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Colonisation of Asia (South East Asia)
The term “South East Asia” has only been used since the Second World War. It denotes the area that originally covered Malaya, Dutch East Indies, Burma, Siam, French Indo-China and the Philippines. With the exception of Siam (Thailand), which remained independent, the area was divided between the Dutch, the British and the French.
When European traders crossed the Indian Ocean at the close of the 15th century, they came for the spices of south-east Asia. When the Portuguese conquered the great international emporium of Malacca for the king of Portugal, the empires of Srivijaya and Majapahit had split into many small states. Albuquerque, the Portuguese soldier who conquered Goa and Malacca, and his successors were interested in the spice trade. Towards this end they built a chain of fortified trading stations linked by naval power. Initially they did not interfere with the native rulers. After the arrival of the Dutch and the English there was a challenge to the presence of Portuguese and the rivalry of these three European powers dominated the seventeenth century.
The Dutch began their conquest of the Portuguese settlements by capturing Malacca in 1641. After establishing a base at Batavia (now Djakarta) in 1619, they interfered in succession disputes among the neighbouring sultans. Gradually they extended their control over Java, expelling the British from Bantam in 1682. They had already driven them out of the Spice islands after the Massacre of Amboina (1623) and by the seizure of Macassar (1667), thereby forcing the English East India Company to turn to the China trade. The Spanish established themselves, beginning from their conquest of Manila, which expanded into a larger territory of Spanish East Indies.
Penang Island had been brought to the attention of the East India Company by Francis Light. In 1786, the settlement of George Town was founded at the north eastern tip of Penang Island; this marked the beginning of British expansion into the Malay Peninsula. In 1819, Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a key trading post for Britain in their rivalry with the Dutch. However, their rivalry cooled in 1824 when an Anglo-Dutch treaty demarcated their respective interests in Southeast Asia. By 1826 Singapore and Malacca had been linked with Penang to form the Strait Settlements.
Between 1874 and 1895 there was a civil war between the remaining five Malay States. The British intervened and signed an agreement with each of the sultans. British Residents were appointed to the courts of sultans, who had to act in accordance with the advice given by the Residents. In 1896 four of the states were formed into the Federated Malay States. In 1900 there were the Straits Settlements, the four Federated Malay States and Johore. The population was about a million, of whom, half were Malay and the remainder were Chinese. Most of the merchants, planters and workers in the ports and big plantations were Chinese. Economically Malaya was prosperous.
The Dutch had occupied Java and Sumatra (Indonesia) as early as 1640. But they conquered the other outer islands of East India only in the second half of the nineteenth century, excepting the British possession of North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak. Initially the Dutch were not interested in politics but focused on exploiting Indonesia ruthlessly. But from the beginning of the twentieth century they adopted measures for the social and economic advance of the people they governed. Most Indonesians were fishermen and small peasants and worked on European sugar, tobacco, tea, coffee plantations. Heavy investments in these plantations and other concerns, and the discovery of oil in 1900 made Indonesia a valuable colony for the Dutch.
The British conquered Burma after fighting three wars. Burma remained part of India from 1886 to 1937. Burma was administered by a Lieutenant Governor with the assistance of a nominated Legislative Council. Burma teak was shipped overseas. In addition, Burma with its rich soil became a big exporter of rice and most of south India was dependent on Burmese rice. During World War II when Burma fell to the Japanese, south India experienced acute scarcity of rice leading to a famine.
The French conquered Indo-China after strong resistance from the people. Startin in 1858, they brought the Indo-Chinese Union under their control by 1887. Indo- China consisted of Annam, Tongking, Cambodia and Cochin-China. Laos was added six years later. Of them only Cochin-China was directly under French control, i.e., as a French colony. The remaining four were protectorates. Under this system, the local rulers remained, but they governed under the instructions of French Residents. Hanoi was the capital of the French government. Rice, rubber and wheat were the main exports. Laos remained undeveloped.
Spain ruled the Philippines for over 300 years, imposing its language, culture and religion. Consequently the population became predominantly Roman Catholic. Nationalism developed among the Filipinos during the latter part of the nineteenth century. There were two serious revolts in 1872 and 1896, which were crushed by the Spanish colonial government. In 1898, however, Spain was defeated by the United States in a war over Cuba, and as a result Philippines became an American colony.
Thailand was spared the experience of foreign rule, though it too was greatly affected by the power politics of the Western powers. The administrative reforms of the late 19th century, continuing up till around 1910, imposed a Westernised form of government on the country’s partially independent cities called Mueang. Western powers, however, continued to interfere in its internal and external affairs.
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