According to Victoria Glendinning’s newest biography, Raffles's views were modern. As well as being clearly anti-slavery and against the capitalist exploitation of rural workers, he disliked cock-fighting and gambling, distrusted missionary proselytism and despised capital punishment. Raffles was a free trader, not an exploiter of distant populations. But was he an imperialist? The historian Bernard Porter said yes, but a decent sort of imperialist.
Despite his charming looks and useful connections, Raffles might not have been the most popular man in the Company. Well-born competitors did not like this upstart competing for their jobs and spouting radical ideas. They found him aggressive and overconfident.
Portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles
painted by George Joseph in 1817
Now in the National Portrait Gallery
Why did he choose Singapore as the centre for the East India Company’s empire? Clearly the small island was geographically half way between India and China. But there may have been two other reasons. Firsly there were no dreaded Dutchmen on the island of Singapore. Secondly Raffles believed that Singapore had once been a fine city in the original, pre-Muslim Malayan civilisation.
Until Raffles signed the treaty in 1817, the area had boasted nothing more sophisticated than fishing nets and village life. So it was the treaty that secured the transfer of control of Singapore to the East India Company. Clearly the island state has changed since 1817!
Victoria Glendinning was impressed with her subject’s sensitivity towards, and interest in local culture. Raffles went out of his way to learn the local languages, especially Malay. And he was a passionate collector of Javanese cultural artefacts and manuscripts.
Raffles had been forced to return to London in 1817 to vindicate his reputation at the end of his term as Governor-General of Java. Still, he used the time wisely, writing and publishing a learned book on the History of Java. Sir Stamford, as he styled himself, was no colonial dilattente, sipping gins in plantations, remote from real life.
Raffles Place and Sir Stamford Raffles' statue located on the river in Singapore
Raffles had two beloved wives. The first, Olivia, died in 1814; the second, Sophia, had the five children, wrote the books and promoted his post-mortum reputation. This was a family that stayed together, even in steamy jungle conditions, filled with deathly tropical diseases. What a terrible shame that four of the five beloved children died in childhood and the fifth died at the end of adolescence.
Raffles himself ran his health into the ground by overwork. Soon after he returned to Britain in 1824 and with the Singapore matter settled, Raffles turned to his passion for botany and zoology. This talented man was a founder (in 1825) and first president of the Zoological Society of London and the London Zoo. He planned to stand for Parliament, but he died in his early 40s.
The part of the story that is not clear is why Raffles was thought of as unsuccessful by other colonial officers in that part of the world. before his Singapore action. Clearly he was sacked from his posts in Java and Sumatra, and criticised for going beyond his official authority. It is easy for us moderns to guess that Raffles’ unilateral abolition of slavery in Indonesia was not going to go down well with the Company. And we can understand that his first constitution for Singapore, which outlawed gaming and slavery, was not likely to be applauded by his peers.
But was the East India Company ruined in SE Asia? Hardly. Yet when Raffles retired through ill health and returned to Britain, he received no compensation and no pension, and was even required to pay back some of his salary. Clearly he was being severely punished by the Company he had served since he was 14.
This was strange.. since in London, in 1817, he had been lionised. He was taken up by Princess Charlotte and was knighted by the Prince Regent. The collections of antiquities and animals that Raffles brought back from the East were hugely valuable because they brought him celebrity, and this made it hard for the East India Company to dismiss him.
Raffles collected wonderful cultural objects during his years away, objects that may well have disappeared from the history books. Unfortunately for us, their ship back to Britain in 1824 sunk and lost a lot of their precious treasure trove. Fortunately for us, the objects that did not drown are now in the British Museum.
Raffles Hotel, Singapore
One Heart and Mind is a one-act play, written by the members of Act IV Theatre Company, that concentrates on the last twenty years of Stamford Raffles’ life. Historical events have been accurately drawn from Raffles of the Eastern Islands by C E Wurtzburg and Raffles by Maurice Collis. The conclusion of this rags-to-riches-to-rags story was that Raffles was eventually destroyed by the East India Company for propagating a humanitarian philosophy that was way ahead of its time and for founding Singapore without the permission of Head Office.