Frank Swettenham

Singapore Infopedia


Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham (b. 28 March 1850, Derbyshire, England–d. 14 June 1946, London, England) became Governor of the Straits Settlements on 17 February 1901 and remained in this post until 1904. He was the only governor to have spent his entire civil service career in Malaya and the Straits Settlements.1 Swettenham was posted to Singapore in 1871, arriving during the governorship of Sir Harry St. George Ord who was governor from 1867 to 1873. Here Swettenham quickly learned how to speak Malay in order to interact with the locals.2 His knowledge of Malay would serve him in good stead in shaping British policy towards the Malay states in the 1870s.

Swettenham also served under Sir Andrew Clarke
, second governor of the Straits Settlements, between 1873 and 1875 at the time when Clarke was extending British influence into Malay affairs in Malaya through the Pangkor Treaty of 1874. Swettenham contributed significantly to the shape of this treaty. The Pangkor Treaty led to indirect British rule in the Malay states.

Swettenham’s interest in the people of Malaya can be seen in the many records, personal accounts and journals he wrote during the time he spent in Asia and long after he left the region. Although criticised by some for his lack of literary talent and his condescension towards the locals,3
Swettenham’s works remain valuable sources of information on early British influence in Malaya.

Life and career
Swettenham was born on 28 March 1850 near Belper, in Derbyshire, England. He grew up in Scotland with his mother and older brother, Alexander, who also entered the civil service. Swettenham’s career in the British civil service began in January 1871 when he was posted to Singapore as a civil service cadet.4

Between 1873 and 1875, Swettenham served under Andrew Clarke. Swettenham’s skill as a Malay speaker cast him into the role of British-Malay intermediary. Clarke settled the royal succession issue in Perak, Malaya, with the Pangkor Treaty, through which British intervention in Malay affairs became possible and British influence over the Malay sultans increased. Swettenham gained Clarke’s respect and recognition for his assistance on this matter.5

Swettenham was appointed Assistant Resident of the state of Perak.6 He then occupied the position of Secretary for Malay Affairs in Singapore. In 1882, he was appointed Resident of Selangor and in 1889, he became the Resident of Perak.7 Swettenham was appointed Resident-General when the Federated Malay States (FMS) was created in 1895 largely as a result of his initiative.8 As head of the federation, Swettenham proposed the extension of railway networks to boost the economy and speed the movement of commodities. His proposal was approved and the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) was founded in 1901.9 The FMSR would end up carrying freight to Keppel Harbour once the Causeway was opened in 1924.10 Swettenham was first appointed a Companion to the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1892 and was  promoted to  Knight Commander (KCMG)  five years later.11

In December 1899, Sir Charles Bullen Mitchell, then Governor of the Straits Settlements and High Commissioner and Consul General for British North Borneo, Brunei, and the Federated Malay States, passed away suddenly in Singapore. He had been governor since 1894.12

Mitchell’s then Colonial Secretary, Sir Alexander Swettenham, was sworn in as Governor on 9 December 1899.13
Alexander Swettenham remained in this post until 1901 when a notification went out that he was being replaced by his younger brother, Frank, who was then Resident-General of the (FMS).14 Frank Swettenham became governor on 17 February 1901. That very same day Alexander Swettenham left Singapore.15

governor of the Straits Settlements
As Governor of the Straits Settlements, Swettenham laid the foundation stone for the Victoria Memorial Hall (now known as the
Victoria Concert Hall) on 9 August 1902. This project was devised as an extension of the then Town Hall (now known as the Victoria Theatre) with the end-objective of creating a memorial to the late Queen Victoria who had died in January 1901.16 Then Governor Sir John Anderson opened the Victoria Memorial Hall in 1905.17

Swettenham was an efficient representative of British interests in Asia. This can be seen in the way he dealt with an attempt by an American consortium to shut down tin smelting works in Singapore and Penang in 1901. The consortium was buying tin ore directly from the miners. Swettenham defused the crisis by putting a tax on tin ore exports, thus stopping the American attempt to create a monopoly in the smelting industry.18

His writings
Swettenham left a corpus of writings that have remained valuable sources of information about the British in Malaya of the 19th century as well as about 19th- century Malay culture and lifestyle, aspects to which he had access because of his knowledge of Malay. He wrote short stories and essays about his life in Malaya, such as Malay Sketches19
where he described and explained different aspects of Malay lifestyle, customs and traditions. Some of Swettenham’s publications were of a more technical nature, such as Malay Vocabulary that was published in two volumes.20

One of Swettenham’s most important books is British Malaya: An Account of the Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya. In the preface to the original edition published on 19 July 1906, Swettenham explained that “the main idea is to portray accurately the important facts which led to the intervention of Great Britain in the domestic affairs of the countries now known as the Federated Malay States, and to record exactly the steps by which they have been led to their present position as Dependencies of the British Crown”.21

Retirement and death
Swettenham retired from the Colonial Service while away on home leave in 1904.22
He remained in Britain but maintained a life-long interest in Malayan affairs, shared his knowledge and opinion on all matters with the Colonial Office and continued to have influence in British colonial policy towards the Malay states. He died at the age of 96 on 14 June 1946.23

Barlow, H. S. (1995). Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene, p. 529. (Call no.: RSING 959.5104 BAR)
Swettenham, F. (1993). A nocturne and other Malayan stories and sketches. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 1–2. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 SWE)
Barlow, H. S. (1995). Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene, pp. 693–694. (Call no.: RSING 959.5104 BAR)
Swettenham, F. (1993). A nocturne and other Malayan stories and sketches. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. ix–xiii. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 SWE)
Swettenham, F. (1993). A nocturne and other Malayan stories and sketches. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. xii–x. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 SWE)
Swettenham, F. (1993). A nocturne and other Malayan stories and sketches. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. xiv. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 SWE)
Swettenham, F. (1993). A nocturne and other Malayan stories and sketches. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. xv. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 SWE)
Barlow, H. S. (1995). Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene, pp. 438–455, 531. (Call no.: RSING 959.5104 BAR)
Malaya Railway. (2009, July 19). Frank Swettenham and the founding of the FMSR. Retrieved from Malaya Railway website:
Opening of F.M.S.R.Terminal Station. (1932, May 7). Malayan Saturday Post, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Mainly about Malayans. (1938, June 12). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Sudden death of H. E. the Governor. (1899, December 7). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. The Singapore Free Press, Friday December 8, 1899. (1899, December 8). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The "Government Gazette". (1901, February 21). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Monday, 18th Feb., 1901. (1901, February 18). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
The Victoria Memorial. (1901, December 14). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Barlow, H. S. (1995). Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene, p. 531. (Call no.: RSING 959.5104 BAR)
Barlow, H. S. (1995). Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene, pp. 532–533. (Call no.: RSING 959.5104 BAR)
Swettenham, F. (1984). Malay sketches. Singapore: G. Brash. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 SWE)
Barlow, H. S. (1995). Swettenham. Kuala Lumpur: Southdene, pp. 691–715. (Call no.: RSING 959.5104 BAR)
Swettenham, F. (1948). British Malaya: An account of the origin and progress of British influence in Malaya. London: G. Allen & Unwin, p. XVI. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 SWE-[RFL])
Swettenham, F. (1993). A nocturne and other Malayan stories and sketches. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. XVII. (Call no.: RSING 959.5 SWE)
The remarkable career of Sir Frank Swettenham. (1954, March 6). The Straits Times, p. 6; Sir Frank Swettenham dies at 96. (1946, June 13). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The information in this article is valid as at 15 May 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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