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The Colonial Office and Governor Ord.

In 1867, when the Straits Settlements passed from the control of the Government of India to the Colonial Office, Britain was on the edge of what is often seen as a new wave of expansion. In the next thirty or so years new territories were added to existing imperial possessions and administration of the latter underwent considerable transformation. Whether these developments did amount to a "new" imperialism, or whether they should be seen as essentially a continuation of what had gone before, albeit with some adaptation to changing circumstances has, however, has been a matter of much contention. The question has continued to figure in arguments extending over nearly a century about the nature and causes of empire, taking as their starting point Hobson's Imperialism (1902) and Lenin's 1917 tract for the times, and attracting the attention of historians, political theorists, dependency theorists, neo-Marxists and others. That it has been such a long-standing debate is due, perhaps, to the fact that it has been concerned, for the most part, not with the historical record - with the circumstances surrounding this or that case of imperial expansion - but with conceptual issues - with how these circumstances are to be interpreted, described and presented. Conceptual differences are notoriously resistant to argument.

While the present writer is unashamedly a supporter of the view that the late nineteenth-century did see changes of momentum and direction and the appearance of what might reasonably be called a new imperialism, different in kind from that which preceded it, it is not intended here to enter that debate.(1) What is offered is a more light-hearted examination of one example of British policy-making as the Colonial Office came to cope with the challenges of its new responsibilities in the Straits Settlements. It may serve as a kind of footnote to the broader debate.

Sir Harry Ord, as first Governor of the new Crown Colony, found himself operating within a changing imperial environment and was, from time to time, in trouble with his Colonial Office masters about a variety of matters both of detail and substance. Most accounts of his Governorship focus on questions of policy: his relations with the commercial community of Singapore, Penang and Malacca, his action in negotiating a boundary settlement between Pahang and Johore, his views about further intervention in the politics of the Malay states of the Peninsula. Mary Turnbull describes him as arriving in Singapore "full of enthusiasm for his appointment and expecting to be welcomed by a satisfied community, ready to help him in his campaign to sweep away the inefficiencies of the Indian regime and bring in the benefits of colonial rule".(2) He had served in the West Indies and had been Governor of Bermuda immediately before his appointment to Singapore. In the Straits Settlements he governed with the advice of an Executive Council composed of senior officials, and a Legislative Council with an official majority and a minority of non-official members nominated by him to represent the local community. He had every reason to hope that he would enjoy the support of that community. Six years later when he left the Colony he found himself at odds with the European community which had expected to have more influence in affairs after the transfer from the Government of India and also with the Colonial Office which had found him a difficult Governor to control.

There is no reason to dissent from that general picture but it is possible, perhaps, to detect the presence of other issues in the events of Ord's period of office. The problems he faced in Singapore may have been, as Turnbull suggests, partly due to his defects of character (she saw him as "a difficult and autocratic man"(3)) and in part from the circumstances of the Colony itself,(4) but it may be suggested that, in the Straits Settlements, the Colonial Office was still feeling its way in the development of institutions for the government, not just of this Colony, but of the new tropical empire that was about to come into existence, and that, in its handling of Ord, it was still testing and defining the kind of control to be exercised in dependencies of that type.

The issues on which differences emerged between the Governor and the Colonial Office varied widely. They included the standard matters on which Governors and the Home Government might disagree - questions of financial supervision raised, for example, in connection with the purchase of a Government steamer or the proposal to build a new Government House. Others involved more general matters of policy - the arrangements for municipal government, the revenue prospects of the Colony, the difficult and continuing question of involvement in the affairs of the Malay States of the Peninsula. But some of the issues appeared quite trivial in nature. The Colonial Office objected, for example, to Ord's use of the term "Acts" rather than "Ordinances" for the enactments of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council and to his use of the term "Governor in Council" to cover certain executive powers of the Straits Settlements Government. Though, on the face of it, these were small matters, they gave rise to sharp exchanges which are worth examining a little further.

Shortly after his arrival Ord forwarded to the Colonial Office what he called "Acts" of the Legislative Council, dealing with a variety of matters including an Act to provide for the appointment of Government officers, and an Act providing for the exercise of certain powers by the "Governor in Council".(5) The Secretary of State, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, replied confirming the legislation but added "I have generally to observe that Laws passed by a Crown Colony are not correctly called 'Acts' but 'Ordinances'." As far as the term "Governor in Council" was concerned, he assumed that Ord had borrowed that form from Indian practice, but thought it "inconvenient" since it was not clear whether it referred to the Executive or the Legislative Council. The "proper phrase", he suggested, was "Governor with the advice of his Executive Council".(6) Before Ord had received that dispatch he forwarded a further batch of "Acts", and here the trouble began.(7) Colonial Office minutes noted the continued use of the term and proposed that the Governor be reminded of the desired usage, though it was assumed that by then Ord would already have taken steps to change the usage. The Duke of Buckingham, however, suggested sending out a draft Ordinance to ensure future compliance. Henry Holland, Legal Adviser in the Colonial Office, doubted the wisdom of that since it would appear as a slight on the Attorney General of the Settlements. The Duke commented tartly that "If the local AG does not do his work well he must be aided from home whether it be considered a slight or not." But since Ord had presumably come into line he approved the draft dispatch without imposing the "slight", and asked merely that, if not already done, the "errors" should be corrected.(8)

Ord, however, was disposed to argue the matter. In reply to the initial dispatch on the subject he said that he was aware that Crown Colony laws were normally called "Ordinances", but he was not aware that there was any "legal or imperative necessity" to use the term, and he asked that he be allowed to continue to use "Acts" since that term had been used by the Government of India and public feeling in Singapore objected to change.(9) On the question of "Governor in Council" he had used it not because of Indian precedent, but because it was used in Hong Kong and in the West Indian dependencies. And the local legislation had already defined "Governor in Council" as referring to the Executive Council, so there was no possibility of confusion of the kind raised by the Secretary of State.

This reply gave rise to some flutterings in the Colonial Office dovecotes. Holland was inclined to insist on "Ordinances" as the correct term, but conceded that, on further inquiry, it appeared that the term "Governor in Council" was indeed used in Hong Kong as well as in the Bahamas, Antigua, Barbados and Grenada, and might therefore be used here. Sir Frederic Rogers, Permanent Under Secretary, agreed, but added that Ord's disposition to argue that the Straits Settlements should not be treated as a Crown Colony was in itself a strong reason for avoiding scrupulously any step which would countenance such a notion. "There is scarcely any Colony under the British dominion in which the authority of the Crown and control of the Home Govt is so indispensable as in the Straits Settlements." The dispatch in reply embodied these views, allowing "Governor in Council" but sternly insisting on "Ordinances".(10)

This minor spat ended quietly enough. Ord in reply asked that, since only two more measures were before the Legislative Council in the current year, it would be convenient if the same term could be applied to them as to former enactments. He added a little naughtily that the Governor's Instructions had referred to the passage of "laws" of the Colony and that the term "Ordinances" was not used. Might "Laws" be a satisfactory usage?(11) The Secretary of State minuted that it would be enough simply to approve "Acts" for the last two measures, adding that "it is not worthwhile discussing the last ... part of the Governor's letter".(12) While not important in themselves these terminological issues seem to suggest some uncertainty in the Colonial Office about appropriate procedures for a Crown Colony like the Straits Settlements and to have provoked discussion out of proportion to the matters at stake.

Ord may be said to have won that round on points, but he was surely courting trouble on a bigger scale when, in a throwaway remark in a speech in closing the 1867 session of the Legislative Council, he hinted at the possibility that the revenue needs of the Colony in the future might require the imposition of customs duties. Given the importance of the free trade port of Singapore it was, at best, an unwise remark. It led to outcry in Singapore, to protest meetings of old Singapore hands in London, to the formation by them of the Straits Settlements Association with the aim of resisting any measure that might affect the commercial prosperity of the Settlements as free ports - and to a strong rebuke from the Colonial Office.(13) "I regret that you should have used any language which was calculated to raise the impression that so vital a change would be authorised in the Commercial policy of the Government except under express instructions from Home."

In fact Ord, on this occasion, was not proposing to introduce customs duties. He was speaking in hypothetical terms. The relevance of the issue here was that the administration of an official rebuke, like the "Ordinance" question immediately before it, became tied up with more general questions of Crown Colony government. On receiving the Duke of Buckingham's dispatch of 1 April Ord responded in his usual vigorous style, pointing out "in justice to myself" that he had no intention of suggesting the introduction of customs duties "and I think that an examination of the language which I made use of will show that I did not in fact do so". He merely wished to impress on the European section of the population the fact that they must bear some share in meeting the revenue needs of the Colony.(14) The Colonial Office took up the argument with equal vigour, after some internal discussion amongst its members. "Sir Harry Ord does not in the least convince me" on the subject of import duties wrote Charles Cox, Senior Clerk of the Eastern Department. "The entire prosperity and all the interests of the Straits Settlements were bound up with its being a Free Port." Sir Frederic Rogers, in more general terms, added "I cannot help thinking that the relations between Sir H.O. and this Office are becoming unsatisfactory because he does not fully understand the extent to which, as an ordinary run, and not with reference to him in particular, the CO overlooks Governors of Crown Colonies. And I am inclined to think that a full and explicit disquisition on the subject may explain what is past and to come." C.B. Adderley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, agreed in general, but pointed out that in distant Crown Colonies the Home Government could only supervise, they couldn't judge, except on the information supplied by the Governor. Their original action was sending out a good governor and their check was dismissing him. But he might have to guide and influence local opinion and even agitate local opinion on questions of reform. He agreed, however, that Ord had gone too far on this occasion and deserved to be checked, but he thought the first draft of the dispatch in reply seemed "unduly a reprimand".

The preparation of the dispatch proved difficult as efforts were made to strike exactly the right note, and it went through several drafts. The final version pointed out that Ord's difficulties in taking over the Straits Settlements in a period of transition from the state of an Indian dependency to that of a Crown Colony "has been somewhat increased by the circumstance that you have never yourself administered the government of such a Colony". There followed a discussion of the difference between a Crown Colony and a Colony possessing representative institutions.

In a Colony possessing Representative Institutions the powers of the Governor are circumscribed by the necessities of that form of Government.... In Crown Colonies the powers of Her Majesty and Her Representatives are far greater. But the effect of this is not to create an irresponsible power in the Governor, but to transfer to Her Majesty's Advisers in this country the form of supervision which is exercised in other Colonies by the Representatives of the Community through the powers of legislation and of the purse. In proportion as the Governor's power is increased, it becomes the duty of Her Majesty's Advisers to exercise a closer supervision over measures for which they are responsible.

The interesting thing, however, was a confusion which emerged in the drafting process about different forms of colonial government. In the first draft the Duke of Buckingham suggested in a marginal note an addition to the text. He proposed adding, after the first sentence quoted above, the words "and the responsibility of his Ministers to the local Legislature". Sir Frederic Rogers noted in the margin: "This phrase is only applicable to Responsible Govt. In Barbados the Gov[ernor] has no 'Ministers' nor are he and his Ex Council in any degree responsible to the local Legislature...." In a separate note Rogers gently suggested to His Grace that he had confused responsible government with representative government. The draft was modified to include the distinction.(15)

The issue at stake in the discussion of the terms of the lecture given to Ord was, of course, not the distinction between representative and responsible government but the difference between both and Crown Colony government. But it is of some interest that the Secretary of State had to be corrected in the course of describing to Ord the extent to which he was to be closely supervised by the Colonial Office. Of course in a responsible government situation the Governor's powers would be reduced and so would those of the Colonial Office. Rogers' point was that, in a Crown Colony, even with a legislature with an unofficial minority, the Governor and Executive Council were not responsible to it and the Colonial Office retained its power to control the Governor. In due course the Legislative Council proved to be a flexible instrument by which the Imperial Government could respond to change in colonial situations by strategic adjustment of membership as local communities were associated with changes of form and substance, moving in succession from official membership, to appointed unofficial minorities, to elected unofficial minorities, to unofficial majorities with reserve powers vested in the Governor, and ultimately to self government and independence. That became the theoretical model as described so fully by Martin Wight.(16) And indeed it was something like that process that was later to be seen in Singapore, Malaya and elsewhere. In 1869, however, the model was yet to be formulated and the Colonial Office was involved, not in planning a long-term political evolution in the Straits Settlements or elsewhere, but with the practical means of controlling and directing the Governor in the individual circumstances of the Colony.

To add to Ord's difficulties with the Office, his proposals to his Legislative Council about possible options for municipal governments in the Colony drew further lectures from home, to the effect that, on a matter as important as this, he should have informed the Secretary of State in advance about the direction of his thinking.(17) It might be difficult to say in advance what matters might be dealt with by a Governor according to his discretion and what questions should be referred to the Secretary of State, but the principle of close Colonial Office supervision must be retained. Similarly Ord's purchase of a Government steamer led to warnings that, though a steamer might be necessary, expenditure of that magnitude should not be incurred without consultation with the Colonial Office.(18)

On the more substantial policy issue of the Governor's handling of relationships with the Malay States of the Peninsula, a matter on which there was some tension between Ord and London, 'the Colonial Office seemed to be in two minds. Ord's instructions had contained no guidance for dealing with the Peninsula and in Cowan's judgement, the Colonial Office "began their tenure of office in the Straits Settlements without a Malayan policy".(19) Certainly it was recognized at home that the Straits Settlements Government was under pressure from the local mercantile community to take what steps it could to secure stability in the area and to provide protection for British subjects. At the same time Ord was warned that, in entering into relations with the States subject to Siamese suzerainty, he was treading in areas which fell within the concerns of the Foreign Office and was instructed to take no action that was not cleared first with the Foreign Office.(20) On the long term question of intervention in the Peninsula, and also on that of relations with the Dutch who were consolidating their position in Sumatra, the Colonial Office was concerned about the danger of a Colonial Governor "magnifying himself and his Colony" and seeking popularity with the local community by pressing colonial interests in a way that might commit the mother country.(21) The main disposition was to warn the Governor against involvement. "With regard to native powers you will possess a larger authority [than in relations with the neighbouring Dutch settlements]. But you will remember that the relations of the Settlements with those powers are matters which may at any time become of serious importance, and in respect of which Her Majesty's Government are bound to exercise a vigilant and effective control."(22) In general "Her Majesty's Government are clearly of opinion that the true policy of the Government of the Straits Settlements is not to attempt to interfere in but to keep entirely clear of any disorders which may occur in the neighbouring Native States which do not directly affect or threaten the peace of the Settlements themselves."(23)

The Colonial Office, within a few years, was to modify its principle of non-intervention and was to approve the action of Sir Harry Ord's successor, Sir Andrew Clarke, in negotiating the Pangkor Engagement with the chiefs of Perak, an agreement which laid the foundations of the Residential system in the Peninsula as a whole. That represented a development of policy. The point here, however, is that, in corresponding with Ord on all of these questions - terminology, customs duties, municipal councils, expenditure and relations with Malay rulers, with Siam and the Dutch - the Colonial Office tended to deal with them in terms, not just of the merits of the particular case, but in the broader terms of the proper relationship which should exist between Her Majesty's Government on the one hand and a Crown Colony Government on the other. This was spelt out most specifically in the Confidential Dispatch of 31 July 1868, but the issues were present in other Colonial Office communications as well. In these exchanges, and in the internal discussions in the Office about how to deal with Ord, the Colonial Office may perhaps be seen as defining more clearly than before - to itself as well as to the Governor - the forms and procedures of government which would apply more generally in the new imperial age. In these circumstances Ord's period in Singapore may have an interest extending beyond the particular problems of the Straits Settlements.

1 For a discussion of these questions see John Legge, "A New Imperialism in the Late 19th Century? Revisiting an Old Debate", in Empires, Imperialism and Southeast Asia, ed. Brook Barrington (Clayton, Vic.: Monash Asia Institute, 1997).

2 C. M. Turnbull, The Straits Settlements, 1826-67 (London: Athlone Press, 1972), p. 381.

3 Ibid., p. 383. Cf. also C.D. Cowan, who saw him as "overbearing and brusque, confident of his own judgment and unwilling to suffer criticism" and as "blunt". C.D. Cowan, Nineteenth-Century Malaya: The Origins of British Political Control (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 30-31.

4 Ibid., p. 391.

5 Ord to CO, 4/67, 3 Apr. 1867, CO 273/10.

6 CO to Ord, 20/67, 6 Jun. 1867, in reply to Ord to CO, 4/67, 3 Apr. 1867, CO 273/10.

7 Ord to CO, 54/67, 4 Jul. 1867, CO 273/11.

8 Minutes on Ord to CO, 54/67, 4 Jul. 1867, and CO to Ord 53/67, CO 273/11.

9 Ord to CO, 61/67, 15 Jul. 1867 in reply to CO 20/67.

10 CO to Ord, 71/67, 25 Sep. 1867, in reply to Ord to CO, 61/67, 15 Jul. 1867, CO 273/11.

11 Ord to CO 134/67, 21 Nov. 1867, CO 273/12.

12 Minute on ibid.

13 CO to Ord 49/68, 1 Apr. 1868, in reply to Oral to CO, 149/67, 18 Dec. 1867, CO 273/13.

14 Ord 97/68, 21 May 1968, CO 273/18.

15 The modification was effected by adding to the Duke's suggested amendment the words italicised below, so that the full sentence became: "In a Colony possessing Representative Institutions the powers of the Governor are circumscribed by the necessities of that form of Government and in cases where responsible Govt is established they are further circumscribed by the responsibility of his Ministers to the local Legislature." Minutes on Ord 97/68, 21 May 1968, and the successive drafts of the dispatch in reply, 31 Jul. 1968, CO 273/18. The admonitory dispatch was sent as 'Confidential' so that the lecture given to Ord would not be placed on the Colonial Secretary's file.

16 See Martin Wight, British Colonial Constitutions, 1947 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), for a "constitutional classification of the seventy odd dependencies in the Empire" (p. vii).

17 CO to Ord 115/68, 27 Jun. 1868 in reply to Ord to CO, 86/68, 7 May 1868, CO 273/18. See also CO to Ord (Conf.), 31 Jul. 1868, loc. cit.

18 Ord to CO 77/67, 17 Aug. 1867, CO 273/11.

19 Cowan, Nineteenth-Century Malaya, p. 54.

20 Minutes on Ord 155/67, 31 Dec. 1867, CO 273/13.

21 Ibid.

22 Co to Ord, 59/68, 22 Apr. 1868 in reply to Ord to CO 155/67. The draft of this dispatch is filed with correspondence between the CO and FO in CO 273/23.

23 CO to Ord 92/68, 4 Jun. 1868 in reply to Order to CO, 58/68, 8 Apr. 1868, CO 273/18.
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Title Annotation:first governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Harry Ord
Author:Legge, John
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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