Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Imperial Britain in South-East Asia

Book Cover

Book Title

Imperial Britain in South-East Asia. Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975


Tarling, Nicholas


The book is a collection of essays which examines British colonial policy toward Southeast Asia in the 19th century. Focusing not only on decisions made in London, but also by local colonial administration, particularly the one in Calcutta, and prominent individuals such as Stamford Raffles and Warren Hastings, Tarling portrays Southeast Asia as a delicate network of relationships defined ultimately by the British. He also considers how external considerations, such as developments in Europe and commercial interests in China and India, affected British political attitudes toward more strategic areas in Southeast Asia. In discussing the lasting, momentous impacts British colonial presence has had on modern Southeast Asian states in the 20th century, Tarling takes a heavily political approach, drawing on important diplomatic missions in great detail to demonstrate British-Southeast Asian intercourse.

The papers in this volume are revised versions of previously published articles on British policy in South-East Asia in the nineteenth century. Some conclusions had been achieved as a follow-up to these very articles. Firstly, the decisions taken by Britain is of great importance. It was the result of its great strength based on its command of the sea and the balance of power in Europe. Britain's decisions also hinged on its industrial capacity and its territorial acquisitions in India.

This meant that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Southeast Asia came within the influence of what was then the greatest world power, and its attitudes played an essential role in determining the continuance and allowing or disallowing the expansion or redefinition of the empires of minor European powers, like Spain and the Netherlands. This eliminates from the orbit of the administering family of nations local sultanates that had maintained at least some sort of existence since the sixteenth century, such as Acheh in Sumatra.

Colonial dependencies of the nineteenth century had looked toward becoming nation-states in the twentieth century. The problems that they faced until the present-day includes cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as economic backwardness. These were the legacies of several centuries of history, and were not simply a product of the immediate past. The essays also include the sustenance of the involvement of the major powers in Southeast Asia even after the passing of the British hegemony during the twentieth century.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The essays examine several topics in detail, particularly regarding the establishment of British colonial rule as well as how the decisions made by Britain are largely connected to their position vis-à-vis other powers in the world before the interventions of the 1870. Thus, the time period for Tarling's discussion begins before the period of High Imperialism and continued to encompass the decisions that were taken by the newly-independent countries in order to resolve issues faced by their new roles.

Tarling’s discussion centers on Southeast Asia in the 19th century, particularly the period after the dissolution of the East India Company and the imposition of direct Crown control. It is not however geographically limited to the Southeast Asian region; in fact, he demonstrates that decisions made here are profoundly affected by happenings in Europe, and closely linked to commercial interests in China and more political interests in India. For instance, the ebbs and flows of Anglo-Dutch rivalry, with the French acting as a catalyst by the sides, deeply influenced the British attitude toward competitive Dutch presence in Southeast Asia, resulting in attempts at an uneasy partnership. Tarling’s approach is therefore a multi-continental one. Because Tarling argues that British decisions shaped not only Southeast Asia in the 19th century, but also defined the region in subsequent decades, the book roughly covers both the 1800s and 1900s and claims smooth continuity from one century to the next. Tarling provides overviews of British relationships with individual kingdoms, such as Siam and Vietnam, but also narrows down on specific diplomatic missions that left lasting impressions—for instance, Sir James Brooke’s failed missions to Siam.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Earlier Indonesian empires had claimed a substantial area, but they had claimed it in quite different terms from those of the Dutch authorities in East Indies. In the earlier period, interstate relations were more vague and had imprecise boundaries, largely due to the cultural diversity and unstable demographics of the region. However, in the territories of Dutch East Indies, there was more of a new rigidity that began to appear in terms of international frontier and allegiance. Thus, in studying the impact of European powers in this period, we gain insights into the development of the concepts of occupation, of protectorate and of extra-territoriality.

In general, when colonial dependencies of the nineteenth century became nation-states in the twentieth century, they faced vital issues such as cultural and ethnic diversity and economic backwardness. The continued involvement of the major powers in Southeast Asia even after the passing of the British hegemony presents a problem when it concerned the major issues of sovereignty. Thus, the study of the processes by which states were created in the nineteenth century would cast further light on what was perhaps the primary problem of modern Southeast Asia: Nation-building.

An important argument made by Tarling is that the creation of new states in Southeast Asia extended over a period of time, in itself a diversifying factor. In view of the motivation of Britain's policies, it is no surprise that many of the major decisions had been taken well before the improvement of communication, the establishment of closer ties with world markets, and the growth of ambitions of other powers that belong to the last two or three decades of the nineteenth century. The papers thus suggest that most of the shape and political character of British Malaya was determined before the 'intervention' of the 1870s, and that Siam was already settled on a path that differed from that of its neighbors in the 1820s, or certainly in the 1850s. Hence, the major decisions were taken at least two generations previously, in a period that saw the zenith of British power, though not yet the heyday of British imperialism.

Tarling argues that the extent of British influence on Southeast Asian affairs, both then and now, can hardly be overestimated. British maneuvers set in motion a series of political and social trends that determined the future of the region; Southeast Asia as it was known in the 1960s, the period during which the essays were first published, was a direct product of historical British presence. He argues that the nature of this presence was molded not only by the government in London, but by local colonial establishments which carried their own interests, as well as ambitious private colonizers and powerful government servants. Tarling therefore focuses on British power in the region at the expense of indigenous agency; he in fact argues that the Southeast Asian rulers, who had previously enjoyed unique independence from European influence, were caught unprepared and thus overwhelmed by the strength of the British upon their arrival.

Tarling presents Southeast Asia as part of a much larger picture, not a contained, isolated region in itself. Protecting the commercial routes to China, for example, was a major factor in deciding which Southeast Asian areas were worth colonial efforts, or at least, investment in indigenous affairs. For example, interest in Vietnam was sustained only because it served as an intermediary between the British port of Singapore and the less accessible parts of South China. The presence of the Dutch and French also egged them on, and without it, the British would have been content with a far less deep-rooted presence in the Peninsula: the Dutch in Malacca, for example, persuaded the British to develop the tin industry in Perak and Selangor. The British were thus well aware of the impact “third parties” had on their relations with the Southeast Asians.

Overall, Tarling interprets British policy as a pursuit of both domination and stability. On the one hand, the British sought monopolistic power in the region both politically and economically; on the other, they did not want to rock the boat with overzealous endeavors, aware that if they shook one string of the delicate web of relations, all other strings could unravel. Through both coercion and collaboration with indigenous rulers, the British laid the foundations for the eventual creation of the Southeast Asian nation-states of the following century.

Annotated by Michelle Djong/Jennifer Yip

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