The private trade of the British in West Sumatra 1735-1770

Reber, Anne Lindsey

April 1977

Thesis or dissertation

© 1977 Anne Lindsey Reber. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

The English East India Company first established a permanent post on the West Coast of Sumatra in 1685, in order to ensure continued supplies of Indonesian pepper after the Dutch had effectively excluded the British from the pepper trade of West Java by expelling them from Bantam in 1682. The Company's Court of Directors in London had originally selected Acheh as the site of its projected Sumatran settlement but had subsequently turned to Pariaman, a centrally located West Coast port, after the Achehnese queen had refused to agree to the construction of an English fort at her capital. Nevertheless, Ralph Ord, whom the Directors had entrusted with founding the British factory, settled instead at Benkulen in the southern half of the island - either because the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had forestalled him at Pariaman or because he had decided on his own initiative that a more southern location, close to Silebar and the Bantam-controlled Lampung districts, was more likely to fulfil the English Company's pepper requirements. The Court of Directors, who had already rejected Benkulen as a possible site precisely because its proximity to South Sumatra and West Java accorded the Dutch further opportunities for commercial obstruction, were nevertheless unwilling to reverse Ord's fait accompli, and Benkulen, commanded first by York Fort and after 1714 by Fort Marlborough, remained an East India Company possession for 139 years. During most of this period it was the sole British foothold in the Malayo-Indonesian area.

From a commercial viewpoint, the Benkulen settlement was never a success. Bal Krishna has estimated that Fort Marlborough provided about 44,000,000 pounds of the 103,908,000 pounds of pepper imported into England between 1711 and 1760, or an average of about 435-2/3 tons per year. The average produce of English West Sumatra computed by the Court of Directors reached only about 420 tons annually from 1734 to 1751, with the output dropping to only about 8000 hundredweights (373-1/3 tons) or less per year in the 1740s. Production had improved to over 600 tons per year by the mid-1750s and in the 1770s ranged between 900 and 1600 tons per year. Nevertheless, the ever increasing running costs of Fort Marlborough swallowed up the Company's pepper profits, and in 1765 the Court estimated the total loss suffered by the Company from its West Sumatran establishment between 1743 and 1766 at no less than £266,429.

Strategic considerations, however, always prevented the Company from abandoning Fort Marlborough. Initially such a base had been needed to prevent the VOC from totally engrossing the importation of pepper into Europe. The profits from such a trade, the English calculated, would enable the Dutch to maintain a navy capable of dominating the seas of both India and Europe. By the mid-eighteenth century, after the eastern trade had become more diversified and the relative importance of earnings from pepper had declined for both the English and Dutch Companies, the burgeoning China trade perpetuated the necessity of a base in Indonesian waters to justify and protect British claims to free navigation in that region. As a consequence, the Directors in London clung doggedly to their unsatisfactory settlement in South Sumatra and attempted repeatedly to make it at least self-supporting; they simultaneously cast about for another port in South-East Asia more suitable for servicing the Company's China shipping and for developing a trading centre where local produce could be stapled to help finance the Company's deficits from tea and silk purchases at Canton. This latter ambition was gradually realised with the settlement of Penang in 1786 and of Singapore in 1819.

In the meantime, an establishment of between twenty and fifty covenanted servants sent from England and several hundred soldiers and African slaves was maintained by the Company at Fort Marlborough and its subordinate out-stations. From the Company's point of view these servants were posted in West Sumatra to expedite the cultivation and collection of pepper at the lowest possible cost for sale in Europe and China on the Company's account. The servants themselves, however, went to Benkulen as much to acquire a personal fortune as to administer Company policy. Their careers were consequently a series of conflicts and compromises of interest between their private goals and public duties, and their activities influenced not only the Company's local objectives but also its international relations in Indonesia. The Fort Marlborough servants' efforts to make money of their own are of interest not only as an element in the social history of eighteenth-century colonial endeavour but also as an explanation both of the sea-change which frequently affected London's directives when implemented on the spot and even of certain shifts in the balance of economic and political power on the West Coast of Sumatra. It is therefore worth investigating the means employed by the Company's servants at Benkulen to gain a 'competency' in the years between 1735 and 1770, their success in doing so, and the ways in which their actions embroiled them both with their superiors in London and Madras, and their neighbours the Dutch and Achehnese.

Department of History, The University of Hull
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