Rafflesia arnoldii

A blooming Rafflesia arnoldii. Image: Mr. Ona, an official in the Pananjung Pangandaran nature reserve.

Temple Guard

One of the remarkable temple guards of Candi Sewu, near Prambanan. In 'The History of Java' Raffels describes this statue accurately, as many other significant peculiarities of the Prambanan monuments. Image: Asienreisender, 2012

Stamford Raffles

Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, 1781 - 1826



Birth and Early Years

Stamford Raffles, best known as the 'founder' of Singapore, is since long a glamorous name and considered the flagship of British imperialism in Southeast Asia. He was born in 1781 on a British trade ship at the coast of Jamaika as the son of the Captain and a Dutch woman.

At the age of fourteen he became a clerk in the British East India Company. In 1805 the company sent him to Penang Island (in that time called 'Prince of Wales Island'), near the west coast of Malaysia in the Strait of Mallacca.

From 1806 on Napoleon Bonaparte's France conquered great parts of continental Europe, including the Netherlands. As a reaction on that the British sent a military expedition and took over the Dutch colonies in the 'East Indies', nowadays Indonesia, respective parts of it. After the conquest, in 1811, Raffles became, after a quick row of promotions, Lieutenant-governor of Java.



Governor of Java

The British rule over Java lasted only five years, but Raffles was very active in this short time span. He invited a new administrative system, reformed the tax system, ordered an ordnance survey, stopped the slave trade, opposed opium trade by setting strict limitations on it's import (much to the consternation of the British East India Company's headquarters in Calcutta), limited cockfighting and other kinds of gambling and introduced 'drive on the left' as it is common in Britain, but not in the Netherlands. That remained in Indonesia until today.

Stamford Raffles

Stamford Raffles. Image source: Internet, common free

The financial performance of Java under Raffles reign was poor, and that might have been because of the lack of income due to the extensive exploitation of slave labour and, more than that, to the decreased opium trade. The conflict regarding to this led to his offical replacement, initiated by the British East India Company's headquarters in Calcutta. Raffles went to England then in early 1816, visiting on the way back Napoleon in his excile on Sanct Helena.
In the following time in England he wrote a very readable book, the 'History of Java'. In 1817 he was also knighted by the English prince regent of the time.

Interesting to see, that both the most significant ancient monuments on Java, Borobodur and Prambanan, were discovered not in the 350 years long rule of the Dutch, but in the five years long rule of the British under Raffles.
Raffles was a quick learner and a life-long self-improving man. He became very fast familiar with Java, it's culture and history and spoke Malay fluently. His elaborate work "The History of Java", published in 1817, is still a very interesting perusal to read, available for free in the internet.


Singapore and the Dutch - British Conflict

In 1818 Raffles became governor of Bencoolen (nowadays: Bengkulu) on west Sumatra. In this time competition between British estates and the Dutch under their aggressive governor led Raffles to the idea to found another British post in the region. He convinced the general governor of India, Lord Hastings, to send an expedition to Southeast Asia to found a new trade settlement. That led to the foundation of Singapore in 1819.

The foundation of Singapore was somewhat tricky and required diplomatic skills. The Dutch weren't happy about a new British trade port. Though, after inspecting some possible places (including the Riau Islands further south), the island neighbouring the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula was chosen as a strategically good place. There was no Dutch post nor a Malayan one. The place got the name Singapore (Singa = Lion, Puram = city, Sanskrit, Lion City). The next local Kingdom was Johor, north of Singapore. The ruling Raja (King) had just died, and while the crown prince was absent, the Dutch made the younger son the new Raja. Raffles therefore supported the older son, Hussein, and succeeded to make him the ruling Raja. Hussein therefore became a well-paid supporter of the British interests in Singapore.

Soon after Raffles also planned to establish another British post at the very northern tip of Sumatra (Aceh). The Dutch got informed of that by a Malayan Raja and took immediately action against it. Diplomatic protest notes and the trial to block Singapore followed, but they didn't take any military action. Nevertheless, the activities triggered a deeper crisis in the relationship between the two colonial powers.

The ongoing tensions between the Dutch and the British empires led a few years later to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, in which the two imperialist powers came to a general agreement on territorial division in Southeast Asia.

In 1822 Raffles returned a last time to Singapore, reforming administration thoroughly. He also gave the exponentially fast growing new post a new, structural and well-done city planning, called the 'Jackson Plan'. Basically the old part of Singapore is nowadays still in the state as it was built after the Jackson Plan (Phillip Jackson was the colonies engineer).


Singapore, seen from Johor Baru, Malaysia. In the foreground the old ferry pier for the border crossing. Image: Asienreisender, 2010

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles died on the evening before his 45th birthday in London due to a stroke. It's supposed that he suffered a brain tumor.



Thomas Stamford Raffles was not only a politician, but as well interested and active in sciences. He did an intricate study of the region's flora and fauna. A number of Southeast Asian species are named after him, as the most known example, an in Indonesia very famous orchid, the biggest of it's kind on earth, is called after Raffles: 'Rafflesia arnoldii'. Unfortunately his huge natural history collection got lost in a fire on a ship. Besides he lost his wife and four of his five children to diseases, and a fortune due to a bank collapse.

Raffles Statue in Singapore

The Raffles Statue in Singapore at the supposed landing site at the mouth of the Singapore River. Image: Asienreisender, 2012

Raffles showed an active attitude agains slavery. With this he was very advanced for his time. The early industries were still hungry for exploitative human labor, machines weren't yet so far to effectively replace them. That led to trouble; the British East India Company refused to pay him a pension. On the contrary he was called to pay more than 22,000 pounds sterling for compensation of financial losses during his administration. After his death his parish vicar refused to burry him into his local parish church; the clergyman had no understanding for objecting slavery, for his family has made it's fortune in the Slave trade in America.

Stamford Raffles is definitely among the most fascinating personalities who are related to Southeast Asia. He is a legendary person, comparable to Thomas Edward Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia', 1888-1935). Both have in common a deeper understanding and sympathy for the native people in the countries they lived for years and effected them. Both of them came in conflict because of their disagreement with the political implications of imperialism, who are crucial for an empire. Raffles is sometimes seen as a 'good imperialist'. Well, there is no good imperialist thinkable, because imperialism itself is never good. It means the exploitation of the ruled people and the natural resources in occupied countries for the good of the industries of the empire. Raffles idea about an empire was rather to improve the living conditions for local people, doing what for their well-being. He put for example efforts on their education. Economic aspects were secondary for him, and he even didn't mind losses. That attitude created him a lot of powerful enemies and caused him a lot of trouble.
Though, after all, Raffles enemies are all almost forgotten by history, he isn't. Indeed that has much to do with the foundation of Singapore, which became so successful until today and made him, as the founder, unforgotten. But it's more. Raffles wasn't just one of numerous ordinary, blunt politicians. He had a certain spirit which came out of a greater mind. His fascination for natural science, culture and history let him grow much above the common, grey politician.
Raffles also had a considerable moral force on British imperialism in Southeast Asia. Whenever the British were considering doing something particularly shady, people would raise as an argument 'Well Stamford Raffles wouldn't have approved that', and whenever the British were surprisingly acting rather well for once, they would immediately say 'in the heritage of Stamford Raffles, we propose'.
Maybe, as a speculation, that's the reason for that Malaysia and more even Singapore came out of colonialism (1957) in such a much better state than Indonesia did (1945 already).

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Published on September 5th, 2012

Updated on December, 17th, 2012