When I visited Singapore in 2009, I was of course aware of the world famous Raffles Hotel. I even visited it, as many tourists do, to enjoy a Singapore Sling or two in the renowned Long Bar. During the course of my trip, I began to notice that the name Raffles popped up in many other places around the city-state: a hospital, a leading school, a shopping mall and numerous businesses, not to mention the elegant statue on the quayside of the man who bore this name, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. For a man who was an imperialist – something we generally frown upon now – he seemed remarkable popular in the country that he played a key part in establishing. He was viewed not as a man imposing one country’s governance upon another, but rather as a founding father, without whom the Singaporeans of today would not be enjoying such prosperous lives. This attitude intrigued me. It was therefore with considerable interest that I read Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, the first biography of Raffles to be written in over forty years.
While not full of the unequivocally glowing praise of earlier biographies, Stamford Raffles does come out of this book looking rather good. There was no denying that he was an imperialist, but given that imperialism of one form or another was a product of the age, you get the impression that he was a decent sort and much preferable to many other characters produced by the British Empire at the time. While he was an employee of the East India Company – an organisation interested only in extracting maximum profit out of the countries it involved itself with – he was a not entirely obedient employee. Much to the Company’s disgruntlement, Raffles took it upon himself to abolish slavery wherever he was sent, to ban cockfighting and gambling in areas he governed, and make many decisions for the benefit of the locals that seriously harmed short-term profits. He was all for free trade, but against large-scale capitalist exploitation in agriculture, for example, noting that, “when I see every man cultivating his own field, I cannot but think him far happier than when he is cultivating the field of another.”
To found a city-state is a remarkable achievement for anyone, but to do so with Raffles’ background was truly extraordinary. I had assumed that Raffles was an upper-class adventurer, but he was nothing of the sort. He came from a rather ordinary background; his father had a failed career as a sea captain and in later life largely left the financial upkeep of his wife and daughters to his only son. With next to no formal education, it was only with the assistance of a benevolent uncle that at age 14 he secured a clerk’s position at the East India Company. It took ten years of hard and rather dull graft in these offices before he was given sufficient notice to secure a posting to Penang in the East Indies (Malaysia). He married before he left, but still had to make arrangement for a proportion of his salary to be paid to his mother before he went – he also took one of his sisters with him with the express purpose of finding her a husband out East to reduce the financial burden placed upon him (it worked; she came to a “romantic understanding” with another passenger on the voyage).
Despite his lack of schooling, Raffles taught himself local languages, culture and politics. Despite angering the Company with his actions, he was a good enough employee to be raised to become Lieutenant-Governor of first Java, and later Penang and Singapore. He shipped back many artefacts from his time in South East Asia (some of which now reside in the British Museum) to prove to people that the local populations were “not savages” as was popularly thought. Yet he was also a man with a darker side – he argued extensively with a man named William Farquhar, who helped him found Singapore but who has been conveniently ignored by history – and a tragic personal life. Of his five children, four died as babies or toddlers from tropical diseases because he couldn’t bear to ship them back to England alone. He died aged only 45, heavily in debt to the Company that he had been a life-long servant to.
Glendinning gives us a book that is – unusually for biographies – almost as richly researched about the lives of his wives, friends, relatives and colleagues as about the man himself. It is an interesting approach, and one that helps provide a more rounded picture of Raffles. I personally found myself warming immensely to his second wife Sophia, who was a tough enough cookie to join her husband on treks around the jungles of Malaysia even while pregnant, and who is largely responsible for making sure her husband’s achievements were remembered after his death. It is a well-illustrated book with plenty of colour photographs, and contains good, clear maps of the areas under discussion, something I always appreciate. Golden Opportunity is a straightforward and highly readable account of the life of a man whose actions had world-changing consequences; after reading it, I now understand why Singapore will never run out of things to name after the man.
Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning
Published by Profile Books, November 2012
With thanks to Profile for providing me with this review copy.
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