Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) was a remarkable example of how a career in the East India Company could lead to wealth and status for the able, regardless of birth and lack of connections. Beginning as a clerk, aged 14, he became one of the most important figures in nineteenth-century south-east Asia. He arrived in Penang at 25 to serve as assistant secretary to the Governor. He quickly learned the Malay language, which led to his being transferred to Malacca. After Napoleon invaded Holland, the position of the Dutch colonies in Indonesia became unsettled. In 1811, Raffles mounted an expedition against Dutch and French forces in Java, which surrendered after six weeks. He was appointed Lieutenant-Governor, and proved to have some enlightened if unpopular ideas, such as ending slavery, opposing the opium trade, and introducing partial self-government for the local inhabitants.
As well as being a capable administrator, Raffles was a keen student of the local antiquities, anthropology and natural history. He led an expedition to discover the remains of the largely forgotten ninth-century Buddhist shrine at Borobudur, now a World Heritage Site, and other monuments of ancient Java. He also learned as much as he could about local peoples and customs, and the country’s natural resources.
The return of the Dutch colonies to Holland as part of the Peace Treaty of 1814 left Raffles free to return to England, in part to clear his name against accusations of financial mismanagement of Java. While in London he published his two-volume History of Java and was knighted by the Prince Regent. The book is a fascinating and comprehensive picture of the history, archaeology, geography, economy and culture of the island from the earliest times, with numerous plates. It increased British interest in the region, and led to further competition with the Dutch for strategically based colonies in the area.
In 1817 Raffles returned east as Governor-General of Bencoolen (Bengkulu, in Sumatra), a backwater whose only export was pepper and whose only other claim to fame was murder of his predecessor as governor. He replaced slavery by importing convict labour from India, but saw that while Bencoolen had strategic importance it would never be profitable to the British. Looking for a more promising place to colonize that was not covered by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814, he selected a spot on the Malay Peninsula and agreements were made with the local regent during an interregnum. Singapore was officially founded on 6 February 1819, and the island transferred to the control of the East India Company. The Dutch objected, but took no action. Within a few months, a village of five hundred had become a town of a thousand merchants, soldiers, and administrators, and Singapore as a modern trading port was on its way. By the early 1820s it had become a city of six thousand, and Raffles drew up a multi-ethnic constitution for Singapore that was far ahead of its time.
Raffles was unusual in his attitude to native cultures, in that he did not impose European language or mores on his colonial settlement. Living quarters in Singapore were racially segregated, but religious freedom was guaranteed, although Christian missionaries were established. He contributed a large sum of money towards the establishment of the Malay College.
Falling from political favour in England, due to concerns about relations with the Dutch, Raffles left Singapore for the last time in 1823, suffering from ill-health. His lifelong interest in natural history led to his involvement in the foundation of London Zoo, and he was elected first president of the Royal Zoological Society shortly before his death on the eve of his 45th birthday. Although he had amassed a fortune, the government held him responsible for debts run up by his administration, and his entire estate was made over to the East India Company. However, his legacy remains in numerous places in Asia called after him, in the genus of parasitic flowering plants named Rafflesia, and in many species from fish and molluscs to ants and moths with rafflesi as their specific epithet. The best reminder of all is Singapore itself, now a multi-racial city of 5 million, and one of the busiest ports and trading centres in the world.