TWO RAFFLES. PART I: THE GOVERNOR OF JAVA
In life in general and in history in particular, a erson may be remembered for something else other than what he really deserves to be. Ask anyone today: “Who is Sir Stamford Raffles?”, and you will hear the respose: “The founder of Singapore, of course.” And yet, Raffles’ contemporaries knew him, almost exclusively, as the Governor of Java.
The Black and White Statues in Singapore
“Sir Stamford Raffles – Singapore’s founder – stands tall and proud in the form of a dark bronze statue in front of Victoria Theatre”, reads the official guidebook about Singapore. Its replica, made of pure white polymarble, stands at North Boat Quay, an area commonly known as the Raffles Landing Site.
How symbolic: black and white, bronze and synthetic (polymarble is a composite mixture of polyurethane resins with a gel coat finish, and in case of Raffles’ statue, the color is white). This changes the colour of history itself for, in reality, Sir Raffles was neither tall nor proud…
There has survived an account made by Munshi Abdullah, who, as a 12-year-old boy of Arab-Indian origin, was picked up by Raffles in Malacca, and later became one of the leading lights of Malay literature: “When I first saw Mr. Raffles, he struck me as being of middle stature, neither too short nor too tall; the colour of his body was not purely white; his breast was well-formed; his waist slender; his legs to proportion and he walked with a stoop.”
Black and white… Black is the colour that the Dutch would paint Raffles, as he had tried to rob them of their crown’s best jewel – the island of Java. In Britain, he was later coloured white. “Selected at an early age to conduct the government of the British conquests in the Indian Ocean, by wisdom, vigour and philanthropy, he raised Java to happiness and prosperity unknown under former rulers”, reads the inscription in Westminster Abbey in London.
“Selected at an early age to conduct the government”? Well, Raffles was indeed hired by the British East India Company as a lowly-positioned clerk at the early age of 14, but hardly to “govern”, for he was of rather humble origin, being born aboard a ship in the roads of Jamaica to the family of a slave trader who could barely make ends meet.
“I shall never forget the mortification I felt when the penury of my family once induced my mother to complain of mó extravagance in burning a candle in my room,” reminisced Raffles.
He who would later become famous as the author of the two-volume fundamental History of Java, had had only two years of schooling. Throughout his life, Raffles strived to fill in the gaps in his formal education, and thought himself to be “as ignorant as a Hottentot”. Nonetheless, in the foreword of the electronic version of Raffles’ book, a present-day reviewer states: “It is doubtful that any contemporary official could write such an elegant and comprehensive work. This is an artefact of the British Empire at its finest.”
But it is only very recently that Raffles has been painted white in Britain. In the past, he was coloured in gloomy shades. “Mr. Raffles went out to India1 in an inferior capacity, through the interest of Mr. Ramsay, Secretary to The Company, and in consequence of his marrying a lady connected with that gentleman,” writes Henry Colburn, the compiler of A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1816. Colburn drives about the rumour widespread in London at that time that Olivia had been William Ramsay’s mistress, who then decided to get rid of her by sending her away. Both Olivia’s and Raffles’ names had been repeatedly dragged through the mud in Britain.
That Raffles’ career advanced at breakneck speed was indeed hard to explain. In a single jump, he had risen from a poor and humble clerk scrambling £70 a year to the position of an assistant of the secretary of Penang with a whopping £1,500 annual salary. Well, he did marry Olivia who was 10 years his senior and the widow of a surgeon who had practiced in India, after just five days after his assignment. These facts may lure us into assuming that theirs was a mercenary marriage. However, some evidence proves this wrong. Later, we will see how people normally indifferent or vehemently resentful of Raffles due to his reputation would change their opinion about him for a favourable one after meeting him in person. One such examples was the turnaround of the General Governor of India, Lord Hastings, who had invested Raffles with the power to found the port of Singapore. Having said that, Ramsay’s kindness toward Raffles could be of a similar nature.
But there are facts of greater importance. “You have been with me in the days of happiness and joy - in the hours that were beguiled away under the enchanting spell of one, of whom the recollection awakens feelings which I cannot suppress. You have supported and comforted me under the affliction of her loss.” This is what Raffles had written to his companions who tried to console him one and a half years after Olivia’s death. Does this look to you like a man whose marriage was based on soulless calculation?
A Forlorn Monument in Java
A snow-white pavilion with a small monument to Olivia has survived to this day in the Bogor Botanic Gardens, while her tomb is lost forever somewhere in Jakarta, 40 km away. The name “Raffles” can also be spotted on a couple of restaurants in the vicinity of Bogor, but this is it: you won’t find it anywhere else in Java.
Regrettably, the Bogor Botanic Gardens, which resounded throughout the world in the 19th century, have never been named after Raffles, though should have, together with the Penang and Singapore Botanic Gardens, both founded by him as well. For it was Raffles who had planted the very first new species of flora near the palace of Dutch General-Governors, which has since been rebuilt several times. When the Dutch returned to Java, they chose to date the establishment of the Bogor Botanic Gardens one year after Raffles’ departure from the island back to London.
Here, I’ll wander off a little. In Raffles’ era, a botanist was someone who today would have knowledge in both gene engineering and industrial espionage. Cloves and nutmeg, coffee and rubber – these products were jealously guarded and protected against competitors from other countries. They were fought for, and rise and fall of whole empires used to be caused by them.
I’ve been remiss: You’ll come across Raffles once again in the name of the world’s biggest flower: the Rafflesia (Rafflesia arnoldi). It was discovered by Raffles and Dr. Joseph Arnold in 1819 in Benkulu (Bencoolen). Its flower is known to reach 1.5 m in diameter. It grows in Java, too. I took this picture in the remote East Javan nature reserve of Meru Betiri. In 1990, historic injustice was partially rectified when the Rafflesia was officially recognised as one of Indonesia’s three national flowers.
I can’t help thinking that over the course of the mere five years that Raffles spent in Java, he achieved much more than had hundreds of Dutch administrators and researchers a couple of centuries before and after him. There is much documented evidence that, while in Bogor, Raffles was always accompanied by three scribes, for a fewer number would have been insufficient to write down everything that he had set in motion. On some occasions, he dictated to two scribes simultaneously, while writing a third document himself (the geese population at Bogor Palace was thus decreased by half).
It was Raffles who implemented driving on the left, which has taken root in Indonesia ever since. Even the Dutch did not bother to change this to the system of most big cities of driving on the right.
Apart from the facts highlighted above, the 30-year-old Governor of ava had achieved the following:
- Designed and began the implementation of a programme aimed at studying natural resources;
- Carried out a number of reforms in areas such as law, administration, land tenure and taxation;
- Initiated a system of public healthcare;
- Carried out a number of successful military campaigns against the sultanates of Java and Sumatra, as well as visited Bali (just to remind you that this took place at a time when it would take half a year for letters from Europe to reach the East Indies);
- Established a newspaper and completed the construction of a club in Batavia (today’s Jakarta);
- Built up an astonishing collection of Javanese artefacts which up to this day has been stored in the British Museum;
- Prohibited the issuance of gambling and cockfight licenses, as well as those allowing the bringing in of slaves; he also restricted opium smoking (Raffles had tried to ban the slave trade and opium dens altogether, but the measure was opposed by his seniors at the East India Company, of which he was still an employee, despite his position of Governor);
- Began the restoration of the planet’s largest Buddhist site – the famous Borobudur – and ancient temples in Eastern Java.
1 Back then, the term also included Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and today’s Indonesia. However, Colburn here means Malaysia, for Raffles’ first destination in Southeast Asia was the Prince of Wales Island, today’s Penang, where he arrived in 1805 – M.Ts.
P.S. Our story will be continued in the next issue. In the meantime, I’d like to recommend the wonderful book by Nigel Barley, In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles, which helped in writing this article.
a RIA Novosti correspondent,
103rd Meridian East