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Sir Stamford Raffles: a scholarly exhibition at the British Museum

Young Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) was first employed as a clerk at the British East India Company in 1795 and ten years later he was posted to Malaya with the Company. Lord Minto, governor-general of India, appointed Raffles as an agent to the governor-general of the Malay States in Oct 1810. Very quickly Java was seiz­ed from the Dutch, and Raffles was appointed Lt-Governor of Java.

As governor of Java, Raff­les might have slipped back into tradit­ional colonising behaviour, but no! Instead he int­roduced partial self-government, ban­ned the slave trade, restricted the opium trade, led an exped­it­ion to re­build Borobudur and other important local sites, and ended the hat­ed, exploitative system of Dutch land management.

Raffles’ views were modern. As well as being anti-slavery and against the cap­italist exploitation of rural workers, he disliked cock-fighting and gamb­ling, distrusted missionary proselytism and despised capit­al pun­ishment. He was sensitive to, and interested in local cult­ure. Raffles went out of his way to learn the local languages, esp­ec­ially Malay. And he was a passionate collector of Javanese cul­t­ural artefacts and manuscripts. Raffles was a free trader and imperial­ist, but not an exp­loit­er of loCAL populations.

So why did he eventually lose his position in the East India Co? Raffles’ unilateral abolition of slavery in Indonesia was not going to go down well with the men. The Company forced Raffles to return to Britain in 1817, to vindicate his reputation at the end of his term as Governor-General of Java. Still, he used the time wisely, writing and pub­lishing a scholarly book: History of Java. He was no lightweight; the collections of scholarly relics and records that Raffles brought back from the East were hugely valuable.

In Dec 1818, Raffles went in search of a new British settlement to replace Malacca. Malacca was one of the many British territories that had been returned to the Dutch under the Treaty of Vienna (1815). Raffles feared that without a strategic British trading post located within the Straits, the Dutch could gain control of trade again. Raffles arrived in Singapore on board a ship in Jan 1819, accompanied by William Farquhar and a sepoy.

Javanese puppet, with ornate head-dress and costume
and limbs manipulated by horn rods. 
Photo credit British Museum

So why did he choose Singapore as the centre for the East India Co’s empire? A] The small island was geographically half way between India and China. B] There were no dreaded Dutchmen on the island of Singapore. C] Raffles believed that Singapore had once been a fine city in the original, pre-Muslim Malayan civilisation.

By 1819, the area had been little more than a village with fishing nets and some indig­en­ous Malays. So it was only when Raf­fles signed an off­icial treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah in Feb 1819 that the British East India Company had the right to set up a trading post in the new British settlement. The Sultan was handsomely paid, of course.

Raffles wanted a plan to remodel Singapore into a modern city. His plan comprised separate clusters to house the diff­erent ethnic groups and the provision of facilities: roads, schools and government buildings - Arab St, Chinatown and Little India all survive. Originally a swamp land, the areas grew into a thriving business district in the 1800s when traders brought spices, coffee, gold dust and pearls.

Raffles also devised a set of regulations for Singapore’s harbour, helping to establish the settlement as a free port. Raffles also instituted a court system and magistrates, to ensure order in the settlement. Finally one of Raffles’ priorities was the formation of an institution of higher learning to educate the sons of the Malay chiefs; to teach the native languages to officers of the East India Co; and to collect the literature on the laws and customs of the country. Raffles laid the foundation stone of the Singapore Instit­ution Free School in June 1823.

Soon after he returned to Britain in 1824 and with the Singapore mat­ter settled, Raffles turned to his passion for botany and zool­ogy. This talented man was a founder and first president of the Zoological Society of London, in 1825.

Decades later, Singapore had grown as a crucial cross­­road for trade and shipping. The British used the position as a tactical tr­ading outpost along the spice route. Established 1886, Raffles Hotel grew as one of the last great colonial-style hotels, well known for its lux­urious accommod­ation and fine food. Raffles hotel still houses a tropical garden court­yard, museum and Vict­orian style theatre.

Portrait of Raffles
painted by George Francis Joseph. in 1817
National Portrait Gallery London.

The Raffles Hotel complex also includes a Museum where artef­acts of various types are disp­lay­ed. In 1987 the government declared the hotel a National Monument and two years later, the hotel was totally renovation.


Unfortunately most of Raffles’ treasures from Sumatra, and his official and personal papers, were lost. The ship intending to take them back to Britain in 1824 sunk, along with much of its precious treasure trove. Fortun­ately, the objects that did not drown are now in the British Museum. So while not much is known about Raf­f­les’ collecting practices in Sumatra, the objects now on display provide a vital record of the art and court culture of early-modern Java. While the purpose behind Raffles’ collection related to Enlightenment concepts, the objects themsel­ves provided glimpses of the relationships between colonisers and locals. Raff­les collected wonderful cultural objects during his years away, ob­jects that may otherwise have disappeared from the history books.

Raden Andaga mask; Dewi Bikang Mardeya mask; A high-ranking monkey mask; Demon Denawa Kecubung mask.
All masks made of wood and gold. All from early 1800s.
Photo credit British Museum

This year, until mid Jan 2020, the British Museum Exhibition is presenting Sir Stamford Raffles: Collecting in Southeast Asia, the rich variety of objects from Java and Sumatra collected by Sir Stamford Raffles. From theat­rical puppets, masks and musical instruments and scul­p­ture, his collection explores C19th Javanese soc­iety and its earlier Hindu-Buddhist traditions. The show investigates how Raffles assembled his coll­ection, shedding more light on collecting and colonialism in this part of the world. And it reveal how Raffles understood S.E Asian cultures.


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