Dr John Crawfurd (1783-1868): The Scotsman Who Made Singapore British

Ernest C. T. Chew, Associate Professor of History, National University of Singapore

Ernest Chew has graciously shared this essay, which first appeared in Raffles Town Club, vol. 8 (July-Sept 2002), with readers of the Postcolonial Web. It appears with his permission and that of the Raffles Town Club, which retains the copyright.

2. Crawfurd's Career

Like Farquhar, John Crawfurd was a Scotsman. He was born on the Island of Islay in the west of Scotland in August 1783. He followed his father's footsteps in the study of medicine and completed his medical course at Edinburgh in 1803, when he was only 20. While Farquhar had chosen the East India Company's military service, and Raffles its administrative branch, Crawfurd was recruited into the Company's medical service and posted to India's Northwestern Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) from 1803-1808. He was transferred in 1808 to Penang, where he first acquainted himself with Southeast Asia, and applied himself to the study of Malay language and culture.

In Penang, Crawfurd's path intersected with that of Raffles, and he accompanied him on Lord Minto's expedition which led to the British capture of Java from the Dutch in 1811. When Raffles was appointed Lieutenant-Governor, Crawfurd was appointed in November 1811 to the important post of Resident at the Court of Yogyakarta -- a position which Farquhar had declined but which Crawfurd occupied with considerable success.

He pursued his scholarly interests in the study of the Javanese language, cultivated personal relationships with several Javanese aristocrats and literati, and was sent on diplomatic missions to Bali and the Celebes (now Sulawesi). However, when he was asked to assist Raffles in introducing land reform in the Cheribon residency, there were tensions in their approaches. Dr John Bastin explains,

It was probably over the question of the land settlement in that residency that relations between Crawfurd and Raffles became strained. Crawfurd, with his experience of India, was always a keen supporter of the Village System of revenue collection, and he vigorously opposed Raffles' attempts to introduce the individual, or Ryotwari, settlement into Java (Bastin 697).

Crawfurd's other services failed to overcome Raffles' prejudice, and he failed to receive a favourable recommendation in a Memorandum which Raffles drew up for the Bengal authorities in August 1815.

When Java was restored to the Dutch in 1816, Crawfurd returned to England, where like Raffles he turned to writing about his Eastern experiences and findings. While Raffles produced a two-volume History of Java in 1817, Crawfurd published his History of the Indian Archipelago in three volumes in 1820. "Raffles attacked it as being inaccurate and faulty," says Dr Bastin, "but it has merits enough to deserve study today. In this work Crawfurd returned to his plan [...] of colonizing the East Indies by people of British stock. In many ways this was an advance on Raffles' ideas. Always a firm opponent of the commercial monopoly enjoyed by the East India Company, Crawfurd was also ahead of Raffles in advocating a policy of free-trade in the Eastern Archipelago" (Ibid.).

On his return to India, Crawfurd's expertise was recognised by Governor-General Lord Hastings, who sent him on a mission to the Courts of Siam (Thailand) and Cochin-China in 1821. He was sent by Hastings' successor, Lord Amherst, on another mission to Burma (Myanmar) in 1827. The missions met with limited success, but were of great historical significance. His Journals of those missions were later published in 1828 and 1829, as useful guides to future missions, and resource materials for scholars, being reprinted nearly 140 years later by Oxford University Press.

In between those two missions, Crawfurd was appointed British Resident of Singapore, 1823-1826, which will form the subject of the next section.

After his administration of Singapore and mission to Burma, he returned to England, and spent the remaining years of his long life (in sharp contrast to Raffles, who had died in 1826) writing books and papers on Eastern subjects. Apart from the Journals already mentioned, he published an important Grammar and Dictionary of the Malay Language (1852) and A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands & Adjacent Countries (1856). In the latter, Crawfurd fired some parting shots at Raffles, whom he described as 'an intrepid innovator' but not 'an original thinker, but [who] readily adopted the notions of others -- not always with adequate discrimination' (quoted by Professor M.C.Ricklefs, in his introduction to the OUP reprint of the Dictionary, 1971, p.vi).

Crawfurd was unsuccessful in his several attempts to enter the British Parliament in the 1830s, but in 1868, the last year of his life, he was made the first President of the Straits Settlements Association, which was formed to protect the Colony's interests. He died in South Kensington, London, aged 85.


Bastin, John. "Malayan Portraits: John Crawfurd", in Malaya, vol.3 (December 1954), pp.697-698.

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Last modified: 12 October 2002