Raffles Unravelled

Raffles and The British Invasion of Java
Tim Hannigan
Monsoon Books 2012
ISBN 978-981-4358-85-9

As a lad growing up in post-World War II London, I was force-fed a history diet which told me that Britain was great because it once had an Empire. I was taught that as an island nation, we had fought off the likes of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and Hitler, and that our sea power had enabled us to civilise far off nations: we exported Bibles and imported resources such as cotton. Through our strict Protestant work ethic, our coal and our sheer inventiveness we had harnessed steam and thus created the Industrial Revolution which was to prove a boon to Mankind.

All very simplistic and to our adolescent minds rather romantic. Our heroes were the adventurers and explorers such as Walter Raleigh who brought us tobacco, potatoes and gold he'd pirated off Spanish buccaneers. In 2002 he was listed in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.

But Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles wasn't. Until reading Tim Hannigan's new published biography, I'd continued to share the notion that Raffles was a great man; discovering Borobodur, founding Singapore, and having a hotel named after him seemed to be credit enough. Mind you, I wasn't sure that the rafflesia which also bears his name was intended as a compliment: the world's largest flower emanates a stink akin to that of a rotting corpse.

Hannigan gives solidly researched grounds – see the closing bibliography – for suggesting that the flower might be the most appropriate recognition. 

Hannigan's is possibly just the second1 of some 20 biographies which isn't hagiographic, extolling the East India Company's representative's "saintly virtues".

Unlike the majority of other biographers of Raffles, Hannigan has lived and worked in Java, speaks Indonesian and has written on the history and culture of this fascinating island for the mainstream English-language media here, and the Asian Geographic Magazine. His researches, both here and in the Reading Room of the British Library in London, were meticulous, and included a "source … which the Raffles-worshippers had always ignored: the other side of the story." An account existed of the years when Raffles ran Java, “laid out in the allusive stanzas of high Javanese, written by a local aristocrat."

This refers to the sacking of the royal city of Yogyakarta on 20th June 1811 in order to replace the Sultan with one more compliant to British rule. When it was over, "just 23 members of the British party had been killed, and a modest 76 had been wounded. All along the battlements meanwhile, tumbled in the ditches, abandoned in the alleyways and heaped in great steaming piles in the broken gateways, were thousands of dead Javanese."

How Raffles came to be Lieutenant-Governor of Java is a tale of patronage and egotistical connivance and ambition.

The suggestion that Raffles came from a poor family is patently false. His father was the captain of the slave ship on which he was born. That he left school at 14 was not unusual (as did this reviewer's grandfather a century later); however schooling was a privilege for a minority in the early 19th century. Through the 'patronage' of his mother's brother, he became a clerk with the East India Company, the de facto ruler of India, on a generous salary of £70 per annum. (Charles Dickens, who was born a year after Raffles set sail for Batavia, from the age of twelve worked a ten-hour day in a factory earning just over £15 per year.2)

During his ten years as a Company clerk, and thereon, Raffles was a prodigious auto-didact, with a curiosity and drive which attracted both admiration and resentment.

In April 1805, Raffles and his recently wed wife Olivia set sail on a five month voyage to Penang where he was to be the assistant secretary to the newly appointed Governor of Penang. Why he was granted the position at a salary of £1,500 – an incredible rise from his then probable annual salary of £100 – has never been satisfactorily explained. Gossipmongers of the time said that it was related to Olivia's 'dark past', a relationship with the Company Secretary, William Ramsey, but she never faltered in her support of her husband.

Once in Penang, Raffles impressed Lord Minto, the Governor-General of India, sufficiently to be given the task of gathering information about Java, a project which the Company had been discussing for a dozen years. Raffles later claimed that it was he who had initiated the Company's (mis)adventures here because it "was worthy of His Lordship's consideration, beyond the Moluccas".

Hannigan brings to the fore other dramatis personae of the British inter-regnum, few of whom have been treated kindly by history. Some, such as Major-General Rollo Gillespie, the military commander, was eulogised in his lifetime, but there is little trace of Col. Colin Mackenzie who surveyed Prambanan or John Leyden, an orientalist who beguiled Raffles with his scholarship and poetry. Others, Hannigan treats less sympathetically.

However, one thing is clear. All were subservient to Raffles’ self-aggrandisement, subsequently enhanced and polished by Sophia, his second wife. For more than a century, Singaporeans and we Brits have been under their spell. Hannigan has done us a great service with his – erm- spellbinding biography. It is packed with a wealth of background about the earlier history of Java, life in the sultanates with their intrigues, of the Mataram and Majapahit kingdoms, about how religions arrived with ill-educated traders, and the still relevant Javanese mysticism, with footnotes where appropriate.

I cannot praise Hannigan’s work highly enough, but have one caveat: a book with such riches for anyone with a smidgeon of interest in Raffles and Indonesia would greatly benefit from an index.
1. Source: Sir Stamford Raffles – A Manufactured Hero?(.pdf) by Nadia Wright.
She suggests that the first was H. F. Pearson's This Other India: A Biography of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (pub. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press 1957)
2. Ibid.
First published in the
Jakarta Expat magazine 20.12.12

8 Responses to “Raffles Unravelled”

  1. ultratupai says:

    Olivia Raffles died in Bogor (there is a monument to her at Kebun Raya) and is buried in the cemetery at Tanah Abang in the now Museum Taman Prasasti. Well worth the visit.
    I wonder if the British had stayed in Java if Jakarta would look more like Singapore than what it looks like today which is about as opposite of Singapore as one can imagine. But alas the Dutch were only interested in profits rather than building civil societies. Not that British colonialism was all that rosy mind you. Just that what the Brits left behind has a marked difference from that of the Dutch.

    • Jakartass says:

      I very much doubt that it would be different, UT.
      The Dutch have long had the expertise in managing floods – Netherland translates as 'low land'. However, they never overcame the problems of Batavia: although they built a network of canals, they tended to move away from flood prone areas, thus starting the expansion of the city, a process that has continued to this day.
      As do the floods.
      What the British may have done better would have been to establish a working bureaucracy and a more extensive network of railways, as they did in India. English would have been the foreign language of choice, and I wouldn't have been 'needed' here.
      All three countries achieved post-war independence and major cities reflect 60 years of local development. I suspect that Jakarta would still look much as it does today because five and/or ten year plans created in City Hall and gubernatorial edicts have largely been ignored.
      For the time being we must hope that Jokowi can enlist the active support of the populace to clean up the mess he has inherited and the only way he can do that is through an educational drive to enforce discipline.
      – Traffic offences should result in licence endorsements: three 'strikes' and then a ban from the roads.
      – Those caught littering should join community clean up groups for fixed periods.
      – Building permits should be subject to zoning laws and public planning inquiries
      etc. etc. …………….

  2. ultratupai says:

    Actually the truth of the matter regarding Jakarta and Singapore is the economic superiority (past and present) of the Chinese. Neither city could have existed with out the Chinese. Modern Singapore is wholly the invention of the Chinese and Jakarta would wither on the vine without them. So, forget the Dutch and English altogether. Of course this kind of history exists totally in the shadows.

    • timdog says:

      ultratupai – I'm glad you managed to put your finger on the key issue in the apparent "superiority" of Singapore and Malaysia.
      When Indonesians say to me – as they often do – “I wish we’d been colonised by the British, not the Dutch“, I know that they are making a direct comparison with the neighbours.  If I’m feeling mischievous I sometimes say to them,
      I think what you really mean is you wish that Indonesia had more Chinese people …
      It would be more legitimate to compare Indonesia to the countries of the Indian Subcontinent.  Take a look at Bangladesh – now there’s a place with a serious flooding problem, and a colonial British heritage.  In fact, though some Indonesians refuse to believe this, the infrastructure and social problems of major Indian cities are generally palpably worse than in Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan etc.  Actually, it could be very convincingly argued that all three of the countries that comprise the former “British India”, are much worse places to be a rural resident, a woman, a member of a religious or ethnic minority – and above all poor - than Indonesia…
      The one counterpoint is that Delhi now has an excellent metro system – and if Delhi, a truly chaotic amalgam of medieval, colonial, and 20th century gimcrack, can have a working metro then Jakarta has no excuse!
      @ Mr. Jakartass, thanks a million for the very generous review of the book.  And you are absolutely right about the index – if there’s a reprint hopefully we’ll be able to squeeze one in!

      • Jakartass says:

        "…if Delhi, a truly chaotic amalgam of medieval, colonial, and 20th century gimcrack, can have a working metro then Jakarta has no excuse!"
        Yes it does, Timdog: what's the point if the city regularly floods and is sinking?
        Personally, I'd have thought that increased commuter trains and trams were a better solution, less capital intensive, less damage to the infrastructure that does exist and, like most metro systems, with an increased capacity.

  3. timdog says:

    Doesn't have to be underground, Jakartass!
    Raised monorails are key parts of the MRT systems in KL and in Bangkok (a city with its own significant flooding issues); I would think too that a monorail would pose fewer infrastructure issues. Parts of the existing Jakarta rail network are raised on stilts already…
    The lesson that Delhi offers is that a major, successful MRT system (whether below or above ground) can be built in a chaotic, shambolic and corrupt Asian city, in spite of the Cassandra-esque sneers of the nay-sayers…

    • Jakartass says:
      "Doesn't have to be underground, Jakartass!"

      But it does if designed by City Hall, Timdog. Of the total length of the first phase, running from Lebak Bulus on the south ring road to Hotel Indonesia in Central Jakarta, 9.2km of the rail track will be elevated and 6km will be underground.
      Total gridlock is expected in 2014. The completion date of this phase will not be before the end of 2017.
      And by then will Jokowi and Central Government have forced through the required infrastructure?
      As the MRT consortium themselves say, "The convenient and strategic connection between MRT stations and … public activity centers will be a competitive factor for the premise itself, as more people will visit commercial center and more companies will occupy office buildings."
      i.e. They don't expect the MRT to resolve congestion problems, but in fact to add to them!

  4. Jakartass says:

    Tim Hannigan, is the winner of the inaugural John Brooks Award from the UK's West Country Writers' Association.
    Lady Rachel Billington OBE presented the award, saying Tim's book, Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, is "an absolutely wonderful read and I highly recommend it."
    As I have done above.

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