The British East India Company in Southeast Asia, 1600–1800

I have a new publication out today!

“The British East India Company in Southeast Asia”, in the new Oxford Handbook of Southeast Asian Englishes, ed. by Andrew Moody (OUP site; Google Books).

In brief, my article has two parts. First, it is a country-by-country account of the places in Southeast Asia that the East India Company (EIC) traded to and set up trading posts in, 1600–1800, with a description of the nature and duration of the contact. Second, building on the first part on the one hand, and research on language contact situations and the development of English varieties on the other, it makes the case that during the EIC’s activities in Southeast Asia, there probably developed contact varieties of English – even if we don’t know of any.

If you would like a pdf of my article, drop me an email at firstname @

This article means quite a lot to me, so I wanted to write a blog post reflecting on the topic and contents of my piece, as well as the writing process (really not a common genre, I know).

Only when DHL brought my copy of the book last week, did I notice, belatedly, that I had missed in the proofs that “1600–1800” had been dropped from the end of the title of my article. This is annoying, since in my article I’m very careful not to stray into the 19th century (much). Not because it’s not relevant: on the contrary, the EIC are a major part of the foundation stories of Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance. Rather, my aim in writing this article was to bring to light how English-speakers were active in Southeast Asia for two full centuries before the 19th century, which is generally where histories of World Englishes in Asia and Oceania begin.

In the 19th century, the British Empire reached its greatest extent, and was at its strongest; and it is true that the direct foundations of varieties of English around the world, and of the use of English as a world language, were laid in the 19th century. By then, the EIC had turned into a two-headed beast. One half had become what was soon to turn into the Raj: a vast bureaucratic organization overseeing and controlling India, the main purpose of which was to extract rent and resources from the subcontinent. The other half was still a commercial enterprise, now concentrating on China and the tea trade. But the EIC lost its trading monopolies one by one: India in 1813, China in 1833. In 1858, the British Crown took over control of India from the EIC; in 1874, the Company was dissolved.

In other words, during the 19th century, the EIC was a major player in South and Southeast Asia. Part of it was absorbed into the British Empire, and the monopolist corporation became obsolete. It is beyond question that the EIC forms an important part of the history of all varieties of English spoken across the region. It is also quite clear that it’s in the 19th century that solid foundations of these varieties of English were cast – even in India.

However, starting in the 19th century skips over two full centuries of contact in Southeast Asia between English and Southeast Asian languages. Starting in the 19th century frames the history of World Englishes as one legacy of Imperialism – which isn’t exactly wrong, but when we place English into the broader historical linguistic ecology of the wider area, a different and more nuanced picture emerges.

I have previously worked on the language of early EIC traders in Japan (and to a lesser extent, in Southeast Asia) in the early 1600s. In my work I showed that the multilingual environments the EIC merchants found themselves in are reflected in the letters they wrote. The letters of the EIC merchants in Japan contain words borrowed from Japanese, naturally, but also from Malay, and especially from Portuguese and Spanish. The presence of Malay is explained by it having been a supra-regional lingua franca; similarly Portuguese was a lingua franca used across the Asian seaboard. Further languages found in the EIC letters (as borrowed words) include Dutch, Persian, Arabic and Chinese.

Which goes to say, early EIC merchants in Southeast and East Asia lived and worked in multilingual environments – which is more or less obvious anyway – but, importantly, you can tell this from the records they left. These English-speakers were influenced by all the other languages they came into contact with, and these influences left traces. This is no wonder, for many of the early EIC merchants had to survive in small groups in foreign communities for extended periods of time: ships didn’t necessarily visit every year, thanks to vagaries of weather and international relations. But when a ship finally arrived, the tables were dramatically turned: all of a sudden there were dozens or even hundreds of English-speakers present, often for months at a time.

The situation, then, was somewhat analogous to tourist destinations today – say, Greek islands. Year-round, you have a very small local community of migrant Englishmen, and then every summer, hordes more descend upon the place from England for a short period of time. This means that there is, in fact, two kinds of language contact going on at the same time: i) constant close contact between a small group of temporary residents and the larger local community, and ii) seasonal contact between a massive group of short-term visitors and the local community.

What’s missing from this account so far is, of course, everyone else. Just about every place where the EIC went also attracted other foreign traders, from near and far (just as Germans and Scandinavians also like the Aegean Islands). The resulting polyphony of voices goes some way to explain the aforesaid abundant use of borrowings from various languages, and especially from lingua francas. This must have been universal, and we should probably think of the linguistic environment having at one level an amorphous multilingual jargon for inter-cultural and -lingual communication, lexified from all of the languages spoken by those who used it; and that these discrete languages were in turn influenced by this jargon and borrowed heavily from it, just as English did.

But if we just think about the role of English in 17th-century Southeast Asia, the important things to consider are the two kinds of language contact I listed above, and then the all-important role of the local inhabitants. They would have picked up some English too – perhaps just a few words, but very likely more extensive if often passive understanding of common words and phrases. Since Portuguese was used as the ‘official’ language of communication, there was ostensibly no reason for people to learn English (everyone used interpreters). However, I think it’s fair to assume that on top of locally hired employees and servants, for instance local vendors (and especially local kids) would learn some rudimentary English to sell their wares – a large ship full of potential customers does not go unnoticed. And the EIC merchants also formed intimate relationships with locals, often producing children. This means that even when trading posts were closed and the EIC withdrew, if English-speakers returned not too many years later, there would still have been some knowledge of English among the locals.

Of course this argument builds on some suppositions, but the basic building blocks of my claim have been verified by various studies of language contact situations. What is missing is a systematic study of the EIC archive – and other archives – to find evidence to prove, or disprove, my theory. Yet I find it impossible to believe that, for instance, no local variety of English developed during the EIC’s presence in Bengkulu on Sumatra: after all, they were there for 140 years, 1685–1825!

Finally, a few words about the writing process.

I was asked to contribute to this volume by the editor, Andrew Moody, several years ago. At that point, I was burnt out after having defended my PhD, and I was also rather tired of working on the East India Company (EIC). But I jumped at the chance of writing about a topic that was mostly unknown and unacknowledged in histories of World Englishes.

The writing process was incredibly painful and slow, but ultimately cathartic. Very ultimately, for I delivered my first draft I think a full year late (to the day, if memory serves). The last couple years of doing my PhD had somehow eroded my ability to write, but more so to read and process academic texts. I loved the topic of this article, so it was beyond frustrating to be unable to get myself to work on it. So I remember vividly what I felt on finally sending off my draft: relief, victory, vindication, joy, and fulfilment. Like, I can do this, mofos!

It was like something had been unblocked; now I had concrete proof that I can still do this.

…It turned out that in fact I still couldn’t, as over the next year or two I had to withdraw from three or four different articles I’d initially promised to write. But since then, I’ve been able to deliver some more texts, so I reckon I’m over the worst of it.

I am a bit sad at having delivered this article late, for I still see room for improvement in it, and of course there wasn’t the time to do a thorough revision as I was well behind schedule. I don’t think the piece has any particularly weak points as such, I do feel it can stand on its own. I certainly stand behind what I wrote.

I think, however, that a very fair question to ask is, was I the right person to write this chapter?

This article is a history of the English East India Company’s movements and activities in Southeast Asia, but the EIC are just a small part of the history of Southeast Asia. I feel that the history of Southeast Asia isn’t mine to tell, and for that reason I really should have found a co-writer who could have brought that viewpoint into the piece. I’ll make sure to do that if I return to this topic again.

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