Following the return to Hong Kong the focus of the Saracen would change from East to South-East Asia. In the previous March, as Richards completed his work on the coast of Formosa, Bowring was sailing to Bangkok, seeking to obtain a treaty that would open Siam to free trade.
At this point Siam could hardly be described as a nation state in the modern sense. A substantial number of nobles and princes essentially ruled their own areas under the, sometimes nominal, control of the king and the Siamese land frontier was not always clearly defined. Despite these limitations, the country was recognized as a significant regional power that could offer substantial commercial opportunities, something the increasingly important British Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, on the southern coast of the Malay Peninsula, certainly wanted to exploit.
The first of the settlements had been established on the island of Penang, which had been acquired by the East India Company under an agreement with the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. The island was then shown on some maps as Prince of Wales Island, but this name did not really ‘stick’. Singapore was initially established as a company trading post in 1819 and Malacca was ceded to Britain in 1826. Administrative reorganisation eventually led to the institution of a common government, called a Residency, accountable to the Governor General of India.
At the beginning of the C19th Siam entered a period in which it would become more powerful than in any previous era. A war with Burma had recently ended allowing Bangkok to assert authority on and beyond its, albeit loose, borders. Traditionally, rivalry between Burma and Siam had prevented the domination of the Malay States by either of these powerful entities, but the waning of Burmese strength allowed the development of a more aggressive Siamese foreign policy towards the small and disunited polities on the southern peninsula. The only country that could block expansion was Britain and British action in the region was effectively in the hands of the East India Company, which showed little interest in the local political situation unless trade and commerce were threatened. Fearing alliances that would lead to costly involvement in the interminable struggles between the peninsula states the company sought to avoid giving assurances of assistance even to the point of apparently reneging on unwritten undertakings. Nonetheless, some acute observers had their doubts about this reticent in the face of Siamese ambition. One was Sir Stamford Raffles, often cited as the founder of Singapore. He said, of the indigenous inhabitants of the Malay States, that these people are of the opposite language, religion and general interest to their northern neighbour and that Siamese expansionist policy was but a simple exercise of capricious tyranny by the stronger party submitted to by the weaker from the law of necessity.
From the Siamese perspective a more assertive policy could be justified, somewhat at least, by claims of suzerainty. The concept of suzerain was an important aspect of traditional political relationships in South-East and East Asia as it reinforced a sense of vassalage. A vassal state could be both independent and yet still acknowledge a subordinate relationship with one that was more powerful. The Sino-Siamese relationship of the time was, for instance, an example of suzerainty in its most benign form. Every three years the Siamese would send tribute in the form of Bunga Mas, two ornamental plants with leaves and flowers of gold and silver, to the Chinese Emperor. The emperor would, in return, send presents to the Siamese king and certain trade privileges would also be maintained. There was no requirement for the Siamese to proffer such tribute as Bangkok had long been completely independent of Chinese power, but the process acknowledged a historical relationship and contributed to bi-lateral harmony. Within Siam and on the frontiers it was clearly important for the king to ensure he remained as the acknowledged paramount authority, but from the point of view of those he saw as his vassals, it was equally important that their independence was recognised. If a third party became involved in a dispute linked to suzerainty this could clearly be difficult for all concerned. Such difficulties arose over Kedah.
When the Sultan of Kedah ceded Penang to the East India Company it was on the understanding that, in his view, the company would offer military assistance if the sultanate was attacked. Thirty five years later, when called upon to honour this commitment, the company denied such a promise had been given. In 1821 the Siamese, claiming that the Sultan had recently failed to acknowledge the requirements of suzerainty, took the view that if they launched a full scale invasion the East India Company would take no retaliatory action. This assessment proved correct and the Sultan was forced to flee to Penang, where he was given British protection and maintained by a substantial pension. However, although he was assured the British would help negotiate a settlement no military fingers were lifted to help drive the invaders out.
For the next twenty years the Sultan remained offshore, constantly seeking to have the Siamese expelled from his realm. In talks with Bangkok the British attempted to mediate but the Kedah issue was never the most important item on their agenda, this invariably being the development of commerce. Soon after the Sultan’s expulsion John Crawfurd, evidently one of the most knowledgeable men of his time on Peninsula affairs, arrived in Bangkok to try and negotiate a new trade agreement and, as a secondary issue, the reinstatement of the Sultan. Negotiations took months and in the end produced very little on the first count and nothing at all on the second.
Within the British community on Penang the rights and wrongs of the Kedah situation were hotly disputed. In 1824 John Anderson, secretary to the Penang government wrote a book refuting Siamese claims to the state. This was actually published by the government and although only 100 copies were printed and circulation was confined to official circles it was suppressed almost immediately and strenuous but unsuccessful efforts made to recall all copies. Given that Anderson accused the company of duplicity and breach of faith in failing to support the Sultan, the change of heart is hardly surprising but it is curious that, in the same year, Rama II, the king of Siam died and Prince Mongkut, officially next in succession, was overlooked in favour of another candidate, who, supported by powerful nobles, became Rama III in his stead. Whether there was any link between the suppression of the book and the court turbulence is unclear but, although Rama III, at least until the 1840s, was to be circumspect in his dealings with the British the Siamese stance on Kedah did not soften.
A further attempt at developing trade with Bangkok was made in 1825 by which time a strong anti-Siamese faction was emerging in Penang, partly as a result of ongoing Siamese attempts to increase its power over two other Malay States, Perak and Selangor. This time negotiations were in the hands of Captain James Burney who met with the same kind of response as Crawfurd. Despite British success in their war against the Burmese, which increased Siamese apprehension, Burney was unable to achieve anything in regard to the Sultan or indeed any of the Malay States because, in his opinion, he had no authority to threaten to use force if he did not get his way. He felt himself treated with contempt saying I could not wish to set my worst enemy a more difficult task than to send him to Bangkok, to negotiate matters connected with the Malay Peninsula, without authority or means for employing effectual intimidation.
Despite the difficulties Burney was more successful than Crawfurd had been over trade and obtained some concessions, including the right of British merchants in Bangkok to trade freely in most commodities, one of the most important being sugar. As far as Kedah was concerned there was a complete failure, the Siamese simply refused to withdraw their forces and in the finalised treaty, the British now committed themselves to removing the Sultan from Penang. Understandably the Siamese did not want their implacable enemy stirring up trouble from such a close base but when the Sultan was told he would have to move he refused point blank. He maintained his intransigence even when his pension was cut off and although reduced to penury still sat tight. It was only when informed he would be removed by force if necessary that he finally agreed to go.
Meanwhile, in Kedah itself the British had begun to assist the Siamese in suppressing insurrections, although this did not stop trouble reoccurring, nor was there any real pacification. By the end of the 1830s something of a stalemate had been reached and consequently the Sultan decided he would approach Rama III directly, ask forgiveness for the failure to pay proper tribute and seek reinstatement. At the same time the British intimated to Bangkok that they would no longer offer support against Kedah rebels. The Sultan’s entreaties and the changed British attitude offered the Siamese a way out of a difficult and costly impasse, which showed no signs of being broken otherwise. It was agreed the Sultan, after acknowledging Siam as the suzerain, could return and Siamese officials would be withdrawn.
With the traditional ruler back in power it would have been understandable if the Straits government had looked forward to the end of the troubles related to Kedah. Within two years, however, a serious dispute arose when the Sultan seized a district of neighbouring Perak. The sultan of that state then called on the British to assist him in expelling the invaders but, although the British were sympathetic, military assistance was refused. Once again an attempt was made to coerce the Sultan of Kedah by stopping his pension but to no avail and it was only when the British actually did threaten to use force against him that the seized district was handed back.
As the British sought to resolve the difficulties with Kedah new problems arose over commercial relations with Siam, British merchants asserting that that Rama III had suddenly imposed a sugar monopoly and now offered the commodity for sale at greatly increased prices. This action, breaking the terms of the Burney treaty, enriched middle men but was very detrimental to British trade and in fact caused a contraction of the amount of sugar produced. The British government now decided to intervene directly in the matter and invited Sir James Brooke, based in Sarawak, to undertake negotiations. Brooke went to Penang first, where there was some hostility in the local press to his appointment. Small though they might be in number the merchants and traders in the Straits settlements could certainly be vociferous. Brooke was undismayed and sent a letter to let the Siamese know he was coming. The ship used to carry the message was the Nemesis, which, given that this vessel had wrought so much destruction in the First Opium War, hardly seems the most tactful move. The Brooke mission eventually arrived in Bangkok in 1850 but proved to be a failure, no revision of the Burney treaty being agreed. However, it did lead Brooke to the conclusion that the era of Rama III would soon draw to a close and the accession of a new monarch might generate a more conciliatory attitude. A short time later his prediction came to pass.
Chapter 20 - A new focus
Commanders and clippers
Contemporary map of the Malay Peninsula 1836
When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys