The modern nation of Singapore was established by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819. The British statesman saw the tiny island off the coast of the Malay Peninsula as an ideal spot to establish a British colony and trading post. As an agent of the British East India Company, Raffles was able to obtain permission from Malay officials to establish a trading post on the island. He named it Singapore, after its ancient name, and promptly opened the port for free trade and free immigration.
When Singapore was first established, there were a mere 1,000 inhabitants scattered across the island. The population grew rapidly, however, as ships passed through the island’s international ports. Singapore became very ethnically diverse, and while Chinese made up the majority of the population, the island was peppered with immigrants arriving from Britain, India and the Dutch East Indies.
In the early 19th century, Britain was a great producer of woollen goods, cotton cloth and glassware. The home market was limited, however, and all of the goods could not be sold. China and Southeast Asia presented a ready market, and Singapore was the perfect trading post. Multitudes of British merchants migrated to Singapore as soon as it was established as a British outpost. They ran a brisk business selling British goods throughout the Orient and buying spices and other Asian products that could be sold in Britain.
In the 50 years after Raffles established his free-trade port in Singapore, the country prospered and the population boomed. The Dutch officially acknowledged British sovereignty over Singapore in 1824, and the island (along with two other trading ports and a number of small dependencies) were ruled as the Straits Settlements. When the British government needed a location to station their troops, the Straits Settlements were adopted as a crown colony, and were ruled directly from London.
Singapore continued to grow as a busy seaport, now home to roughly 86,000 inhabitants. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, British influence increased even more, and thousands of workers were brought in from India, China and the Dutch East Indies to work in the tin mines and on rubber plantations.
As Singapore steamed into the 20th century it continued to prosper under British rule; however, Japan soon posed a threat. The British built a large and costly naval base to protect the island, but this “Gibraltar of the East” was only a more attractive target for the Japanese forces. Japan attacked and Singapore’s severely outnumbered forces were quickly defeated and forced to surrender.
After three and a half years of Japanese occupation, they were finally ousted and the British forces were able to return. The Singaporeans gave the returning troops a hero’s welcome. Though many British and Empire soldiers had died due to Japanese brutality, the island of Singapore was returned to peace and stability once more. Though a few Britons remained in Singapore permanently, most returned home after a time.