The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Still standing tall: Raffles' statue in Singapore

Knocking a reputation

Felling tall timbers takes more skill than whacking away with a blunt blade. 

Tim Hannigan, Cornish chef turned travel writer and one-time Surabaya chalkie has used an old trick to seek fame:  If you can’t find an unknown needing elevation and your own tale’s not worth telling, try iconoclasm.

Sir Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Java between 1811 and 1816 is the target.  How could one ill-educated young man (he arrived in Java aged 30) from a lowly background and with no military experience have achieved so much?

There have to be explanations beyond ability, leadership, foresight and intellect.  So said the curmudgeons trampled or ignored by this high achiever – and Hannigan has helped give these belittlers the chance to hack away at the image in the provocatively titled Raffles and the British Invasion of Java. 

However the man, like his imposing statue in Singapore, is not easily toppled.  Not because some evidence against Raffles lacks substance, but because the author strains to hate when he should have let the facts damn.

Raffles made mistakes deserving exposure and analysis. He quit Java in near disgrace having failed to make the colony pay; perhaps because he wasn’t ruthless enough. He died in debt; a careless accountant – or a man driven by concerns other than profit?

Blind hero worship serves no one well. Objective scholarship that re-examines a famous life is a valid exercise.

To do it well requires an open mind.  Hannigan says the idea for the book came when Indonesian students claimed all would have been well with their nation had the British, not the Dutch, been the colonizers. 

Hollanders have a different view, particularly over the Palembang massacre when 86 settlers and their servants were murdered after Raffles provoked the local sultan to ‘dismiss (the Dutch) from his territories.’

Less well known, and Hannigan has done a service with this revelation, is that in 1811 the British didn’t want Java. Instructions from the East India Company were to evict the Dutch, destroy their forts and ‘hand the island over to the Javanese.’  They reasoned administrative costs would drown profits.  They were right.

Holland had been occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. The wash-up included the British taking over the Dutch colony of Java.

The colonials resisted but were no match for British resolve and the courage of the extraordinary Colonel Rollo Gillespie. 

Raffles, the administrator, and his boss Lord Minto had other ideas about the future of Java.  They rationalized that the Europeans and Chinese would be slaughtered if the British quit – a justified fear as events proved.

Instead, according to Hannigan, Raffles and his friends ‘fantasised over … an empire of the mind as much as a political entity … a playground for their intellects and imaginations, a historical trove of which they – orientalists to their very socks – could take possession.’

So instructions were ignored and a great moment to change the destiny of the future Indonesia passed.  The British Interregnum ran for five years until another shift in European politics allowed the Dutch to return and vilify the caretakers.

The locals learned to keep left on the roads and were treated to some other benefits of British rule.  Torture a favorite tool of the Dutch – was stopped, but slavery was apparently continued despite being outlawed elsewhere in the Empire. (Raffles kept eight slaves, says Hannigan.) Land reforms were introduced, but never finalised.

History is always written by the victors and Raffles made sure his version was recorded in triplicate.  Here he was helped by his hagiographer in chief and aide-de-camp, the ‘snivelling sycophant’ Thomas Travers.

Along with the writings of Raffles’ second wife Sophia, Travers has been the source of past favorable histories of Raffles’ rule.  Hannigan labels them ‘mythomaniacs’ and claims to have by-passed their accounts for original materials such as the India Office Archives in London.

But then he doesn’t give the reader references.  There are no endnotes to back his assertions, no index to assist navigation and only 24 footnotes. 

Who, for example, were the clich├ęd ‘old Asia hands who still sneered at the very mention of Raffles’ name’ - jealous underlings, the bitter Dutch or impartial scholars? 

Instead we get slabs of embroidered prose better suited to travel puffs by a writer in love with the perpendicular pronoun and deaf to Mark Twain’s advice on employing adjectives: When in doubt, strike out.

There are too many gratuitous comments like Raffles’ signature style being ‘bombastic’, his first wife Olivia’s fondness for brandy (‘a little rosy of cheek, perhaps’) and his ‘insecure egoism’.

Are these observations grounded on facts or the progeny of an over-worked imagination? What’s the purpose? Snide asides from the pens of Raffle’s contemporaries dipped in bile can be judged as relevant or otherwise only if we know the writers’ pedigrees.

Raffles may not have personally torn down the jungle strangling Borobudur but he did approve the work that led to its conservation.  Perhaps he plagiarised to produce The History of Java – but it was published. Others might have spent the money on armaments and fortresses.

Hannigan writes well in his accounts of battles where the reader gets a feel for the terrain, but fails elsewhere by inserting his loathing of a ‘jumped-up clerk with a ghastly wife’ into the narrative. Others might have found them a loving and fun couple.

What drove Raffles, later to become the ‘Father of Singapore’? Did he want to do good but got defeated by scheming rivals and his own failings?  Curiously this book came out just days ahead of another revision of Raffles – this time by the established biographer Victoria Glendinning.  Reports suggest it’s more sympathetic.

In the epilogue Hannigan admits enjoying a ‘sense of iconoclastic outrage’. It’s never wise to gloat.  A smarter writer would have honed his axe before tackling a giant.

(First published in The Sunday Post 9 December 2012)

No comments: