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Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish dominance in east Asia restricted British influence in the region throughout the 16th to 18th centuries. The British East India Company (EIC) first attempted to enter the region by establishing a garrison at Bencoolen (Bengkulu) on the southwest coast of Sumatra in 1685, the only Indonesian territory to be held by Britain. Further British expansion eastward into southeast Asia had to wait until the late 18th century and focused on the Malacca Straits. EIC Captain Francis Light was assigned to establish closer trade relations there and convinced the Sultan of Kedah in northwest Sumatra to cede the island of Penang to the British in 1786.

In 1805, Penang was made a separate presidency, equal in stature to Bombay and Madras. A British trading post was established on Singapore Island in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles. In 1824, the Dutch exchanged their possessions on the Malay Peninsula to the British for Bencoolen. Penang was incorporated with Singapore and Malacca in 1826, and was replaced by Singapore as the capital of the renamed Straits Settlements in 1837.

The Trucial States (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Qaiwain and Ajman) along the “Pirate Coast” became part of the Empire starting in 1820 to suppress piracy in the Persian Gulf along with Bahrain, Qatar, and Muscat. A garrison was established at Aden in 1839 to protect British shipping to and from India. Kuwait was added in 1899 as a bulwark against the proposed Berlin-Baghdad Railway. After World War I, British influence in the Middle East reached its peak.


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