Bibliographic data

Loh, Kah Seng; Lim, Dorothy: European dominance and expansion in Southeast Asia in the late 19th century. All about history, The making of the contemporary world order, 1870s - 1991, Vol. 1. Singapore: Pearson Education Limited, 2013, 19–20.

"How did Southeast Asians respond to European colonisation"

[p. 19]

Southeast Asian responses

In the 19th century, Southeast Asian rulers had no access to information about European international affairs as they had no modern means of travel such as aeroplanes or means of communication such as the telephone. Most rulers rarely left their courts to visit the outside world; some were unable to read or write. As the rulers had no formal contact with the European governments, they were therefore unable to understand that, unlike before, the Europeans were no longer content with just enjoying trading opportunities. Instead, the Europeans wanted to exert political control over local affairs. The Southeast Asian rulers could not fully assess the opportunities or threats that European expansion presented.

Preoccupation with local issues

Many Southeast Asian rulers were too preoccupied with their often violent and bitter local rivalries to understand the new issues presented by the Europeans. Local conflicts gave the Europeans the chance to offer help to stabilise the situation. Local leaders accepted this offer to gain the upper hand over their rivals. In return for the Europeans' help, the local leaders had to give up some political power or provide concessions. This allowed the Europeans to strengthen their political control in the region.

Examples of these can be seen in Malaya, where the rulers, fighting among themselves for power and control, often looked to the British for help. In one instance, a Malay ruler, Raja Abdullah, trying to claim the throne in Perak, asked for British support against his rival, not fully understanding the implications of his actions. a

In Sumatra in Indonesia, too, the ruling class turned to the Dutch for support in the Padri War, offering them sovereignty over Minangkabau in return. b In Vietnam, the court failed to understand that by persecuting the Catholics they were giving the French an excuse to intervene in local affairs. You will read more about these events in the following chapters.


Some Southeast Asians resisted European expansion. To them, the monarchy was a symbol of the traditional and religious authority. They saw colonisation not only as an assault on the monarchy but also on the traditional society. So when their rulers were removed or came under foreign control, they fought to restore the old order. Their resistance was mostly unsuccessful, however, as the Europeans had superior weaponry. This usually resulted in the Europeans gaining more territories.

[p. 20]

Examples of resistance can be seen in Perak where the local chiefs murdered the first British Resident, resulting in the Perak War (1875-1876). The Aceh War (1873-1904) is another example of how the locals resisted Dutch attempts to impose colonial rule. Some Vietnamese saw the French as 'barbarians' who were destroying Confucianism and started various nationalist resistance movements.


Some Southeast Asians, however, saw the presence of Europeans as a way to strengthen their position, and chose to work with them. In most parts of Malaya, Vietnam and Indonesia, the rulers retained their ceremonial positions and accepted European authority. By submitting to European rule, these rulers gained European protection from their rivals. However, they also lost their authority in varying degrees.

Often, the rulers' officials also became employees of the colonial government. They helped implement European policies and strengthen European control. Some of these officials believed they were serving the best interests of the people and did not see themselves as traitors.

Examples of collaboration can be seen in Malaya. Malay sultans accepted British advisors and Malay elites were co-opted into the civil service, while the Chinese merchants relied on the British to maintain stability. There were pockets of resistance in Malaya but generally, the British found acceptance and cooperation among the indigenous people. Some Vietnamese also collaborated with the French because they wanted to replace the traditional monarchy with a modern form of government.


Another response of the Southeast Asians was to adopt and implement European ideas of government and development. This response aimed to show the Europeans that Southeast Asians could be civilised, educated and efficient.

The Southeast Asians most open to adopting this response were usually those who had received a Western education and had been exposed to European ideas. Raden Ajeng Kartini, the daughter of a Javanese official serving in the Dutch colonial government, was one such person. She sought to advance the interests, especially of women in Indonesia, and she established Western-style schools to provide Javanese girls with an education.

[a] Editor’s note: The authors refer here to the Pangkor treaty of 1874, which brought an end to the Larut War. This series of conflicts between local elites and Chinese secret societies had been disrupting the area since 1861. Rajah Abdullah, also known as Sultan Abdullah Muhammand Shah II ibni Almarhum Sultan Ja’afar Safiuddin Mu‘adzam Shah Waliullah, was to take the throne as Sultan as a result of signing the treaty, but in doing so he allowed his rights a ruler to be severely curtailed by the British, to the extent that he was obliged to consult a ‘British Resident’ on all political matters.

[b] Editor’s note: The Padri War took place in West Sumatra from 1803 and 1837 and was a conflict between Muslim clerics known as Padri , who wanted to introduce Sharia law to the Minangkabau region, and the Adat, the local ruling elite. The term adat refers to the indigenous customs and laws.

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