Straits Settlements - History and Government

History and Government

The establishment of the Straits Settlements followed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, by which the Malay archipelago was divided into a British zone in the north and a Dutch zone in the south. This resulted in the exchange of the British settlement of Bencoolen (on Sumatra) for the Dutch colony of Malacca and undisputed control of Singapore. The Settlements were largely Chinese in population, with a tiny but important European minority. Their capital was moved from Penang to Singapore in 1832. Their scattered nature proved to be difficult and, after the Company lost its monopoly in the China trade in 1833, expensive to administer.

During their control by the East India Company, the Settlements were used as penal settlements for Indian civilian and military prisoners, earning them the title of the 'Botany Bays of India'. The years 1852 and 1853 saw minor uprisings by convicts in Singapore and Penang. Upset with East India Company rule, in 1857, the European population of the Settlements sent a petition to the British Parliament asking for direct rule; but the idea was overtaken by events – the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

When a ‘Gagging Act’ was imposed to prevent the uprising in India spreading, the Settlements’ press reacted with anger, classing it as something that subverted ‘every principle of liberty and free discussion’. As there was little or no vernacular press in the Settlements, such an act seemed irrelevant: it was rarely enforced and ended in less than a year.

On 1 April 1867 the Settlements became a British Crown colony, making the Settlements answerable directly to the Colonial Office in London instead of the Indian government based in Calcutta, India. Earlier, on 4 February 1867, Letters Patent had granted the Settlements a colonial constitution. This allocated much power to the Settlements' Governor, who administered the colony of the Straits Settlements with the aid of an Executive Council, composed wholly of official (i.e. ex-officio) members, and a Legislative Council, composed partly of official and partly of nominated members, of which the former had a narrow permanent majority. The work of administration, both in the colony and in the Federated Malay States, was carried on by means of a civil service whose members were recruited by competitive examination held annually in London.

Penang and Malacca were administered, directly under the governor, by resident councillors.

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