Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Daniel Smith's Last Seven Years: Hardships in Country Trade in the East Indies in the Early Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Daniel Smith's Last Seven Years: Hardships in Country Trade in the East Indies in the Early Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

Introduction: The "country trade" and Borneo in the early nineteenth century

After the occupation of Prince of Wales Island (Penang) (2) in 1786 by the East India Company (EIC), there soon arose a small community of merchants and traders whose activities complemented those of the EIC. Their "country vessels"--not licensed to carry cargoes to Britain without special EIC permission--carried through the region commodities that included opium, textiles, iron, steel, arms and gunpowder, along with a range of luxury items such as cutlery, mirrors and watches. Elmore's sailing directory for British mariners in the East Indies, published in 1802 but based on the author's voyages in the period 1783-96, gave sailing directions for voyages around Borneo, with emphasis on the sale of opium (Elmore 1802:311). More details are given in Milburn's Oriental Commerce (1811), and recent sources include Lee (1978) and Nordin Hussin (2007). From 1793, when war began with France, British shipping in the region was subject to attacks by French naval vessels and privateers, but these greatly diminished after L'lle de France (Mauritius) fell to the British in December 1810. The conquest of Java in August 1811 stabilized the political situation, but naval threats re-emerged in the war of 1812-1815 with the Americans. Country vessels also had to be on the lookout for piratical attacks by local native inhabitants, including those with whom they (or their competitors) traded. Such attacks were rare compared with those on smaller native vessels, and were sometimes provoked by dishonest trading practices. This was the case with the capture of the Calcutta in 1803 that established in British eyes the piratical reputation of the Sultanate of Sambas in West Borneo. The Calcutta affair prompted R.T. Farquhar, Lieutenant-Governor of Penang from 1804 to 1805, to consider making commercial treaties with the main native rulers in the East Indies that would help regulate trade and allow supervision by the EIC (Wright 1961:269-277). His attempt came to nothing, but after the conquest of Java Raffles resurrected the idea and sought to confine country trade in the region to selected ports--including some in Borneo--where EIC representatives could be based (Bastin 1954; Wright 1961:179-184, 298-326). Raffles commented later that the traders supplied arms to pirate chiefs and did not wish piracy to be suppressed, because it reduced competition (Java Factory Records" 61, Letters from Java, 11 Feb. 1814). The attempts to regulate trade were strenuously opposed by the Penang merchants and their backers and allies in Calcutta. Likewise, the EIC officials in Penang were no supporters of Raffles, and maintained generally a laissez-faire attitude to unrestricted country trade through Penang or Malacca.

Nordin Hussin (2007:xvii) has recently emphasized that studies of colonial society should extend from "palace or state politics and the elite" to the "the common people": in other words, there is a need for more "history from below." The country traders were certainly not common people, but they were not among the elite either, and their activities are hard to track down for reasons of their uncertain social status and mobility. (3) This article attempts to help fill this gap by focusing on the experiences of a Penang-based country ship's captain, Daniel Smith, over a period (1808-1815) for which unusually extensive material is available, it shows how the regional events and issues summarized above influenced Smith's life at this time and also describes his associations with some of the Penang merchants, other country traders and especially the shrewd Sultan of Pontianak in West Borneo, a region that he visited frequently. Most of Smith's voyages can be traced in outline from departures and arrivals that were recorded (though not always comprehensively) in the shipping news in the Calcutta Gazette, Prince of Wales" Island Government Gazette (established early in 1806) and, from 1811, the Java Government Gazette. …

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