16 February 2013

Sir Stamford Raffles

Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) was born in London. I had imagined that colonial officers were the second or subsequent sons of decently comfortable families who knew they would never inherit their fathers’ estate or business. But Raffles was neither well-born nor well educated. His parents chose, or had to send him to work as a clerk in the East India Company when he was only 14.

According to Victoria Glendinning’s newest biography, Raffles' 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

It all happened very quickly. In 1805 Raffles was posted in Malaya; Java was seized from the Dutch in 1811 and Raffles was appointed the Lt-Governor of Java; he was knighted in 1817; and Singapore was founded in 1819. As governor, Raffles might have slipped back into traditional colonising behaviour – but he did not. Instead he introduced partial self-government, banned the slave trade, restricted the opium trade, led an expedition to rebuild Borobudur and other important local sites, and ended the hated, exploitative system of land management practised by the Dutch.

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

I came across Raffles twice in Singapore; once seeing his statue at the quay and once drinking gin slings at his famous hotel (both unveiled in 1887). Readers should try the gin slings themselves AND read Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning, published by Profile Books in 2012.

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.


Andrew said...

I learnt quite a lot about him when I was younger and the knowledge was refreshed last year when we visited Malaysia. There was such friction in the three way tussle between Raffles, the British government and the East India Trading Co and much blurring of lines.

Hels said...


spot on! So now we have to ask why, if there was friction, did the Company keep promoting Raffles from 1805 on. Why didn't they recall him or keep him in less influential positions?

And why did they wait till he retired to take away his pension and make him pay back some of his past salary?

Essendonian said...

Could it be that it was not "the Company" that took away his pension and asked for repayment of salary, but an individual antagonist with the opportunity for some payback?

Hels said...


I thought about that too. Another possibility was that the Company waited till he was older, quite ill and had lost all his family. Raffles was less likely to take the Company to court, at that stage.

columnist said...

A friend who lives in Singapore was visiting lst weekend and mentioned the new book. As the city of my birth, I am indeed looking forward to reading it, as any detailed knowledge of him is quite blurred.

I too have enjoyed Singapore Slings at the Long Bar in Raffles.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
One only has to look at the portrait of Raffles to see a very proud, confident and possibly arrogant man. It is not too difficult to see why, as a self made person, he would have been disliked by his contemporaries in the Colonial Service.

However, he does, despite all, have lasting memorials which others do not have.

Hels said...


How cool that you were born in Singapore. I would love to spend time to explore the city properly, not just 4 hours each time en route to Europe, Israel or India.

I want to clarify one thing straight away. I drink in Raffles for historical research reasons, not for shallow pleasure :) (Just in case my mum is reading this blog).

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

Glendinning's book explicates all the elements of imperialist thinking that created conflicts within the Colonial Service. There _were_ debates back then on slavery, alcohol, Opium trade etc etc amongst all thinking people, so I am assuming that Raffles was not alone in his thinking.

Did Raffles not form alliances with like-minded officers? Thank goodness his wives were loving support services - otherwise his life in the East would have been very lonely.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, With so many Europeans who saw the East simply as a money cow, it is nice to read of a more farsighted individual.

Even today, most government and commercial enterprises are run with a view to the immediate bottom line, and so nations and societies are abused, resources depleted and historical monuments bulldozed.

Hels said...


You remind me that I should consider a definition of colonialism. Colonialism is the expansion of a more powerful country into a less powerful country, for the express purpose of exploiting their economy or population, to benefit the home country. There is typically a lack of sensitivity to local rule, customs and language. Changes are made unilaterally by the more powerful colonising power, over the less powerful nation.

Has anything changed since the Spanish and Portuguese divided the new world in half with the Treaty of Tordesillas ?

Emm in London said...

What a fascinating man. When we went to Singapore, we visited an exhibition about slavery, opium and imperialism. It was really fascinating and what Raffles did was important as it set Singapore apart from its neighbours, helping it become such a power despite its tiny size.

I didn't realise Singapore is actually an island!

Richard said...

Hello Helen,

I liked your Raffles blog! I am one of the Authors of Act-IV's 'Raffles — One Heart and Mind' that you mentioned therein! Have a look at the website we are building at: www.act-iv-theatre.com which explains the show.

I was also co-writer of a large-scale London Cast musical called 'Raffles of Singapore' which we ran in the Victoria theatre, Singapore (with the famous metal statue just in front of it) 34 years ago.

Also, vis-a-vis your remarks re Raffles Hotel, back then, we even put up the entire cast there for the duration of the run! That would not be affordable now-a-days, I fear, but was a great experience for all back then.

'Raffles — One Heart and Mind' is a small scale show in which 4 actors play 14 different roles, but 'Raffles of Singapore' had a cast (including walk-ons) of some 40 players (including now well-known actors like Kevin Whateley).

All the very best,
Richard Cleghorn-Brown
(Founder Director of Act-IV Theatre Company)

Hels said...


I wish I could have seen the exhibition about slavery, opium and imperialism. Reading a book about Sir Stamford Raffles' modern _policies_ is important, but seeing his real _impact_ on the development of Singapore would be even better.

Hels said...


thank you for a wonderful note. I almost wasn't going to mention 'Raffles — One Heart and Mind" in the post. Now I am very glad I did.

Hels said...

International Traveller Magazine reviews Raffles Hotel in detail, comparing the historical and mythological past to the present experience.

Leigh-Ann Pow also notes that Raffles on-site museum is a must do.