Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Singapore During the Civil War Era, Part I: Remnants of British Colonial Rule

This weekend I returned from a business trip to Singapore. While on the ground, I had some down time to explore this enchanting Southeast Asian city-state. I wasn't necessarily planning on a two-part series for the blog, but after a visit to a few historical sites from the Victorian era, I thought readers might enjoy a detour from the ordinary fare. Here, on the other side of the world, a British port city continued to grow in commercial importance as America fell apart over slavery and secession. In today's installment, I look at some nineteenth century sites associated with Singapore before and during the Civil War.

On January 29, 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company landed on the banks of the Singapore River. Negotiating with island leaders, he secured British rights to use Singapore as a trading post. The town sat at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca, an important shipping route between India and China. The East India Company already controlled Penang at the northern end; possession of Singapore secured the company's dominance of the Straits.

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles at the probable 1819 landing site along the Singapore River. The low buildings on the opposite shore mark the location of former warehouses. Now home to vibrant nightlife, the riverfront was once buzzing with commercial activity related to shipping and trade.
The acquisition of Singapore caused trouble with the Dutch, who were Britain's political and economic rivals for control of Southeast Asia. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 settled the dispute by cementing Britain's control over Singapore and other possessions north of the Straits of Malacca. (The treaty essentially established British domination over territory comprising modern-day Malaysia and Singapore; the Dutch were given land corresponding to present-day Indonesia.)

In 1826, the British East Company grouped Singapore with Malacca and Penang to form the Straits Settlements. By 1830, Singapore's strategic location had transformed the backwater settlement into a major port. Britain further encouraged commercial activity by making Singapore a free port, devoid of tariffs and other charges on commerce. As U.S. trade with China grew throughout the first part of the nineteenth century, American merchant ships frequently called at the port of Singapore. In July 1836, the United States installed a Consulate in Singapore and named Joseph Balestier as the first U.S. Consul.

Between 1821 and 1860, Singapore's population exploded from around 5,800 to more than 81,000. By the start of the 1860s, the Chinese composed the largest ethnic group, followed by the Indians and Malays. Lawlessness and immorality were rampant in nineteenth century Singapore. The British, however, maintained a very small police force (only 12 officers in 1850!) and seemed more concerned with preserving the bottom line rather than law and order.

Colonial District

I stated my tour of Singapore in the Colonial District, which is located north of the Singapore River. The area contains many landmarks from the period of British control during the mid-nineteenth century. The government of Singapore has done a solid job of placing historical markers, which provided much of the content for the captions below.

The Old Parliament House was constructed in 1827 and leased to the colonial government. The building housed the court and government offices. In 1841, the government purchased the property. Alterations in the 1870s and early 1900s altered the original design. The building was used as a parliament house when Singapore gained independence in 1965.  Today a contemporary arts center known as the Arts House calls the building home. King Rama V of Thailand presented the elephant statue as a gift to Singapore following his visit in 1871, which was the first foreign trip by a Thai monarch.
The Dalhousie Obelisk was erected to commemorate the visit of the Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie, and his wife to Singapore in 1850. Local merchants raised funds for erecting the obelisk, believing that Dalhousie's visit would stimulate British improvements in Singapore. Their hopes were unfortunately misplaced.
Construction on St. Andrew's Cathedral began in 1856. The colonial authorities used Indian convict labor to build the church. The Bishop of Calcutta consecrated St. Andrews' in January 1862. An earlier church built on the same site in the 1830s was twice struck by lightening and rendered unsafe.

Fort Canning Park

After touring the colonial era sites near the river, I headed to Fort Canning Park. This Singaporean national treasure is situated on a rise that the British once called Government Hill. Raffles built a bungalow here that served as a home to several governors. My stroll along the shady "19th-Century Walk" was a welcome break from the tropical heat and humidity.

Between 1859 and 1861 the British constructed a fort on Government Hill. The fort was designed with two purposes in mind-- protection of Singapore against a foreign sea-borne invasion and shelter for the local European population in the event of a local uprising. The British named the fort after Lord Charles John Canning, the Governor-General of India during the 1857 Indian Rebellion. The rise subsequently became known as "Fort Canning Hill." When completed, the fort had barracks for Indian and British soldiers, officers' quarters, two magazines, and a hospital. According to a historical marker on the site, by 1867 Fort Canning was armed with seven 68-pounder guns, eight 8-inch guns, two 13-inch mortars, and a few 14-pounder carronades.

The only surviving section of Fort Canning's wall, built between 1859-60. This portion of the wall was on the north side of the fort. A moat once ran where the walking trail is now located. Beyond the subject of this post, Fort Canning Hill is also the site of the Battle Box, an underground bunker where the Allied command planned the final stages of a failed stand against Japanese invaders in February 1942.
Fort Canning's gate is located up the footpath from the remnants of the old wall.
Another view of the fort's gate.
My visit to Singapore caused me to ponder events occurring elsewhere as America headed towards and fought the Civil War. British dominance in Singapore continued unabated. Trade and shipping spurred economic growth and encouraged immigration. The colonial powers erected a grand Gothic cathedral and built a fort high above the city to protect British interests. However, as we shall see in my next post, even a place as remote as Singapore could not entirely escape the Civil War in far away America.


Maurice Collins, Raffles: The Definitive Biography (2009 ed.); Peter Church, A Short History of South-East Asia (2009); Mark Lewis, The Rough Guide to Singapore (2013); Iain Manley, Tales of Old Singapore (2013); St. Andrew's Cathedral, Diocese of Singapore, "Our Beginning"; U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, "A Guide to the United States' History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Singapore".

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