Thomas Stamford Raffles

Birth: 1781


Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was a British colonial governor. He was the only surviving son of Benjamin Raffles, long a captain in the English West India trade, and was born at sea on board the Ann, off Port Morant, Jamaica, 5 July 1781. His family, originally of Yorkshire, had been settled for some generations in London, where his paternal grandfather held a post in the prerogative office in Doctors' Commons. His mother's maiden name was Lindeman. He was an intelligent child, and went to school for about two years at Dr. Anderson's at Hammersmith, but, owing to family poverty, he was placed at the age of fourteen in the East India House as an extra clerk. In leisure moments after office hours he managed to master French and to study natural science. His diligence in the office attracted the attention of Ramsay, secretary to the court of directors, on whose recommendation he was appointed by Sir Hugh Inglis assistant secretary to the establishment sent by the East India Company to Penang in 1805.

He landed at Penang in September. His natural faculty for languages enabled him to become fluent in Malay in a few months, and, on the strength of this and of his industry, the governor and council of the island promoted him to be secretary in 1807, and registrar of the recorder's court. But the combined effects of administrative work, hard study, and an unhealthy climate brought on an almost fatal illness in 1808. He then visited Malacca, where he studied the resources of the place, and by his representations prevented its intended cession. He returned to Penang; but his health broke down again in 1809, and in 1810 he proceeded to Calcutta, to obtain, if possible, the governorship of the Moluccas. This he found already promised elsewhere. Meanwhile his correspondence with Dr. Leyden, the orientalist, and various communications to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta on the languages and manners of the Malay peoples, had brought him to the notice of Lord Minto. Relying largely upon Raffles's local knowledge, Lord Minto undertook the reduction of Java when Holland had been annexed by the French. Raffles was accordingly sent as the governor-general's agent to Malacca, to collect information and supplies in furtherance of the enterprise, and Lord Minto joined him in Malacca on 9 May 1811. Raffles recommended the adoption of the route along the south-west coast of Borneo from Malacca to Java, and after some opposition his advice was acted upon, and the entire fleet was brought safely to Batavia by the end of July.

He took no part in the military operations, but Lord Minto's promise of the lieutenant-governorship of Java, made before the expedition started, was fulfilled when the island capitulated on 11 Sept. His task was a difficult one, for the population numbered six millions, many of the independent chiefs were fierce and powerful, and the part of the island which had been conquered by the Dutch was much less than half. The government was none the easier for being made subordinate to the governor-general in council in Bengal, and for the fact that it was upon Bengal the governor had to draw for money, drafts which eventually exhausted the patience of the superior administration. He set to work with an energy surprising in a man of already impaired health. He appointed English residents at the different native courts, and, 'intrepid innovator as he was' (Crawfurd, Dictionary of the Indian Islands, p. 363), took measures to abolish the Dutch system of exacting forced labour from the natives, regulated the mode of raising the revenue, re-established the finances, and remodelled the administration of justice while retaining the Dutch colonial law. He visited the whole of the island, and with great industry collected information about the products of the soil and the history and languages of the people. Early in 1812 he despatched an expedition for the reduction of the rich metalliferous island of Banca, and by the end of June the whole of Java submitted quietly to British rule.

The system pursued by the Dutch had been to farm out the internal administration of the island to native chiefs or regents, who paid to the government a certain portion of the produce of the soil, and furnished it with a certain quantity of forced labour, and in return were allowed to treat the land as their own, and its cultivators almost as their slaves. The result was bad alike for governors and subjects. Having obtained during the first two years of his governorship ample statistical evidence of the value and capabilities of the different districts, Raffles, following out Lord Minto's instructions, abolished the system of forced labour, feudal dues, and direct contributions in kind, and substituted leases, originally for very short terms, by which the actual cultivator became the direct beneficiary of the fruits of his labour. The regents were at the same time compensated for the loss of their rights. The internal police of the island was provided for by utilising native institutions, which, though hardly known by the Dutch, had existed from time immemorial, while at the same time its supreme control was in the hands of Europeans, and not of native chiefs. He introduced trial by jury with the simplest possible forms of judicial procedure. In his opinion, the Malay races, when treated with sympathy, were of all Eastern peoples the easiest to rule; but if they met with ill-usage or bad faith, few were so ferocious or untrustworthy. He accordingly refused to surround himself with guards or escorts, made himself at all times accessible to those who had business with him, and was rewarded by seeing his government increasingly peaceful and prosperous. But, despite the extraordinary influence which he gained over the people of Java, it is doubtful whether he was well advised in making his drastic change in the system of landholding; it embarrassed his government while it lasted, and scarcely justified itself by its results.

Early in 1813 Raffles and General Gillespie, the commander of the forces in the island, engaged in a dispute which soon became acute. Raffles desired to reduce the number of European troops in order to save expense; Gillespie insisted that the number must be maintained. Raffles was supported in his view by Lord Minto, who further proved his friendship by appointing him in June 1813, before quitting India, to the residency of Fort Marlborough at Bencoolen, Sumatra, as a provision in case the island of Java should not be permanently retained as part of the East India Company's territories. The last two years of his governorship were troubled and only partly successful.

The uncertainty as to whether Java would continue a British possession after the conclusion of peace tied his hands. He was hampered by the extreme scarcity of specie and the great depreciation of the paper currency, and the execution of the change in the system of landholding was a troublesome and laborious task. To retire a portion of the paper currency he sold, on his own authority, a quantity of public lands—a course approved by Lord Minto under the circumstances, but undoubtedly a serious and costly alienation of public property, which was condemned by the court of directors. Shortly after Lord Minto had quitted India, Gillespie presented to the governor-general in council a general and sweeping indictment of nearly the whole of Raffles's administration, and his ultimate exoneration by the court of directors from personal misconduct, though complete, was obtained only after much laborious explanation and anxious suspense.

Meantime the restoration of Java to the Dutch had been resolved upon, in spite of remonstrances which Raffles addressed to the Earl of Buckingham in August 1815, both officially and privately. The convention was signed on 13 Aug. 1814, though it was not until August 1816 that the restoration actually took place. In 1815 Raffles was somewhat summarily recalled. His incessant daily activity, stated to have lasted from 4 A.M. till 11 P.M., in a trying climate had greatly impaired his strength; and, not content with the labours of his office, he was constantly engaged in acquiring that knowledge which made him one of the first authorities on all matters scientific, historical, or philological connected with the eastern seas. He had visited nearly all the remains of sculpture to be found in Java (cf. Wallace, Malay Archipelago, 1890, p. 80). He was indefatigable in his journeys about the island, constantly and lavishly entertaining the European colony, Dutch as well as English. To add to his depression, in 1815 he lost his wife, the widow of W. Fancourt of Lanark, a resident in India, whom he had married in 1805. His pecuniary circumstances would have rendered it very advantageous to him to take up his appointment at Bencoolen on quitting Java, but he was advised that his health made his return to Europe imperative. He sailed from Batavia on 25 March 1816. His ship called at St. Helena, where he was presented to Napoleon, and he reached London on 16 July.

He at once set to work to clear himself from the charges which had been made against his administration; but the court of directors declined to go beyond the exoneration of his personal honour, which they had already recorded. He then turned to the composition of his 'History of Java,' a somewhat hasty work, diffuse and bulky, and inaccurate in its account of the history and religion of the Javanese, but full of interesting matter with regard to the actual condition and manners of that people. He began to write in October 1816, and published the book in the following May. Its publication excited considerable public interest. A second edition appeared in 1830, and a French translation in 1824. He was presented to the prince regent and knighted. He visited Holland to lay before the Dutch king his views on the administration of Java, but found him more concerned about revenue than philanthropy. He travelled extensively, and formed plans for making new scientific collections relating to the further Indies.

In 1817 the court of directors confirmed him in the governorship of Bencoolen, and he took up his appointment there on 22 March 1818. He found the administration utterly disorganised. The public buildings had been wrecked by earthquakes, and the pepper cultivation, for the sake of which the settlement existed, was totally neglected. The principal item of revenue arose from the breeding of gamecocks, and there was little security for either life or person. He at once set to work to cultivate friendly relations with the native chiefs, emancipated a number of negro slaves, the property of the East India Company, established schools, organised the police, and checked the attempts of neighbouring Dutch officials to extend their territories at the expense of the natives. An impression prevailed that the interior of Sumatra was impenetrable. He undertook various excursions from the sea-coast, and eventually crossed the island from one sea to the other, travelling constantly on foot, and often sleeping in the forests. On one of these journeys he discovered the extraordinary and enormous flower of the Rafflesia Arnoldi, a fungus parasite on the roots of the Cissus angustifolia. It measures a yard across, and attains a weight of fifteen pounds. The Nepenthes Rafflesiana, which he subsequently discovered at Singapore, was also named after him.

Having received information that the Dutch were fitting out expeditions with the view of occupying all the most commanding situations in the Archipelago, Raffles urged upon his superiors the necessity of taking counter steps. Proceeding to Calcutta in the autumn of 1818 to confer with the government of Bengal, a voyage on which he was shipwrecked at the mouth of the Hooghly, he obtained authority to assume charge of British interests to the eastward of the Straits of Malacca, as agent to the governor-general, and prevailed upon the Marquis of Hastings, who had now been brought to express approval of his conduct in Java, to allow the occupation of Singapore. This almost uninhabited island he had selected even before leaving England as highly fitted for preserving to British trade free access to the eastern islands, and preventing the Dutch from securing the exclusive command of the eastern seas. He had discovered its capabilities in the course of his Malay studies.

It was unknown alike to the European and to the Indian world, and it had been overlooked by the Dutch, who conceived themselves to have occupied every place available for securing the only two practicable approaches to the Archipelago—the Straits, namely, of Malacca and Sunda. By Raffles's advice the company purchased Singapore from the sultan of Johore, and Raffles in person hoisted the British flag there on 29 Feb. 1819, in a spot occupied by the remains of the fortifications of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays. His services to British commerce in selecting this site were enormous. The acquisition of Singapore itself has been justified by its extraordinary growth and success as the meeting-point of all the routes and all the races of the eastern seas, and as the most important commercial centre between Calcutta and Hongkong. At the same time, Raffles's plan for the extension of British power in Sumatra was not adopted, and the settlement at Singapore marked the back current of British enterprise from the islands to the mainland of the Malay peninsula.

Returning to Bencoolen, he established schools and a bible society, and imported baptist missionaries from India. He formed plans for a native college at Singapore, and strongly urged the court of directors to unite all their separate stations in the Straits in one government. He does not appear to have ever been in high favour with the directors at home, who probably feared, without appreciating, his restless and reforming energy, and, in spite of a visit to Bengal, this cherished plan failed, to his lasting disappointment.

In February 1820 he left Calcutta to return to Sumatra, but from this time forward he devoted himself more particularly to the affairs of Bencoolen, where he built himself a house twelve miles from the town, and introduced the cultivation of coffee and sugar. His collections, botanical, zoological, and anthropological, grew steadily, and portions of them were from time to time sent home to his friends, Sir Joseph Banks, W. Marsden, and others. He corresponded actively with various persons in England, and endeavoured by their means to persuade the home government and the East India Company to resist the Dutch by pushing the interests of English commerce, particularly at Singapore. In 1821, on his own authority, he brought the island of Pulo Nias under British authority in order to put an end to a slave trade which had flourished there. In September 1822 he was ordered to Singapore to place the island under a settled system of government. He found commerce flourishing and speculation busy, and set to work to make Singapore a free and safe port. He had the harbour and adjacent coasts correctly surveyed from Diamond Point to the Carimons; he allotted lands and laid out towns and roads, established a land registry and a local magistracy, and raised a sufficient revenue without taxing trade.

Early in 1823 he established an institution for the study of Chinese and Malay literature, and endeavoured, but without success, to transfer to Singapore the Anglo-Chinese college at Malacca. A short code of laws was drawn up, and he himself sat in court to enforce it, and on being relieved of the charge of Singapore at the end of March 1823 he received the cordial approval of the governor-general. He quitted Singapore on 14 June, leaving it in the charge of his successor, Crawfurd, and spent the remainder of the year at Bencoolen. On 2 Feb. 1824 he at length embarked for home on board the Fame, but a few hours after sailing, the ship caught fire by the gross carelessness of the steward, and, though no lives were lost, there was barely time for those on board to escape before the ship's gunpowder exploded. The ship was destroyed; the boats were many hours before reaching shore; the fugitives had neither food, water, nor clothes. Raffles lost all his papers and drawings, two thousand in number, his notes and memoirs for a history of Sumatra and Borneo, the map of the island, which had occupied six months in preparation, and his huge collection of birds, beasts, fishes, and plants (see Gent. Mag. 1824, pt. ii. p. 169). The calamity was irreparable; he was entirely uninsured, and his money loss alone was 20,000l. to 30,000l. He sailed again on 8 April by the Mariner, a small Botany Bay ship, and landed at Plymouth in August 1824.

One of his first tasks was to draw up a statement—principally from memory—of his administration during the previous twelve years, and in November this appeared under the title of 'A Statement of the Services of Sir Stamford Raffles.' It did not, however, fully justify him in the eyes of the court of directors. They censured his emancipation of the company's slaves and his annexation of Pulo Nias, and, while generally approving his motives, plainly disapproved of his zeal. Settling at a house at Highwood, near Barnet, he occupied himself with the foundation of the Zoological Society, of which he was the first president, and with the promotion of missionary enterprise in the East. At the end of May 1826 he was attacked by apoplexy, and on 5 July 1826 he died suddenly, when only forty-five years old.

By his second wife, Sophia, daughter of J. Watson Hull of Baddow, Essex, whom he married in 1816, he had five children, of whom all but one died in the fatal climate of Sumatra. He was a LL.D., a F.R.S., and a member of many learned societies. In addition to the two above-mentioned works, he edited George Finlayson's 'Mission to Siam,' which appeared in 1826.

His statue, by Chantry, is in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey. The bust was engraved as the frontispiece to his wife's memoir of him. Another bust is in the Lion House at the Zoological Gardens. A portrait by George Joseph, painted in 1817, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

'His slender frame and weakly constitution,' says Crawfurd, one of his subordinates in Java and his successor at Singapore, 'contrasted with the energy and activity of his mind.' Activity, industry, imperturbable good temper, and political courage were the most remarkable endowments of his character. In the transaction of public business he was ready, rapid, and expert, partly the result of early training, but far more of innate energy and ability. He was not, perhaps, an original thinker, but readily adopted the notions of others, not always with adequate discrimination. Lord Minto's opinion of him, formed before the acquisition of Java, was that he was 'a very clever, able, active, and judicious man, perfectly versed in the Malay language and manners.' His genuine benevolence and sincere piety greatly commended him to the evangelical party and to the opponents of slavery, but his chief title to remembrance is that he secured to Great Britain the maritime supremacy of the eastern seas. [Lady Raffles's Memoir of Sir T. S. Raffles, 1830; D. C. Boulger's Sir Stamford Raffles, 1897; Crawfurd's Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands; Lord Minto in India, 1880; Gent. Mag. 1826, ii. 78; Ann. Reg. 1826; Edinb. Rev. xxxi. 413, li. 396; Lord's Lost Possessions of England, 1896, pp. 240-68.]

John Andrew Hamilton, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 47. pgs. 161-165.

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