Straits Settlements

Singapore Infopedia


The Straits Settlements, comprising Penang, Malacca and Singapore, was an administrative unit of the East India Company (1826–1867) and later the British Colonial Office (1867–1946). It was formed in 1826 as a presidency under the administration of the East India Company in India. The Cocos-Keeling Islands, Christmas Island and Labuan were also briefly part of the Straits Settlements. Following the dissolution of the Straits Settlements in 1946, Singapore (together with the Cocos-Keeling and Christmas Islands) became a crown colony, Penang and Malacca were made part of the Malayan Union, while Labuan was incorporated into the North Borneo crown colony.

Since the late 18th century, the East India Company (EIC) had begun acquiring several territories in the Straits of Malacca in order to consolidate its hold on the India-China and Southeast Asian trades. In 1786, the EIC acquired Penang island from the Sultan of Kedah.1

On 6 February 1819, Thomas Stamford Raffles, representing the EIC, signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor (also spelled as Hussain) for the rights to establish a trading post on the island of Singapore. On 2 August 1824, Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman formally ceded the island in totality to the British.2 Earlier in the year, the British had relinquished Bencoolen and all its possessions in Sumatra to the Dutch in exchange for Malacca under the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty signed on 17 March between the Netherlands and Britain.3

The three territories – Singapore, Malacca and Penang – were governed separately, each with its own set of administrative apparatus. The burgeoning operational costs, however, resulted in the EIC uniting the three settlements into one administrative unit – Presidency of the Straits Settlements – in 1826. The seat of government was in Penang. In December 1832, the seat of government was moved from Penang to Singapore, given the latter’s increasing commercial and strategic prominence.4

The Cocos-Keeling and Christmas islands were annexed as part of the Straits Settlements in February 1886 and June 1888 respectively.5 Christmas Island was incorporated into the settlement of Singapore in 1900 and the Cocos-Keeling Islands in 1903.6 The administrative responsibility of the Cocos-Keeling and Christmas islands was transferred from Singapore to the Australian government in 1955 and 1958 respectively.7 Labuan became part of the Straits Settlements in 1906 after being incorporated into Singapore. It became the fourth settlement in 1912.8

The administrative head of the Settlements was the governor. He reported to the governor-general based in India, who in turn reported to the Court of Directors of the East India Company.9 A resident councillor was appointed for each settlement to oversee the day-to-day administration.10 The governor was initially based in Penang.11

The governor was assisted by a civil service comprising mostly EIC covenanted officials.12 Covenanted officials were young men recruited by the EIC in England on the nomination of its directors. These men took a bond (or covenant) as guarantee of good behaviour.13

The Straits Settlements judiciary was headed by the recorder, who was based in Penang but travelled regularly to Singapore and Malacca to attend to cases.14

From presidency to residency
Just four years into its formation, the Straits Settlements was downgraded to the status of a residency under the Bengal Presidency on 25 May 1830.15 This downgrade was an attempt to reduce the financial strain of running a presidency. The Straits Settlements then, with its governing apparatus and elaborate judicial system, could not generate enough revenue to cover its administrative expenses.16

With the change in status came administrative reorganisation. The offices and titles of governor and resident councillor were removed.17 The official in charge of the Settlements was now the resident, who was aided by an assistant resident and a deputy resident. The number of senior civil servants was also reduced by half, from 19 to eight,18 salaries were reduced and employment frozen.19 Although the titles of governor and resident councillors were reinstated in 1832, this was in name only as these titles came without their former powers and status.20

In 1833, the government of the Straits Settlements was further concentrated in the hands of the Indian government as a result of the 1833 Charter Act.21 Since then, direct communication between the governors of the Straits Settlements and the EIC board of directors in London ended. Instead, the governors communicated directly with the Indian government, who then provided quarterly updates to London. This slowed the decision-making process considerably because it often took years before a decision made in India was relayed to the Straits Settlements.22

Transfer of administration
The administration of the Straits Settlements would later be transferred several times. On 1 September 1851, the Straits Settlements was transferred from Bengal’s charge and put under the direct supervision of the governor-general in India.23 The transfer had little impact on how the Settlements was administered.24 The Settlements remained outside the interest of India and had no representatives in the Indian legislative council.25

Following the dissolution of the EIC in 1858, the Straits Settlements, along with other overseas British settlements under EIC control, was transferred to the India Office in London.26 Despite the Straits Settlements coming under the jurisdiction of the India Office, there was very little in common between the two entities. The Straits Settlements had no representation in India and both entities operated on different currencies. The Straits Settlements government had resisted the India Office’s attempt to impose their policies, such as the adoption of the Indian currency, on the Straits Settlements.27

Becoming a crown colony
From as early as the 1830s, the mercantile community in the Straits Settlements had been agitating for the Settlements to be placed under the Crown instead of India. The European merchants, especially, continued to agitate for the transfer throughout the 1840s and 1850s.28 The main reason for this was because, at the time, the mercantile community felt that the Indian government was uninterested in the affairs of the Straits Settlements and that it did not promote Straits’ interest to London.29 The merchants were unhappy about many issues, including currency, port duties, and the transportation of convicts to the Settlements. The merchants were also upset at the Indian government’s failure to enact laws to regulate the Chinese secret societies, which were disrupting law and order during the 1850s and 1860s.30

Following the 1857 Indian Mutiny in India, the mercantile community of the Straits Settlements petitioned the Colonial Office to take over the administration of the Settlements. In the petition, the merchants wrote of the Indian government’s ignorance of Straits affairs and of how it had “shown a systematic disregard to the wants and wishes of their inhabitants, however earnestly and perseveringly made known”.31

Although the British government had given its approval to the transfer in 1858, the transfer only materialised nine years later on 1 April 1867.32 On that day, the Straits Settlements was officially transferred to the Colonial Office in London and was made a crown colony.33

Thereafter, the head of the Straits Settlements administration was the governor who reported to the secretary of state in the Colonial Office. The governor had executive powers and could appoint judges, justices of peace and direct policies.34 While the governor could seek the Colonial Office’s advice on policies, he was not bound to accept them.35 The governor was based in Singapore, while Malacca and Penang were supervised by lieutenant governors.36

The governor ruled the Straits Settlements with the help of an executive council, which included nominated unofficial members from the local communities. A legislative council vested with the power to make laws was formed in 1867.37 The day-to-day administration of the government was carried out by the Straits Settlements Civil Service.38

Dissolution of the Straits Settlements
When the British returned to Malaya following the surrender of the Japanese in September 1945, they implemented their plan for a restructured Malaya. During the war, London had already been planning for the postwar reorganisation of the Straits Settlements and the Malay states.39 The new plan was for Malaya to be administered as one entity, with Singapore (together with the Cocos-Keeling and Christmas islands) as a separate colony. This plan, known as the Malayan Union, hoped to ensure administrative efficiency and military security. Singapore was excluded on the grounds of its divergent economic interests between the island and the peninsula, the fear of its political influence as well as the dominance of its Chinese-majority population.40

On 1 April 1946, the Malayan Union was inaugurated, replacing the Straits Settlements. Under the new arrangement, Singapore was made a separate crown colony, while Penang and Malacca became part of the Malayan Union together with the other nine Malay states of Selangor, Perak, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor.41

Governors of the Straits Settlements (under British India)
Robert Fullerton
1830–1833: Robert Ibbetson
1833–1836: Kenneth Murchison
1836–1843: Samuel George Bonham
1843–1855: William John Butterworth
1855–1859: Edmund Augustus Blundell
1859–1867: William Orfeur Cavenagh

Governors of the Straits Settlements (under Colonial Office)
Harry St. George Ord
1873–1875: Andrew Clarke
1875–1877: William Francis Drummond Jervois
1877–1879: William Cleaver Francis Robinson
1880–1887: Frederick Aloysius Weld
1887–1893: Cecil Clementi Smith
1893–1894: William Edward Maxwell
1894–1899: Charles Bullen Hugh Mitchell
1901–1904: Frank Athelstane Swettenham
1904–1911: John Anderson
1911–1919: Arthur Henderson Young
1920–1927: Laurence Nunns Guillemard
1927–1929: Hugh Charles Clifford
1930–1934: Cecil Clementi
1934–1946: Thomas Shenton Whitelegge Thomas

 Presidency of the Straits Settlements comprising Penang, Malacca and Singapore is inaugurated.
25 May 1830: Straits Settlements is reduced to a residency under the Bengal Presidency.
December 1832: Capital of the Straits Settlements is transferred from Penang to Singapore.
1851: Straits Settlements is put under the direct supervision of the governor-general in India
1 September 1858: Straits Settlements is transferred from the EIC to the India Office in London.
1 April 1867: Straits Settlements becomes a crown colony under the Colonial Office in London.
1 April 1946: Straits Settlements is replaced by the Malayan Union.

Jaime Koh

1. Richard O. Winstedt, A History of Malaya (Singapore: Marican & Sons, 1962), 209. (Call no. RCLOS 959.5 WIN)
2. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 28. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]) 
3. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 27; Harry J. Marks, The First Contest for Singapore, 1819–1824 (‘S. Gravenhage: Martinus Nij, 1959), 252. (Call no. RSING 991 VITLV)
4. Edwin Lee, The British as Rulers: Governing Multiracial Singapore 1867–1914 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1991, xiv (Call no. RSING 959.57022 LEE-[HIS]); Hsu Yun-ts'iao, The Sesquicentennial Chronology of Singapore, 1819–1969 (Singapore” [s.n.], 1969, 42. (Call no. RDLKL 959.57 HSU)
5. Hsu, Sesquicentennial Chronology of Singapore, 48–49.
6. Robert L. Jarman, Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements 1855–1941, vol. 1 (UK: Archive Editions, 1998), v–vi. (Call no. RSING 959.51 STR)
7. Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 122 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); “Cocos Take-Over,” Straits Times, 11 November 1955, 1; “All Set for Transfer,” Straits Times, 16 May 1958, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Jarman, Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements 1855–1941, 5.
9. C. M. Turnbull, The Straits Settlements 1826–1867: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony (London: The Athlone Press, 1972), 54. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
10. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 54.
11. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 54.
12. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 54.
13. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 74.
14. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 54, 56.
15. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 33; Hsu, Sesquicentennial Chronology of Singapore, 41.
16. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 33.
17. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 56.
18. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 55.
19. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 35.
20. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 58.
21. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 58–59.
22. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 59.
23. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 60; Hsu, Sesquicentennial Chronology of Singapore, 42.
24. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 60.
25. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 60.
26. Lee, British as Rulers, xv; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore…, vol. 2 (Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 1902), 665. (From BookSG)
27. Winstedt, History of Malaya, 209.
28. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 316.
29. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 316–65; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 754.
30. Turnbull, Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, 113–29; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 757.
31. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 755.
32. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 758.
33. Lee, British as Rulers, xv; Jarman, Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements 1855–1941, v.
34. Winstedt, History of Malaya, 209.
35. Lee, British as Rulers, xv.
36. Lee, British as Rulers, xv.
37. Lee, British as Rulers, xv–xvi; Winstedt, History of Malaya, 210.
38. Lee, British as Rulers, xv–xvi.
39. Albert Lau, A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998), 1–4 (Call no. RSING 959.5705 LAU-[HIS]); Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 216.
40. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 1–4; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 216.
41. Lau, Moment of Anguish, 1–4; Jaime Koh and Stephanie Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2009), 16–17. (Call no. YRSING 305.80095957 KOH)

Further resources
Albert Lau, The Malayan Union Controversy 1942–1948 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990). (Call no. RSING 320.95951 LAU)

C. D. Cowan, Early Penang & the Rise of Singapore 1805–1832: Documents from the Manuscript Records of the East India Company (Singapore: Malaya Publishing House, 1950). (Call no. RCLOS 959.59 COW)

Straits Settlements, Report on the Progress of the Straits Settlements from 1859–60 to 1866–67 (Singapore: Straits Government Press, 1867). (From BookSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 29 July 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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