Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was an English colonial administrator, historian, and founder of Singapore. A man of vision, industry, and feeling, he made incalculable contributions to the knowledge of the Malay Archipelago and to the British overseas empire.

Born on July 6, 1781, off the coast of Jamaica on board a ship under the command of his father, Benjamin Raffles, Stamford Raffles became a clerk in the office of the East India Company in London at the age of 14. In 1805 he was sent to Penang to serve as assistant secretary. Prior to his departure he married a widow, Mrs. Olivia Fancourt, who died in 1814.

On the trip out, Raffles studied the Malay language intensively, and his proficiency in this then little-known language was remarked upon by those who came in contact with him. Three years after his arrival his health broke, and he was sent to Malacca to recuperate. The East India Company was on the point of abandoning this port, but a report which Raffles prepared and in which he argued the superiority of Malacca over Penang as a potential port persuaded the company to rescind its order.

Java Annexation

Lord Minto, the governor general of India, was so impressed with the report that he called Raffles on 2 months' leave to Calcutta. During his visit Raffles convinced Lord Minto of the necessity of annexing Java, then in French hands, and the governor general appointed him agent to the governor general of the Malay States. Raffles then returned to Malacca and participated in preparations for the attack on Java.

In August 1811 a British fleet of some 100 ships with an expeditionary force of about 12,000 men arrived off Batavia, and the city fell without a struggle. Gen. Janssens retreated to Semarang on the north-central coast of Java; in September he capitulated to the British. Lord Minto thereupon appointed Raffles lieutenant general of Java and admonished him, "While we are in Java, let us do all the good we can."

Raffles introduced numerous reforms, among which were the division of Java into 16 residencies, the introduction of a land tax, and improvements in the legal and judicial system; he also attempted to abolish slavery. He himself regarded his new land-tenure system, which prevented the native rulers from exacting feudal services, as the most solid accomplishment of his administration. The lands which were withdrawn from the control of feudal rulers were leased on a short-term basis at a moderate rental and were assessed at the value of two-fifths of the rice crop, with the remainder of the yield free of assessment and the growers exempt from personal taxes.

In spite of his excellent intentions and superb knowledge of the people, their language, and their customs, Raffles was not able to make Java a profitable enterprise. His hope of turning Batavia into the hub of a new British insular empire was dashed, and when the Netherlands regained its independence, Lord Castlereagh vigorously opposed British retention of the Dutch holdings in the East.

Raffles sent in a report explaining the great importance of Java to Britain, but his failure to make Java financially viable, together with Britain's desire to conciliate the Dutch, militated against a reversal of Lord Castlereagh's decision, and in March 1816 Raffles was removed from office and recalled. The following year he married Sophia Hull in London. His lasting contributions in Java can be seen in the fact that when the Dutch received this island back they adopted many of his reforms.

Founding of Singapore

In November 1817 Raffles, now Sir Stamford, departed England for Ft. Marlborough (or Benkoelen), in southern Sumatra, where he assumed the residentship of this town. He and Col. R. J. Farquhar, former British resident at Amboina, were on the lookout for a strategically situated way station in the Malay Archipelago which would play in the East the role Malta was playing in the West.

On Jan. 28, 1819, they landed on the Island of Singapore and immediately recognized it as ideal for their purpose. They arrived at an agreement with the Sultan of Johore, and on February 6 a treaty was signed marking the establishment of Singapore as a British settlement. Farquhar was installed as its first governor under the supervision of Raffles at Benkoelen. As Charles E. Wurtzburg (1954) wrote, "It would be difficult to imagine that, had there been no Raffles, there would have been any Singapore."

During the next 4 years four of Raffles's children died in Benkoelen; his health and that of his wife deteriorated; and in 1823 he submitted his resignation. Before leaving for England, however, he decided to pay a final visit to Singapore, where he remained 9 months. He planned the city, prepared laws, and laid the foundation of the Singapore Institution, a Malay school.

In 1824 Raffles returned to England to face a charge brought against him by the East India Company, which required him to repay to it a substantial sum for salaries and expenses that had been disbursed to him and only years later disallowed by the court of directors. Raffles was endeavoring to arrange payment when he became seriously ill again. On July 5, 1826, less than 3 months after receiving the court's letter demanding repayment, Raffles died of an apoplectic stroke.

In his short span of life Raffles had suffered numerous crushing blows which would have felled a lesser man. That he survived them in spite of a less than robust constitution can be explained, in part at least, by his tremendous interest in, and enthusiasm for, every aspect of life in the East. He was, at once, amateur natural scientist, archeologist, Oriental philologist, and reviver and active president of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences. An enduring monument to his knowledge and indefatigable industry is his famed History of Java (2 vols., 1817), which was the first comprehensive work on this subject and, although outdated, is still regarded as a classic in its field.

Further Reading

An intimate and contemporary account of Raffles is in Lady Sophia H. Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1830; new ed., 2 vols., 1835), which contains many private letters and public dispatches. Although there is no adequate biography of Raffles, the most extensive study is Charles E. Wurtzburg, Raffles of the Eastern Isles, edited by Clifford Witting (1954). A very readable account, with interesting plates, is Maurice Collis, Raffles (1966).

The following are less valuable because they make little use of the records in the India Office Library: Demetrius C. Boulger, The Life of Sir Stamford Raffles (1897); Hugh Edward Egerton, Sir Stamford Raffles: England in the Far East (1900); J. A. Bethune Cook, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1918); Reginald Coupland, Raffles: 1781-1826 (1926); Emily Hahn, Raffles of Singapore: A Biography (1946); and Colin Clair, Sir Stamford Raffles: Founder of Singapore (1963). Two important studies by John Bastin deal with Raffles's policies: Raffles' Ideas on the Land Rent System in Java and the Mackenzie Land Tenure Commission (1954) and The Native Policies of Sir Stamford Raffles in Java and Sumatra (1957).

Additional Sources

Raffles, Sophia, Lady, Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Singapore; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Raffles, Thomas Stamford, Sir, Statement of the services of Sir Stamford Raffles, Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Wurtzburg, C. E. (Charles Edward), Raffles of the Eastern Isles, Singapore; New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. □

views updated

Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford

Born July 6, 1781, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles is best known for his career in the East India Company, during which he played a central role in the British conquest and administration of Java, founded Singapore, devoted himself to ethnography and natural history, and published a seminal History of Java.

Raffles's first ten years with the East India Company were spent as a clerk in the company's London offices. In 1805 he secured an overseas appointment as assistant secretary to the Governor of Penang in 1805. Thereafter his avowed goals were the extension of British power over the key trade routes between India and China and the "improvement" of the territories he administered. His first action of note was to assist in planning an expedition led by Lord Minto, Governor General of India, which conquered the Dutch possession of Java in 1811. As a reward for his efforts, Minto appointed Raffles Lieutenant-Governor of the island and its dependencies. Raffles consolidated the conquest by deposing or intimidating Javanese rulers reluctant to recognize British supremacy. He also demonstrated his penchant for expansion by moving against Palembang in southeastern Sumatra (1812). Raffles deposed the sultan, set aside his only son and heir, and installed the sultan's more malleable brother as a British client.

In domestic terms Raffles's administration of Java (1811–1815) focused on the related goals of economic liberalization and "moral improvement." Between 1812 and 1815, he ended the Dutch system of forced commodity production at set prices and introduced a land tenure system similar to that found in the Ryotwari settlement, in which fixed land-rents were paid directly to the government by small tenants rather than intermediaries. Through such reforms, Raffles hoped to stimulate the economy, increase government revenues, and improve the prospects of the agricultural classes. He also forbade the sale of contracts for cockfighting and gaming (1811), took steps to restrict the trade in opium, and abolished the slave trade (1813). However, economic imperatives and resistance from the Company sometimes inhibited his efforts toward "moral" reform, as in the case of the opium trade.

Raffles's vision of Java as a permanent possession from which British influence would spread suffered a fatal setback in 1815, when it was returned to the Dutch as part of the Vienna settlement. In that same year, Raffles was dismissed and recalled to London by his superiors, who had become angered by his failure to make Java profitable, by allegations of financial impropriety on his part, and by his unapologetic expansionism. A vigorous defense of his administration, supported by his History of Java (1817), cleared him of all charges of wrongdoing and secured Raffles a knighthood and the Lieutenant-Governorship of Benkulu on Sumatra. Nevertheless, his appointment to such a backwater is a measure of the continuing official suspicion toward his policies.

At Benkulu (1817–1824), Raffles pursued his familiar policies of improvement and expansion. He sought to prevent the return of Dutch influence to Palembang and also advocated the extension of British control over the Straits of Malacca in 1818. Fearing a Dutch resurgence, Minto's replacement, Lord Hastings, approved Raffles's plan for the straits. Raffles then exploited a succession crisis in Johore to install (March 1819) a Sultan favorable to a British settlement at Singapore. Though put in an awkward position by this forward move into a region claimed by the Dutch, the British Government saw Singapore's strategic and commercial potential and recognized Raffles's acquisition. Raffles exercised direct supervision over Singapore only intermittently between 1819 and 1824, for less than a year all told, yet he remained the single most important influence over its early development: he designed the town plan, promulgated a constitution and code of laws, eradicated gaming, cock-fighting, and slavery, and founded a college.

His many professional responsibilities notwithstanding, Raffles was a devoted student of philology, ethnography, and natural history throughout his career. His History of Java made important contributions to scholarship in all these areas and long remained a foundation of colonial understandings of Java. Raffles also acted as patron and partner for others with similar interests, such as the American naturalist Dr. Thomas Horsfield, and was likewise instrumental in resuscitating the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences in 1812. An avid collector of artifacts, texts, and specimens, Raffles amassed an extensive collection, most of which was destroyed while en route to Britain in 1824. The remainder still constituted a significant addition to the body of scientific knowledge so important to quantifying, classifying, and possessing colonial holdings in Southeast Asia in later years. After his retirement to England, Raffles's interest in natural history occupied much of his time, and culminated in his foundation of the Zoological Society in London months before his death on July 5, 1826.

see also Java War; Singapore; Straits Settlements.


Barley, Nigel, ed. The Golden Sword: Sir Stamford Raffles and the East. London: British Museum Press, 1999.

Flower, Raymond. Raffles: The Story of Singapore. Beckenham, U.K.: Croom Helm, 1984.

Tarling, Nicholas. Imperial Britain in South-East Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Wurtzburg, Charles E. Raffles of the Eastern Isles. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954.

views updated

Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, 1781–1826, British East Indian administrator. He was one of the founders of Britain's empire in East Asia. Beginning his career (1795) as a clerk in the British East India Company, he was sent to Pinang, Malaya (Malaysia), in 1805 as assistant secretary. Through his knowledge of the Malay language and customs he played a large part in planning the capture of Java from the Dutch. He ruled Java as lieutenant governor (1811–15) and reduced the power of native princes. Raffles also reorganized the administration, launched reforms in taxation, abolished forced labor and feudal dues, and provided security of land tenure. Recalled (1815) on the eve of Java's restoration to the Dutch, he returned to England, where his History of Java (1817) was published. While lieutenant governor of Bencooleen in Sumatra (1818–23), he introduced coffee and sugar cultivation and established schools. He secured the transfer (1819) of Singapore to the East India Company and initiated policies that contributed greatly to Singapore's vital role in the lucrative China trade. Raffles was outstanding for his liberal attitude toward peoples under colonial rule, his rigorous suppression of the slave trade, and his zeal in collecting historical and scientific information. He played the chief role in founding the Zoological Society of London and was its first president. He was knighted in 1817.

See biographies by C. E. Wurtzberg (1954) and M. Collis (1966).

views updated

Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford (1781–1826). Raffles was born off the coast of Jamaica on board his father's merchantman. He joined the East India Company in 1795 and was appointed to Penang where he rapidly rose to be secretary to the council. In 1810 he was made agent to the Malay states to prepare an invasion of Java, then under the control of the Batavian Republic. He governed Java between 1811 and 1816, instituting far-reaching economic reforms. When the island was restored to the Dutch, he returned to England and was made a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1818 he became lieutenant-governor of Fort Marlborough (Sumatra). Fearing Dutch influence over the region, he persuaded the company to found a settlement at Singapore. He raised the flag there on 2 June 1819 and, by the time of his final return to England in 1824, had established it as an important port.

David Anthony Washbrook

views updated

Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford (1781–1826) British colonial administrator, founder of Singapore. When Java returned to Dutch rule (1816), Raffles bought the island of Singapore for the British East India Company (1819). Under his guidance, it developed rapidly into a prosperous free port.