Sir Harry St George Ord - First colonial governor of the Straits Settlements

Professor Emeritus Peter J. Drake, University of New England and Australian Catholic University

In 1867, the Straits Settlements—Penang, Singapore and Malacca—were separated from the British India Office’s administration and given the status of a Crown Colony under the Colonial Office in London.

Sir Harry Ord
Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board
The first colonial Governor of the Straits Settlements, Colonel Harry St George Ord, arrived in Singapore on 16 March 1867. On assuming office Ord became a Knight in the Order of the Bath. Sir Harry came from the governorship of Bermuda with high hopes and zeal. The Colonial Office had instructed Ord to make the colony self-supporting, improve the administration, strengthen law and order, and look to the welfare of the resident Chinese, who constituted the largest population group.

The entrenched old guard in the Straits Settlements was a comfortable oligarchy of merchants, officials and professional men. Their lax views and customs were far from the formalities and practices that Ord had experienced in other crown colonies. Governor Ord was considered to be tyrannical, overbearing, quarrelsome and tactless, but despite much resentment, he put an end to the carelessness, corruption, nepotism and abuses of patronage that had prevailed.

Relations between Governor Ord and the mercantile class worsened when he suggested that budgetary concerns might necessitate the imposition of direct taxation, and perhaps even import duties. Ord was concerned that nearly all government revenue came from impositions on ‘the pleasures and vices’ of the generally poor Asian population, whereas the Europeans paid trivial amounts in taxation, despite their vast incomes. Ord’s suggestion enraged the merchants, and in London, the Straits Settlements Association—formed in 1868 and composed largely of retired Straits merchants—protested to the Colonial Office. The Secretary of State in the Colonial Office wrote to Ord saying: ‘I observe that in that speech you refer to the possible imposition of Import Duties. I regret that you should have used any language which was calculated to raise the impression that so vital a change would be authorised’ (as cited in Drake, 2018, p. 41).

The Straits Settlements Association was unrelenting in its criticism of Governor Ord, even to the point of organizing public protest meetings in Singapore. His opponents made repeated accusations of administrative waste and personal extravagance. For example, the foundation stone of Government House (since 1959 the Istana of Singapore), located on a 40-hectare site in Mount Sophia, was laid by Lady Ord in 1867, and completed in 1869 at a cost of $185,000 (Spanish Dollars), which was an enormous sum for such a building at this time (Pugalenthi, 1999).

Members of the association were further outraged when Ord, in his final months at his post, attempted to reform judicial procedures, seeking to abolish the Grand Jury, reconstitute the Supreme Court, enlarge the judiciary, create a court of appeal, and improve the welfare of the resident Chinese by means of the ‘Chinese Coolies Immigration Bill’. The European non-official councillors resigned from the Legislative Council, but the Criminal Procedure Bill was passed in their absence and approved by the Colonial Office. Ord dutifully sent the Colonial Office a report of the protest meeting and the resignations of these councillors. The Secretary of State, now inclined to Ord’s view of things, rejected a further plea from the merchants that the non-officials be reinstated to the Council.

After six years of administrative reforms (which were overdue), material progress and general prosperity under his rule, Sir Harry Ord departed from his post at the end of 1873. The mercantile community gave him no credit. In their view, Ord did not prevent the riots, disorders, anarchy and bloodshed, which curbed the development of Straits trade. At that time, ‘… the western states of the Peninsula, from Perak to the borders of Johor, were given to native warfare. At the same time, the Straits of Malacca was the scene of daily piracies, and all trade by means of native craft was paralysed’ (Swettenham, 1906, p. 132). Ord was, however, able to report evidence of substantial material progress in the Straits during his term of office. Singapore’s trade had grown by over 50 per cent during his rule, the government accounts were in balance, and Ord left the colony with its credit balance at over 240,000 pounds.

Government House which became the Istana of Singapore in 1959
The National Archives of Singapore

Forward policy versus non-intervention

Governor Ord also deserves recognition and credit for his efforts to advance Britain’s movement into the peninsula’s Malay states, cultivating the ground for the establishment of British authority in the Malay states. By comparison with his predecessors, the India Office governors, Ord ‘… made efforts to exert influence in the western states by sending a senior member of the Straits government to make enquiries and by personal visits of his own’ (Swettenham, 1942, p. 27). Ord stated that outside Johore there was ‘neither order, peace, nor regular government’ and concluded that ‘it would be greatly to the advantage of the settlements if our influence could be thus extended over the peninsula, and I shall not fail to avail myself of any opening that may present itself for doing so’ (Archive document CO/273/18, 1868).

Ord kept the Colonial Office informed about disturbances in the Malay states—including the Malay chiefs’ dispute over Sungai Ujong, the Klang war in Selangor and the Larut Wars in Perak—and of several requests for intervention from European and Chinese merchants. However, he told the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, ‘If persons knowing the risks they run owing to the disturbed state of these countries, choose to hazard their lives and properties for the sake of the large profits that accompany successful trading they must not expect the British Government to be answerable if their speculation proves unsuccessful’ (cited in Drake, 2018, p. 45). The Secretary of State approved Ord’s answer to the Chamber of Commerce.

Despite his pleas for a ‘forward’ policy, Ord was tied to the Colonial Office’s ‘non-intervention’ policy. There is, however, some archival evidence that by 1872, the Colonial Office’s refusal to sanction a more active policy in the Malay states was to some extent an expression of its lack of confidence in the Governor (Khoo, 1966).

From the Malay side, Raja Abdullah of Perak appealed to Ord for a British official to teach him how to rule his country. This request was reported by Ord to his successor, Sir Andrew Clarke, as soon as Clarke assumed duty. Clarke was of the ‘act first and explain later’ school. He convened a meeting with the various Malay state leaders at Pangkor island, where Raja Abdullah was declared Sultan of Perak, supported by a British resident. ‘The Chinese conflicts were ended by negotiations supervised by the British and a British Commission was sent to Larut to supervise mining boundaries’ (Sadka, 1954, p.11). Eventually, revenue collection and the courts of justice were placed in the hands of British officers.

At Pangkor, Clarke obtained the ‘key of the door’ for British intervention in the Malay states. Frank Swettenham, a junior officer, was the British ‘man on the ground’ at Pangkor, and reported the proceedings in detail. Despite a telling critique of Clarke by Lieutenant Governor Archibald Anson, Ord in retirement in London gave a generous opinion of Clarke’s quick moves to implement the spirit of the Pangkor agreement. However, in 1868, Ord criticised Clarke for his disparaging view of Malays. Ord respected the Malay hierarchy and liked the people. He made a close friend of Abu Bakar, the Sultan of Johore.

Ord’s legacy

Although Ord was disliked by the commercial oligarchy, he was respected by his officials. Let his once junior officer, the later distinguished governor Sir Frank Swettenham, have the last word on the first colonial governor: ‘Sir Harry Ord was a big and masterful Governor, of great ability and strong character. He was not at all popular; the Press found fault with him on almost every issue … But Sir Harry, who came to Singapore … to find his charge with a budget that would not balance, left the Colony in 1873 with a respectable sum to its credit’ (Swettenham, 1942, pp. 16-17).

Almost 135 years later, Singapore displays little recognition or memorial to Ord’s governorship. There is merely the Ord Bridge over the Singapore river, which bears no commendation of its namesake and is the most modest of the many quays and spans along the Singapore river bearing the names of past governors, and there is a painting of his portrait at the National Museum of Singapore.

The Ord bridge, Singapore
The National Archives of Singapore
Ord’s health was impaired by tropical illnesses and he remained in England unemployed until November 1877 when he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Western Australia, and in January 1878, became Governor of that state. Sir Harry left that colony in 1880 and retired to Fordham House, a place near Bury St Edmunds, in the United Kingdom. In 1881, he was appointed a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, and died of heart disease in 1885. The Ord River in the Kimberley is named after him, as are streets in Perth and Fremantle.

Further reading: 
Archive Document CO/273/18, Ord to Buckingham, 8. iv. 1868. The National Archives, UK.
Boyce, P. 1974. ‘Ord, Sir Harry St George, 1819–1885’. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 5, Melbourne University Press.
Cowan, C. D. 1961. Nineteenth Century Malaya: The Origins of British Political Control. Oxford University Press: London.
Drake, P. J. 2018. Merchants, Bankers, Governors: British Enterprise in Singapore and Malaya 1786-1920. World Scientific Publishing: Singapore.
Khoo, K. K. 1966. ‘The Origin of British Administration in Malaya’. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 39. No. 1 (209), pp. 52-91.
Pugalenthi Sr. 1999. Singapore Landmarks: Monuments, Memorials, Statues and Historic Sites. Singapore: VJ Times International.
Sadka, E (ed.). 1954. ‘The Journal of Sir Hugh Low, Perak, 1877’. Journal of the Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XXVII, Part 4, Nov. 1954: p. 11.
Swettenham, F. 1906. British Malaya: An Account of the Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya. London: John Lane.
_____ 1942. Footprints in Malaya. London: Hutchinson.


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University of Malaya,
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