Background figures in a British portrait: the Johor royal family in nineteenth-century Singapore

Michael Barr

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1 Citation (Scopus)


Between 1819 and 1824, British authorities claimed Singapore as a British colony through a series of treaties negotiated with two local Malay aristocrats. The family line of one of these aristocrats lost its wealth, property and power over the following decades, but the other stayed active in Singapore’s affairs and became so wealthy and important that it was later recognised by Britain as a new royal family, albeit of the neighbouring state of Johor rather than of Singapore. Members of this family have always featured in histories of Johor and Malaysia, but Singapore’s national histories have dismissed them as supporting cast, living off British largesse. Yet contrary to Singapore’s national mythology, three generations of the Johor royal family exercised full and proactive agency in their dealings with the British as the colonisers of Singapore, and their timely initiatives provided some of the key ingredients that made the Singapore colonial enterprise a success. This article offers a critique of Singapore’s historiography as found in both scholarly histories and in school history textbooks, focusing on the peculiar absence of the Johor royal family from the standard narrative. In the process, it offers a revised version of the story of Singapore’s economic development in the nineteenth century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)283-301
Number of pages19
JournalHistory Australia: Journal of The Australian Historical Association
Issue number2
Early online date27 May 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 May 2021


  • Singaporean history
  • Historiography
  • Johor Sultanate
  • Malays
  • opium farms
  • Sir Stamford Raffles
  • C.M. Turnbull
  • royal families
  • Singapore national history
  • development of Johor
  • historiography
  • Singapore 1819
  • history textbooks


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