WILLIAM FARQUHAR. THE FIRST RESIDENT OF SINGAPORE
The May of 1839 was no different than last year's: here in Scotland, it had always been a month when the weather finally settled, marking the cyclical change from the gloom of winter to the buoyancy of summer. The sun was generously spilling its rays over a large Georgian house as if trying to warm up its walls, clammy from the late night frost. Some bolder sunbeams ventured through the sash-window and landed on the face of a man in his late sixties, sitting in front of a black marble fireplace lit by obliging servants. Their warmth-loving master had spent 30 years in the Asian tropics and had been once referred to – unofficially, though – as the Raja of Malacca...
...William Farquar, a descendant of the ancient Scottish clan of Farquar – (meaning "honest" or "beloved man" in Gaelic) – had lived up to his forefathers' name. True to the chosen path of a British soldier, he won and enjoyed the genuine respect of those around him, regardless of the race or status. His was a life full of adventures, discovery, diplomatic games, friendship, love and betrayal.
His career began at the East India Company, initially a commercial trading company that over time became a virtual ruler of India and some Asian colonies. Several years later, young Farquar took part in a military expedition against Dutch-held Malacca, was gradually promoted and finally appointed Resident and Commandant of Malacca, one of the oldest and most powerful Malay sultanates that owed its wealth to its trading port. Farquar supervised both civil and military offices there after the state had passed into British hands from the Dutch.
The time he spent in Malacca was probably the happiest in his life... The young and inquisitive official was entirely fascinated with the brave new world of the sultanate, which was incredibly rich in history and imprinted with the strong European influences of its previous conquerors. He busied himself learning the Malay language and local customs, and lived as man and wife with a local girl, Antoinette Clement, the Malaysian daughter of a French officer, with whom he had six children by her.
Fascinated by the tropical wildlife and natural history, Farquar sent servants to collect plant and animal specimens, later commissioning artists to paint the findings. The paintings comprised one of the best art collections of tropical nature, worthy of being donated to the Royal Asiatic Society in London. When ordered by the British government to demolish all Dutch-built structures in Malacca, Farquar engaged his diplomatic skills and persuaded the officials to change their minds. Why blow up solid fortifications and holy places like Christ Church that could still be of service and impart character to the state that had become his new home?
However, as a loyal servant to the British crown, he was hardly ever a man of free will. Instead, he was a part of incessant political games to expand the empire at the expense of other lands... They changed the destiny of a nation and his life... In 1818, he was forced to leave Malacca, his home of 15 years; it had been handed back to the Dutch in compliance with the Treaty of London. Just a pawn in a political game between two powerful empires thirsty for colonial expansion, Britain and the Netherlands, Farquar was about to set sail back to Scotland.
But fate seemed to have other plans for the former "Raja of Malacca". Aware of Farquar's long Malayan experience, the British authorities ordered him to assist Stamford Raffles, then Lieutenant-General of Bencoolen, the pepper trading centre established by the British on Sumatra 200 years before, to found a new settlement in the region. This settlement would later drive a wedge between the two British officials...
...The old man opened his eyes, woken by a clanking sound. A servant brought in a silver tea tray and was now serving tea, its rich amber glistening when poured into a fine cup of bone china. Farquar grinned: those two things – chinaware and tea – were now taken for granted in Britain. And he, a mere cog in the mammoth machine of the East India Company, had helped bring them to Britain, along with other much-coveted Asian goods: cotton, silk, indigo dye, opium and spices...
...Britain, striving to ensure lucrative trade with China, to watch closely every move of the Dutch after they had gotten Malacca back, and to secure a passage from India to the Chinese sea, desperately needed a new settlement in the Malay Archipelago. Both Bencoolen and Penang were too remote. A new trading post south of the Malaccan Straits was vital for the British Empire.
After a brief survey of a number of islands, no Dutch presence was established on the island of Singapore, about 200 miles south of Malacca. Back then, Singapore belonged to a Malay ruler, Hussain Shah, who, in the tradition of maritime Malay sultans, collected taxes and received tributes from the captains of Asian trading vessels calling at his port. The island was also controlled by a Malay temenggong (chief of police), Abdul Rahman. Raffles and Farquar were facing a challenging task of winning over the two men and gaining their consent to cede the strategically advantageous island to Britain.
28 January, 1819. It was about four in the afternoon, the heat subsiding, the day slowly yielding to the early tropical night. Several ships, with two Englishmen aboard one of them, anchored about half a mile off the mouth of the Singapore River. Sprawling along the coastline, there was a Malay village. Farquar was immediately taken by the serenity and simplicity of the landscape, so different from the hustle and bustle of Malacca. A ew goods-carrying, mat-sheltered sampans and light fishing koleks were floating idly on the calm waters; some Malay boys were playing among the giant coconut trees; a pungent smell of sun-dried fish was filling the air. Behind the temenggong's village was nothing but boundless uninhabited virgin jungle.
The following morning, Farquar and Raffles came ashore. To show their peaceful intentions, they brought with them only one sepoy carrying a musket. At the temenggong's house, they were expected and welcome. The swarthy face of the local chief wreathed into a smile, his hands holding a wooden platter heavy with rambutans and other local fruits. Raffles led the negotiations in Malay. He expressed the wish for Singapore to become a British trading port and explained how the trade would help the inhabitants. Besides, both the Sultan and the temenggong could count on generous annual rents of 5,000 and 3,000 Spanish dollars respectively.
The two Malay rulers were not to let the cash slip away and, on 6 February 1819, both the Sultan and the temenggong signed a treaty with Raffles, which granted the East India Company permission to establish a "trading factory" in Singapore. It would take another five years and another treaty for Singapore to officially become a British colony. In the meantime, the historic deal was sealed with a sumptuous banquet, during which gifts – mostly opium and arms – were exchanged and the Union Jack was hoisted.
The next day, Raffles appointed Farquar the First British Resident and Commandant of Singapore and instructed him, before sailing back to Bencoolen, to develop the settlement in accordance with his own specific plan, a plan which would later become the stumbling block in Raffles and Farquar's relations...
In his new position, Farquar faced serious challenges which Raffles had never taken into consideration. Having proclaimed Singapore a free port, Raffles exempted merchant ships from all sorts of taxes: import and export duties, tonnage, port and anchorage duties and port clearance fees. No doubt, it proved extremely attractive to Chinese merchants who had to pay high duties in Dutch-controlled ports, but for Farquar, it was a recipe for disaster. The lack of revenue meant having to carry our Raffles' ambitious plans on a shoestring. Farquar turned to the senior officers in Calcutta for help, but they were not inclined to invest in public works. He had no choice but to pay for a number of expenses out of his own pocket. Raffles was of no assistance, either. Stationed in the West Sumatra, he was unable to tend to urgent matters due to a poor postal service.
Out of despair, Farquar resorted to revenue farming – he auctioned monopoly rights from the state for the operation of gambling dens and the sale of arrack and opium. Cockfighting, gambling and the slave trade as licensed activities ensured a much-needed cash flow.
...Some memories were pleasing and warming, like the hot tea he was sipping. Indeed, he had a right to be proud – it was he who, against heavy odds and in a mere four months, transformed a rural Malay settlement into a busy cosmopolitan town. Many Asian merchants, knowing him to be a wise and reliable man from his earlier Asian period, took up his invitation to come to Singapore and start new businesses there. Indigenous sampans and koleks soon looked like tiny splinters when passed by Chinese junks with their arched sides, frigates, schooners and sloops calling at Singapore. The range of goods they were carrying was enormous: silk and porcelain from China, hemp from the Philippines, cotton and dyes from India, rice and spices from Indonesia...
...Under his direction, impenetrable jungle game way to new timber houses with traditional Malay attap roofs and open verandas; wide roads, including High Street where Farquar built his residence, were being laid. Pepper, coconuts, pineapple, nutmeg and gambier trees were grown by an expanding Chinese community.
It was he who successfully brought a major threat to Singapore's settlers – rats – under control. Incredibly huge and ferocious, they were reported to have attacked cats that initially were the only hope of wiping the rodents off the island. Offering commoners a shilling for every rat caught helped rid Singapore of the pests in a fortnight and once again consolidated Farquar's reputation as a wise administrator.
By the end of 1820, Singapore's trade had already exceeded that of Malacca during its most prosperous period. The number of Singapore's inhabitants grew from 200 to over 6,000 and kept rising. The Dutch were incensed by the strengthening position of Britain in the region. Thyssen, the Dutch Governor of Malacca, even threatened to sail to Singapore and bring Farquar back in chains. A professional soldier, Farquar had first-hand knowledge of a settlement defences and had a fort built behind the Malay village, strategically positioning it right by a freshwater creek. He was determined to repulse any enemy, despite having only 340 men and 12 guns at his disposal.
Delighted with the settlement's rapid transformations, Raffles was nonetheless furious at many aspects of Farquar's administration whose desperate measures – allowing gambling dens and slavery – outraged Bencoolen's Governor as disgraceful and vice-encouraging. But what angered Raffles most was that Farquar allowed to build houses and godowns on the north bank of the Singapore River which he had set aside for governmental use. Raffles had allocated the Beach Road area to merchants who later complained to Farquar that it was low, swampy and subject to continual surf, which made the ground unsuitable for either erecting buildings or landing goods from ships. To Farquar, the development of the commercial district was a priority over a Government House, so he let the merchants have the reserved plots.
Having to act under the immediate supervision of a younger man, a junior official at that, who failed to understand the actual situation, was frustrating for Farquar. Tensions had been growing and, on 28 April 1823, the differences between the two came to a head – Raffles dismissed Farquar as Resident "with effect from 1 May". Three weeks later, Farquar was removed as Commandant, too...
Humiliated and bitter at the dismissal, Farquar stayed on the island till the end of 1823. At a farewell dinner, Farquar was presented with a large silver epergne, the commissioned work of London silversmiths – a gesture of never-ending respect and admiration from the local communities. On his day of departure, as later reported by a Calcutta newspaper, a motley crowd of Singapore's inhabitants, both European and Asian, accompanied their ex-Commandant to the beach, with the troops forming a guard-of-honour from his house to the landing place. Singapore's First Resident embarked under the sounds of salute customary to his rank. Numerous boats accompanied him to his ship, the Alexander, and as they sailed, some of the Siamese vessels fired salutes in his honour...
...He could not help but think that the major difference between the two of them was of a personal nature. The two men were no total strangers, having participated in the same missions and shared a genuine affection for the Malays. However, Raffles felt that the white man had to keep a certain distance from the locals, and he was not beneath laughing at Farquar's local family, whom he archly called a "Malay connexion". Prim and proper and convinced that he was always right, Raffles reported Farquar as having moved away from "the usual etiquette in dispensing with the military dress of his rank," when he found out about the Commandant's new habit of wearing a sarong...
...The old man moved his eyes from the fanciful dance of the flames. The servant gone and the table cleared, he was now once again alone with his thoughts. The ancient maxim was wrong: time had proved a poor healer. It had failed to soothe the pain of insult inflicted by Stamford Raffles. Sensing that the bygone grievance was about to rekindle, Farquar pulled the plaid up to his chin, seeking comfort in its warmth. But it brought him little relieve, as his treacherous mind kept taking him 16 years back, evoking his own letter to Raffles, written in the nervous hand of a hardened soldier wrongfully dismissed:
A rather muddled and lengthy letter, aimed to reach out to Raffles' conscience, and failing to do so, a cry from his heart that was never heard... It was followed by Farquar's statement to the Court of Directors of the East India Company, in which he requested his rightful reinstatement and asserted his right as the founder of Singapore. It bore no fruit except to get him promoted to the rank of Major-General. What a measly compensation for everything he had done for Singapore!
...How many times did he try to keep his chagrin at bay and not argue with the late antagonist (Raffles had died three years after dismissing Farquar). That Raffles was a visionary Farquar had never failed to admit. And yet, while describing Singapore as "his Child" and "his Colony", Raffles could have at least admitted his, Farquar's role of a doting mother who had nursed the infant settlement during its first four years... The old man got off the chair with difficulty and stepped out into the garden that was preparing to burst into blooming in a matter of days. The changing of the seasons – that was what he had missed most while residing in the eternal summer of Malacca and Singapore. He smiled and walked pensively down the cobbled path, unaware of that that May would be his last...
...Farquar died on 11 May 1839. He parted this world, never reconciled with his role as Raffles' assistant in forming the settlement of Singapore. His tombstone's inscription reads the following: "... During 20 years of his valuable life he was appointed to offices of high responsibility under the civil government of India having in addition to his military duties served as Resident in Malacca and afterwards at Singapore which later settlement he founded..."
P.S. Farquar has generally been forgotten by Singaporeans. The only road named after him, Farquar Street, disappeared during the city's redevelopment in the 1990s. Fortunately, the Farquar Collection of Natural History Drawings was purchased by Mr. G. K. Goh a few years ago, and donated to the National Heritage Board, which set up a permanent gallery to display a election of the drawings at the Singapore History Museum.
Illustrations by Alena Aksenova
Text Julia Sherstyuk