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, May 19, 2013


The man who loved Java                                         

On 2 February 1824, Sir Stamford Raffles, his sick wife Sophia and their son Charles left Bengkulu (then known as Bencoolen) on board the Fame.  They had been waiting months for a passage to Britain and had booked on another ship, the Borneo.

Then the Fame arrived and the impatient family’s goods were transferred. The former Lieutenant Governor of Java thought this was one of the happiest days of his life.  He wrote presciently: ‘We were, perhaps, too happy.’

That evening a steward ignorant of chemistry went into the hold to uncork a brandy cask.  He was carrying a candle. Also on board was a load of saltpetre, an essential ingredient in gunpowder.

The ship was about 50 miles off the coast of Sumatra.  All made the boats before the Fame was ripped apart, but the story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Also in the hold was what Raffles described as  ‘the cream and best of everything I had collected learnt and attained.’ 

According to Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles and the Golden Opportunity the collection included 300 bound volumes and many unbound, shadow puppets and craft, even a gamelan orchestra. 

All Raffles’ notes, maps, drawings, plants and stuffed animals were also lost. Fortunately his History of Java had already been published.

The value (in today’s currency) was US$4 million, but the loss to Indonesian history and appreciation of the archipelago was immense.  Raffles collected ‘for cultural propaganda to prove back in England that Java had been, and could be again, a great and civilised country’.

Lesser men would have dissolved in despair.  The family was already grieving from the earlier death of yet another child, and the Fame fire would have suggested a curse. But Raffles set about drawing the map of Sumatra that had been lost with the ship to the admiration of Sophia.

When he eventually managed to sail Raffles wrote: ‘Perhaps I was too much attached to the things of this world. The lot of man is a mixture of good and evil, and we must be content with it – and at all events we know that all worketh for good in the end.’ 

Are these the words of a devious wrongdoer?  Raffles was admired, but also mauled by critics during his brief lifetime – he died aged 45 of a brain seizure.  Many were driven by jealousy of a former clerk with limited education and contacts who became a star administrator and founder of Singapore.

It didn’t help that he was English, small, had no military experience, was a faithful lover, keenly interested in other cultures and the environment, and ‘physically fragile’ – hardly the sort of man who’d appeal to the Scottish and Irish warriors subservient to his civilian rule. 

The British invaded Java in 1811 during the Napoleonic Wars and held the Dutch colonies till 1816. 

Raffles and his boss Lord Minto understood their interregnum would be brief should peace break out in Europe.  Reforms had to be swift. ‘While we are here let us do as much good as we can,’ he said.

The new Lieutenant Governor agreed. His motives were not religious – he had little time for missionaries and was ‘vituperative’ about the Dutch administration. Raffles set up a committee with the instructions to ‘consider the inhabitants without reference to bare mercantile profits.’ 

Comments Glendinning: ‘But the relationship between the common good and the profit-making purpose of the (East India) Company answerable to shareholders, was uncomfortable.’

Raffles’ committee recommended the abolition of ‘all kinds of servitude’ and a major shake-up of the taxation system. He ‘sought to promote the value and beauty of the indigenous culture and its pre-Islamic Hindu heritage’. 

Once the bloody work had been done and the Dutch suppressed, Raffles set about his benign dictatorship. 

In this biography he comes across as a free trader, a visionary reformer ahead of his time who loved Java and its people, particularly villagers, supporting them against claims of indolence. Inevitably he attracted haters.

But they were up against Raffles’ determined widow Sophia, his second wife.  His first, Olivia, famous for reversing the Dutch policy of excluding Eurasian wives from functions, died in 1814. Sophia bore Raffles five children but only one survived to adulthood and then died unmarried.

Sophia wrote a biography of her husband celebrating his public service.  Yet Raffles died in debt to the East India Company, undermining his detractors’ allegations of corruption.

This is Glendinning’s eighth biography, written in her early 70s. She writes with clarity, impartiality and controlled enthusiasm.

There have been many biographies of Raffles, some hagiographic. This isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s hostile.  ‘Raffles’ story, in a work of fiction, would strain credulity,’ she writes.  ‘His good fortune and his ill fortune were both of an extreme kind.  He became the entrepreneur of his own ideals and an utopian imperialist.’ 

She described writing the biography as ‘an act of concentration in both senses. There are a great many strange characters churning around in this book, and a great many clamouring outside it.’ 

So she’s set up a website including titbits, links and an events diary celebrating the life of an extraordinary Englishman, famous for founding Singapore, but fascinated by Java, an island he served briefly – but well.

Raffles and the Golden Opportunity
Victoria Glendinning
Profile Books 2012
350 pages


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