Raffles Revisited: A Review & Reassessment of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826)

Ernest C. T. Chew, Associate Professor of History, National University of Singapore

Ernest Chew has graciously shared this essay, which first appeared in Raffles Town Club, vol. 6 (Jan-Mar 2002), with readers of the Postcolonial Web. It appears with his permission and that of the Raffles Town Club, which retains the copyright.

2. Historical and Historiographical Review

The word "History" has several meanings. They range from the reality of past events ("what really happened") to the recording of certain events (eyewitness accounts or primary sources) to later re-views or writings of past events (secondary sources like History books or articles). The first definition deals with the objective reality of events as they happened. We try to capture that reality through the records of contemporary participants and observers, and then through the writings of historians and others, all of which are unavoidably subjective views and interpretations. When you review the literature on Raffles, you will soon come across different and often conflicting accounts of your Subject. This is because Raffles was already a controversial figure in his lifetime, and controversy has pursued him after his death on 5 July 1826, a day short of his 45th birthday. He had a remarkable career for such a young man. Raffles was born at sea, as his father was a ship's captain, in the West Indies, but spent most of his career in the East Indies. As his father died when he was young, Raffles was faced with adversity, and was self-educated. From a humble clerk in the East India Company in London, he was posted to be Assistant Secretary to the Governor in Penang in 1805, and so impressed his superiors by his language and other skills that the Governor-General of Bengal, Lord Minto, appointed him Lieutenant-Governor of Java in 1811, after Java was captured from the Dutch to prevent it from falling into the hands of Napoleonic France. He was only 30.

Out of a mixture of his own disputed judgments and others' jealousy, Raffles became a subject of controversy and a target of attack, from British as well as Dutch adversaries. To some, Raffles was an admired reformer, who wanted to abolish the slave trade, and ameliorate the lot of the people. To others, he was simply a young and ambitious schemer. Though Raffles lost the Governorship of Java in 1816, when it was returned to the Dutch, he was knighted by the Prince Regent in 1817, in recognition of his Java services as well as his two-volume History. This must have incensed his opponents. Controversy and conflict intensified when Raffles as Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen from 1818 onwards launched a campaign to prevent the returning Dutch from gaining a monopolistic hold over the trade of the Malay Archipelago. While he managed to secure limited authorisation from the Governor-General, Lord Hastings, for his search for another British base at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca, he faced opposition from both the British Governor of Penang and EIC Directors, as well as the Dutch, after he 'founded' a British 'factory' or settlement in Singapore in February 1819. However, the factory and free-port flourished, mainly under the careful administration of the first Resident, Major (later Colonel) William Farquhar (1819-23), and Raffles was saved by Singapore's success. Yet the very Anglo-Dutch Treaty (of March 1824) which included Dutch recognition that Singapore was in the British sphere, meant that British Bencoolen in Sumatra would be exchanged for Dutch-reoccupied Malacca in Malaya. Raffles had already been relieved of his Bencoolen Governorship, and returned to a modest, and hard-fought, pension in London. And it was left to the second Resident, Dr John Crawfurd, to sign a treaty with the Malay rajas in August 1824, which made Singapore a British possession. Raffles only lived a couple of years after that, dying of what Dr James Khoo thinks was a brain haemorrhage.

As I noted about 20 years ago, there have been two main historiographical traditions in writings about Raffles since his death: first, the "hagiographical" British tradition, (hagiography comes from "hagios" or "saint"), and second, the hostile Dutch tradition.

First, most of the British biographies of Raffles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were written during an age of British colonial expansion, and regarded Raffles as a noble pioneer or builder of empire. They drew on Lady Raffles' Memoir, and other British records, and painted a highly favourable picture of Raffles. They included the biography by Demetrius Boulger (1897; with subsequent editions), and that by Sir Reginald Coupland (1926), who subsequently wrote a biography of Raffles friend and contemporary, William Wilberforce.

Other favourable and interesting biographies were written by an American, Emily Hahn (who was married to a British scholar, Professor C.R.Boxer), in 1946 (reissued, 1968) and the English writer Maurice Collis in 1966. Emily Hahn also used some Dutch records.

In stark contrast were 19th-century Dutch writings on Raffles, which were openly hostile to him because of his 5-year Governorship of Java, and his "founding" of Singapore. Dutch officials highlighted his alleged abuses of power, and anti-Dutch activities. This tradition is reflected in a later study of Raffles by Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, subtitled "Schemer or Reformer?"

Mediating between these two poles are more recent scholarly books and articles, notably by the leading scholar on Raffles and his circle, Dr John Bastin. Dr Bastin has written several books and articles on aspects of Raffles' career and contributions, and a biography of Lady Raffles. I have also attempted a reappraisal of Raffles' role in the founding of Singapore. In so doing, I was labelled by the London Times, along with BG George Yeo, as a revisionist, seeking to reduce Raffles' reputation!


Alatas, Syed Hussein.Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: Schemer or Reformer? Singapore: Angus & Robertson, 1971.

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Last modified: 12 October 2002