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date: 26 June 2022

Southeast Asia’s Colonial Port Cities in the 19th and 20th Centurieslocked

Southeast Asia’s Colonial Port Cities in the 19th and 20th Centurieslocked

  • Donna BruneroDonna BruneroNational University of Singapore

Summary

Southeast Asia’s colonial ports often supplanted early trading emporiums within Asia, and by the 19th century a number of ports played important roles in European imperial networks, making them significant hubs not only regionally but also in global networks. Such ports included the British-administered Straits Settlement of Singapore, Penang, Malacca (now more commonly referred to as Melaka); the Dutch-administered Batavia, Semarang, and Makassar (in the Java Sea); the French-administered Saigon; and the Spanish (later American) administered Manila (in the South China Sea). Importantly, some of these ports had earlier histories as trading emporiums, but reached a highpoint of connectivity with global networks in the 19th and 20th centuries. These colonial port cities were not only hubs for trade and travelers but served as gateways or imperial bridgeheads connecting maritime centers to the peoples and economies of the port hinterlands, drawing them into a global (imperial) economy.

The economic, political, and technological frameworks in colonial ports served to reinforce European control. Colonial port cities also played a role in knowledge circulations and the introduction of technologies, which changed transport and modes of production and urban planning. The colonial port cities of Southeast Asia were also important in terms of the strategic defense of European interests in the region. Regarded as entry points for technology and colonial capitalism, and often modeled with elements of European aesthetics and design, port cities could also be sites of urban development and planning. The development of residential enclaves, ethnic quarters, and commercial districts served to shape the morphology of the colonial ports of Asia.

Colonial port city communities were oftentimes regarded as important sites of cultural exchange and hybridity. These port cities were often built on existing indigenous trading centers or fishing villages. Cosmopolitan in nature, and open to the movement of trading diasporas, port cities served as entry points for not only commercial communities, but in the 19th century saw the increased movement of European colonial administrators, scientists, writers, and travelers between ports. Another important influx was labor (convict, indentured, and free) throughout Southeast Asia’s ports.

By the early 20th century, colonial ports were sites of new intellectual and social currents, including anticolonial sentiment, in part driven by the circulation of news and press and also, by diasporic community influences and interests. Following World War II, many colonial ports were revived as national ports. By exploring the colonial port cities of Southeast Asia along a number of themes it is possible to understand why scholars have often described the colonial port city as a “connecting force” (or bridgehead) linking ports and port communities (and economies) to the European imperial project and the global economy.

An examination of the colonial port city of Southeast Asia offers scholars the potential to bridge numerous historical fields including, but not restricted to, imperial history, Southeast Asian history, maritime history, urban and sociocultural histories, and economic and labor histories.

Subjects

  • Capitalism
  • Southeast Asia
  • Urban

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