Stamford Raffles & the Founding of Modern Singapore

Singapore - Scott #40 (1955)
Singapore – Scott #40 (1955)

On January 29, 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, FRS, arrived at Singapore after having landed on Saint John’s Island the previous day. He soon recognized the island as a natural choice for the new port.The establishment of a British trading post there by Raffles led to its founding as a British colony in 1824. This event has generally been understood to mark the founding of colonial Singapore, a break from its status as a port in ancient times during the Srivijaya and Majapahit eras, and later, as part of Melaka and Johor. The English name of Singapore is an anglicisation of the native Malay name for the country, Singapura, which was in turn derived from Sanskrit Siṃhapura (सिंहपुर) in which siṃha is “lion” and pura is “town” or “city”, hence the customary reference to the nation as the Lion City, and its inclusion in many of the nation’s symbols such as its coat of arms, andMerlion emblem. The central island has also been called Pulau Ujong as far back as the third century CE, literally “island at the end” (of the Malay Peninsula) in Malay.

A significant port and settlement known as Temasek, later renamed Singapura, existed on the island of Singapore in the 14th century. Vietnamese records indicate possible diplomatic relationship between Temasek and Vietnam in the 13th century, and Chinese documents describe settlements there in the 14th century. It was likely a vassal state of both the Majapahit Empire and the Siamese at different times in the 14th century. Around the end of the 14th century, its ruler Parameswara was attacked by either the Majapahit or the Siamese, forcing him to move on to Melaka where he founded the Sultanate of Malacca, Archaeological evidence suggests that the main settlement on Fort Canning was abandoned around this time, although a small-scale trading settlement continued in Singapore for some time afterwards.

Thomas Stamford Raffles, “Engraved by Thomson, from a Miniature in possession of Mr. Raffles” – stipple engraving on paper by James Thomson, January 1824. Currently in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Malay archipelago was gradually taken over by the European colonial powers, beginning with the Portuguese conquest of Malacca Sultanate in 1511. In 1613, the Portuguese burnt down a trading settlement at the mouth of the Singapore River, after which Singapore lapsed into insignificance in the history of the region for two hundred years. The early dominance of the Portuguese was challenged during the 17th century by the Dutch, who came to control most of the region’s ports. The Dutch established a monopoly over trade within the archipelago, particularly in spices, then the region’s most important product. Other colonial powers, including the British, were limited to a relatively minor presence in that period.

Stamford Raffles was born July 6, 1781, on the ship Ann off the coast of Port Morant, Jamaica, to Captain Benjamin Raffles and Anne Raffles (née Lyde). His father was a Yorkshireman who had a burgeoning family and little luck in the West Indies trade during the American Revolution, sending the family into debt. The little money the family had went into sending Stamford to a boarding school. In 1795, at the age of 14, Raffles started working as a clerk in London for the British East India Company, the trading company that shaped many of Britain’s overseas conquests.

In 1805, he was sent to Prince of Wales Island, Malaya, starting his long association with Southeast Asia. He started with a post under Philip Dundas, the Governor of Penang, and was appointed assistant secretary to the new governor later that year. At this time he also made the acquaintance of Thomas Otho Travers, who would accompany him for the next twenty years. His knowledge of the Malay language, as well as his wit and ability, gained him favor with Baron Minto, Governor-General of India, and he was sent to Malacca.

Map of Java based on surveys by Sir Stamford Raffles.
Map of Java based on surveys by Sir Stamford Raffles.

In 1811, after the annexation of the Kingdom of Holland by France during Napoleon’s war, Raffles had no choice but to leave the country. He mounted a military expedition against the Dutch and French in Java, Indonesia. The war was swiftly conducted by Admiral Robert Stopford, General Frederick Augustus Wetherall, and Colonel Robert Rollo Gillespie, who led a well-organized army against an army of mostly French conscripts with little proper leadership. The previous Dutch governor, Herman Willem Daendels, had built a well-defended fortification at Meester Cornelis (now Jatinegara), and at the time, the governor, Jan Willem Janssens, mounted a brave but ultimately futile defense at the fortress. The British, led by Colonel Gillespie, stormed the fort and captured it within three hours. Janssens attempted to escape inland but was captured.

The British invasion of Java took a total of forty-five days, during which Raffles was appointed the Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch East Indies by Baron Minto before hostilities formally ceased. He took his residence at Buitenzorg and despite having a small subset of Britons as his senior staff, he kept many of the Dutch civil servants in the governmental structure. During the relatively brief British rule in Java, Raffles negotiated peace and mounted some significant military expeditions against local Javanese princes to subjugate them to British rule.

During his lieutenant-governorship, Raffles placed some restrictions on the local slave trade in line with wider British policy across its Asian territories, although slavery remained widespread and Raffles himself was served by a large retinue of slaves at his official residences in Java. Under Raffles’s aegis, a large number of ancient monuments in Java were systematically catalogued for the first time. The first detailed English-language account of Prambanan was prepared by Colin Mackenzie while Borobudur was surveyed and cleared of vegetation by H. C. Cornelius.

 The memorial to Olivia Mariamne Raffles, Raffles' first wife, erected by him along the Kanarielaan in the National Botanical Gardens (now the Bogor Botanical Gardens). Raffles re-landscaped these gardens, which were established in 1744 in Buitenzorg (now Bogor), West Java.
The memorial to Olivia Mariamne Raffles, Raffles’ first wife, erected by him along the Kanarielaan in the National Botanical Gardens (now the Bogor Botanical Gardens). Raffles re-landscaped these gardens, which were established in 1744 in Buitenzorg (now Bogor), West Java.

Under the harsh conditions of the island, his wife, Olivia, died on November 26, 1814, an event that devastated Raffles. In 1815, he left again for England shortly before the island of Java was returned to control of the Netherlands following the Napoleonic Wars, under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. Raffles had been removed from his post by the East India Company ahead of the handover and officially replaced by John Fendall on account of the poor financial performance of the colony during his administration and allegations of financial impropriety on his own part. He sailed to England in early 1816 to clear his name and, en route, visited Napoleon, who was in exile at St. Helena, but found him unpleasant and unimpressive.

In 1817, Raffles wrote and published a book entitled The History of Java, describing the history of the island from ancient times. He was knighted that year and created a Knight Bachelor by the Prince Regent whose daughter, Princess Charlotte, was particularly close to him. At the publication of the book, he also stopped using the name “Thomas”, preferring to use his middle name, “Stamford”, possibly to avoid confusion amongst his associates with Sir Thomas Sevestre or his cousin Thomas Raffles who bore the same name.

The History of Java by Thomas Stamford Raffles
The History of Java by Thomas Stamford Raffles

On February 22, 1817, Raffles married his second wife, Sophia Hull, and later set sail to Bencoolen (present day Bengkulu in Indonesia) to take up his new post of Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen, arriving there on March 19, 1818. He believed that the British should find a way to challenge the dominance of the Dutch in the area. The trade route between China and British India passed through the Malacca Strait, and with the growing trade with China, that route would become increasingly important. However, the Dutch had tight control over the trade in the region and intended to enforce the exclusive rights of its company ships to trade, and that trade should be conducted at its entrepot Batavia. British trading ships were heavily taxed at Dutch ports, stifling British trade in the region.

Raffles reasoned that the way to challenge the Dutch was to establish a new port in the region. Existing British ports were not in a strategic enough position to becoming major trading centers. Penang was too far north of the southern narrow part of Straits of Malacca controlled by the Dutch, whereas Bencoolen faced the Indian Ocean near the Sunda Strait, a much less important area as it is too far away from the main trading route. Many other possible sites were either controlled by the Dutch, or had other problems.

Despite the prestige connected with the title of Lieutenant-Governor, Bencoolen was a colonial backwater whose only real export was pepper and only the murder of a previous Resident, Thomas Parr, gained it any attention back home in Britain. Raffles found the place wrecked, and set about reforms immediately, mostly similar to what he had done in Java — abolishing slavery and limiting cockfighting and such games. To replace the slaves, he used a contingent of convicts, already sent to him from India.

The competition in the area, between Raffles and the aggressive Dutch de jure Governor, Elout, certainly led at least in part to the later Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. Raffles looked into alternatives in the area — namely Bangka, which had been ceded to the Dutch after its conquest by the British during its occupation of Java. Bintan was also under consideration. Despite the fact that Francis Light overlooked the island before settling upon Penang in 1786 (and having tried to persuade the British East India Company to colonize the island of Phuket where I live), the Riau Archipelago was an attractive choice just to the south of the Malay Peninsula, for its proximity to Malacca.

In his correspondences with Calcutta, Raffles emphasized the need to establish a certain amount of influence with the native chiefs, which had greatly waned since the return of the Dutch. Raffles sent Thomas Travers as an ambassador to the Dutch, to possibly negotiate an expansion of British economic interests. When this failed, and when Raffles’ own expeditions into his new dominion found only treacherous terrain and few exportable goods, his desire to establish a better British presence was cemented.

Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, oil on canvas by George Francis Joseph, 1817. Currently in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery.
Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, oil on canvas by George Francis Joseph, 1817. Currently in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery.

However, the Anglo-Dutch Convention of 1814 was not completely clear, especially on the issue of certain possessions such as Padang. The Convention of 1814 only returned Dutch territory that was held before 1803, which did not include Padang. Raffles asserted the British claim personally, leading a small expedition to the Sultanate of Minangkabau. Yet, as Raffles confirmed with the sultan regarding the absolute British influence of the area, he realized that the local rulers had only limited power over the well-cultivated and civilized country, and the treaty was largely symbolic and had little actual force.

Major William Farquhar, the British Resident of Malacca, had been attempting to negotiate commercial treaties with the local chiefs of the Riau Archipelago, especially before Raffles’s arrival. Farquhar was compelled to sign the treaty not with the official head of the sultanate, but rather, the Raja Muda (Regent or Crown Prince) of Riau. He noted it as a success and reported it as such to Raffles. Eventually Raffles settled on the island of Singapore, because of its position at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, near the Straits of Malacca, and possessed an excellent natural harbor, fresh water supplies, and timber for repairing ships. Most importantly, it was unoccupied by the Dutch.

Despite Lord Hastings’ less-than-stellar opinion of Raffles before (which had necessitated his trip to England to clear his name at the end of his tenure as Lieutenant-Governor of Java), the now well-connected and successful Raffles was able to secure permission to set up a settlement. At this point in Malaysian history the name Lion City was applied. The city was in a strategically advantageous position. Raffles was ordered not to provoke the Dutch. His subsequent actions were officially disavowed by the British government.

In London, Viscount Castlereagh attempted to quell Dutch fears, and continuing efforts were made to reach an agreement between the nations that eventually became the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London of 1824. As well as the treaty, instructions were sent out to Raffles to undertake far less intrusive actions; however, distance between the Far East and Europe meant that the orders had no chance of reaching Raffles in time.

Plaque and statue erected on the site where Stamford Raffles landed on Singapore Island, January 29, 1819. The statue is based on the original by Thomas Woolner. The original statue stands at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in Singapore. Photos taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 31, 2006.
Plaque and statue erected on the site where Stamford Raffles landed on Singapore Island, January 29, 1819. The statue is based on the original by Thomas Woolner. The original statue stands at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in Singapore. Photos taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on October 31, 2006.

After a brief survey of the Karimun Islands, on January 29, 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It was established that there was no Dutch presence on the island of Singapore. He found a Malay settlement at the mouth of the Singapore River, headed by a Temenggong (governor) for the Sultan of Johor. The Temenggong had originally moved to Singapore from Johor in 1811 with a group of Malays, and when Raffles arrived, there were an estimated 150 people governed by the Temenggong, mostly of them Malays, with around 30 Chinese.

Although the island was nominally ruled by Johor, the political situation was precarious for the Sultan of Johor at the time. The incumbent Sultan of Johor, Tengku Abdul Rahman, was controlled by the Dutch and the Bugis, and would never agree to a British base in Singapore. However, Abdul Rahman was Sultan only because his older brother, Tengku Hussein, also known as Tengku Long, had been away in Pahang getting married when their father died. Hussein was then living in exile in the Riau Islands

The contacts were friendly and Raffles, knowledgeable about the muddled political situation, took advantage to provide a rudimentary treaty between the nominal chiefs of the area that called for the exclusivity of trade and the British protection of the area. With the Temenggong’s help, Raffles smuggled Tengku Hussein to Singapore. He offered to recognize Hussein as the rightful Sultan of Johor, and provide him with a yearly payment; in return, Hussein would grant the British East India Company the right to establish a trading post on Singapore. In the agreement, Sultan Husain would receive a yearly sum of 5,000 Spanish dollars with the Temenggong receiving a yearly sum of 3,000 Spanish dollars, both massive sums at the time, roughly equivalent to £287,000 and £172,000 now.

Statue of Stamford Raffles by Thomas Woolner in front of the clock tower of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in Singapore (originally called Victoria Memorial Hall). On February 6, 1919, during celebrations of the centenary of Singapore's founding,this statue was moved from the Padang to the front of the Memorial Hall. The statue was complemented with a new semicircular colonnade and a pool. Photo taken by Calvin Teo on July 6, 2006.
Statue of Stamford Raffles by Thomas Woolner in front of the clock tower of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in Singapore (originally called Victoria Memorial Hall). On February 6, 1919, during celebrations of the centenary of Singapore’s founding,this statue was moved from the Padang to the front of the Memorial Hall. The statue was complemented with a new semicircular colonnade and a pool. Photo taken by Calvin Teo on July 6, 2006.

This agreement was ratified with a formal treaty signed on February 6, 1819. Raffles declared the foundation of what was to become modern Singapore on that date, securing the transfer of control of the island to the East India Company. With much pomp and ceremony, the official treaty was read aloud in languages representing all nations present, as well as the Malay and Chinese inhabitants.

Farquhar was officially named the Resident of Singapore and Raffles was named as “Agent to the Most Noble the Governor-General with the States of Rhio (Riau), Lingin and Johor”. Although ownership of the post was to be exclusively British, explicit orders were given to Farquhar to maintain free passage of ships through the Strait of Singapore and a small military presence was established alongside the trading post.

Replica of a bust of Stamford Raffles by Francis Chantrey at the National Library in Singapore.
Replica of a bust of Stamford Raffles by Francis Chantrey at the National Library in Singapore.

 Raffles returned to Bencoolen the day after the signing of the treaty, leaving William Farquhar as the Resident and Commandant of the new settlement,[ supported initially by some artillery and a single regiment of Indian soldiers. Establishing a trading port from scratch was in itself a daunting prospect, but Farquhar’s administration was, in addition, practically unfunded, as Raffles did not wish his superiors to view Singapore as a liability. In addition, it was forbidden from earning revenue by imposing port duties, Raffles having decided from the outset that Singapore would be a free port.

In spite of these difficulties, the new colony rapidly proved to be a spectacular success. As news of the free port spread across the archipelago, Bugis, Peranakan Chinese, and Arab traders flocked to the island, seeking to circumvent the Dutch trading restrictions. During the first year of operation, 400,000 Spanish dollars worth of trade passed through Singapore. It has been estimate that when Raffles arrived in 1819, the total population of the whole of Singapore was around a thousand, mostly of various local tribes. By 1821, the island’s population had increased to around five thousand, and the trade volume was $8 million. By 1825, the population had passed the ten thousand mark, with a trade volume of $22 million. By comparison, the trade volume for the long-established port of Penang was $8.5 million during the same year.

Raffles returned to Singapore in 1822. Although Farquhar had successfully led the settlement through its difficult early years, Raffles was critical of many of the decisions he had made. For instance, in order to generate much-needed revenue for the government, Farquhar had resorted to selling licenses for gambling and the sale of opium, which Raffles saw as social evils. Raffles was also appalled by the slave trade tolerated by Farquhar. Raffles arranged for the dismissal of Farquhar, who was replaced by John Crawfurd. Raffles took over the administration himself, and set about drafting a set of new policies for the settlement.

1822 Plan of the Town of Singapore by Lieutenant Philip Jackson, who was the engineer and land surveyor tasked to oversee the physical development of Singapore. Commonly known as the Jackson Plan, it is now displayed in the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore.

Raffles banned slavery, closed all gambling dens, prohibited the carrying of weapons, and imposed heavy taxation to discourage what he considered vices such as drunkenness and opium smoking. Dismayed at the disarray of the colony, he also arranged to organize Singapore into functional and ethnic subdivisions under the drafted Raffles Plan of Singapore. In response Raffles instituted new policies and set up a committee headed by the colony’s engineer, Phillip Jackson to draw up a plan, now known as the Jackson Plan, based on instructions by Raffles.  Today, the remnants of this organization like the Raffles Town Plan can be found in the ethnic neighborhoods, within public housing estates or various places across Singapore.

Further agreements of the Malay chiefs would gradually erode their influence and control over Singapore. In December 1822, the Malay chiefs’ claim to Singapore’s revenue was changed to a monthly payment. On June 7, 1823, Raffles arranged for another agreement with the Sultan and Temenggong to buy out their judicial power and rights to the lands except for the areas reserved for the Sultan and Temenggong. They would gave up their rights to numerous functions on the island, including the collection of port taxes, in return for lifelong monthly payments of $1500 and $800 respectively. This agreement brought the island squarely under British law, with the proviso that it would take into account Malay customs, traditions and religious practices, “where they shall not be contrary to reason, justice or humanity.”

A further treaty, the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, was arranged by the second Resident John Crawfurd with the Malay chiefs and signed on August 2, 1824, to replace the Singapore Treaty. Singapore, including its nearby islands, was officially fully ceded to the East India Company, and in return, the chiefs would have their debts cancelled and receive an allowance for life, with each given an additional lump sum of 20,000 Spanish dollars.

On June 9, 1823, feeling that his work in establishing Singapore was finished, Raffles boarded a ship for home, but not before a stop in Batavia to visit his old home and adversary, van der Capellen. A final stop in Bencoolen followed. Tragedy befell Raffles once more when his youngest daughter Flora Nightingall, born on September 19, died on November 28 while still in Bencoolen. On February 2, 1824, Raffles and his family embarked on the East Indiaman Fame for England. Unfortunately, she caught fire 50 miles from Bencoolen the evening after she sailed. All aboard were able to take to her boats and were saved, although the ship herself was totally destroyed. The fire claimed all his drawings and papers. He would never return to Singapore.

A survey map of Singapore showing the old lines of Singapore; the Singapore River; and Rocky Point, where the ancient sandstone slab which the Singapore Stone is a fragment of once stood. Fort Canning hill (centre) was home to its ancient and early colonial rulers. The map was drawn on June 18, 1825. From the India Office Records of the British Library, London.
A survey map of Singapore showing the old lines of Singapore; the Singapore River; and Rocky Point, where the ancient sandstone slab which the Singapore Stone is a fragment of once stood. Fort Canning hill (centre) was home to its ancient and early colonial rulers. The map was drawn on June 18, 1825. From the India Office Records of the British Library, London.

The status of Singapore as a British possession was cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, which carved up the Malay archipelago between the two colonial powers. The British gained dominance in the area north of the Straits of Malacca, including Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, while the entirety of Sumatra became Dutch. The Malay Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent were both free of Dutch interference. This division had far-reaching consequences for the region: modern-day Malaysia and Singapore correspond to the British area established in the treaty, and modern-day Indonesia to the Dutch. In 1826, Singapore was grouped together with Penang and Malacca into a single administrative unit, the Straits Settlements, under the British East India Com

Raffles finally returned to England on August 22, 1824, over a year after he left Singapore. His longest tenure in Singapore had been only eight months, but he was considered the founder of the colony nevertheless. Arriving in England in poor health, Sir Stamford and Lady Raffles convalesced in Cheltenham until September 1824, after which he entertained distinguished guests in both London and his home. He also made plans to stand for parliament, but this ambition was never realized. They removed to a London address at Berners Street at the end of November 1824, just in time to have a war of words with Farquhar, who had also arrived in the city, in front of the Court of Directors of the EIC regarding Singapore. Despite raising several severe charges against Raffles, Farquhar was ultimately unable to discredit him; he was denied a chance to be restored to Singapore, but was given a military promotion instead.

With the Singapore matter settled, Raffles turned to his other great interests — botany and zoology. Raffles was a founder (in 1825) and first president (elected April 1826) of the Zoological Society of London and the London Zoo. Meanwhile, he was not only not granted a pension, but was called to pay over twenty-two thousand pounds sterling for losses incurred during his administration. Raffles replied by clarifying his actions: and he decided to move to his country estate, Highwood, north London, but before the issue was resolved, he was already much too ill.

Raffles died at Highwood House in Mill Hill, north London, a day before his forty-fifth birthday, on July 5, 1826, of apoplexy. His estate amounted to around ten thousand pounds sterling, which was paid to the Company to cover his outstanding debt. Because of his anti-slavery position, he was refused burial inside the local parish church (St. Mary’s, Hendon) by the vicar, Theodor Williams, whose family had made its money in Jamaica in the slave trade. A brass tablet was finally placed in 1887 but the actual whereabouts of his body was not known until 1914 when it was found in a vault. When the church was extended in the 1920s, his tomb was incorporated into the body of the building and a square floor tablet with inscription marked the spot.

Raffles was survived by his second wife Sophia Hull and daughter Ella, and predeceased by his other four children in Bencoolen. Ella died in 1840, aged nineteen. Sophia remained at Highwood House until her death in 1858, at the age of 72. Her tomb and memorial may be seen in St Paul’s Church graveyard, Mill Hill, close to the rear door of the church. All his other children remained buried overseas. Thirty three years after his death, Raffles’s substantial collection of Indonesian antiquities and ethnography was donated to the British Museum by his nephew, Rev William Charles Raffles Flint.

Singapore – Scott #40 (1955) used
Singapore – Scott #40 (1955) reverse showing watermark

Although but a single country — Malaysia — lies between my home in southern Thailand and Singapore on the tip of the longp peninsula, I last visited the “fine” city-state on October 31, 2006. I was there with in order to sercure my Non-Immigrant (Type-O) visa for the Kingdom of Thailand (O is for supporting a Thai family; thankfully, I’ve been on Type-B visas — for employment — nearly nine years now). I had recently returned to stamp collecting following an almost 10-year hiatus and made a special point of visiting the excellent Singapore Philatelic Museum while there. I even got my photo placed on a personalized stamp sheet (I’ll have to find a way to include it on ASAD some day). Currently, I am planning to return in order to attend SINGPEX 2019 which whill be held from July 31 until August 4.

On September 4, 1955, as part of a regular set of pictorial definitives bearing the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, Malayan Singapore released a 1-dollar stamp picturing the riverfront statue of Stamford Raffles (Scott #40). The purple, blue and white stamp was recess-printed with a multiple crown and script CA watermark and perforated 13½ x 12. I am somewhat surprised that Singapore hasn’t issued a stamp marking today’s 200th anniversary of Raffles’ landing. Perhaps they are planning something for later in the year.

Coat of arms of Sir Stamford Raffles
Coat of arms of Sir Stamford Raffles
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