India Governor-General Lord Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Raffles’ letters and scholarly wall text encompass geopolitics, British corporate workings, and dynamics of city development. They also deepen our understanding of our own history.
Trade between Europe and Asia had been via the ancient Silk Road controlled by Indians, Arabs and Venetians. Motivated by the highly profitable spice trade (initially pepper and cinnamon), European countries sought alternative maritime routes to Asia: Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492; Vasco da Gama reached India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498; and Magellan and Elcano, the Philippines and Indonesia in 1521 after a Pacific Ocean crossing.
Trade accelerated with the new routes with Europe importing mainly spices, silk, porcelain, and tea and exporting silver (from Spain’s American colonies) and manufactured goods, including cotton and—horrors!—opium (from India).
As first movers, Portugal and Spain established footholds in Africa, India and Southeast Asia. The Dutch and British followed suit. In the ensuing centuries, Venice declined as Spain’s Manila Galleon monopolized trans-Pacific trade and as the British East India Company and the Dutch United East India Company competed on the Cape of Good Hope route.
The Spice Islands (Moluccas) were hotly contested and with European countries perpetually at war, trading posts and colonies changed hands as conflicts spilled overseas. By 1803 when the Napoleonic Wars began (France vs. everyone else), Malacca (Malaysia) and much of Indonesia were Dutch; Bencoolen (Sumatra), Penang (Malaysia) and much of India were British. The Portuguese were in Goa (India), Timor (Indonesia) and Macau (China). Spain was here and the Marianas.
The British invaded Malacca and Java as pro-French, but both places were returned to the Dutch after Waterloo.
Raffles convinced Lord Hastings that British presence on the Strait of Malacca was essential to maintain trade advantage. He negotiated with the Sultan of Johore’s deputy for a barely inhabited but strategic island and founded Singapore. (Later, the British and Dutch exchanged Bencoolen and Malacca.) Singapore’s earliest land map, only recently discovered, designates areas for government buildings, docks and warehouses, military use, a European town, kampongs for Malays, etc.
The Galleon Trade ceased in 1815 with revolutions in Latin American and for other reasons. Heretofore closed to other European countries, Manila allowed British, American and other trading houses to open shop. The Spanish colonial government, formerly focused on the Galleon Trade, turned its attention to the local economy, giving rise to the sugar, coconut, abaca, and coffee industries that we still depend on.
Other countries continued in their ambitions. The British negotiated for Sabah with the Sultan of Sulu; Belgium’s King Leopold II wanted to buy the Philippines; France went into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; Germany and France colonized Pacific Ocean islands; the U.S. got the Philippines and the Marianas.
It all began with pepper.
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