Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Role of Singapore in the Growth of Intra-Southeast Asian Trade, C.1820s-1852

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Role of Singapore in the Growth of Intra-Southeast Asian Trade, C.1820s-1852

Article excerpt


In a new commercial wave during the first half of the nineteenth century, the expansion of British trade surged over Southeast Asia. The establishment of Singapore as a British free port in 1819 by Thomas Stamford Raffles of the East India Company contributed to the British advance on China (Greenberg 1951) and the increase of British influence in Southeast Asian trade (SarDesai 1977) during the nineteenth century. The purpose of this paper is to examine the patterns connecting regional trade with Western long-distance trade in Southeast Asia during the second quarter of the century, focusing on the role of Singapore in the growth of intra-Southeast Asian trade.

Challenging the traditional historiography, recent studies have shown a resurgence in Asia's long-distance trade and intra-Asian trade in the first half of the nineteenth century. Kaoru Sugihara (2009) criticizes traditional historiography for emphasizing the central importance of the opium triangle, and statistically demonstrates the existence of multilateral trading networks within Asia, not confined to the opium triangle. Moreover, intra-Asian trade composed mostly of necessities grew during this period. As background to this growth, Sugihara argues that local Asian merchants could take advantage of the new commercial opportunities that emerged as a result of the deregulation of trade by the British and Dutch East India Companies and the Chinese Qing government after the late eighteenth century.

Anthony Reid (1997) confronts the tendency to assume that commerce had been stagnant during the era between the end of the "age of commerce" in the second half of the seventeenth century and the growth of export economies under colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. Through an analysis of trade data of Southeast Asian exports from the 1760s to the 1840s, he finds that exports of major commodities from Southeast Asia enjoyed high growth rates during the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century rather than during the high colonial period. Furthermore, as background to the expansion of commerce in this period, Reid (Reid and Fernando 1996) remarks that Asian traders, such as the Malays and Chinese, activated local trade in the face of the collapse of the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company and the lifting of maritime bans by the Chinese Qing government.

The studies by Sugihara and Reid serve to justify a reconsideration of the integration of Asian countries into the world economy in the nineteenth century. They criticize the fact that traditional historiography has placed emphasis on the impact of Western influence in Asia, and suggest that we inquire into the possible ways in which the reorganization of market institutions, the revitalization of merchants' activities, and changes in the mode of production in Asia from the late eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century facilitated the expansion of Western long-distance trade in Asia. From both studies emerges a new perspective that the patterns of regional response to Western trade in Asia during this period may have influenced the course of integration of Asian regions into the world economy after the second half of the nineteenth century, with a further progress of international division of labor.

Previous studies discussing the integration of Southeast Asia into the world economy in the nineteenth century, as Reid points out, have shown a tendency to assume that Southeast Asian trade was stagnant before 1850. In general, those studies before the early 1990s use statistics published by the colonial authorities in the late nineteenth century and examine the increase in primary product exports from individual countries under colonial rule (Cowan 1964; Maddison and Prince 1989; Booth 1991). Therefore, they assume, without a serious examination, that economic life in most parts of the region during the era when Western colonialism had not penetrated thoroughly and few statistical accounts are available, was based on agricultural activities as the chief means of subsistence (Thee 1989, 134-135; Booth 1991, 20). …

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