Founding of Modern Singapore

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Singapore Stone This is a fragment from an inscribed sandstone known as the 'Singapore Stone'. It is the earliest writing found in Singapore and was discovered at the mouth of the Singapore River, near present-day Fullerton Hotel. In 1843, it was blown up during public works. Scholars have different views of the date and language of the script, ranging from 10th to 13th century and possibly Sumatran or old Javanese. (c. 10th-14th century. | Image from National Museum of Singapore

The history of Modern Singapore began in the early 19th century with the arrival of the British East Indies and Sir Stamford Raffles. While Singapore had long existed in the centuries prior to the British arrival ­– as a settlement under various names such as Singapura and Temasek – it was the signing of the 1819 treaty that signalled the founding of Modern Singapore.

1828 View from Government Hill James Marianne painted this 1828 view from Government Hill, which shows the entrance to the river and the bustling harbour. The Governor’s House can be seen on the extreme right, and on its left, is the flagstaff that signalled the arrival of mail vessels. | c. 1828. Image from National Museum of Singapore

Three figureheads from the East India Company played crucial roles in the founding and early establishment of Modern Singapore. They were namely Sir Stamford Raffles, the recognised founder of Modern Singapore, William Farquhar and John Crawfurd, the first two Residents of Singapore.

Portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles This portrait of Stamford Raffles was painted after his return to England from Java, where he had been Lieutenant-Governor. | c. 1817. Image from National Museum of Singapore

1827 Print of Second Resident John Crawfurd This 1827 print depicts the second Resident of Singapore, John Crawfurd, arresting the merchant John Morgan, by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, the social caricaturist and book illustrator. | c. 1827. Image from National Museum of Singapore

Raffles, then Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen, was searching for a new British base for the British East India Company in the region in 1818. He subsequently found the island of Singapore, which was located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and near the Straits of Malacca. Several factors contributed to his earmarking of the island as the site of the British base. Singapore possessed a natural harbour, fresh water supplies and a timber supply for ship repair. Most importantly, unlike other islands in the region, Singapore was not occupied by the Dutch.

Raffles’ expedition officially landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819, although he landed at the southern outskirts on St John’s Island a day before. The symbolic landing site today by the Singapore River behind Parliament House has been marked with a status of Raffles, although there is alternative version of his first landing via Rochor River.

Statue of Stamford Raffles at the Padang The statue of Stamford Raffles was unveiled on 27 June 1887 by Sir Frederick Weld, Governor of the Straits Settlements, as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria’s reign. Originally located at the Padang, as seen on this postcard, the statue was relocated to near Victoria Memorial Hall. (c. 1905. | Image from National Museum of Singapore

Raffles found a Malay settlement at the mouth of the river, which was then headed by a Temenggong (governor) for the Sultan of Johor, Tengku Abdul Rahman. The settlement was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor. The area was under the charge of the Dutch and Bugis, who would never agree to a British base in Singapore. The British and the Temenggong came to a draft agreement on 30 January 1819. With the Temenggong’s help, the exiled Tengku Hussein, Tengku Abdul Rahman’s older brother, was brought to Singapore from the Riau Islands on 1 February 1819.

The British offered to recognise Tengku Hussein as the rightful Sultan of Johor with a yearly payment, in return for the right for the British East India Company to establish a trading post in Singapore. This agreement was put to pen with a formal treaty on 6 February 1819. The signing of the treaty was attended by British representatives, Malay dignitaries and members from the local settlements. On this day, the British flag was formally hoisted on the island, and Modern Singapore was born.

After the treaty was signed, Raffles left Major William Farquhar to assume the role of Resident and Commandant in Singapore, the highest ranked East India Company representative on the island.

Silver Epergne for William Farquhar This silver epergne was presented to William Farquhar, the first British Resident of Singapore. It was a parting gift from the Chinese community when he left the island in 1823. Such epergnes decorated the dinner tables of well-to-do families in England and signifies Farquhar’s popularity with the Asian communities in Singapore in the 1820s. | c.1824. Image from National Museum of Singapore

It was however the 1824 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance that sought to transfer the power from the Sultan to the British. Negotiated and drafted by the second Resident of Singapore, John Crawfurd, who replaced Farquhar, the treaty ensured that the EIC would have full authority over the administration of Singapore. In return, the Sultan and Temenggong would receive allowances and were allowed to live on land (notably Kampong Glam) set aside for them in Singapore. The 1824 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance was signed on 2 August 1824 and replaced the 1819 Singapore Treaty.

View of a part of Kampong Glam This print (lithograph) shows Kampong Glam and the Padang as viewed from Prinsep Hill. Kampong Glam was reserved by Stamford Raffles for the Sultan and built in 1831 by 200 convicts in eight months. | c. 1840. Image from National Museum of Singapore

Sultan Mosque The original structure of Masjid Sultan was built between 1824 and 1826 under the patronage of Sultan Hussein. Funds for the project came from the East India Company as part of the treaty arrangements that allowed the setting up of a British trading post in Singapore. (c. Mid-20th century. | Image from National Museum of Singapore

The Arabs, Bugis, Indians and Peranakan Chinese and other traders across the archipelago made Singapore their trading port of choice, because of its ideal port location and that they were seeking to circumvent Dutch trading restrictions on other ports. Trade and commerce would transform Modern Singapore dramatically and turn the island into the centre of commercial activity in the archipelago. Raffles and the British East India Company’s vision to make Singapore a free trading port brought spectacular success to the settlement.