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The Empire and the century/The Straits Settlements and Beyond

< The Empire and the century



There is no more fascinating subject than the origin and development of English interests in the Far East. It is a theme which lives and moves, and, like an attractive personality, appeals to the imagination, the feelings, and the intelligence, by its romantic past, its brilliant present, and its enormous possibilities. Every detail is instinct with the glamour and the sunshine of those distant lands, the civilization and the customs of strange and deeply-interesting peoples. The story of English adventure and English achievement in the Far East has yet to be written; this is but a sign, to indicate the road which for centuries has carried our people and our interests, and must continue to carry them in ever-increasing numbers and importance.

When, in 1819, Stamford Raffles acquired the island of Singapore for the East India Company, his main object was to found a British station to counteract the growing influence of the Dutch in the Malay Archipelago. The Company already owned the island of Penang, at the western entrance to the Straits of Malacca, and they also possessed a strip of territory at Malacca, on the west of the Malay Peninsula, and Bencoolen, a station on the south-west coast of Sumatra. Bencoolen, originally selected (in 1684) as the site for a trading station to enable the Company's agents to purchase pepper in Achin, became, in 1785, a dependency of Bengal with a local government, of which Raffles was, in 1818, the titular head.

As to Penang, it is interesting to remember that the founder, Francis Light, had recommended the occupation of that island (in 1786) on the ground that it would form a useful port of call for British vessels trading to China and the Further East, a forecast which has teen amply justified by events.

Raffles, however, was far from satisfied. He had been Secretary to the Government of Penang, Resident Councillor of Malacca, and he held the post of Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen; but he realized that from none of these places was it possible to exert an influence that could stay the progress of Dutch expansion, which threatened to monopolize the trade of the Archipelago. Raffles, better than any other, knew the value of the island trade; for, in addition to his other experiences, he had been Lieutenant-Governor of Java and its dependencies during the whole period (1811-1816) that those places had been under British rule. With his extraordinary prescience, he doubtless foresaw the immense development of which these countries were capable, and probably he alone was fully alive to the feet that the door of commerce was rapidly closing, and would soon be shut in the face of the British trader. Neither Bencoolen, nor Penang, nor Malacca possessed the possibilities of successful competition. They were inconveniently situated, and they were not capable of either drawing the trade of the surrounding islands and continents, or of affording accommodation to the shipping, which alone could carry the trade when fairly developed. The position of Singapore, at the very gate of the Further East, in the narrow waters which divide the Straits of Malacca from the China Sea, fulfilled all the conditions. Raffles visited the place, realized its manifold advantages, immediate and prospective, and at once took steps to arrange with the Malay owners for its acquisition. The Dutch had already marked Singapore for their own; but, while they were thinking, Raffles acted. Though they protested vigorously, and the East India Company for a long time hesitated to confirm the action of their servant, reluctant approval was at last given, on the ground that the occupation was then such an old story that the Company did not fed inclined to disturb the arrangement.

There is a peculiar interest in recalling the circumstances under which we acquired Singapore, in view of what it has become. Raffles' object has been attained: Singapore is the market of the Archipelago, and to a greater extent than any Dutch port in the East. Moreover, it is the centre of trade for the Malay States, Siam, French Indo-China, Borneo, Sarawak, and to some extent the Philippines; above all, it is a point of call, a coaling and refitting station, on the highway, from the West and Nearer East, to China and Japan. It is unlikely that Raffles foresaw, or anticipated, the marvellous development of the Far Eastern trade which has resulted from the opening of the Suez Canal; and it is doubtful whether he realized the wealth of the Malay Peninsula which, in the last thirty years, has added so enormously to the importance and prosperity of Singapore. To-day Singapore, counted by the tonnage of the shipping which annually makes use of it as a point of call, stands eighth on the list of the world's great ports. The value of its trade in 1903 was nearly £70,000,000. About 200,000 tons of coal are constantly stored on the wharves; it possesses great facilities for coaling, docking, and repairing ships, and, as a fortress, it is probably capable of defending itself against any attack likely to be made on it by an enemy.

It has hitherto been customary to rank Ceylon as the premier Crown Colony, and, strictly speaking, she has a good claim to that position; but the Federated Malay States, which are not British possessions, have, in the last thirty years, been so administered, under British protection, that, from a roadless, sparsely inhabited, and quite unknown wilderness, they have developed into a dependency which rivals, in almost every particular except population, the greatest and most prosperous of English Crown Colonies. The Straits Colony and the Malay States are so closely knit together—by position, by community of interest, and by many other ties—that, for purposes of comparison, they may fairly be counted as one administration. So regarded, British Malaya—as the united Colony and Protectorate would naturally be styled—stands easily first of all those British Colonial possessions which do not enjoy responsible government Moreover, this is a possession in which the nation may feel some legitimate pride, for no part of it has been acquired by conquest; no people and no potentate complain that our influence has injuriously affected their liberties, their dignity, or their comfort Neither the Colony nor the Protectorate has any debt whatever, though many great and useful works have been constructed out of revenue. Both Colony and Malay States are free to all nations, to all commerce; while no class and no nationality has any exclusive privileges.

About 2,400 miles to the west of Singapore is Colombo, with its splendid harbour protected from the fury of the south-west monsoon by a world-famous breakwater. The trade of Ceylon in 1908 was valued at £15,000,000, and most of it passed through Colombo. The great port of Hong Kong, with 10,000 tons of shipping entering annually, and an actual trade valued at £20,000,000 per annum, stands about 1,100 miles to the north-east of Singapore. Situated as it is at the mouth of the Canton River, on the shore of a land-locked harbour, furnished with splendid docks and appliances for every description of refitting, the value of this great commercial station, fortress, and arsenal is obvious. Hong Kong does for the South of China what Shanghai does for the Yang-tse provinces, and, between them, they furnish the markets where China sells its produce for export, and buys its foreign goods. Both ports are the headquarters of great fleets of European, Japanese, and Chinese owned vessels, which maintain a ceaseless traffic with the rivers and outlying ports of China, the ports of Siam, of Borneo, of the Philippines, of French Indo-China, and Japan.

These three Eastern Colonies—Hong Kong, the Straits, and Ceylon—with the Malay Protectorate, enjoy a revenue of over £5,000,000 per annum, and their in and out trade is worth at least £160,000,000. They are Crown Colonies; two of them have no debt, and their ports are absolutely free; while the third, Ceylon, has a debt of less than £5,000,000. They all contribute handsomely to the cost of Imperial defence, and, though they are all exceedingly prosperous, an immense proportion of their populations are Asiatics—as peaceful, loyal, and law-abiding subjects of the Crown as are to be found in other parts of the Empire. There are practically no local manufactures to compete with English-made goods, and no hostile tariffs.

Colombo, Singapore, and Hong Kong complete the line of British fortresses, which, with Gibraltar, Malta, and Aden, guard the great ocean highway from Europe to China and Japan. It is natural that an island kingdom, which owes its position amongst the nations to sea-power, to an immense mercantile marine, and to enterprise in exploiting distant markets, should have taken care to secure convenient stations on one of the greatest of the world's trade-routes; but the nation may congratulate itself that there were Englishmen who, before it was too late, had the foresight and courage to seize upon the best, and in some cases the only suitable, positions along the 10,000 miles of water which divide England from China. Until the face of the earth is changed, or until England loses her command of the sea, nothing can alter the fact that vessels of every nationality, on a direct voyage from Europe to China or Japan, must make use of British ports of call. If this country were unfortunately involved in war, and the ports of all British Colonies were closed, trade with the Far East—by the Suez Canal, at any rate—would practically be denied to an enemy's ships. The importance of these conditions, dependent mainly on our tenure of the Eastern Colonies, is only now coming home to the great mass of English people in the lessons taught by the tremendous struggle between Russia and Japan. If we may hope that this most sanguinary conflict is nearing its end, can there be a question of greater importance to England than the terms of peace and our future relations with Japan and China? Within reasonable limits of time, is it likely that any Imperial question can be of such vital concern to English interests as the development of China, and the terms on which our alliance with Japan is to be continued? It may be assumed that no English Government would neglect the opportunity of renewing that alliance, or would permit the diplomacy of other powers to prevent its renewal Japan recognises the value of our friendship now and in the future; but will our statesmen fully grasp the position and all its potentialities? Of the possibilities for good and evil there is hardly any limit. Where so much might be said, there is wisdom in restraint; but everyone who has any personal acquaintance with the facts must feel a keen anxiety that those with whom will rest the final decision of this momentous question will at least have the fullest and most accurate information to guide them. Whatever happens in regard to peace, to terms, to the future of China and its four hundred millions, to the expansion of Japan, and to the ultimate relations between the island powers of West and East, it is certain that the importance of our Eastern Colonies must increase. The intention of this paper is to endeavour to impress upon English readers the immense value of these three Crown Colonies at the present time; their unique positions in regard to the navy, the mercantile marine, the British manufacturer, merchant, and banker; the influence that is and ought to be exercised from these points of vantage; and the opportunities possessed by the British Government for utilizing these outposts of Empire as centres from which to collect the best, the latest, and the most reliable information on all matters of Far Eastern concern, whether political or commercial.

It has been commonly asserted, especially by Englishmen settled in China, that England has never had a definite policy in the Furthest East, and, while no attempt has even been made to disprove that statement, the facts seem to justify it Russia, on the other hand, made little secrecy as regards her intentions. The occupation and fortification of Port Arthur, the enormous sums spent upon Dalny, the construction of the Siberian Railway, and the practical occupation of Manchuria, were facts which could bear only one interpretation. Japan's position was equally clear to every intelligent observer, and all students of Far Eastern affairs recognised that the moment Russia really threatened Korea, Japan must and would fight for existence, with its back against the wall. Germany, a comparatively new factor in the Far East, has a policy which may roughly be described as Shantung for Germany alone, and the rest of China, especially the Yang-tse Valley, for German enterprise on at least equal terms with all other nationalities. France, again, having acquired in Indo-China, during the last fifty years, a territory twice as large as the Mother Country, has a policy of expansion which embraces the island of Hainan, the province of Yun Nan, and as much of Siam as can be secured. Probably these are not the limits of extension to which the Colonial party in France would be willing to confine their aspirations. M. Paul Doumer, lately Governor-General of French Indo-China, and now the President of the Chamber of Deputies, tells us, in his recently published account of his Far-Eastern administration, that 'a nation with a bold and energetic policy may secure a flourishing commerce. This is the policy that I have pursued in Indo-China to the utmost of my ability and resources, in order to secure a future for France as a great Asiatic power.'

And England—what is England's policy? We, who of all the nations have, throughout the longest term of years, made the largest sacrifices to secure open markets and identity of treatment for European traders in the Far East, what is our policy? If we had had a policy when Russia frightened our war-vessels from Port Arthur, and if we had been steadfast in upholding it, humanity might have been spared the spectacle of twelve months of bloodshed on a scale unknown in the history of the world: great ships of war going to the bottom of the sea in a few minutes with all their companies, and gigantic battles fought on the soil of a people who are not belligerents, but who are suffering all the miseries of war. What is past will surely be a lesson for the future, and once again we realize that weakness of purpose, whether in individuals or in nations, is dogged by a revenge which often hits the innocent more hardly than the guilty. Let us, then, maintain the alliance, the value of which is recognised equally by Japan and ourselves; let us give our strength to uphold the integrity of China, and support Japan in making that Empire a strong and independent country. We have declared for the open door, but while other Powers have professed their adhesion to that doctrine, some of them nave spared no pains to obtain exclusive advantages for themselves; some have not hesitated to occupy Chinese territory; and we have taken no effective steps to prevent the successful pursuit of that policy. Japan has been compelled to draw the sword, and, in defending her existence as a nation, she has achieved such results, on sea and land, that China now regards her as the dominant Power in the Far East When the war is over, China will listen to the advice of Japan as she has never listened to the divided counsels of Europe. For Japan, and for us, the best policy will be an undivided China and a guarantee of lasting peace, during which the middle kingdom will be able to develop its immense resources, to the benefit not only of Japan but of this country, and of every other nation which honestly seeks the open door and fair trade on equal terms.

April, 1905.