Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was an English colonial administrator, historian, and founder of Singapore. A man of vision, industry, and feeling, he made incalculable contributions to the knowledge of the Malay Archipelago and to the British overseas empire.

Born on July 6, 1781, off the coast of Jamaica on board a ship under the command of his father, Benjamin Raffles, Stamford Raffles became a clerk in the office of the East India Company in London at the age of 14. In 1805 he was sent to Penang to serve as assistant secretary. Prior to his departure he married a widow, Mrs. Olivia Fancourt, who died in 1814.

On the trip out, Raffles studied the Malay language intensively, and his proficiency in this then little-known language was remarked upon by those who came in contact with him. Three years after his arrival his health broke, and he was sent to Malacca to recuperate. The East India Company was on the point of abandoning this port, but a report which Raffles prepared and in which he argued the superiority of Malacca over Penang as a potential port persuaded the company to rescind its order.

Java Annexation

Lord Minto, the governor general of India, was so impressed with the report that he called Raffles on 2 months' leave to Calcutta. During his visit Raffles convinced Lord Minto of the necessity of annexing Java, then in French hands, and the governor general appointed him agent to the governor general of the Malay States. Raffles then returned to Malacca and participated in preparations for the attack on Java.

In August 1811 a British fleet of some 100 ships with an expeditionary force of about 12,000 men arrived off Batavia, and the city fell without a struggle. Gen. Janssens retreated to Semarang on the north-central coast of Java; in September he capitulated to the British. Lord Minto thereupon appointed Raffles lieutenant general of Java and admonished him, "While we are in Java, let us do all the good we can."

Raffles introduced numerous reforms, among which were the division of Java into 16 residencies, the introduction of a land tax, and improvements in the legal and judicial system; he also attempted to abolish slavery. He himself regarded his new land-tenure system, which prevented the native rulers from exacting feudal services, as the most solid accomplishment of his administration. The lands which were withdrawn from the control of feudal rulers were leased on a short-term basis at a moderate rental and were assessed at the value of two-fifths of the rice crop, with the remainder of the yield free of assessment and the growers exempt from personal taxes.

In spite of his excellent intentions and superb knowledge of the people, their language, and their customs, Raffles was not able to make Java a profitable enterprise. His hope of turning Batavia into the hub of a new British insular empire was dashed, and when the Netherlands regained its independence, Lord Castlereagh vigorously opposed British retention of the Dutch holdings in the East.

Raffles sent in a report explaining the great importance of Java to Britain, but his failure to make Java financially viable, together with Britain's desire to conciliate the Dutch, militated against a reversal of Lord Castlereagh's decision, and in March 1816 Raffles was removed from office and recalled. The following year he married Sophia Hull in London. His lasting contributions in Java can be seen in the fact that when the Dutch received this island back they adopted many of his reforms.

Founding of Singapore

In November 1817 Raffles, now Sir Stamford, departed England for Ft. Marlborough (or Benkoelen), in southern Sumatra, where he assumed the residentship of this town. He and Col. R. J. Farquhar, former British resident at Amboina, were on the lookout for a strategically situated way station in the Malay Archipelago which would play in the East the role Malta was playing in the West.

On Jan. 28, 1819, they landed on the Island of Singapore and immediately recognized it as ideal for their purpose. They arrived at an agreement with the Sultan of Johore, and on February 6 a treaty was signed marking the establishment of Singapore as a British settlement. Farquhar was installed as its first governor under the supervision of Raffles at Benkoelen. As Charles E. Wurtzburg (1954) wrote, "It would be difficult to imagine that, had there been no Raffles, there would have been any Singapore."

During the next 4 years four of Raffles's children died in Benkoelen; his health and that of his wife deteriorated; and in 1823 he submitted his resignation. Before leaving for England, however, he decided to pay a final visit to Singapore, where he remained 9 months. He planned the city, prepared laws, and laid the foundation of the Singapore Institution, a Malay school.

In 1824 Raffles returned to England to face a charge brought against him by the East India Company, which required him to repay to it a substantial sum for salaries and expenses that had been disbursed to him and only years later disallowed by the court of directors. Raffles was endeavoring to arrange payment when he became seriously ill again. On July 5, 1826, less than 3 months after receiving the court's letter demanding repayment, Raffles died of an apoplectic stroke.

In his short span of life Raffles had suffered numerous crushing blows which would have felled a lesser man. That he survived them in spite of a less than robust constitution can be explained, in part at least, by his tremendous interest in, and enthusiasm for, every aspect of life in the East. He was, at once, amateur natural scientist, archeologist, Oriental philologist, and reviver and active president of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences. An enduring monument to his knowledge and indefatigable industry is his famed History of Java (2 vols., 1817), which was the first comprehensive work on this subject and, although outdated, is still regarded as a classic in its field.

Further Reading on Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

An intimate and contemporary account of Raffles is in Lady Sophia H. Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1830; new ed., 2 vols., 1835), which contains many private letters and public dispatches. Although there is no adequate biography of Raffles, the most extensive study is Charles E. Wurtzburg, Raffles of the Eastern Isles, edited by Clifford Witting (1954). A very readable account, with interesting plates, is Maurice Collis, Raffles (1966).

The following are less valuable because they make little use of the records in the India Office Library: Demetrius C. Boulger, The Life of Sir Stamford Raffles (1897); Hugh Edward Egerton, Sir Stamford Raffles: England in the Far East (1900); J. A. Bethune Cook, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1918); Reginald Coupland, Raffles: 1781-1826 (1926); Emily Hahn, Raffles of Singapore: A Biography (1946); and Colin Clair, Sir Stamford Raffles: Founder of Singapore (1963). Two important studies by John Bastin deal with Raffles's policies: Raffles' Ideas on the Land Rent System in Java and the Mackenzie Land Tenure Commission (1954) and The Native Policies of Sir Stamford Raffles in Java and Sumatra (1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Raffles, Sophia, Lady, Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Singapore; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Raffles, Thomas Stamford, Sir, Statement of the services of Sir Stamford Raffles, Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Wurtzburg, C. E. (Charles Edward), Raffles of the Eastern Isles, Singapore; New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.