Civilizing pirates: Nineteenth century British ideas about piracy, race and civilization in the Malay Archipelago

  • Stefan Eklöf Amirell Institutionen för kulturvetenskaper, Linnéuniversitetet


This article investigates how British officials and observers of the Malay Archipelago in the nineteenth century explained the prevalence of piracy in the region, particularly in terms of race and civilization. The writings by, among others, Thomas Stamford Raffles, John Crawfurd, James Brooke and Peter Benson Maxwell on contemporary Malay piracy are analysed. Whereas there was broad agreement among these observers that the alleged lack of civilization on the part of the Malays was a major reason for the prevalence of piracy in the region, there was considerable disagreement about the Malays’ capacity for civilizational progress and improvement. The degree to which the Malays were deemed capable of civilization in turn influenced the policies and measures implemented by the British to suppress piracy, ranging from the promotion of free trade to the wholesale extermination of entire villages and communities of suspected pirates. Criticism from humanitarians and liberals in London against the brutality of the latter tactics, however, led to a more restrained British deployment of violence in the Malay Archipelago from the middle of the nineteenth century.


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