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103 Meridian East » History »  Two Raffles. Part II: A Merchant and Humanitarian All Rolled into One
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TWO RAFFLES. PART II: A MERCHANT AND HUMANITARIAN ALL ROLLED INTO ONE

Continuation. Chapter I was published in Issue 6 (Summer 2010).

Napoleon and Napoleons

"I will not attempt to describe to you the feelings with which I approached him; let it suffice that they were in every way to him. His talents had always demanded my admiration" Was this said about Raffles? No, it is Raffles' own account of his encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte, which took place in 1816 on St. Helena. Back then, the island belonged to the East India Company, of which Raffles was an employee.

After their meeting, Raffles wrote: "I saw in him a man determined and vindictive, without one spark of soul, but possessing a capacity and talent calculated to enslave mankind. I saw in him all this capacity, all this talent, was devoted to himself and his own supremacy. I saw that he looked down on all mankind as his inferiors, and that he possessed not the smallest particle of philosophy. I looked upon him as a wild animal caught, but not tamed. He is, in short, all head and no heart a man who may by his ability command respect, but by his conduct can never ensure the affection of any one"

I apologise for such a long quote but it is of great significance in order to understand the character of Raffles himself. By then, the word "Napoleon" had become a common noun and, according to the memoirs of Raffles' travelling companions to St. Helena, he was sympathetic of the "fallen greatness". However, Napoleon turned out to be hot-tempered and arrogant; having asked numerous questions, he did not bother to listen to the answers. The greatness was simply not there.

Would it confuse those who, as much now as back then, value the grand scale of accomplishments, despite their aftermath and the nature of the goals? I don't believe so. Those who put reason above heart readily forgive their idol for any behaviour. But Raffles' approach was totally different. He had the tendency to put heart above reason, which resulted in his own tragedy. Being an avid humanitarian well ahead of his times, he worked in a trading company that demanded of him profits, profits and more profits.

The Biggest Fleet, or "Conquer We Must"

It is worth mentioning that Raffles ended up in Java, of which he later became governor, thanks to Napoleon himself, who enthroned his brother Louis Bonaparte in conquered Holland. However, due to the increasing bickering among the members of the Corsican family, in a number of years, Napoleon would have annexed the Netherlands, together with its colonies, into France. As early as 1799, the East Indian Trade Committee for the Republic of France's possessions decreed that the "Freedom, equality, brotherhood" motto was not to be extended to the inhabitants of French colonies. It was even decided to support slavery "till a higher level of universal civilisation is achieved". Well, it looks like Napoleon was not alone.

This turned out to be the hour of triumph for Raffles. He persuaded Lord Minto, general-governor of all Britain's possessions in the East, that the conquering of Java would be vital for the Empire. Therefore, a British war fleet of between 80 and 100 ships, according to different estimations, was assembled to carry 11,000 soldiers. It was "the largest [fleet] ever seen in the seas of the East Indies", hailed British historians.

Such an approach is indicative of how poor (or, rather, selective?) descendants' memory is, because the very first armada of the renowned admiral Zheng He (13711435), who set sail from China in 1405, passed by the coast of Sumatra and visited Java, comprised 62 ships and about 200 support vessels. Some of the ships sported nine (sic) masts, while the 132-m long and 54-m wide flagship remains up till today the largest wooden ship in the world, as entered in the Guinness World Records.

But let us come back to our protagonist. Ironically, it was during the preparation for a conquest expedition to Java ("Conquer we must", wrote Raffles to Ramsey) that something happened. This occurrence predestined the future fate of Singapore, which had not yet been taken into consideration and was barely known under this name.

"Until the arrival of Raffles, the British believed that the Malacca Straits, with its many treacherous shallows and rocks, was unsuitable for large shipping. With typical boldness Raffles insisted on putting this assumption to the test and arranged for a warship to breach the channel, with implications which would be crucial for the world," writes Richard Mann in his book, 400 Years and More of the British in Indonesia.

It must have been not too tall a task for Raffles, who, while in Penang and Malacca, "learned Malay, employed Malay researchers, studied Malay and regional history, made contacts among the local Chinese business community, collected samples of flora and fauna and in general left no stone unturned to understand the people and resources of the region", points out Mann.

And yet, the mission at hand was deemed extremely complicated. The intention of leading the massive fleet though the narrowest of straits, towards the eastern monsoon and only by night into the bargain, received a hostile reception from the British navy. But Raffles, who managed to obtain all relevant data from Malay seamen, put his foot down. Such was the beginning of the transformation of the 900-km wide Malacca Straits into the planet's main sea artery, with 70,000 merchant ships plying its waters every year and carrying 40 per cent of the world's trade.

In Part I, I had highlighted the British Governor of Java's initiatives. While he foresaw a great deal of things centuries ahead, the East India Company, to which he reported, was an entirely commercial institution preoccupied with immediate returns only. But in the context of the Napoleonic wars when belligerent parties captured each other's ships, world trade of spices, coffee and other articles of Javanese export was disturbed, and the island of Java ended up with no income. That was why the unprofitable colony was returned to the Netherlands after Napoleon had been defeated.

Does this mean that all of Raffles' efforts had been in vain? Not at all. He had been taught some useful lessons. He had also made an attempt to "implement a land reform, largely anticipating the Bengali system', which was being imposed by the British in India, as well as the agricultural decrees of the Netherlands' East Indies passed in the 1860-70s", write the Russian authors of the two-volume History of Indonesia.

Ahead of His Time

Raffles was indeed forward-thinking, and much more. "He established freedom of person as the right of the soil and freedom of trade as the right of the port", reads an inscription at Westminster Abbey, as cited in Part . here is no arguing about that the state of thing in reality had been exactly like this. But why did the East India Company need freedom of trade? For a company that placed stakes on trade monopoly, it was tantamount to disaster. Today, "freedom of trade" has become London's mantra of sorts but back then, it evoked nothing but the gnashing of teeth. Besides, the East Indian Company was engaged in the slave and opium trades, while Raffles was trying to ban both.

"Raffles' years in Java were blighted by < > a constant battle with the Company in London <> and all the time working from the starting point of entering a bankrupt constituency with a ruined currency and having to find ways and means armed with grossly inadequate resources to restore prosperity to the local economy and raise money to the satisfaction of his masters in England," writes Mann.

But Raffles did not wish to consider the frame of mind of his superiors in London and chose to stick to his guns. "It now becomes necessary that Government should consider the inhabitants without reference to bare mercantile profits and to connect the sources of the revenues with the general prosperity of the Colony," reported the Governor of Java to his seniors. "Bare mercantile profits", said to the senior officers of a trading company! Conflict was imminent

P.S. Read the end of the story in the next issue. In the meantime, I'd like to recommend another marvellous book called 400 Years and More of the British in Indonesia by Richard Mann, which I have used for the writing of this article.
Text and photo by Mikhail Tsyganov, a RIA Novosti correspondent, exclusively for 103rd Meridian East

 

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