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Weathering the empire: meteorological research in the early British straits settlements

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 August 2015

School of History, Politics and Strategy, National University of Malaysia, Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia43600. Email:


This article explores meteorological interest and experimentation in the early history of the Straits Settlements. It centres on the establishment of an observatory in 1840s Singapore and examines the channels that linked the observatory to a global community of scientists, colonial officers and a reading public. It will argue that, although the value of overseas meteorological investigation was recognized by the British government, investment was piecemeal and progress in the field often relied on the commitment and enthusiasm of individuals. In the Straits Settlements, as elsewhere, these individuals were drawn from military or medical backgrounds, rather than trained as dedicated scientists. Despite this, meteorology was increasingly recognized as of fundamental importance to imperial interests. Thus this article connects meteorology with the history of science and empire more fully and examines how research undertaken in British dependencies is revealing of the operation of transnational networks in the exchange of scientific knowledge.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2015 

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1 A notable exception is Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells, Nature and Nation: Forests and Development in Peninsula Malaysia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

2 Kathirithamby-Wells, Jeyamalar, ‘Peninsular Malaysia in the context of natural history and colonial science’, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies (2009) 11(1), pp. 337374Google Scholar, 337.

3 See, for example, Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013; E. Le Roy Ladurie, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the year 1000, Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1971; Pfister, Christian, ‘Climate and economy in eighteenth-century Switzerland’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1978) 9(2), pp. 223243CrossRefGoogle Scholar; T.M.L. Wrigley, M.J. Ingram and G. Farmer (eds.), Climate and History: Studies in Past Climates and Their Impact on Man, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985; Jean M. Grove, The Little Ice Age, London: Methuen, 1988; Wolfgang Behringer, A Cultural History of Climate, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007; Geoffrey Parker, Europe in Crisis, 1598–1648, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.

4 See, for example, Vladimir Janković, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650–1820, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000; or Jan Golinski, British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

5 Brant Vogel, review of J. Golinski, British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment, H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, May 2015, pp. 1–4, 1–2.

6 Susie Protschky, Images of the Tropics: Environment and Colonial Determinism, Leiden: KITLV Press, 2011; D. Arnold, The Problem of Nature: Environment, Culture and European Expansion, London: Blackwell, 1996; Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

7 See, for example, Dane Kennedy, ‘The perils of the midday sun: climatic anxieties in the colonial tropics’, in John MacDonald MacKenzie (ed.), Imperialism in the Natural World, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990, pp. 118–140; Mark Harrison, Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment and British Imperialism in India 1600–1850, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999; James S. Duncan, In the Shadow of the Tropics: Climate, Race and Biopower in Nineteenth Century Ceylon, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2007; James Beattie, Empire and Environmental Anxiety: Health, Science, Art and Conservation in South Asia and Australasia, 1800–1920, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

8 Katherine Anderson, Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 5–7.

9 McAleer, John, ‘Stargazers at the world's end: telescopes, observatories, and “views” of empire in the nineteenth-century British Empire’, BJHS (2011) 46(3), pp. 389413CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 389.

10 David Aubin, Charlotte Bigg and H. Otto Sibum (eds.), The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 15–16.

11 Alan Lester, Imperial Networks: Creating Identities in Nineteenth-Century South Africa and Britain, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 5–6. See also Roberts, Lissa, ‘Situating science in global history: local exchanges and networks of circulation’, Itinerario (2009) 33, pp. 1930CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zoë Laidlaw, Colonial Connections, 1815–45: Patronage, the Information Revolution and Colonial Government, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.

12 Kathirithamby-Wells, op. cit. (2), p. 338.

13 Golinski, op. cit. (4), pp. 108–9.

14 Lee MacDonald, T., ‘Making Kew Observatory: the Royal Society, the British Association and the politics of early Victorian science’, BJHSGoogle Scholar, available on CJO2015, doi:10.1017/S0007087415000023.

15 John van Wyhe, ‘Wallace in Singapore’, in T.P. Barnard (ed.), Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2015, pp. 85–109, 85–86.

16 National Archive of Malaysia (hereafter NAM), SEL.SEC.G 438/1935, ‘Weather forecasting in Malaya by C.D. Stewart, superintendent Malayan Meteorological Service, 1935’.

17 Clements R. Markham, ed., The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies: With Abstracts of Journals of Voyages to the East Indies during the Seventeenth Century, Preserved in the India Office: And the Voyage of Captain John Knight to Seek the North-West Passage (1606), London: Hakluyt Society, 1877, pp. 10–11.

18 British Library (hereafter BL), India Office Records (hereafter IOR), G/34/1, Bengal Public Proceedings, unrecorded papers 726, instructions from the government at Bengal to Capt. A. Kyd to survey Penang, Jerajal and Phuket, 11 April 1787.

19 BL, IOR/G/34/1 Bengal Public Proceedings, 16 November 1787, unrecorded papers 726, 1 September 1787.

20 For more on this, especially early European settlers’ encounters with the ‘natives’ and disease, see Satadru Sen, Disciplined Natives: Race, Freedom and Confinement in Colonial India, New Dehli: Primus Books, 2012, pp. 291–292.

21 Golinski, op. cit. (4), pp. 79–80, 83, 101, 106; Anderson, op. cit. (8), pp. 6–7.

22 Brohan, P., Allan, R., Freeman, E., Wheeler, D., Wilkinson, C. and Williamson, F., ‘Constraining the temperature history of the past millennium using early instrumental observations’, Climate of the Past Journal (2012) 8, pp. 16531685Google Scholar, 1656–1657.

23 Golinski, op. cit. (4), p. 208.

24 Anderson, op. cit. (8), p. 154.

25 For more on this observatory see Mark Anderson, The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus, Boston: De Capo Press, 2012, p. 41; or McAleer, op. cit. (9), p. 405.

26 This observatory closed in 1853 due to lack of funds. Its director, Lieutenant J.H. Kay of the British Admiralty, continued working unpaid for one year after 1853: Green, Ronald, ‘Sponsored research in geomagnetism 130 years ago’, History of Geophysics (1984) 1, pp. 32–3Google Scholar.

27 David S. Evans, ‘Astronomical institutions in the southern hemisphere, 1850–1950’, in Michael Hoskin (ed.), The General History of Astronomy, vol. 4: Astrophysics and Twentieth-Century Astronomy to 1950: Part A, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 154–165, 154.

28 Golinski, op. cit. (4), p. 210; Anderson, op. cit. (8), pp. 1–2.

29 John Anderson, Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra, Edinburgh and London, 1826, pp. xviii–xvix, 364.

30 Anderson, op. cit. (8), pp. 368–369.

31 An early example includes BL, MSS Eur. D. 157, Caswell, J., ‘Abstract of the weather for 1828, showing temperature, rainfall and winds for each month’, Observations on the Medical Topography of Singapore, 1830, pp. 1620Google Scholar.

32 For more on Penang's relationship with Singapore and its political position in the Straits Settlements’ administration see C.M. Turnbull, ‘Penang's changing role in the Straits Settlements’, in Yeoh Seng Guan, Loh Wei Leng, Khoo Salma Nasution and Neil Khor (eds.), Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepôt, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009, pp. 30–53.

33 Report of the Twenty-Fourth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1854, London: J. Murray, 1855, pp. 355–369, 356.

34 Report of the Tenth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, August 1840, London: J. Murray, 1841, p. 428; Report of the Fifteenth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, June 1845, London: J. Murray, 1846, pp. 3–4.

35 Tenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), pp. 430–1.

36 Twenty-Fourth Meeting, op. cit. (33), pp. 355–6.

37 ‘Sabine's magnetic observations at Toronto’, Spectator, 22 March 1845, p. 17.

38 Tenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), pp. 427–428.

39 Tenth Meeting, op. cit. (34).

40 BL, IOR/F/4/1906/81364, Board's Collections, Vol. 1906: Draft 670–1841, Collection 15, 13 April 1841, p. 2.

41 IOR/F/4/1906/81364, op. cit. (40).

42 The floating collimator was a relatively new instrument, invented in 1826 by Captain Henry Kater, who was a fellow of the Royal Society and in active service in Madras until the early 1800s. For contemporary use of the instrument see John Nixon, ‘XXXVII: Method of avoiding certain sources of inaccuracy in Kater's Horizontal Floating Collimator’, Philosophical Magazine, London (1828) 4, pp. 218–219.

43 BL, IOR/F/4/1906/81364, Board's Collections, Vol. 1906: Draft 670–1841, Collection 15, Point 3, 13 April 1841, p. 2. For more on how the instruments were used see Multhauf, Robert P. and Good, Gregory, ‘A brief history of geomagnetism’, Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology (1987), 48, p. 4Google Scholar; Airy, G.B., ‘LXXV: On an Extraordinary Magnetic Disturbance observed at Greenwich’, London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Supplement to vol. 19, 3rd series (1841), pp. 505511CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 BL, IOR/F/4/2026/91387, 1 August 1840, p. 45.

45 IOR/F/4/2026/91387, op. cit. (44).

46 BL, IOR/F/4/2026/91387, letter from Lieut. Col. S.W. Steel, secretary to government, to Lieut. C.M. Elliot of the Engineers, 25 August 1840, p. 69.

47 James O'Hara, ‘Lloyd, Humphrey (1800–1881)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, January 2008, at, accessed 30 July 2014, explains that the observatory at Dublin became the prototype for the series of observatories built thereafter in the colonies. See also Mark McCartney and Andrew Whitaker (eds.), Physicists of Ireland: Passion and Precision, London: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2003, pp. 47–48.

48 BL, IOR/F/4/2026/91387, 13 August 1840, pp. 71–76.

49 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), p. 5.

50 For the building of the Madras Observatory see Kochhar, R.K., ‘Madras Observatory: buildings and instruments’, Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India (1985) 13(3), pp. 287301Google Scholar.

51 R. St John Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1, London: J. Murray, 1921, pp. 478–479. Attap is a traditional Malay thatch made from the fronds of the nipa palm.

52 Aubin, Bigg and Sibum, op. cit. (10), pp. 2, 4; McAleer, op. cit. (9), p. 412.

53 BL, IOR F/4/2026, 91387, f. 12, 7 January 1843.

54 BL, IOR F/4/2026, 91387, ff. 3–4, 15 November 1842.

55 BL, IOR F/4/2026, 91387, f. 12, 7 January 1843. See also Edward Belcher, Narrative of the Voyage of the HMS Samarang, During the years 1843–46: Employed Surveying the Islands of the Eastern Archipelago, repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 166.

56 BL, IOR F/4/2026, 91387, ff. 9–11, 7 January 1843.

57 BL, IOR F/4/2026, 91387 ff. 36–37, 7 January 1843.

58 IOR F/4/2026, op. cit. (57), ff. 34–36.

59 IOR F/4/2026, op. cit. (57), f. 34.

60 BL, IOR F/4/2026, op. cit. (57) No 27, f. 1r, 7 June 1843.

61 Royal Society (hereafter RS), MM/10/173, ‘C.M. Elliot, Singapore Observatory: Remarks on the manner in which the Stations adjacent to Singapore might be surveyed, with little, if any expense to Government, 1844’.

62 Elliot, C.M., ‘Magnetic Survey of the Eastern Archipelago’, Abstracts of the Papers Communicated to the Royal Society, vol. 6, 1850–1854, pp. 1521Google Scholar, 15.

63 C.M. Elliot, Magnetical Observations made at The Honorable East India Company's Magnetical Observatory at Singapore, 1841–5, Madras: printed at the American Mission and Male Asylum Presses, 1851.

64 RS, MA/394, 1842, Meteorological Observations: Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia.

65 MA/394, op. cit. (64), 11 November 1842, p. 2.

66 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), p. 8.

67 The Singapore Observatory Yearbooks are available online at the British Geological Survey website:

68 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), p. 9.

69 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), esp. pp. 6–8, 14–73.

70 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), pp. 28, 34. Makerstoun was an observatory in Scotland, and another temporary station, operating between 1842 and 1855.

71 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), pp. 9–13.

72 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34). The Singapore observations took a decade to go to print because of a dispute over the cost. The actual price of printing at Madras (Rp 26,000) far exceeded the original quote (Rp 8,000) and progress was thus suspended whilst the next steps were debated. See BL, F/4/2234,11902, 4 May 1847 and 29 December 1847.

73 Golinski, op. cit. (4), pp. 108–109.

74 James A. Secord, Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 8–9.

75 Secord, op. cit. (74), pp. 1–2.

76 Spectator, 22 March 1845, p. 17, available at

77 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), p. 57.

78 Fifteenth Meeting, op. cit. (34), p. 68.

79 Elliot, op. cit. (62), 15.

80 For Sabine's report on the same, ‘rendered accessible for the popular reader’, see Twenty-Fourth Meeting, op. cit. (33), pp. 355–369.

81 Twenty-Fourth Meeting, op. cit. (33), pp. 71–72. For more on the importance given to continuing research on self-registering meteorological instruments see the report compiled by Baron Senftenberg at pp. 108–112.

82 Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, vol. 22, London: J. Murray, 1853, pp. 252–260, esp. 252.

83 David Brewster's published hourly observations made between 1826 and 1827 at Leith Fort formed the basis of the general formula for calculating mean temperature. His methodology for hourly and sub-daily calculation influenced subsequent work undertaken at Greenwich, especially during the 1840s: G. Biddell, ed., ‘Greenwich observations, 1840’, in Greenwich Observations in Astronomy, Magnetism and Meteorology made at the Royal Observatory, London: J. Murray, 1842, pp. 1–80.

84 Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London, vol. 9, London: J. Murray, 1839, pp. 331–380; and Report of the Twenty-Seventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London: J. Murray, 1858, pp. 159–184.

85 For further information on the construction of the Raffles Lighthouse at Singapore see National Archives of London (hereafter NA), Colonial Office (hereafter CO) 273/2, 1858 to June 1859, ff. 231r, 241r, 5 February 1858; for proposals regarding a lighthouse at Selangor in 1861 see NA, CO 273/5, ff. 132v–r, 1861; or for correspondence regarding the proposal to erect the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca, in particular the opinions of the Court of Directors on the subject of funds, see NA, Military Department Bengal, Cons., No. 12 K. W. & 13, 17 March 1849.

86 For papers relating to the tidal observatory see BL, IOR/F/4/2025/91360, December 1842–January 1843; BL, IOR/F/4/1934/83527, December 1837–November 1841; BL, IOR/Z/E/4/46/S590, tidal observations, 1842–1845.

87 Logan, J.R., ‘The probable effects on the climate of Pinang of the continued destruction of its hill jungles’, Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia (1848) 2, pp. 534–436Google Scholar, cited in Van Wyhe, op. cit. (15), p. 92; or Climatic effects of destruction of forests in Penang’, Journal of the Indian Archipelago (1851) 2, p. 534Google Scholar.

88 NAM, 50/82, ‘Report of the Superintendent of Works regarding the recent 1881 flood at Kuala Lumpur’, 29 December 1881.

89 Rowell, Thomas Irvine, ‘Meteorological report for the year 1885’, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1889) 16, pp. 385412Google Scholar.

90 NAM, 1358/1912, 23 January 1912, pp. 1–2.

91 Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements for the Year 1883, vol. 1, Singapore: The Govt. Printing Office, 1883, E. 17, Appendix, C281, Items 97–98.

92 Proceedings, op. cit. (91).

93 Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements for the year 1884, vol. 1, Singapore: The Govt. Printing Office, 1885, E. 18, Section vii, Items 229–238.

94 Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements for the year 1885, Singapore: The Govt. Printing Office, Appendix C, Item 18, 1886.

95 Proceedings, op. cit. (94), items 19, 20.

96 This instrument had been introduced in 1837 but was not trialled successfully until the 1850s by A. Follett Osler in Liverpool: Report of Twenty-Fifth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1855, London: J. Murray, 1856, pp. 127–142.

97 Spectator, 22 March 1845, p. 17, at