The years 1873 and 1874 are seen as a turning point in the colonial advance in Southeast Asia, when Britain and the Netherlands aggressively imposed their rule on areas they had decided between themselves to be their destined territories. An 1824 Anglo-Dutch treaty declared that Sumatra was to be a Dutch sphere and the Peninsula (contemporary Malaysia and Singapore) a British one. Another treaty in 1871, following the opening of the Suez Canal, intensified European trade and traffic through the Malacca Straits, and abandoned British objections to the Dutch conquest of Aceh, a sultanate in the northern quarter of Sumatra. In return for this concession, Holland gave Britain its fort at Elmina on the Ashanti coast of West Africa (contemporary Ghana). Within two years, Holland had embarked on a ruinous war to conquer Aceh, the effects of which are still felt today in Aceh’s uneasy place within Indonesia. Britain had begun a nasty little war against the Ashanti in Ghana. At the same time, Britain embarked on what has become known as its “intervention” in the small Malay sultanates of the Peninsula, causing the murder of its first British resident placed in Perak and the inevitable punitive war to establish British control in the states bordering the Malacca Straits.
These messy wars were part of the high tide of imposing European colonial rule everywhere where ‘disorder’ threatened British trade. They were seen by the European powers, which instigated them as a contest between civilization and barbarism, to be a necessary assertion of order in the world. Although today it has become politically correct to denounce these aggressions, at the time very few did so.
But one man did. He attacked the Governments of Britain and Holland repeatedly in the British House of Lords, for invading independent states without cause or legal right, and for exploiting their colonies. Britain’s treaty obligations to protect Aceh’s independence “had been abrogated without any necessity even on the part of the Dutch, who had no grounds for quarrel with Achin [Aceh], which had done them no injury.” In Malaysia, Britain’s colonial officials were responsible for “the bloodshed, injustice, and expenditure which have occurred and which may follow later.” (note 1)
The author of these and many other attacks on the colonial establishment was the wonderfully eccentric Henry, Third Baron Stanley of Alderley (1827–1903; henceforth ‘Stanley’). His travel and diplomatic work in the Ottoman Empire as a young man had affected him so profoundly that he had adopted Islam in Turkey in the 1850s, making him the first Muslim member of Parliament once he inherited the peerage and joined the House of Lords in 1869. Although he never explained the reasons for his conversation, his first major book included an anonymous tract, the themes of which appear to have influenced his whole life. While Christians talked about piety, justice, and tolerance, the Muslims of the Ottoman empire practiced these virtues, even in the face of persistent aggression by European powers and the Christian minorities of the empire whom they patronized. In particular, they had avoided the modern Western separation of religion from practical policy.
Our religion is neither the rule of the courts of law, nor does it decide on the policy of the state . . . . What, then, are to us religion, institutions, and honour––powerful as motives, but distinct in their applications, and sometimes opposed––is for them all contained in that one word, ‘Islam.’ It is patriotism, legality, tradition, constitution, right. (note 2)
1. House of Lords, Parliamentary Debates (3rd Series, July 28, 1873, col. 1078; February 28), 1876, col. 1001.
2. ‘Islam as a Political System’ [anon., 1833], 140–1, in The East and the West: Our Dealings with our Neighbours. Essays by Different Hands, ed. Henry Stanley (London: Hatchard, 1865).