The Man Who Raffles Left Behind: William Farquhar (1774-1839)

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. 7 (April-June 2002), with readers of the Postcolonial Web. It appears with his permission and that of the Raffles Town Club, which retains the copyright.

5. Controversy and Conclusion

Despite Farquhar's attempts to stake his claim as the founder of the British settlement of Singapore, it was Raffles who received most of the credit and recognition -- from his widow's Memoir of 1830 to Boulger's biography of 1897, to the various biographical studies of the 20th century from Egerton and Coupland to Wurtzburg and Collis. In Singapore Stamford Raffles is commemorated by various road and place names, and institutions. The solitary street named after Farquhar, in the Kampong Glam area, has disappeared with urban renewal. This was actually near the property that Farquhar bequeathed to his local Eurasian mistress and their children, his first family. He later married a Scottish lady in 1828, and had another family -- for details (Bastin 19-20).

However, some historians of Singapore have tried to redress the balance. Ironically, it was a former Raffles Professor of History, Dr Ken Tregonning, who championed Farquhar at Raffles' expense. Tregonning wrote:

[In February 1819 Raffles] left behind him William Farquhar, the unsung hero of the first four years of Singapore. Farquhar set to work at once to implement his instructions. [He] had innumerable [...] worries. [...] In addition Farquhar had an additional burden to carry in that Raffles, remote and almost unreachable in Bencoolen, regarded any deviation from instructions as insubordination and took it as a personal insult. In the handling of Farquhar, Raffles is shown at his worst. [...] One of the clues to the character of this impetuous, ambitious, and clever man is in his size; he was small of stature. Like most small men, he endeavoured to make up for what he lacked by a fierce watching of rights, by self assertion; he took umbrage very quickly. Farquhar was to have a most difficult time [...]. Singapore remained British, in the final outcome, because unlike the other settlements initiated by Raffles, it was found worth keeping; it saved itself by its own exertions (152-153).

Dr C.M.Turnbull has also distributed the credit between Raffles, Farquhar, and Crawfurd in her History of Singapore,1819-1988, ch.1. I have also attempted a revaluation in the book which I edited with Edwin Lee, A History of Singapore, ch.3. I have apportioned credit not only among the three British administrators, but also extended it to the other pioneers of early colonial Singapore.

With the donation of the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings by Mr G.K.Goh, and its exhibition in the Singapore History Museum, there is further belated recognition of Farquhar's role, not only in the founding process of colonial Singapore, but also in the promotion of the natural history of this region. Hopefully, the interest in the latter will help in an understanding of the former. Dr Bastin's contribution to the book on the Collection greatly assists us in this recognition and reappraisal. The Singapore Post also featured Farquhar's Collection in postage stamps stamps issued in February and March 2002.

References and Further Reading

Bastin, John. "William Farquhar: His Life and Interest in Natural History", in The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings. Singapore: G.K.Goh, 1999, vol.1, pp.11-25.

Boulger, Demetrius C. The Life of Stamford Raffles [1897, 1899]. Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1999, ch.9 and 11.

Chew, Ernest C.T."The Foundation of a British Settlement", in Chew, Ernest C.T. and Edwin Lee, eds. A History of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991, ch.3.

Hill, A.H., trans.The Hikayat Abdullah. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford UP,1970.

Tregonning, K.G. The British in Malaya: The First 40 Years 1786-1826. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965, chapter 10.

Turnbull, C.M. A History of Singapore 1819-1988. 2nd ed. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988, ch.1.

Wurtzburg, Charles Edward. Raffles of the Eastern Isles. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984, ch.21-31.

Related Materials

Main Web Page Singapore [History]

Last modified: 12 October 2002