HISTORY | Malaysian historiography of the British colonial era has been largely conceptualised in terms of official colonial narratives.
Such sources are only relevant in terms of the political and economic histories of the colonial administration. Other than being able to narrate a series of permitted versions of historical events, they shed little light on the complexities of a colonial environment and the varying perspectives on it.
Non-official accounts of the Malay Archipelago can contribute to a more complex history of colonial Malaya, particularly the region's pre-1874 intervention history. Writings by merchants, travellers, and missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries tell us about the history that colonial officials did not record, as well as more about the history of official colonialism itself.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the emergence of nation-states in Europe and the mercantile political economy heralded the age of exploration. In Asia, merchants actively sought spices, gold, and silver. This pursuit was led by the English East India Company (EIC), the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and the French East India Company.
The English East India Company, whose trading activities set the stage for British Malaya's colonial history, left a wealth of source materials for scholarship not only on imperial trade and politics, but also on local history. Known as country traders, the merchants, who included famous names such as James Scott, Francis Light and Thomas Forrest, are generally believed to have furnished the colonial government with knowledge of the situation of the Malay Archipelago in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Especially without Francis Light, historians would have known far less about...