• Southeast Asia, vast region of Asia situated east of the Indian subcontinent and south of China.
    • It consists of two dissimilar portions: a continental projection (commonly called mainland Southeast Asia) and a string of archipelagoes to the south and east of the mainland (insular Southeast Asia).
  • Over the course of the nineteenth century, Southeast Asia is colonized by Britain, France, and Holland.
  • In 1799, the Dutch government takes over the Dutch East India Company’s rule of parts of the Indonesian archipelago. Over the next hundred years, it extends control throughout the entire archipelago, including Sumatra and Bali. The modern boundaries of Indonesia are established at this time.
  • Starting in 1824, Britain fights for control of Burma, finally incorporating it into its Indian empire in 1886. It gradually takes over peninsular Malaya as well, and by 1874 effectively rules the area that will become modern-day Malaysia. By strengthening central authority over local chiefs and opening trade to Europe, Thailand remains free under a stable and strong monarchy. But France colonizes Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to proclaim the French Indochina Union in 1887.
  • Colonization has an enormous impact on the populations and economies of the region. The British favor Indian and Chinese immigrants for skilled positions in Malaysia, and dismiss the general Malaysian population as peasantry. Education policies deepen ethnic divides.
  • In Cambodia, the French favor the Vietnamese over the local population, while the British encourage widespread immigration of Indians and Chinese into Burma, a policy that leads to political division felt into contemporary times. The Burmese economy, long based on subsistence farming, shifts drastically to a large-scale export economy. A policy called Cultuurstelsel, applied in Indonesia, forces farmers to grow export crops. Though successful in some ways, the policy causes famine and impoverishment. The desire to sell European goods in colonial markets erodes traditional crafts, such as the production of batik and ikat textiles in Indonesia. Regular wars waged to gain control further damage the region.
Southeast Asia

European colonisation of Southeast Asia

  • The first phase of European colonisation of Southeast Asia took place throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Where new European powers competing to gain monopoly over the spice trade as this trade was very valuable to the Europeans due to high demand for various spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. This demand led to the arrival of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and later French and British marine spice traders.
  • Fiercely competitive, the Europeans soon sought to eliminate each other by forcibly taking control of the production centres, trade hubs and vital strategic locations, beginning with the Portuguese acquisition of Malacca in 1511.
  • Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, conquests focused on ports along the maritime routes, that provided a secure passage of maritime trade. It also allowed foreign rulers to levy taxes and control prices of the highly desired Southeast Asian commodities.
  • By the 19th century, all of Southeast Asia had been forced into the various spheres of influence of European global players except Siam, which had served as a convenient buffer state and sandwiched between British Burma and French Indochina. The kings of Siam had to contend with repeated humiliations, accept unequal treaties among massive French and British political interference and territorial losses after the Franco-Siamese War in 1893 and the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.
  • The second phase of European colonisation of Southeast Asia is related to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of powerful nation states in Europe. As the primary motivation for the first phase was the mere accumulation of wealth, the reasons for and degree of European interference during the second phase are dictated by geostrategic rivalries, the need to defend and grow spheres of interest, competition for commercial outlets, long term control of resources and the Southeast Asian economies becoming more closely tied to European industrial and financial affairs by the late 19th century

Early phase

  • Advances in sciences, cartography, shipbuilding and navigation during the 15th to 17th centuries in Europe and tightening Turkish control and eventual shut down of the Eastern Mediterranean gateways into Asia first prompted Portuguese, and later Spanish and Dutch sea voyagers to ship around Africa in search of new trading routes and business opportunities.
  • Niccolò de’ Conti arrived in Southeast Asia as the earliest documented European in the early 15th century. By 1498 Vasco da Gama, who had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, established the first direct sea route from Europe to India.
  • Central among the various plannings was to establish direct and permanent trade of the highly priced spices, that were native to Southeast Asia, included pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon. Competition among the various nations was fierce and violence commonplace in order to secure exclusive access to the centers of production.
  • Eventually, the Dutch and the Spanish wrestled control of it from the Portuguese in the 17th century. In the 18th century, the British, who became increasingly engaged in Southeast Asia over their interests in India, gained control of it from the Dutch.
  • Portugal was the first European power to establish a bridgehead in maritime Southeast Asia with the conquest of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511.
  • The Netherlands and Spain followed and soon superseded Portugal as the main European powers in the region. In 1599, Spain began to colonise the Philippines. In 1619, acting through the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch took the city of Sunda Kelapa, renamed it Batavia (now Jakarta) as a base for trading and expansion into the other parts of Java and the surrounding territory. In 1641, the Dutch took Malacca from the Portuguese.
  • Economic opportunities attracted Overseas Chinese to the region in great numbers. In 1775, the Lanfang Republic, possibly the first republic in the region, was established in West Kalimantan, present-day Indonesia, as a tributary state of the Qing Empire; the republic lasted until 1884, when it fell under Dutch occupation as Qing influence waned.

Industrialised phase

  • Initially, the British East India Company led by Josiah Child, had little interest in or impact on the region, and were effectively expelled following the Siam–England war (1687). Britain, in the guise of the British East India Company, turned their attention to the Bay of Bengal following the Peace with France and Spain (1783).
  • During the conflicts, Britain had struggled for naval superiority with the French, and the need of good harbours became evident. Penang Island had been brought to the attention of the Government of India by Francis Light. In 1786, the settlement of George Town was founded at the northeastern tip of Penang Island by Captain Francis Light, under the administration of Sir John Macpherson; this marked the beginning of British expansion into the Malay Peninsula.
  • By the latter half of the 18th century, Europe experienced the full effects of the Industrial Revolution, as rapid advancements in science, industry and technology, had created a tremendous gap in relative power between the Europeans and the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia. Extensive use of machines to manufacture goods would increase European demand for raw materials on the one hand and lead to the accumulation of surplus goods on the other. Mutual economic dependence had become real by the 19th century, as Southeast Asia was now an integral provider of material and resources for the European economies. To keep pace with surplus output, European manufacturers pushed the development of markets in new territories, such as Southeast Asia, which led to the next phase of establishing imperial rule. Transformation of political institutions in the colonies aimed at the full consolidation of the monopoly markets by their European planners.
  • However, industrialisation took place against increasing competition among the European powers. This was encouraged by changes in the continental balance of power. The Napoleonic Wars unseated French power. The commercial and naval powers of Britain, which were unrivalled for a time, started to erode later on. Competition among European powers led to the practice of carving up the world into spheres of influence. There was also the need to fill ‘vacuums’ of territories that would otherwise fall under the influence of another competing European power.
  • The British temporarily possessed Dutch territories during the Napoleonic Wars; and Spanish areas in the Seven Years’ War. In 1819, Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a key trading post for Britain in their rivalry with the Dutch. However, their rivalry cooled in 1824 when an Anglo-Dutch treaty demarcated their respective interests in Southeast Asia. British rule in Burma began with the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826).
  • The phenomenon denoted New Imperialism, saw the conquest of nearly all Southeast Asian territories by the colonial powers. The Dutch East India Company and British East India Company were dissolved by their respective governments, who took over direct administration of the colonies. Only Siam managed to avoid direct foreign rule, although was compelled to political reforms and make generous concessions in order to appease the Western powers.
  • The Monthon reforms of the late 19th century continuing up till around 1910, imposed a Westernised form of government on the country’s partially independent cities called Mueang, such that the country could be said to have successfully colonised itself. Western powers did, however, continue to interfere in both internal and external affairs.
  • By 1913, the British crown had occupied Burma, Malaya and the northern Borneo territories, the French controlled Indochina, the Dutch ruled the Netherlands East Indies while Portugal managed to hold on to Portuguese Timor.
  • In the Philippines, the 1872 Cavite Mutiny was a precursor to the Philippine Revolution (1896–1898). When the Spanish–American War began in Cuba in 1898, Filipino revolutionaries declared Philippine independence and established the First Philippine Republic the following year. In the Treaty of Paris of 1898 that ended the war with Spain, the United States gained the Philippines and other territories. No country recognised the self-proclaimed republic. Washington sent in the military to control the islands, in the Philippine–American War, which ended when the rebel leadership was captured.
    • Conflicts followed with the self-proclaimed Republic of Zamboanga, the Republic of Negros and the Republic of Katagalugan, all of which were also defeated.
  • During the mid-19th century, the Europeans had certain goals which they regarded as important in the humanitarian sense. One of these goals was expressed in the slogan, ‘The White Man’s Burden’, which was the mission to ‘civilise’ (uplift, advance) the ‘less fortunate’ and ‘less gifted’ people of Southeast Asia. Towards this end, they implemented policies providing educational and healthcare services. Christian missionaries often took leadership roles in education and medical care, and in opposing the slave trade.
  • Sometimes, the acquisition of colonies was an attempt to revive declining prestige rather than a show of power. France was preoccupied with expanding her colonial empire to recover from her humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. It expanded into Indochina in response to its need for international prestige to improve the government’s image at home, and to keep abreast of other important European powers in terms of colonial acquisitions.

Role of the Europeans

  • In the early phase, European control in Southeast Asia was largely confined to the establishment of trading posts. These trading posts were used to store the oriental products obtained from the local traders before they were exported to the European markets.
  • Such trading posts had to be located along major shipping routes and their establishments had to be approved by the local ruler so that peace would prevail for trade to take place. Malacca, Penang, Batavia and Singapore were all early trading posts.
  • The role of the Europeans changed, however, in the industrialised phase as their control expanded beyond their trading posts. As the trading posts grew due to an increase in the volume of trade, demand for food supplies and timber (to build and repair ships) also increased. To ensure a reliable supply of food and timber, the Europeans were forced to deal with the local communities nearby. These marked the beginnings of territorial control.
    • A good example is the case of Batavia. There, the Dutch extended control over parts of western Java and later to central Java and the east where rice was grown and timber found.
  • To ensure that trade flourished, the Europeans had to maintain political stability. Sometimes, they interfered with the internal affairs of the natives to maintain peace. The Europeans also tried to impose their culture on their colonies.


  • European interference has affected Southeast Asians in all aspects of life. Colonial economic exploitation, the mass theft of regional resources, and racial and ethnic discrimination all occurred alongside Europe’s rapid scientific and technological progress, as well as its import of new political and education systems into the region.
  • Perceptions of the political reality differed widely among the Southeast Asian countries. The early 20th century popular communist movement leaders of Vietnam were notably optimistic and “predicted a blessed future in which automobiles and trains would no longer be uniquely Western”, while Dutch author J.H. Boeke observed, that “societies like Indonesia were incurably dual”.
  • Increased labour demand resulted in mass immigration, especially from British India and China, which brought about massive demographic change. The study of institutions for a modern democratic nation state with a state bureaucracy, courts of law, print media and modern education, sowed the seeds of the fledgling nationalist and independence movements among the colonial subjects. During the inter-war years, these nationalist movements grew and often clashed with the colonial authorities when they demanded self-determination.
  • The expansion of European dominance through colonialism was considered extraordinary as it affected the entirety of Southeast Asia significantly. Later on, more common features would emerge, such as the rise of nationalist movements, the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, and later the Cold War that engulfed many parts of the region. Taken altogether, it can be said that a common core of historical experiences existed, and that this core defined the region, thus justifying the use of the term ‘Southeast Asia’ to describe the region as a single entity.
  • Southeast Asia’s social structure has changed as a result of colonialism, which also introduced contemporary western concepts. Some of these concepts were influenced by western culture, including human rights, religion, and education.
  • The region’s population has increased as a result of the presence of European powers. First of all, the region’s economic activity throughout the colonial period was expanding quickly. Populations were then on the rise in order to meet demands for things like labor forces to create raw materials and industrial plants.
  • In the meantime, some of the region’s nations underwent transformation as a result of immigration. For instance, due of the poor conditions in China and the economic prospects in Malaysia, Chinese immigrants migrated to the peninsula. The British also used Indian workers. Then, Malaysia became a multicultural state as a result of the massive immigration of Chinese and Indian people into the Malay Peninsula.

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Detlef Klein

Hello there,
until now I only knew about colonialism in Africa. Actually I live at the Sunshine International Residence in Thailand. Recently I’ve got there newsletter promoting the Residents with this slogan: “Come to live a colonial life in South East Asia” What a shame, I thought. In consequence I wanted to know about colonialism in this region. So I found your website giving great information to me. Of course settler colonialism is the worst kind of ruling other countries.
Thank you.
Kind regards
Detlef Klein