The Mystery of the British License to Work Islands in. . . that Sea

I wrote below about some materials that I came across in British Colonial Office records regarding some British citizens who sought a license to lease some islands in the East/North Borneo/Western Philippine/South China Sea in the early twentieth century. I wasn’t sure if this was new information or not, but a friend and scholar who is an expert on this topic just let me know that this is an episode which apparently has not been reported before.

So to follow up on what I wrote below, I did find some later documents. In particular, on the third of January 1920 a certain Commander G. V. Rayment of the Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty wrote a letter to H. Beckett of the Colonial Office to inquire about this issue.


Commander Rayment wrote the following:

“Some considerable time ago a British Company in Singapore applied for permission to raise capital with a view to starting a company to exploit certain small islands in the South China Seas. There was correspondence between the Colonial Office and the Admiralty on this subject: the latter proposing that the enterprise should be quietly and discreetly encouraged.

“Do you know whether anything really happened? Unfortunately I have lost track of the papers in the Admiralty, and as I cannot remember the name of the island I am at a loss to pick up the track! As you will no doubt realize, our interest in this particular affair is strategical.”


On the seventh of January 1920 H. Beckett responded as follows:

“Your letter of the 3rd of January – South China Sea Islands. The Admiralty reference is Admiralty letter of the 14th of December, 1917, [?].80146.

“Since that time we have had a good deal of correspondence with which I need not trouble you, the upshot of which has been that in September last we sent out a license to the Governor of the Straits to issue Messrs. Gudgeon, Bell and Shelley-Thompson to work the Islands. The license is on similar lines to others which have been granted in the case of unoccupied Islands.”

Beckett then listed the islands, and they are the same as in the previous communications (see the blog posts below).

A day later on the eighth of January 1920 Commander Rayment responded to H. Beckett by stating:

“Many thanks for your letter of 7th January. It gives me just what I want and has enabled me to get hold of the paper dealing with the subject.”


Ok, so that’s jolly good that Rayment got his information, but what actually happened? Did Messrs. Gudgeon, Bell and Shelley-Thompson actually do anything? I haven’t found any evidence of that.

Nonetheless, I find these documents interesting in the way that they suggest that those “islands in the Sea” were still very much a “no man’s land” at this time.

CO 273 57957

Leasing Islands in Southeast Asia in 1919

Following up on the previous post, I found some more information about the case of certain British citizens wishing to lease some islands in the East/North Borneo/Western Philippine/South China Sea in the early twentieth century.

In particular, I came across a draft of a contract (“indenture”) that was sent to various British officials in 1919 for them to approve or amend.

This contract was between King George the Fifth and two rubber planters from Johore, Louis Wilfrid Wilsford Gudgeon and Wilfrid Carruthers Bell, and Advocate and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlement Albert James Shelley-Thompson.


There are more documents relating to this case that I have not read yet, so I don’t know what ultimately happened, but this contract itself is fascinating.

It begins by stating the following:

“WHEREAS it has been represented to His Majesty by the said Licensees that they are now by themselves or their agents in occupation of (or they are desirous of occupying certain coral Islands belonging to His Majesty and not any Colonial Government situated in the China seas between Singapore and Hongkong respectively called and lying in or about the degree of latitude and longitude next mentioned (that is to say). . .”


The document then goes on to list the names of various islands and cays (a sandy island over a coral reef, also written as “key”) and their locations. For the islands that have latitude and longitude coordinates provided, I mapped them out, and here is where they appeared:


I don’t know the exact location of all of the islands and cays/keys that belong to the Spratly Islands, however it is obvious that the islands and cays/keys that are mentioned in this contract were either in the Spratly Islands or just to the west of the Spratly Islands.


So how could British officials in 1919 think that there were no claims to these islands? It is interesting to see that the contract says that no “colonial government” had claimed these islands.

This gets to the heart of this convoluted topic. The historical claims to sovereignty over these and other islands are so problematic because 1) the idea of sovereignty as we know it today did not exist in the past and 2) there have been many changes in government in the region over the past few centuries, from empires to colonies, to nations, to occupied territories, to communist nations, etc.

This leads to an important question: Can any claim or contract survive all of those changes?

If it can, then why isn’t Loai-ta Island or Itu-Aba Island or Low-kiam cay British today?

Your Majesty, are you listening??

Here is the document I am referring to: Indenture

The British and “Certain Islands” in the East/North Borneo/Western Philippine/South China Sea in 1918

I was looking at some microfilms that contain records from the British Colonial Office. The ones that I have access to have largely melted over the years in the tropical heat, but there are certain files that are still preserved.

One that I came across today dated from 1918 and was about an application by some British citizens to gain permission “to work certain islands in the China Sea between Singapore and Hongkong.”


The documents in this file demonstrate that British officials were not sure if they had the authority to grant such permission, but in the end a certain “Mr. Risley” (who appears to have been an official working for Under Secretary of State George Fiddes, who in turn served Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour) made the following comment:

“. . . while a claim to the sovereignty over these islands may eventually be made by one of the Powers whose possessions lie in the China Seas, there is nothing to show that any such claim has ever been put forward in the past.

“In these circumstances and in view of the fact that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty attach importance to the occupation of the islands by British subjects, Mr. Balfour sees no objection to the grant of the authorization desired by the petitioners.”


Given what is happening today, and what we know of the history of this region, this is a fascinating comment as it shows that there was a person in 1918 who essentially said, “Someday some country might claim this territory, but no one has done so yet, so. . . . let’s claim it for ourselves while we can.”

What did they want to do with the islands? Apparently on some of the 11 islands under discussion there was potential to harvest and produce guano, copra and rubber.


And who were the British subjects who wanted permission “to work certain islands in the China Sea between Singapore and Hongkong”? So far all I have seen is the mention of some people surnamed “Judson, Bell and Shelley-Thompson.”


I’ll try to look more into this issue later, but for now, here is the (damaged) version of the file that I found this information in (CO 273/475 3884).

Perhaps this is an historical episode that is already well-known. If it is, my apologies for repeating something we already know. If, however, it is not well-known, then. . . we have something new to research.

Island Permission

Premodern Mapmakers and the Question of Sovereignty

I’m really getting tired of seeing people hold up premodern maps as documents that they believe can demonstrate sovereignty. They don’t, and therefore if people want to demonstrate an historical claim to sovereignty over a given area, premodern maps are not going to help them.


Take the above map, for instance, it shows the Paracels (Hoàng Sa) as a single island, and then above it there are two more “islands,” Liren/Lí Nhân (里仁 – as far as I can tell, this is a place on Hainan, am I wrong?) and Hainan/Hải Nam. Hainan is an actual island, and yet it is presented in the same way as the Paracels. What is more, there is nothing on the map (color, lines, etc.) that distinguishes Hainan from the Paracels.

So does this mean that the Nguyễn Dynasty had sovereignty over Hainan?

What about the western border of the Nguyễn realm? There is no western border on this map. So does that mean that the area of Laos was also the sovereign territory of the Nguyễn Dynasty?

No, what it means is that premodern mapmakers made maps without the idea in their heads that they needed to demarcate their kingdom’s “sovereign territory.” And because they didn’t have that idea in their heads, we can’t use what they produced to demonstrate sovereignty.


The above map likewise demonstrates this point. It shows Hainan island surrounded by blue, just as the coast of the Nguyễn empire was in blue and rivers were in blue. So that seems to indicate water, but where then are the lines that demarcate sovereignty? There aren’t any.


Here is a map of the “entire kingdom” of Đại Nam, and once again it has Hainan in it, and no clear western border.


Finally here we have yet another beautiful map with Hainan, and no borders to the west or to the north.

So how do these maps demonstrate sovereignty? The only way they can do so is if the viewers are selective and only pay attention to some parts of the maps while they ignore other parts of the maps.

Such selectivity, however, means that any effort to use these maps to “prove” sovereignty will ultimately fail, because all the “opposing side” has to do is to point to the other parts of the maps (like I did above) to undermine the logic of the claim that such maps can be used to prove sovereignty.

Sovereignty is demonstrated not by putting something on a map, but by putting a continuous government presence in an area. The Nguyễn Dynasty were the first to attempt to do this in the Paracels, and the French established a more enduring government presence there in the 1930s. That is the evidence that supports a claim to sovereignty.

Premodern mapmakers weren’t thinking about sovereignty when they made their maps. Their maps are beautiful, but they were based on a different way of viewing the world.

Where History and Sovereignty Intersect

For years I’ve been avoiding the topic of the islands in the Southeast Asian Sea, in part because I’ve been turned off by the way that many people have approached this topic. In article after article I’ve seen authors simply take current ideas about sovereignty and then project them into the past.

So, for instance, if a map from the early nineteenth century has a line around some islands, then someone will interpret this as proof that the islands were part of the “sovereign territory” of a nation.


The problem, of course, is that the concept of sovereignty did not exist in Asia at that time. Yes, of course kingdoms had territory and maps existed, but none of this was conceived in the exact same way that it is today.

Instead, people think the way they do today about their country’s land because they have adopted many ideas from the West (including the concept of sovereignty). This transformation is nicely documented for Siam in Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped, but the same transformation took place in all of the other areas of Asia as well.

Siam Mapped

Beyond that, there is the added level of complexity that comes from the fact that at the same time that ideas like sovereignty were introduced, a place like Vietnam went from being a premodern kingdom, to a part of the French colonial empire, to a part of the Japanese wartime empire, to an independent nation, all of which had an impact on actual territorial borders as well as the way that territory was conceived. (Christopher Goscha’s Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Space and Place in French Indochina deals with some aspects of this topic.)

going indochinese

The question then becomes how do you determine sovereignty today in the aftermath of all of these intellectual and political changes?

As I said, what many people have been doing has just been to take our current understanding of sovereignty and to then look for evidence to support the idea that islands in the sea “belonged” to a “nation” in the past.

A loyal reader recently encouraged me to read Vô Long Tê’s 1974 work, Les Archipels de Hoàng-Sa et de Trường-Sa selon les Anciens Ouvrages Vietnamiens d’Histoire et de Géographie. The author did a wonderful job of collecting together information from pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese sources that make reference to the Paracels and the Spratlys. However, his analysis largely follows the same logic as that of many people today, i.e., the existence of references to these islands in Vietnamese sources demonstrates that they have long been part of the national territory.

What I find more interesting in this book is the information that Vô Long Tê included about the efforts of the French to demonstrate that the Paracels and Spratlys were part of their empire. In particular, the author cites public declarations that the French authorities made in the 1930s that clearly stipulated that those islands were part of French Indochina.


This led me to look for more information about that period. In the process I came across an interesting article from 1933 by Olivier A. Saix which talked about the efforts on the part of the French at that time to annex the Paracels.

In order to do this, the French did a couple of things: 1) they tried to prove that no one else had a valid claim to those islands, and 2) they sent someone to look through pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese sources to find evidence that the islands were historically part of the Vietnamese empire.

In this respect, what the French did was exactly what many Vietnamese are doing today. However, in addition to these activities, the French did much more. First, they made a public declaration of their claim to the islands (as detailed in Vô Long Tê’s book), and second, they sent people to peacefully establish a government presence on those islands.


I think these last two actions are important, as I was reading an article today by Hong Thao Nguyen entitled “Vietnam’s Position on the Sovereignty over the Paracels & the Spratlys: Its Maritime Claim” in which the author pointed out that in determining the sovereignty of contested areas, international law has in some cases relied on something known as the “principle of effectiveness” which essentially argues that a state can claim sovereignty over unclaimed (res nullius) and abandoned (res derelicta) territories through the “peaceful and continuous display of State authority.”

While the Nguyễn Dynasty exerted some authority over the Paracels and Spratlys, it looks to me like it was the French who were the first to demonstrate a “peaceful and continuous display of State authority” over the Paracels.

What is more, they did so at a time when the concept of sovereignty, and when international laws that recognized sovereignty, had become well established in Asia.


Now I’m sure that international law is much more complex than this, but it also seems to me that the key to demonstrating sovereignty in that region is not by showing “who was there first” and assuming that sovereignty is something eternal, but instead by demonstrating who established sovereignty over those islands through the means that international law can recognize.

If the French were the first to clearly do that, then the next question to consider would be how the authority of a colonial empire gets passed on to an independent state.

That topic is too complex for my simple mind, so it’s time for me to stop writing about this topic, but I think that the key to this topic is seeing where history and international law intersect, and as far as I can tell, that first happened in the 1930s (but there are undoubtedly people more knowledgeable about this topic than me who have other ideas).

In any case, trying to find sovereignty before there was sovereignty just doesn’t make sense to me.

For those who are interested, I’m attaching below a copy of Vô Long Tê’s book and the article by Saix.

Les Archipels

Saix article

The Dog of the Paracels

The other day I came across some materials in the National Archives of Australia that talked about an American submarine attack on Japanese forces on Woody Island in the Paracels in 1945.

Before fires were short from the submarine, the U.S.S. Pargo, a reconnaissance team went ashore, and while they were on the island, they saw a dog. This is what was later recorded:

“. . . it was discovered that there were dog paw prints on the beach and also on several semi-trails through the mangroves. From a position on the edge of the undergrowth and approximately 150 yards to 200 yards south from the base of the jetty, the dog, a large cross between an alsation and an airdale, was observed to run out onto the beach at teh end of the jetty and approach our direction.

“When slightly south of Crew any myself it picked up our scent, nosed around and followed our trail to within 50 yards of us where it saw us and returned to the beach and sat.”


When I read that information, I assumed that this must have been a dog that the Japanese soldiers had brought with them, perhaps to serve as a watchdog. However, today I was reading an account of a visit to Woody Island from more than a decade before this point that also mentioned the presence of a dog on that island.

In an article that was published in The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (06 June 1934, pg. 366) entitled “Desolation on Paracel Island: Impressionistic Sketch of a Visit to Dangerous Reefs in the South China Seas,” a certain L. Dowdall recorded information about a visit he made to Woody Island a few years before this article was published.

Dowdall, whom I’m guessing was an Englishman, was on a ship that was voyaging from Bangkok to Hong Kong. It needed to anchor in order to undergo some repairs to the engine, so the captain stopped in the Paracels, and let Dowdall go ashore on Woody Island.


Dowdall said that “I knew that Woody Island had been exploited for guano by some Japanese several years before, but that they had been put out by the Chinese government who claimed the sovereignty of these islands. Since then several other companies, both Chinese and foreign, had been formed to work the guano but all had come to grief one way or another.”

As such, Dowdall walked ashore on what was at that time an uninhabited island. Much of his article is then spent describing the desolate scenery that he observed on the island.

And then he saw a dog.

alsation airedale mix

“. . . I was very surprised when I saw a large dog. He trotted out of the bushes a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, stood at gaze for a moment and then trotted back into the tangle of shrubs and grass and was gone.

“Had I been dreaming? No. When I came to the spot there were his tracks in the sand. Poor chap, I thought. He must have been left behind by the last people who had been there.

“How long had he been there all alone and did he come down to the beach sometimes to gaze wistfully out to seaward waiting for his mater to come back?

“I called and whistled to him but got no response. He was probably crouching in the bushes watching me warily, wondering whether I were friend or foe. Indeed he would have found me friend had he ventured to come to me.”

dog on beach

Could it be possible that the dog that Dowall saw in the early 1930s was the same dog that the American reconnaissance team saw in early 1945?

The late Thai politician and author, M. R. Kukrit Pramoj, wrote a wonderful short story in the 1950s about a dog called “Mom.” In that story, Kukrit Pramoj basically depicts the events of World War II in Bangkok as seen from the perspective of Mom, the dog.

While that story is, as far as I know, a work of fiction, there appears to have been an actual dog who not only witnessed World War II on Woody Island in the Paracels, but who was there for several years before the war as well; a dog that saw, over the course of more than a decade, Japanese, French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Americans and a lone Englishman all come and go.

For anyone who wishes to read the entire piece, I’m attaching Dowdall’s article here (Dowdall article).

Maps of Islands in the West Philippine Sea from the 1770s

The Philippines is one of several Southeast Asian nations that is challenging China’s claim to various islands in what Chinese call the South China Sea, but what people in the Philippines refer to as the West Philippine Sea.

I know that in Vietnam historians have tried to find evidence that the Spratley and Paracel Islands have long been part of the “sovereign territory” of Vietnam, but I’m not sure if Filipino historians have tried to do the same.


In case they haven’t, I thought I’d introduce a couple of maps from the 1770s that were created by a Spaniard (presumably connected to the Spanish colony in the Philippines at that time).

Both of these maps show a group of islands with a line around them.


What does that line mean? And what “nation” claimed these islands at that time to be its “sovereign territory”? Most likely none, since the concept of “sovereign territory” didn’t exist in the region at that time, but maps like these also certainly don’t give the sense that those islands “belonged” to China either.

These maps are held in the US Library of Congress and can be accessed here and here.

Beautifully Digitized Old Maps (and Time to Form the PLF)

If you have never seen the David Rumsey Map Collection, then take a look around, it is absolutely glorious.

When it comes to geography, there are of course some issues that are on people’s minds in Southeast Asia, and they turn to maps for “proof.”

However, as I’ve said on this blog before, the concept of “sovereignty” is a modern/Western one, so it’s very difficult to find evidence of it on maps that predate the adoption of that concept in Asia in the 20th century.

Westerners had this concept prior to the 20th century, but when they made maps of Asia, they don’t seem to have had a sense that “those rocks in the sea” belonged to anyone.

Take a look at a map like this one from 1780 (Les Isles Phiilippines, Celle de Formose. . .).


It’s got the Paracels, and they have a line around them, but what does that mean? Does it mean that they belong to Cochinchine? How do we know? Or does it just mean that they are a group of islands?

There is also a line around la Basse d’Argent. What does that mean?


Then you have this one from 1864 (Map of Burma, Siam, Cochin-China and Malaya). It has darkened the areas where water is shallow, and that is around the Paracels, Hainan, and along the coast, but who has “sovereignty” over the Paracels?


Finally, there is this one from 1806 (The Islands of the East Indies with the Channels between India, China & New Holland). Here we see that “China” is green, “Vietnam” is pink, and the Paracels. . . are neither (the map above is the same).

I think it’s time to form the PLF – Paracel Liberation Front. Those islands belong to the sea creatures, birds and insects that have lived there since time immemorial. All human beings should stay away!

The Illustrated Treatise on An Nam

As readers of this blog will know, I’m not very interested in the big fight over the North Borneo Sea (or the Austronesian Sea, as I’ve called it here). However, I’m happy to share “evidence” when I come across any.

A while ago I came across a Ming-era book called the Illustrated Treatise on An Nam (Annan tuzhi 安南圖誌).


It contains a map of the entire area of An Nam during the Ming period. This is a valuable map as it is one of the earliest maps of that part of the world.

In any case, what people today will be perhaps more interested in seeing is that at the bottom of the map on the left-hand side (of the two-page map), out in the sea, are two circles that say: Tiểu Trường Sa Hải Khẩu (Lesser Trường Sa Estuary) and Đại Trường Sa Hải Khẩu (Greater Trường Sa Estuary).


In searching for these terms on the Internet, it looks like people are aware of this text and the terms that it contains, so I don’t think that I’m providing any “evidence” that will resolve the conflict over “historical sovereignty.”

That said, this is also the case because this map doesn’t “prove” anything. In fact, it is extremely ambiguous. It lists the greater and lesser Trường Sa “estuaries” (hải khẩu) rather than islands. So what exactly does that mean?


Does it mean that the estuary is part of the territory and not the Trường Sa islands? If so, then who had jurisdiction over the islands? And where is the evidence for that?

Or is the fact that those two terms (Tiểu Trường Sa Hải Khẩu and Đại Trường Sa Hải Khẩu) are written in squares placed off-shore in the water meant to indicate that the estuaries also include islands?

I think the one thing that maps like this show is that people at that time were not concerned with the idea of “sovereignty” like we are now. Sovereignty is a modern (Western) concept. We can’t find it on old maps.

But old maps do look pretty cool, don’t you think?

Cù Lao Hainan and Han-Việt Expansion

I was looking at collection of maps called Sketched Maps of the Southern and Northern Regions (Nam Bắc kỳ hội đồ 南北圻繪圖) that I’m guessing dates from the late nineteenth century.

The first map in the collection is one called the “Complete Map of Unified Đại Nam” (Dại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ 大南一統全圖).

Some people will be happy to see that it contains the Hoàng Sa islands. Out in the sea off of the coast of what is today central Vietnam are small islands that have a circle drawn around them. To the right, the two characters “Hoàng Sa” (黃沙) are written. Unfortunately the quality of the microfilm that I found this collection of maps on is not very good, but I think those four characters to the left are  “Vạn Lý Trường Sa” (萬里長沙).

In any case, what interested me more about this map is that it labels Hainan Island as “Cù Lao Hải Nam.”

“Cù lao” is the Vietnamese version of an Austronesian word meaning “island.” In Malay/Indonesian, for instance, it is “pulau.” I have no idea why the person who made this map labeled Hainan as “cù lao” instead of “đảo,” the term that I usually see on Vietnamese maps in reference to Hainan, but it got me thinking. . .

Today Vietnamese and Chinese are arguing with each other over who has “sovereignty” over certain islands in the East Sea/South China Sea. In some instances they are trying to demonstrate “who was there first,” but in reality, neither were.

For many centuries before any Vietnamese or Chinese entered those waters, that region was the home of various Austronesian speakers, people who referred to islands by, among other terms, the word “pulau.”

Indeed, a better name for that body of water than the East Sea or the South China Sea would be the “Austronesian Sea.”

Or perhaps it should be called the “Nusantao Sea” after William Solheim’s idea of the “Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network.” Solhiem created the term “Nusantao” from another Austronesian word for island, “nusa,” and he uses it to refer to the interconnected maritime region of what is today southern China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific which he argues started to form as early as the Neolithic, and which he argues was dominated by speakers of Austronesian languages.

Today, Chinese expansion and assimilation has all but eliminated Austronesian speakers from the Chinese world. There are some Cham on Hainan, and various Austronesian groups in the mountains of Taiwan, but that’s about it.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, there are still a good number of Austronesian speakers, but they have been marginalized by Vietnamese expansion and assimilation.

So the result of these historical developments is that nowadays Vietnamese and Chinese argue and argue and argue over who has sovereignty over islands in. . . the Nusantao Sea. . .