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  • Spencer Low

How Singapore could have been Portuguese (or Spanish...)

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

I recently went to the Singapore National Museum and came across this quote about what is now Singapore highlighted on a wall:

Who is this Jacques de Coutre? That was actually the question on the mind of many Singaporeans after he was mentioned in a speech by their Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong marking the country's bicentennial in January 2019.

"When the Europeans came to Southeast Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries, they knew about the island Singapore. Jacques de Coutre was a Flemish gem trader who knew the region well. Around 1630, two centuries before Stamford Raffles, de Coutre proposed to the King of Spain to build a fortress in Singapore, because of its strategic location. Had the King accepted de Coutre’s proposal, Singapore might have become a Spanish colony, instead of a British one."

In 1630, the crowns of Portugal and Spain were still under the Iberian Union, with the last of a series of Philips reigning over both countries (confusingly as King Philip III in Portugal and King Philip IV in Spain). Jacques de Coutre, however, came to Southeast Asia as a young man via Goa and Malacca, which immediately suggests that he was in close contact with the Portuguese. Furthermore, de Coutre was Flemish, and although the Low Countries had come to be ruled by the Spanish Hapsburgs starting 1556, the Flemish already had an old relationship with the Portuguese as evidenced by the settling of the Azores by the Flemish in the late 1490s. The Azores, an archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, was officially discovered in 1427 by the Portuguese explorer, Diogo de Silves.

This leads me to believe that in the hypothetical situation that Singapore's Prime Minister mused about, it would have been the Portuguese and not the Spanish who would have played a greater role in establishing a presence on this strategically located island. This is especially so given that Portuguese-controlled Malacca was so much closer than the Spanish-controlled Philippines (named for King Philip III/IV's grandfather).

This of course did not come to pass, and it was an Englishman, Stamford Raffles, who founded modern Singapore in 1819, almost two hundred years after Jacques de Coutre first proposed the idea. To learn more about Jacques de Coutre, his memoirs and memorials have been translated into English. Alas, these were originally written in... Spanish!

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