Behind the towering office skyscrapers that you see in Singapore today, lies a city that is steeped in history. Even before the founding of modern Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, the island was already a thriving port-of-call as far back as the 14th century.
Singapore has been referred to by various names according to historical mentions found across Southeast Asia. According to a Chinese historical account in the 3rd century, the island was referred to as ‘Puluozhong’. This name is derived from the Malay phrase ‘Pulau Ujong’ which means ‘the island at the end of the peninsula’.
It has also been referred to as ‘Temasek’, meaning sea town in Malay, in an epic poem written during the Majapahit era in 1365. When Chinese trader Wang Dayuan visited Singapore in around 1330, he wrote a first-hand account of the island’s history calling it ‘Danmaxi’, which means ‘sea town’ in Mandarin.
Perhaps, the most interesting account of Singapore was found in the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals which described in great detail of how Sang Nila Utama, a prince from Palembang stumbled upon Temasek and subsequently named it ‘Singapura’.
Singapura is derived from two Malay words – ‘Singa’ means lion in Malay while ‘pura’ means city. Sang Nila Utama ruled the island from 1299 to 1347 where he established Singapore as a trading post and settlement. Upon his death, his son, Paduka Sri Pekerma Wira Diraja, succeeded his thrown from 1372 to 1386 and subsequently his grandson, Paduka Seri Rana Wira Kerma, from 1386 to 1399.
His great grandson, Paduka Sri Maharaja Parameswara, brought the island to prominence during the 14th century. After being deposed by the Majapahit kingdom in 1390s, Parameswara fled Palembang and ruled Singapore for several years. During his reign, he made Singapore into important trading port. In 1401, however, he fled Singapore after a Kertanegara retaliatory invasion and went on to establish the Sultanate of Malacca.
The Portugese seized Malacca in 1511, causing Parameswara to flee back to Singapore to establish a new capital at Johor Lama which the Portugese later destroyed in 1587. They also sacked the settlement on the Singapore River in 1613. Thereby, Singapore’s importance as a trading port declined.
For the next two centuries, the island sank into obscurity. It was not until the arrival of the British in 1819 that Singapore would re-emerge as important trading port again. The British had been searching for a new base in the region to counter the Dutch’s growing influence in the Malay Archipelago.
Sir Stamford Raffles, who was the Lieutenant Governor of the British colony at Bencoolen, had convinced Lord Hastings, the Governor-General of India and his superior at the British East India Company, to fund an expedition to seek a new British base in the region.
Raffles landed on Singapore on 29 January 1819 and quickly realised that the island was a natural choice for the British’s new port along the Straits of Malacca. Singapore had a natural deep harbour, fresh water supplies and timber for ship repairing.
However, he had a hurdle to clear as Singapore was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor. Raffles found a small Malay settlement at the mouth of the Singapore River headed by Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman. The Sultan of Johor, Tengku Rahman, was under the control of the Dutch and the Bugis. The Sultanate was, however, weakened by factional division. As such, Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman and his officials were only loyal to Tengku Rahman’s elder brother, Tengku Hussein, who was living in exile in Riau.
With the Temenggong’s help, Raffles managed to smuggle Tengku Hussein back into Singapore and offered to recognise him at the rightful Sultan of Johor. In return, however, Raffles wanted Tengku Hussein to grant the British the right to establish a trading post and provide him with a yearly payment. On February 6, 1819, a formal treaty was signed and modern Singapore was born.
Singapore was established as a free port and soon began attracting traders such as the Bugis, Peranakan Chinese and the Arabs. During the starting year of operation, Singapore attracted a trade of US$400,000 in Spanish dollars. By 1825, trade volume had swollen to US$22 million, surpassing even Penang.