European traders

The Spanish were among the first western countries to be the most powerful maritime country in the early 15th century. Followed by the Portuguese, who captured Malacca in 1511, as they can choke the spice trade that passed through the Straits of Malacca. They made that move because Malacca, at that time was rule by the Malacca Sultan, and there was a port in existence with tax paying ships docking there. However, their capital was in Goa, India instead of Malacca. The Portuguese's maritime empire in the 16th century stretched from the East African coast to as far as Moluccas. 

During the 17th century, the Dutch challenged the then powerful maritime country, Portugal by sailing across the South Indian Ocean so as to enter the Archipelago through the Sunda Straits. They bypassed the main Portuguese bases in India and Malacca. The Dutch based at Batavia in Java in the 17th century. At Batavia, the Dutch applied naval power to secure monopolistic control of the Spice Islands and throttle the flow of trade from the Moluccas to Malacca.

The Dutch had overtaken the Portuguese during the 1600s. By 1602, the Dutch had secured Bantam in the Sunda Straits from the Portuguese. In 1640, the Dutch acquired a base in Ceylon and a year later, they captured Malacca from the Portuguese. The Dutch became the dominant sea power in the Straits. For them, their interest centered on Java and the Spice Islands, the Sunda Straits were relatively more important than the Straits of Malacca.

The Portuguese and the Dutch were more involved in trade with the East than the British at that time. Hence, to break their monopoly, British also made their way to the here. Therefore, it was another reason of the formation of the EIC.

The emergence of Britain as the next maritime empire

It was the outcome of the experience learnt in four major wars in which Britain pitted against France and its allies for naval mastery in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. At the end of the Seven Years War (1756-63), Britain had emerged as the paramount European power in India, but was not yet its ruler. The main reservoirs of British strength were in Bengal and on the Coromandel Coast.

After the Seven Years War, the focus of British attention shifted to the Bay of Bengal, away from the west coast of India. The consolidation and security of British power depended on control of the seas and naval mastery of the Indian Ocean, especially the Bay of Bengal.

The rivalry between Britain, and Dutch and French made the British learnt the general strategic value of the Straits of Malacca and how vulnerable their base at both Calcutta and the whole of Bay of Bengal was.

After 1682, the British only had a post on the west coast of Sumatra, a site of no strategic significance and for trade or war. An immediate British port for trade with China is needed and the choice of possible sites along an arc from the Bay of Bengal through the Straits of Malacca and the Sunda Straits to the South China Sea had been made with care so as to avoid any possible conflict with Dutch claims.

Looking for a suitable trading outpost in the Archipelago

In 1784, the Dutch had occupied Riau, and used their naval power to reassert their mastery of the waters at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch would not part with Riau, as they fully grasped its potential strategic and commercial value to the British. Since the British insisted on securing Riau as a condition for settlement, it leads to a failure to reach an Anglo-Dutch partnership for trade and defense.

In 1786, Penang was secured from the Rajah of Kedah to which a strip of mainland was added in 1800. However, Penang was considered too far north to neutralize the Dutch in Malacca, and Bencoolen was wrongly situated. British interest in the Straits was being revived with the opening up of the China trade.

British occupied Malacca and other Dutch stations from Dutch in 1795 to deny them to the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain fought France under Napoleon in the late 18th century. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, Britain affirmed in the 1814 Anglo-Dutch convention that independent Holland was important. Hence, the British returned the territories held by them during the Napoleonic Wars to the Dutch.

The Anglo-Dutch convention of 1814 was a product of European politics and a British desire to reduce territorial commitments in the Archipelago to a bare minimum and to reach an accommodation with the Dutch for peaceful trade.

The London authorities disowned all the activities by local British officials to try to counter the Dutch and secure some British footholds along the sea routes to China. This is so as London wanted to trade in peace with the Dutch. Circumstance than of design Stamford Raffles did eventually win the support of the Governor-General, Lord Hastings, for his objectives of keeping the sea-lanes to China and the Archipelago trade open. Hastings revived the old scheme of securing a free passage of the Straits of Malacca, while leaving implicitly to the Dutch the command of the Sunda Straits.

Raffles was instructed to try again to conclude a treaty with Acheh (at the north of Sumatra), and to secure 'the establishment of a station beyond Malacca, such as may command the southern entrance of those Straits'. Riau, once again was the priority site, about which both Raffles and Hastings agreed. If Riau could not be secured, Raffles will try for another site within the Johore Empire.

At Acheh, Raffles succeeded, but he was forestalled in Riau, and, finally, in January 1819, landed on Singapore after finding the Kerimun Islands, at the southern end of the Straits, and Siak, on the east coast of Sumatra, not suitable. Raffles traveled about a week from Britain's naval station at Penang to Singapore.

As Raffles understood the Malay language, he had read in the Malay Annals and knew about the suitability of the water in Singapore. Therefore, the choice of Singapore as a British settlement was more the outcome of circumstance than design due to the numerous factors that lead to it.

Growth of the outpost

The subsequent growth of the settlement is more of design than of circumstance. One week after the founding of Singapore by Raffles, he signed a treaty on the 6 February 1819 with Tengku Long, a claimant in a succession dispute whom Raffles invited from Riau and recognize as Sultan Hussein of Johore. Raffles bypassed Hussein's younger brother, Abdul Rahman, who had been earlier recognized by the Dutch as Sultan. Such was the maneuvering of European traders, epitomized as "divide and rule". As the purpose of the settlement was external trade, the British agreed to provide the Sultan with assistance against external attack but not against internal opposition.

The Dutch disputed the claim, and London postponed any decision on Singapore pending further information about the legality of the British title to Singapore. In that fateful delay hung the future of British commerce in the eastern seas, for the time thus gained brought into full relief the economic and strategic importance of Singapore to British trade eastward beyond the Bay of Bengal.