Technology, History, and Travel

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Marina Bay pan

How does Singapore work?

For several years, I was perplexed by a little place called Singapore. I had never been there myself, but I had read and heard that it is a completely independent city-state on an island in southeast Asia. The more I learned about technology and economics, the more I was baffled by Singapore. How could a single city on an island survive as an independent nation? To function, cities need hinterlands from which to draw resources. But how can a city’s hinterland be in another country?

I was fortunate to get the chance to visit Singapore for a conference earlier this year, the Society for the History of Technology’s annual meeting. Having visited Singapore, and read up on it during and after my visit, I think I have a better understanding of how Singapore can be a viable city-state on an island. Here are some things I’ve learned about how Singapore works.


It is true that Singapore is very small for a country, but it is large for a city-state. At 278 sq mi, it is much larger than the other two independent city-states, Vatican City and Monaco, both of which are smaller than a square mile. Singapore has room not only for urban areas, but also highways, parklands, reservoirs, military bases, and even some farms.

As Singapore’s population grows, land becomes ever more dear—a problem in dense urban areas around the world. One of Singapore’s solutions to the land crunch is buying sand from Indonesia and using it to reclaim land from the ocean. Another solution is particularly heavy-handed urban redevelopment: unilaterally replacing low-density neighborhoods with high-rise apartment blocks. This has created clean, healthy housing for the common man and woman, but it has also given most of Singapore a generic, characterless appearance.

Although Singapore is an island, it is separated from Malaysia (and the Asian mainland) only by the Straits of Johor, which is about as wide as the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan. There are two permanent above-water links between Singapore and Malaysia, the Johor Causeway and the Second Link. The Johor Causeway opened in 1923, was partially destroyed by retreating Allied troops in 1942, then repaired by the Japanese within days of their occupying the island. It has been in use ever since. The Second Link, a longer but less-interesting concrete bridge, opened in 1998.


Singapore has four sources of clean water, known as the National Taps: 1) rainwater collected in reservoirs, 2) desalinated seawater, 3) three pipelines from Malaysia that cross over to Singapore on the Johor Causeway, and 4) processed wastewater. The last of these, known as the Fourth National Tap or Newater, processes the water through multiple stages of filtration and irradiation. Most of this water is used by industry, but some of it is pumped up into the reservoirs, mixed with rainwater, processed again, and then delivered to the municipal water system. (One of the Newater plants is integrated into a visitor center. Like so much else in Singapore, it is a tourist attraction.)

The drainage of Singapore island has been engineered on a huge scale, to save as much rainwater as possible. Singapore’s planners have gone as far as damming the mouth of Marina Bay, adjacent to the downtown commercial district, to convert it into a freshwater lake.


A highly-industrialized, heavily-urbanized place, Singapore has high energy needs. The island has no petrochemical deposits. Fortunately for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia both have an abundance of petrochemicals. Singapore imports crude oil from its neighbors, processes it in refineries, and re-exports the refined products at a profit. The majority of Singapore’s electricity is generated from imported natural gas. I expected to find that Singapore also bought electricity from Malaysia’s electric grid, but it turns out that the opposite is the case: Singapore sells a little electricity back to its neighbor across the straits.


More than 90% of Singapore’s food is imported. Farms on the outskirts of the built-up area produce some eggs, fish, and leafy greens, but almost everything else needs to be imported. The top sources of fruits and vegetables are Malaysia (of course), China, Australia, and the USA.

Despite needing to import everything—or possibly because of this—Singaporeans have developed a strong and distinctive food culture. My favorite experience in Singapore was eating lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown—a food court for inexpensive, tasty street food. I got filled up on a mushroom-noodle dish for S$4.50.


Singapore has managed to stay independent and continue drawing resources from its hinterland in other countries because of its robust economy.1 Located strategically on the Straits of Melaka, Singapore has been an important free-trade port almost from its founding in 1819. The city-state’s industries include ship repair, electronics, and petroleum refining. Singapore is also a center of international banking, and its airport is a major hub in southeast Asia. Singapore has been able to sell itself as a clean, hassle-free (if generic) Asian travel experience, and tourism is thus a major part of the economy as well.

Singapore is an orderly, well-managed country. It is a demonstration that technocracy can work on a small scale—as long as you are able to banish your messy hinterland to another country.

  1. Malaysia is also politically invested in Singapore’s independence. Singapore was a part of Malaysia from 1963-1965, but the Malay States expelled Singapore because their leaders feared the ethnic Chinese of Singapore would dominate national politics. []

Soldiers of Misfortune

Like Ralph Fitch, Robert Coverte was another English merchant who brought back to England tales of danger and adventure from his eastward journey.1 Coverte departed from England in 1607 in the ship Assention, which sailed around Africa to reach India. In Aden, several of Coverte’s traveling companions, who “unadvisedly” went ashore, were arrested by the governor and ultimately executed. After almost two months in port, Assention weighed anchor and continued eastward.

Off the coast of Cambaya (in present-day Gujarat), the ship foundered, the merchants saving what little treasure they could. The locals initially thought that the Englishmen fleeing in their lifeboats were part of a Portuguese invasion force. Once this misunderstanding was clarified, the English merchants were received cordially.2

As Fitch had done, Coverte and John Frenchman made their way toward Agra to meet with the Mughal Emperor. Coverte was impressed by the richness of the country through which he passed: “The Country is so plentifull, that you may have a gallon of milke for a halfe penny, a Hen for three half-pence, & 16 Eggs for a penny.” At the bazaar of one city he passed on the way to Agra, he marveled at the variety of goods for sale: “Pots, Kettles, Shirts of Male, Swords and Bucklers, Lances, Horses in Armour and Arrowe proofe, Camels, and all manner of beasts.”3

At the city of Brampor, Coverte and Frenchman had to obtain a pass from the Mughal authorities to continue on to Agra. The Mughal general (whom Coverte does not name) asked if the Englishmen would join his army. When the men declined, saying that they were only poor, shipwrecked merchants, the general replied incredulously that he thought all Englishmen were warriors. He ultimately granted passes to the men after they sold him some jewels “for his Ladies.”4

At last, Coverte and Frenchman reached Agra. William Hawkins, the English ambassador to the Mughal court, met the merchants and brought them before the emperor, Jehangir. Coverte presented the emperor with two small gifts: a gold whistle and a picture of John the Baptist after his decapitation. Jehangir took the whistle “and whistled therewith almost an houre.”5

Coverte remarked in his account about the richness of life in the Mughal capital. Agra’s markets were full of every variety of fruit. Jehangir was in the process of building a great tomb for his predecessor, Akbar. It was made of “very fine marble, curiously wrought.” In Coverte’s eyes, Jehangir lived “in as great state and pompe as may be desired, both for majesty and princely pleasure.”6

Rather than retracing their sea route back to England, Coverte and Frenchman traveled overland through Persia and Arabia to the Levant, where they found a ship bound for England. As the English merchants were taking their leave of Jehangir, the emperor asked them if they would serve him in the Mughals’ wars. The Englishmen refused this request once again.7

Jehangir’s request was not an idle one. Significant numbers of Europeans served as officers in the Mughal army as the empire attempted to expand its frontiers. Some were even poorer shipwrecked merchants than Coverte and Frenchman, and they were not given the choice of whether or not to serve.

One such soldier of misfortune was W. Glanius, a Dutch merchant whose account A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala was published in London in 1682. Glanius’s merchant ship, Ter Schelling, and three other ships departed the Netherlands in 1651, laden with silver coin and copper plate. Ter Schelling wrecked off the coast of Bengal, and the survivors washed up on an island. At length, Glanius and a few of the other survivors managed to escape the island on an improvised boat; they were picked up by a Bengali bark. Glanius was pressed into service in the Mughal army, as Bengal was at this time the easternmost province of the Mughal Empire.8

Glanius came into the Mughal army’s service during a flare-up in the intermittent conflicts between the Mughal Empire and the Ahom kingdom. For much of the seventeenth century, the Mughal and Ahom armies battled over what is now lower Assam, alternately gaining and losing ground against the opposing army. During this campaign, the Mughal army was under the command of Prince Jemla (Mir Jumla), who was also the Mughal governor of Bengal.9

As Glanius described, a formidable Mughal force advanced against the Ahoms. On land, the army had 300,000 cavalry and 500,000 infantry, by Glanius’s figures. The Mughals also had a formidable force on water, which navigated up the Brahmaputra10 to attack Ahom positions. The main elements of the Mughals’ water-borne force were gourapes, which were boats with fourteen guns and crews of between fifty and sixty men. Each gourape was attended by four kosses, oar-powered boats that towed the gourapes against the river’s current. The Mughal river navy also had flat-bottom boats with no masts but many guns, as well as barges that transported the provisions as well as the officers’ wives.11

The Mughal army had many European mercenaries who served as technical advisers and officers. On the boats, most of the officers were Portuguese. Furthermore, Englishmen and several other Dutchmen were also involved in the conflict. In addition, a force of between three and four thousand Muscovites fought in the conflict.12 Glanius does not mention whether Europeans served in the Ahom army as well.

During Glanius’s service, the Mughal forces captured Gauhati and went on to occupy the Ahom capital of Garhgaon. After Glanius had served for fifteen months, the Dutch consul managed to get a discharge for Glanius and the other Dutch soldiers of misfortune. Glanius then went into the service of the Dutch East India Company, where he worked until 1673. When he finally returned to his native country, he had been gone from the Netherlands for twenty-two years.13

  1. Robert Coverte’s narrative was published as A True and Almost Incredible report of an Englishman, that (being cast away in the good Ship called the Assention, in Cambaya, the farthest part of the East Indies) Travelled by Land through many unknowne Kingdomes, and great Cities (London, 1614). []
  2. Coverte, A True and Almost Incredible Report, 24. []
  3. Ibid., 26. []
  4. Ibid., 28-9. []
  5. Ibid., 35-6. []
  6. Ibid., 37, 39, 41. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. W. Glanius, A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala (London, 1682), 1, 109. []
  9. For an overview of the Mughal-Ahom wars, see “The Period of the Muhammadan Wars,” in Edward Gait, A History of Assam (1906; repr. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 2006), 108-63. []
  10. Glanius calls the river “Ganges.” []
  11. Glanius, An Unfortunate Voyage, 144-45. []
  12. Ibid., 141, 144, 146. []
  13. Ibid., 160, 183. []

Ralph Fitch: A Merchant’s Report

Ralph Fitch was one of the first English merchants to visit India and carry his report home. The account of his eight-year voyage was first published in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, a multi-volume compendium of English travel narratives.1 No manuscript of the account survives, and it is impossible to know if, or how much, Hakluyt edited Fitch’s report.2 Like any early-modern English text, Fitch’s report has idiosyncratic spelling, especially in the rendering of Indian proper names, which in most cases vary considerably from modern usage. Additionally, Fitch referred to Muslims as “Moors”; the “Gentiles” he described were presumably Hindus.

As Fitch relates, he and three companions (John Newberry, William Leedes, and James Story) were sent by two London financiers (Sir Edward Osborne and M. Richard Staper) to investigate trade possibilities with India. They departed in 1583 on the ship Tyger, which bore them to the eastern Mediterranean. There they crossed overland to the Red Sea. At Ormus, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, they were imprisoned by the Portuguese, who took them to their colonies in India—first Diu, then Daman, and lastly Goa. Fitch and two of his companions escaped from Goa and trekked across the Deccan in central India. They passed by Gulconda (near present-day Hyderabad), which Fitch noted was a source of diamonds. About the Deccan, Fitch added, “We found it here very hote.”3

The Englishmen’s destination was the kingdom of the “Great Mogor” (Mughal), “Zelabdim Echebar” (Jalaluddin Akbar), in northern India. Fitch visited the Mughal cities of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. In his account, he marveled at the cities’ grandeur. Of the former he said, “Agra is a very great citie and populous, built with stone, having faire and large streetes, with a fair river running by it…”4 As Ram Chandra Prasad has noted, Agra in Fitch’s time had none of the great monuments that would make it a world-famous city. The Taj Mahal was yet unbuilt, and the Red Fort had not reached its present form.5 Fatehpur Sikri was recently completed by the time Fitch visited. Although he praised the cities for their grandeur, the account that survives provides only sparse descriptions and little evidence of what he actually thought of the places he visited.

In Fatehpur Sikri, Fitch parted with his two companions. John Newberry headed back toward England but probably died somewhere along the way (where or why is not clear), while William Leedes stayed and worked as a jeweler for Akbar. For his part, Fitch continued his commercial explorations by following the Ganges river down to Bengal with boats loaded with trade goods. After reaching the mouth of the river, he traveled north to Couche (Cooch Behar) and investigated trade routes into Tibet. He later traveled even farther afield to Pegu (in present-day Myanmar), Siam, and the eastern coast of the Indian peninsula. After eight years abroad, Fitch returned to England in 1591.

  1. I have primarily used a 1904 reprinting of Principal Navigations: Ralph Fitch, “The Voyage of M. Ralph Fitch marchant of London…” in The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, Made by Sea or Over-land to the Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at any time within the compasse of these 1600 Yeeres, ed. Richard Hakluyt (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1904), 5:465-505. Another useful version of Fitch’s account is the Hakluyt Society’s edition: J. Horton Ryley, Ralph Fitch: England’s Pioneer to India and Burma (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1899). []
  2. Michael Edwardes, Ralph Fitch: Elizabethan in the Indies (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1972), 8. For other secondary sources that discuss Fitch, see: “Ralph Fitch,” in Ram Chandra Prasad, Early English Travellers in India: A Study in the Travel Literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Periods with Particular Reference to India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsi Dass, 1965), 24-65; “Ralph Fitch,” in William Foster, ed., Early Travels in India, 1583-1619 (1921; repr., New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1985), 1-47. []
  3. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 5:472. []
  4. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 5:473-74. []
  5. Prasad, Early English Travelers in India, 53. Also see Philip Davies, The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India: Islamic, Rajput, European (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 186-97, 212-18. []

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