Frank Swettenham - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content

Frank Swettenham

Frank Swettenham by John Singer Sargent , 1904
His work in the Straits Settlments
The British Empire provided opportunities for thousands of men and women to make something of their lives from modest beginnings. The civil services around the empire were full of those who had risen from the lower middle classes with an education in a small boarding school to get positions which with hard work and a strong constitution enabled them to gain promotions to the highest positions. Such a man was Frank Swettenham who saw little of his father until his mother died and was not able to go to university because the family had insufficient money. He did though manage to get a scholarship in the Straits Settlements. He developed a love for the region and its people, and he rose from being an interpreter to becoming a Governor of the Straits Settlements, isolated regions of what is now Malaysia but then run by the East India Company. Swettenham was largely responsible for transforming them from four states that were swampy, mosquito infested and inhabited by a warlike people and pirates to an enlightened, progressive and civilised administration with roads, railways, hospitals and schools.
The Straits Settlements
Frank, having won a scholarship to the civil service in Singapore, set about familiarising himself with the Malay language and the local countryside. After fifteen months he had qualified as a court interpreter and then accompanied the Governor of Singapore on his visits to Malaya which at the time consisted of a peninsula of four small states run by Sultans where there existed two small British trading outposts at Malacca and Penang.
In 1874 Abdullah, Rajah of Perak asked for British assistance to teach him how to run his country, and Frank Swettenham was chosen to be the interpreter at the meeting which drew up a constitution which established a British Resident to advise Abdullah and a Treaty which amongst other things gave the British the right to determine all matters of finance, and outlawed slavery and kidnapping. Swettenham was among the party that travelled around the province of Perak seeking to disarm Malays and Chinese and to dismantle stockades where they had been built.

It was not long before Frank was appointed Resident to the Sultan of Selangor – he was just 24 and the only white man in the province. He advised the Sultan on all matters pertaining to the running of his province and when the British Resident in Perak was murdered 18 months later Frank was used by the Royal navy as a scout for their operation to find and hang the perpetrators. Frank’s travels led him to think the Malay Peninsula was a rich source of minerals and raw materials when he was appointed in 1882 as Resident to the Sultan of Selangor he began to work on the realisation of his dream - to transform the area. In Selangor he used his influence to re-plan Kuala Lumpur building new government buildings and the Royal Selangor Club with pavilions for cricket and lawn tennis. He was also to plan Malaya’s first railway line.
After a few years in Selangor, Frank was sent to Perak to replace the Resident, and he set about transforming the house of the Resident at Kuala Kangur introducing wonderful gardens and furniture. He also introduced rubber trees – the beginning of a new industry which in due course became Malaya’s main industry.


British officers in Perak with Swettenham on the far right
After a two year leave of absence in England Frank returned to Kuala Lumpur in Selangor where he continued his work of transforming the city with gardens and new public buildings. In 1889 Frank became Resident of Perak once more where he conceived a plan to bring out British settlers and increase investment in the area and also to create a more stable government for the area. Instead of four Sultanates that fought each other periodically Frank wanted to create a federation of the states with a common administration dominated by the British. Frank discussed the idea when he was next back in London in 1892 and having got the approval of the Colonial Office when back in Perak floated the idea.
British rubber planters in Malaya c1900
The Colonial Office gave Frank the job of gaining the assent of the Sultans which given his good relations with the various rules and the way he had transformed the area he was able to manage. Frank was appointed as the first Resident General of the Straits Settlements and set about building a modern bureaucracy. Although the Sultans were nominally still sovereigns the various state councils that Frank Swettenham established were just rubber stamping exercises. Although the Sultans sat on the Councils of State that ran the provinces, the laws were drafted in English and explained by Frank in Malay to the State Councils. Frank Swettenham was though largely responsible for the transformation of the area in to a major rubber producing area with a modern bureaucracy and cities that compared with any in the British Empire.
Back to content