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Singapore’s Connections with Melaka (15th to 16th Century)

During the 15th century, Singapore’s status as a key trading port in the region was overtaken by the newly established port city of Melaka.




Melaka became the main port for the imperial Ming navy whenever it passed through the Straits of Melaka. This was because Melaka pledged loyalty to the Ming emperor.




During the rise of Melaka, Singapore continued to serve as a port. However, it was not as popular with traders as Melaka. Due to the decline in trade, Singapore was given up to Melaka by its overlord, the Siamese. Hence, Singapore came under control of the rulers of Melaka in the 15th century.

Singapore’s Connections with the Johor-Riau Sultanate

In 1511, the Portuguese attacked and conquered Melaka. Its ruler fled to Johor, and then to the Riau Archipelago where he established a new capital there. In 1528, a descendant of the ruler of Melaka managed to set up a new capital near the Johor River and established the Johor Sultanate. Johor was part of the Melaka Sultanate before the Portuguese conquered Melaka.




This Johor Sultanate was also known as the Johor-Riau Sultanate. As it replaced the Melaka Sultanate, the kingdom included the areas that belonged to the previous Melaka Sultanate.




Singapore, as part of the Melaka Sultanate before 1511, also came under the control of the Johor-Riau Sultanate. As part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate, Singapore continued its role as a trading port. It did not lose its trade connections with other parts of the region.

Singapore's Connections with other Countries

The artefacts found in Singapore that date back to the 16th and the 17th centuries. They are underglazed blue porcelain shards from the Ming and Qing dynasties. These shards show that there was trade between China and the Johor-Riau Sultanate.




Fragments of paddle-marked earthenware were also found in Singapore. They contain markings that were imprinted on the earthenware during production using as object shaped like a paddle, hence the term ‘paddle-marked’.These earthenware artefacts are similar to those found in Sumatra, Malaysia and Brunei and date back to the late 11th to the 16th centuries. These pieces of paddle-marked earthenware pottery are considered to be traditional Malay-style pottery.Malay gold coins from the 16th to the 18th century have also been found in Singapore. Together, these artefacts show the connections that existed between Singapore and other Malay kingdoms in the Malay Archipelago.

Singapore’s Connections with the Portuguese and the Dutch (16th to Early 19th Century)

In the 16th century, the Europeans came to Southeast Asia to trade. They particularly wanted to gain a monopoly over the spice trade. Over time, they realised that this was best achieved by controlling settlements and sea routes linked to the spice trade.




The Portuguese were the first to reach Southeast Asia, followed by the Dutch. There was an intense trade rivalry between the Portuguese and the Dutch. The Dutch often attacked Portuguese merchant ships. For example, on 25 February 1603, the Dutch captured the Santa Catarina, a Portuguese ship, off the eastern shore of Singapore.




The frequent naval battles between the Portuguese and the Dutch in the waters near Singapore led both sides to consider building a fortress in Singapore. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch felt that a fort at an area near Singapore would provide better security for their merchants transporting goods along the Straits of Singapore.This Portuguese-Dutch rivalry came to an end when the Dutch attacked Melaka and drove the Portuguese out in 1641. Over time, the Dutch became the main European power in the Malay Archipelago. They controlled a large part of the region, including Java and Melaka.

British Interest in Southeast Asia

The British arrived in Southeast Asia after the Portuguese and the Dutch, which was because they had focused their attention on India first, where they had set up trading settlements and factories in 1612.




The British traders worked for a trading company, called the British East India Company (EIC), that was in charge of organising trade between the British and the East.




By the late 18th century, the British managed to establish themselves in Southeast Asia because they were interested in trade with China, as well as the spice trade in Southeast Asia.




This put the British in competition with the Dutch in Southeast Asia. The British wanted to break the Dutch monopoly over the spice trade. They also wanted to set up trading ports that would compete against the Dutch ports in Riau and Sumatra, and help control the sea route between India and China.




The British took the first step to establish themselves in the region by gaining control of Penang in 1786. However, Penang was located too far north of the Straits of Melaka to serve as the centre of the India-China sea trade route.

Why SIngapore was Chosen as a British Port

In 1818, Sir Stamford Raffles was appointed as Governor of Bencoolen in western Sumatra. However, Bencoolen was not effective as a base for the British to compete with the Dutch because it was not located along the Straits of Melaka. Thus, Raffles was convinced that the British needed to establish a new base in Southeast Asia that was more strategically located than Penang and Bencoolen.




Together with his assistant, Major William Farquhar, Raffles began the search for a third British trading settlement in Southeast Asia. After considering several options at the southern end of the Straits of Melaka, Raffles decided that Singapore would be the location of the new British trading settlement. He explained his reasons in a letter to his friend, William Marsden:


‘The island of Singapore possesses an excellent harbour, and everything that can be desired for a British port. it has on its southern shores excellent anchorage.’




Raffles also wrote a private letter to his friend, Lieutenant-Colonel James Young, Secretary to the Military Board in Bengal:


‘Singapore seems in every respect most suitable for our objectives. Its position in the Straits of Melaka is far more convenient and commanding than even Riau (which is already controlled by the Dutch), for our objective of protecting our China trade passing down the Straits.'

How Raffles Set Up a Trading Settlement in Singapore

When Raffles’ expedition arrived in Singapore on 28 January 1819, he saw only a fine harbour, a ‘forbidden hill’ (now Fort Canning Hill), the ruins of a fortress, a fishing village and the jungle.




The island was under the supervision of Abdul Rahman, the Temenggong of Johor. During their meeting on 29 January 1819, Raffles explained to the Temenggong that the British East Trading Company wanted to set up a trading settlement in Singapore.




A ceremony was held on 6 February 1819 to proclaim Tengku Hussein Long Sultan of Johor. Raffles, the new Sultan Hussein, and the Temenggong then signed a treaty. The treaty allowed the British EIC to set up a trading settlement in Singapore.




On February 1819, Raffles returned to Bencoolen, leaving Major William Farquhar as the first British Resident of SIngapore.

Reactions of the Dutch and the British Towards the Founding of Singapore

The Dutch were extremely displeased with Raffles’ actions. By signing the treaty with Tengku Hussein, Raffles had given the British a valuable foothold in Singapore.




The Dutch government protested because they claimed that Singapore was part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate ruled by Sultan Abdul Rahman, whom they recognized and had placed under Dutch protection. The Dutch threatened to use force to drive the British out of Singapore.




The British government, too, was initially very displeased with Raffles because his actions had affected their relationships with the Dutch. However, over the next few years, the British government realised Singapore’s strategic importance to the protection and expansion of British trade in China and the Malay Archipelago. Thus, they decided that Singapore was worth keeping despite Dutch protests.




In the end, both the Dutch and British governments settled their quarrel over Singapore peacefully because both sides wanted to maintain friendly relations. On 17 March 1824, they signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

Terms of the Anglo Dutch Treaty, 1824

The terms of the treaty required the Dutch to officially withdraw their opposition to the British presence in Singapore. Another important term in the treaty was the division of the Malay Archipelago into two spheres of influence: the Malay Peninsula and Singapore came under British influence, while the Dutch controlled the Dutch East Indies.




Dutch Melaka was exchanged for British Bencoolen. The British now occupied Penang, Melaka and Singapore. These three settlements were placed under one government, and they became known as the British Straits Settlements in 1826.

Singapore’s Development as a British Trading Settlement

The signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 meant that SIngapore could develop as a trading settlement without interference from the Dutch. Trade became the main activity of the island once again. Singapore was a free port where trade flourished.




Singapore quickly became the centre of British trade with China, the Dutch Indies, Siam, Annam and Cambodia.




By 1832, Singapore had replaced Penang as the administrative centre for the Straits Settlements. There were 16 000 inhabitants then.