The “Father of Singapore” portrayed in a new and critical light


By Tom Benner

The top-selling book at the recent Singapore Writers Festival offers a controversial reassessment of Singapore’s founding father. Sir Stamford Raffles comes off as the brutal face of British imperialism – far from the high-minded English gentleman and heroic figure of popular conception – in Tim Hannigan’s new book Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java.

The author, who will discuss the book at Select Books on Armenian Street in Singapore on 15 December 2012 at 5 pm, portrays Raffles as a wildly ambitious opportunist who could be manipulative, devious, thieving, jealous, and petty.

Hannigan, a British-born freelance journalist and photographer who divides his time between Cornwall, UK, and Indonesia, says he was motivated to write the book by a commonly held view among Indonesians that their country would be more advanced today – more like Singapore – had it been colonised by the British, not the Dutch.

The short-lived and largely forgotten British period of Indonesian history started with the Raffles-led British seizure of Java from the Dutch in 1811. With Raffles assuming the post of lieutenant-governor at age 30, the turbulent, five-year rule known as the British Interregnum was marked by thievery, brute force, and wanton destruction, Hannigan asserts.

Hannigan’s research led him to the archives of the British Library, where he pored over Raffles’ personal correspondence from the period, five years worth of weekly newspapers on microfilm, and reports between the East India Company headquarters in Calcutta and colonial Batavia. Hannigan also relied on contemporary Javanese accounts of the period.

“It didn’t take long leafing through those sheets of creamy white paper in the Reading Room of the British Library for the liberal vision bestriding the burgeoning skyline of modern Singapore to melt into something else entirely, something rather less savoury. In Java, I soon discovered, Raffles made for a very strange sort of hero”, Hannigan writes in the book’s introduction.

A picture slowly emerged of what Hannigan describes as “a rogue operation” bent on outright subjugation of Javanese rule and its way of life in order to establish British supremacy.

One example is the 1812 violent overthrow of Yogyakarta, the Javanese cultural capital, told in a vivid, cinematic writing style. Hannigan describes an orgy of looting and sacking as British and Indian soldiers went on a mad and violent dash for gold, jewels and cash.

A day later, at a coronation ceremony to install a new, British-approved sultan, Javanese courtiers of the exiled sultan were forced to literally to drop down before the dais and kiss the seated Raffles’ knees. No Javanese aristocrat had ever been forced to pay such humiliating homage to a European, Hannigan writes.

There are plenty of other criticisms for the future “Founder of Singapore”. Hannigan dispels the notion that Raffles “discovered” the thousand-year-old Buddhist ruins of Borobudur, and asserts that Raffles’ two-volume magnum opus The History of Java “is simply a grand exercise in sanctioned plagiarism”. Raffles kept slaves in Java despite slavery being outlawed elsewhere in the empire, and he finally left Java under a cloud of corruption over land sales, Hannigan says.

Britain returned Java to the Dutch in 1816 under the terms of a peace treaty, and Raffles lived down any foul deeds in Java to go on to become an admired historical figure. But after just five years, Hannigan writes, the Raffles era in Java marked a historic turning point from “company colonialism” to ruthless British imperialism.

A second new book on Raffles, Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, portrays Raffles in a far more positive light. The Economist magazine named it one of its Books of the Year, and said, “Victoria Glendinning is in danger of giving imperialism a good name”.

Hannigan says he hopes his findings on Raffles’ early years in Java create a fuller picture of the man so revered by Singaporeans and by history.

“I hope that even if there are readers who don’t accept my view of Raffles, they will at least recognise that the traditional portrayals of him are by no means the whole story – and that we should never be too ready to accept the standard versions of history”, he said.

(Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java was published by Monsoon Books in November 2012. Hannigan also is the author of Murder in the Hindu Kush: George Hayward and the Great Game.)

Sidebar: A Q&A With Author Tim Hannigan

What do you want the public to take away from the book?

The book was designed, first and foremost, to be a good read, so I hope that that will be the first thing that people get out of it.

I also hope that they will learn some new things about Java and Indonesia, because I’ve tried to squeeze in as many tasty tit-bits of information as possible.

I hope that even if there are readers who don’t accept my view of Raffles, they will at least recognise that the traditional portrayals of him are by no means the whole story – and that we should never be too ready to accept the standard versions of history.

And I also hope that they will think more about the book’s central idea – the shift from 18th century “company colonialism” toward 19th century imperialism, with Raffles at the forefront of that shift.

Why do you think it took this long to have this story about Raffles, and this detailed history of his time in Java, to come out?

As to why it’s taken so long for there to be a critical non-academic book about Raffles, I think the answer is very simple. There are around 15 biographies of him, spanning almost 200 years, and all of them are fundamentally admiring. Most people setting out to write a book about Raffles begin with the ones that have already been written, so they end up with an affection for him before they ever do any primary research.

I’d like to claim that I was somehow immune to that “ideology of affection”, but the truth is the whole thing was a fortuitous accident. When I started out I didn’t plan for the book to be about Raffles; it was going to be about the British Interregnum in Java first and foremost, with Raffles at most a secondary figure. So I went straight into the archives without ever having read a full biography of him, and ended up forming my proper first impression there. If I’d decided to write a book specifically about him from the get-go I’d have probably ended up just like all the others!

As for why the Java period hasn’t had much attention, I suppose it’s because people writing about Raffles have always wanted to focus on Singapore. After all, Singapore is usually proclaimed his great success, while Java was a bit of a disaster – even though he only spent nine months in Singapore, and almost five years in Java. But for me Java was the starting point – the place where I lived and worked. So I came to Raffles through the context, rather than to the context through Raffles.

With two new books out on Raffles, why is there so much sudden interest in him?

The arrival of the two books at the same time was entirely coincidental, but we are entering a run of 200-year Raffles-related anniversaries. Last year was the 200th anniversary of the British invasion of Java; this year marked the 200th anniversary of the sacking of Yogyakarta – and of course, the 200th anniversary of his arrival in Singapore is just a few years off, and that will definitely see a whole round of fresh interest.

To what extent do you take issue with the viewpoints of authors such as Niall Ferguson and Victoria Glendinning, who portray the British Empire in a more favorable light?

I really don’t have any time for people like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, because their position on the British Empire is both reductive and partisan, and in the 21st century we should be beyond partisan interpretations of past colonialism – from both sides.

I don’t believe that British people today have any responsibility to feel personally guilty about colonialism, but at the same time I don’t feel that they have any right to feel personally proud about it either. Niall Ferguson’s positive opinion of the Empire obviously involves an aspect of personal identification with it, which logically should also require a sense of personal culpability for the bad bits – reductive from both angles.

What’s more, partisan championing of the Empire is no way to build connections between peoples in a post-colonial world, and can lead to some pretty repugnant positions, like Andrew Roberts’ apologetics for the Amritsar Massacre.

With regards Victoria Glendinning and Raffles, it’s different. She seems to be someone from a very liberal background, and I’m not sure she would be entirely comfortable with being identified as a fellow-traveller of Niall Ferguson – even if that is what she has inadvertently become. The fact that she has produced an essentially positive portrayal of an episode of colonialism is really just a secondary product of her basic admiration and affection for Raffles, rather than the result of an ideological standpoint.

We should be far beyond all this, and in the 21st century we shouldn’t really be turning out entirely Eurocentric books about what are essentially episodes of Asian history. For me the model for any Westerner writing about the history of European colonialism in Asia should be the magnificent William Dalrymple – someone who gives Asian narratives and perspectives as much of a role as those of Europeans, who has a deep understanding of the local contexts, but who is also a long way beyond suffering from post-colonial guilt.

3 responses to “The “Father of Singapore” portrayed in a new and critical light

  1. A nice read, Tom. I’m about to blog on the issue too. We might get together (virtually) thereafter?

  2. Thank you very much, and happy to chat! Email is

  3. Enjoyed this also. Especially the Q&A; so true:’…personal identification with it, which logically should also require a sense of personal culpability for the bad bits – reductive from both angles.’
    For me, the ‘bigger’ the historian is the greater is their shadow over their work; what lurks in the shadows, particularly the shadows of history, is what we need to know far more about.

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