Who is this Jacques de Coutre the Prime Minister speaks of? January 30, 2019 11:01
January 28th, during his speech to launch of the Singapore Bicentennial, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted an episode that may be unfamiliar to many:
"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."
Jacques de Coutre came to Goa and then Malacca as a young man, when the crowns of Spain and Portugal were united. On one of his first voyages in the region, he was marooned on Sentosa, having left his ship in a small boat to take on fresh water supplies. He came to know the waters and settlements around Singapore well, including the powerful court of Johor, further up the Johor River in today's Batu Sawar. This persuaded him of the strategic importance of Singapore and its surrounding waters, leading to his proposal to the Crown after his return to Europe.
If you would like to learn more about M de Coutre's time in Singapore and Johor, read Jacques de Coutre's Singapore and Johor 1594-c. 1625.
But de Coutre's experience in the region was much wider than our waters. He travelled to Brunei, Manila, Patani, and was a witness to (and nearly victim of) the intrigues of the Court of King Naresuan of Ayutthaya, one of the first Europeans to give a detailed account. For the full story of his travels in Southeast Asia, including the Singapore and Johor passages discussed above, see The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre: Security, Trade and Society in 16th- and 17th-century Southeast Asia.
Be warned: M. de Coutre is not always a reliable witness! He sometimes sacrifices the facts in favour of a good story, which one reviewer said "reads like a swashbuckling Hollywood tale...a treasure trove of historical nuggets and gems." That is why Peter Borschberg's edited introductions to both books are important reading. But his memoirs and memorials are a tremendous eye-opener into the dynamics of life in the trading ports of the region around the turn of the 17th century. They also offer a great opportunity to imagine counterfactual histories of the region, as the Prime Minister did.