It’s possible that most people have a very clear idea of where Malaysia, Java, Sumatra, Indonesia and Singapore are located, but for many of us, they are all kind of an amorphous land mass somewhere in the South Pacific. Between Japan and Australia maybe.
Singapore is particularly troubling, as it is not exactly a country – it’s a very archaic thing actually, a city-state, basically an island off the tip of the Malay peninsula, a long skinny tail on the cat of Burma and Thailand.
It was very thinly populated when Sir Stamford Raffles landed there in 1819 and claimed it for the East India Company which employed him and its greatest attribute was that the Dutch had not occupied it. For the first quarter of the 19th century, the whole area was a prize in the tug of war between Dutch and British mercantile interests.
Raffles – no doubt destined for travel since his birth on a boat anchored off Jamaica – had gone to work for the EIC as a clerk at the age of 14 and was posted to Penang in Malaysia by the time he was 24. He became fluent in Malay, which helped him climb the company career ladder. After the British defeated the Dutch in Java, he was made Lieutenant-General of the island, a job which lasted a little over three years.
The Netherlands recaptured Java in 1815 and Raffles went back to England, where he found that the Company was not very happy with him – his management of Java had not produced the profits expected, probably because Raffles was inclined to do things like abolish slavery and restrict the opium trade.
In fact, Sir Stamford was, for his time or any other, quite an enlightened despot – he encouraged education, nature conservation, fair land distribution (given that the British got the best) and religious tolerance. He did not impose the English language, although he did organize British judicial practices.
The Company sent him back with strict instructions to do better, but he did pretty much the same things. In 1822, his health failing, he planned a return to England. He stopped in Singapore on his way home and spent several months straightening up the mess left by the previous governor. He replanned the city, improved the police force and wrote a constitution that outlawed gaming and slavery. Then he sailed home.
Back in England, the British East India Company not only did not reward him, but demanded he pay them 20,000 pounds for lost revenues. Raffles died – on July 5, one day before his forty-fifth birthday – before things were settled, so the Company claimed his estate, which was about half the amount.
In the insult to injury category as well, his parish church refused to bury him – it seems the vicar’s family had made its money in the slave trade and the vicar found his anti-slavery stance offensive.
But if Raffles was – at least then – a prophet without honor in England, he was never forgotten in Singapore, where his personal legend is mingled with the legend of the place itself. Singapore is now the fourth largest financial center in the world.
If you find your way there, don’t miss the chance to stay at the Raffles Hotel, also legendary.