1872: The Fortune of War Tragedy: A Christmas Celebration in Tanjong Pagar Turns Violent
Through news reports run in Singapore Daily Times, Lee Kong Chian Research Fellow Erik Holmberg pieces together the events leading up to the violence and bloodshed in a tavern during a 1872 Christmas celebration.
“A very serious affray occurred last night at a tavern called the ‘Fortune of War,’ on the corner of Tanjong Pagar and New Harbour roads, between some men of the 80th Regiment from the steamer Scotland, and some sailors belonging to that vessel.… a patrol of soldiers, with sidearms, was sent out from the ship to look for stragglers, but the attractions of the tavern, and the fact of it being Christmas, proved too great for them, and the patrol remained there, drinking with the sailors and others, until a late hour, when, as usual when sailors and soldiers meet at a drinking bout, the entertainment wound up with a fight. The soldiers used their bayonets, and the sailors their knives and anything else they could get hold of. One of the sailors was killed, we believe with a bayonet wound in the abdomen, and there were several wounded on both sides. …”
-Singapore Daily Times,
26 December 1872
While exploring the history of public celebrations in colonial Singapore, I happened to find an account of a Christmas celebration in 1872 which sadly degenerated into a tragic and violent incident. By piecing together the news reports that appeared over several months in the pages of the Singapore Daily Times, it is possible to reconstruct an account of violence and bloodshed in a tavern and its judicial aftermath, as well as certain aspects of the social and criminal context within which this story played out.
It is a story which reads like something out of the lore of the Wild West of the American frontier, rather than what one might expect to find in the history of Singapore, which is today a city-state that is internationally renowned for its orderliness and safety. This forgotten tragedy in 1872 provides insights into a little-known aspect of the social history of colonial Singapore, namely: the lifestyle and recreational activities of European soldiers and sailors, their presence on this island, the nature of their criminal activities, and the responses of the colonial authorities and the local press. These insights may help to provide a more balanced view of the society of colonial Singapore, and help to clear up some possible misconceptions about this society that may exist in the present day.
Today, when we think of Europeans in the colonial Settlement of Singapore, we may imagine wealthy people who lived in mansions, where they were attended by servants. However, not all Europeans in the Settlement were wealthy and privileged; in fact, it is practically certain that most of them were working-class soldiers and sailors, whose natural habitats included taverns and the lessreputable streets and alleys of Singapore, rather than sumptuous mansions in fashionable suburbs.
Likewise, when we think of rioting or other violence in colonial Singapore, we may think of gangs of Chinese samsengs (gangsters) who belonged to secret societies, fighting in the streets.2 However, Chinese secret society members weren’t the only offenders who committed acts of violence here. Not all the Europeans here were respectable law-abiding inhabitants of the Settlement, and violent crimes committed by Europeans were not unknown. Indeed, the number and variety of crimes committed by Europeans in Singapore in late 1872 and early 1873 is sufficient to suggest that European criminality was a significant component of the overall criminality in this Settlement and, hence, a feature of the local social history of crime which must not be overlooked in the study of Singapore’s social past.
The respectable side of the Western presence in the Settlement has been conspicuously commemorated in the statue of Raffles, in the names of Raffles Place and Raffles Hotel,3 in all the other streets and places which were named after prominent Westerners, and in the mansions which were the homes of wealthy Europeans, some of which still stand today. However, the involvement of some Westerners on the disreputable side of life in colonial Singapore was, quite naturally, never commemorated with monuments, for obvious reasons.4 There was evidently a belief among the British elites in the colonial era that the presence of poor or unemployed Europeans in Singapore and Malaya was an embarrassment which posed a threat to European prestige. Moreover, they felt that their prestige had to be sustained at all times, since it was regarded as essential to the colonial system here.5 John Butcher has explored this topic in detail in his book The British in Malaya, 1880—1941: The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South-East Asia.6 Nevertheless, there was a presence of working-class Europeans in colonial Singapore, and it is the task of the social historian to explore such forgotten elements of this society, in order to achieve a better understanding of the social history of this place.
The work of prominent historians on the social history of Singapore and Malaya has inspired this exploration of celebration, crime and death in Tanjong Pagar in 1872. James Francis Warren has shown how historical research can recover and retrieve the experiences and lives of largely forgotten people7 in his classic studies of the social history of rickshaw pullers and prostitutes: Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore (1880—1940) and Ah Ku and Karayuki-san: Prostitution in Singapore 1870—1940. John Butcher has described the situation of non-elite Europeans in Malaya, including working-class train drivers and unemployed rubber planters, and also analysed the significance of a well-known European murder case, in his book The British in Malaya, 1880—1941: The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South-East Asia.8
The lives of Chinese immigrant labourers, including their experiences in China which motivated them to leave their homeland, the process of emigration and the social problems which they experienced in Singapore and Malaya, have been vividly depicted by Yen Ching-hwang in A Social History of the Chinese in Singapore and Malaya 1800—1911.9 While Chinese immigrant labourers comprised the bulk of the labouring-class population of Singapore in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we should not forget the other, less numerous sections of the working-class population, including those who were from Europe.