John Crawfurd (b. 1783, Scotland–d. 1868, England) was the second British Resident of Singapore, holding office from 9 June 1823 to 14 August 1826.1 He was instrumental in implementing some of the key elements of Stamford Raffles’s vision for Singapore, and for laying the foundation for the economic growth of Singapore.2 Although the spelling differs, Crawford Street, Crawford Lane, Crawford Bridge and Crawford Park are all named after him.3
Although Crawfurd was a qualified medical doctor, he was interested in languages, history and political administration. Crawfurd also authored several books about the regions around Singapore, including the three-volume History of the Indian Archipelago, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Malay Language with a Preliminary Dissertation, and A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands & Adjacent Countries. Crawfurd also published several articles on scientific subjects in the Singapore Chronicle and Logan’s Journal. He joined the medical service of the East India Company (EIC) in 1803 at the age of 20, and served in Penang and Java under Raffles.4 In 1821, he was sent as an envoy from the Indian government to Siam (present-day Thailand) and Cochinchina in an effort to open these areas to British trade. Although his missions were not successful, his visit helped to open up the lines of communication with Siam and Cochinchina and facilitated the gathering of information on these two then lesser-known countries.5 He was appointed Resident of Singapore in June 1823 after the departures of Raffles and William Farquhar.6
The period under Crawfurd’s administration was marked by a vigorous increase in population, trade and revenue. A shrewd and practical Scotsman, Crawfurd focused on restraining administrative expenditure, increasing government revenue and promoting free trade. He also implemented measures to suppress slavery and eroded the Malay chief’s influence, in accordance with Raffles’s wishes. He legalised and regulated gambling through highly profitable gambling houses. He collected revenue from opium and arrack farms and also introduced licenses for pawnbrokers and the manufacture and sale of gunpowder. As a vigorous proponent of free trade, Crawfurd abolished anchorage and other port fees, making Singapore unique as a port that was free from tariffs and port charges.7
Crawfurd’s residency also saw much progress in the planning and physical development of Singapore town. Using convict labour, roads were widened and levelled, and a proper bridge was built across the river. English street signs and coconut-oil street lighting were introduced. Troops were moved from the town centre to a new encampment in the northwest, and land was allotted to religious buildings.8
Crawfurd was instrumental in bringing about the 1824 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance (also known as “Crawfurd’s Treaty”) between the EIC, Sultan Hussein Shah and the temenggong on 2 August 1824.9 The treaty ceded to the EIC all rights to Singapore and the islands within 10 geographical miles of its shores.10 In return, the chiefs were given land in Singapore to reside on, and should they decide to leave Singapore permanently, the sultan would receive $20,000 compensation and the temenggong $15,000. In two failed attempts to make their lives uncomfortable and force the chiefs to leave Singapore, Crawfurd first freed 27 female slaves who had escaped from the sultan’s palace with complaints of ill-treatment in September 1824 and, a month later, smashed down a wall and paved a road through Hussein’s compound down to Kampong Bugis, effectively splitting the sultan’s domain in two.11
Crawfurd’s Treaty effectively ended any native control of Singapore, and, together with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London of 1824, in which the Dutch agreed to surrender all claims on Singapore, it entrenched the British firmly as the government of Singapore.12
Crawfurd was a shrewd, sensible and able administrator. However, Crawfurd was also described by writer Munshi Abdullah to be “tight-fisted”, “fond of material wealth” and “impatient and of quick temper”. Crawfurd was said to be intolerant of criticism and long-winded complaints, described as cold and ruthless, and was unpopular with both the European and Asian communities.13 Nevertheless, he was an efficient and conscientious administrator.14
Crawfurd left Singapore in August 1826. After carrying out a diplomatic mission to Burma, he eventually returned to England in 1830. He remained involved in politics and was at constant loggerheads with the EIC, advocating first for the rights of Calcutta merchants and later for the rights of the Singapore trading community. From 1835, Crawfurd took great pains to advance the cause of the Straits merchants in London, drafting Parliamentary petitions and organsing deputations. In 1868, the last year of his life, Crawfurd became the first president of the Straits Settlements Association in London, which was formed to protect the interests of the region.15
1803: Joins the EIC medical service.
1821: Leads a mission to Siam and Cochinchina to open these areas to British trade.
1823: Appointed Resident of Singapore.16
1824: Negotiates Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with the sultan and temenggong, who surrender all rights to Singapore to the British.17
1826: Leaves Singapore.
1868: Becomes the first president of the Straits Settlements Association in London.18
1. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 141. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
2. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 49. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
3. Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 259 (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 94–95. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
4. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 44; “An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore,” (1884, November 1). Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 November 1884, 76, 140 (From NewspaperSG); John Bastin, “The Letters of Sir Stamford Raffles to Nathaniel Wallich 1819–1824,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 54, no. 2 (240) (1981): 59. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
5. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 140.
6. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 44.
7. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 45–46.
8. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 46; Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, The Hikayat Abdullah: An Annotated Translation, trans. A. H. Hill (Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2009), 223. (Call no. RSEA 959.5 ABD)
9. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 47.
10. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 168.
11. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 168; Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 221–23.
12. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 48–49.
13. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 223; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 141.
14. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 44, 49.
15. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 49.
16. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 44.
17. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 40, 168.
18. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005, 49.
Willbert Wong, “The Doctor Turned Diplomat: John Crawfurd’s Writings on the Malay Peninsula,” BiblioAsia (Apr–Jun 2017)
The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.