A life lived in full - there's more to Stanford Raffles than just Singapore

Thomas Stamford Raffles - imperialist, adventurer, botanist - has left his imprint on more than just Singapore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 4:18pm

I had seen his statue on the touristic Clarke Quay and had an obligatory Singapore Sling in the Raffles Hotel - couldn't possibly afford to stay there, of course - but other than that, my knowledge of the man who founded the Lion City (not alone, as it turns out) was decidedly sketchy.

Victoria Glendinning's Raffles and the Golden Opportunity covers the life of this East India Company man, the son of a lowly ship's captain, born Thomas Stamford Raffles on a boat in the seas off Jamaica in 1781, who through his own vision, and the help of a couple of well-placed mentors, would end up with a knighthood and as the lieutenant-governor of Java - after organising its invasion.

Securing an agreement to have a foothold in Singapore only came later on his life, in 1819. That was the most significant moment in his career - yet his bosses didn't know until later that he had done it.

Raffles is not a quick read, but it's an interesting one: it doesn't just tell the story of one man's "diplomatic" career, but provides the reader with a sumptuous array of side characters and, most vitally, the historical background. In the early 19th century, Britain and France were locked in the Napoleonic wars, then Spain joined in. That was the European theatre of battle but it had a direct, if delayed, impact on some of the European countries doing business in Southeast Asia - Britain, the Dutch (sometimes in co-operation with the French) plus those dastardly opportunistic upstarts, the Americans.

Raffles is a complicated subject to take on. He started as a clerk at the East India Company's headquarters, India House in London, where he befriended the son of the company secretary, a move that secured him a position in Penang, Malaya, and improved his salary from £70 a week to £1,500. That was the start of his civil service or diplomatic career, but he had myriad interests.

Like a number of his peers, Raffles was a botanist and collected flora and fauna wherever he went. During his career - shortlived, with an early death at 45 - he would spend time at Penang, Malacca and on Java, and wrote of how he had a particularly good sketch artist from Macau to provide natural history drawings.

As well as founding Singapore, Raffles also set up the London Zoo. He was a multi-linguist who believed in a mixture of British utopian imperialism along with local culture. He was not a good businessman, which angered his employers, and while Singapore would prove to be an enormous cash cow for the East India Company, Raffles ended his life in disgrace with the firm and being hounded for debts.

Glendinning describes Raffles' life at India House: she takes the reader through the vast headquarters, the docks, the warehouses, the corridors.

The clerks in India House worked, six to a compartment, with limited sunlight, often by candlelight, writing with quills as human word processors. Raffles himself would have copied millions of words - some men broke down, others turned to drink, and one, Glendinning writes, threw himself out of a window. So the Far East must have looked adventurous and interesting - and a far better place to further oneself.

Raffles had enormous drive, and a view of Southeast Asia under benevolent British rule. He befriended Lord Minto, governor-general of India, who would become a key mentor, and together they hatched a plan to invade Java in 1811. One of Nelson's admirals came across to lead a 100-strong fleet.

Glendinning digs out some interesting sources - East India documents, the long letters between Raffles and his relatives and friends, but also some unexpected ones, such as accounts by Abdullah, Raffles' translator in Malacca, who describes the home life of the founder of Singapore and his first wife, Olivia. The letters show he found them to be industrious, and was disappointed to have been left out of the battle voyage to Java.

As the author describes, this is a story of long ship voyages - it took six months to receive a letter or news from home - long letters, long essays, long books. The only thing swift is death. Raffles and his peers lived life on the edge, with the threat of amoebic dysentery, malaria and liver disease: as Glendinning writes, if you felt unwell in the evening, you could be dead by morning.

She creates an atmosphere of quiet desperation in these lonely outposts, where small communities become hotbeds of bitchiness and gossip. Olivia previously had an illegitimate daughter, not something that seemed to have bothered Raffles, who was 10 years her junior, but she was ostracised by some of the other women.

Glendinning obviously conducted enormous amounts of research, not made easy by the fact that all of Raffles' natural history collection, and large amounts of his writings, were lost in a fire aboard a ship he was travelling on with his second wife, Sophia. Often the detours into people's letters and observations add to the story and provide a vivid image of that time. There are some marvellous moments of surreal satire. However, at others, you may want to push her along with the story.

Raffles' ambition is obvious - he was disappointed with his knighthood and wished for a baronetcy, and we read of his efforts to get a coat of arms. His early friendship with Lieutenant-Colonel William Farquhar was ruined because the military man felt he had been excluded and that Raffles had used his ideas.

There was much sadness and death in Raffles' life. He lost friends and family, Olivia, and four of his five children with Sophia.

Raffles wrote books on subjects such as local culture and Java, while his letters reflected his vision for a British imperial utopia. "He was inconsistent [with his views], like everyone except religious fanatics," Glendinning writes. "But on certain essentials, he never wavered: an absolute intolerance of slavery, the banning of gaming [cock fighting] and opium farming, and his insistence on free trade."

No wonder he didn't fare well with his bosses. Raffles wasn't the only abolitionist at that time, but his ban on slavery did not endear him to the Dutch or to local sultans.

Singapore remains Raffles' historic legacy. He could at times be puerile and favoured his friends, but deserves this biography that paints him neither as a hero nor a villain, but a man who is an interesting topic in himself and who lived in a fascinating era.