By Agence France-Presse
On February 6, 1819, Raffles, an agent of the East India Company which drove the expansion of Britain’s empire in Asia, established a trading post in Singapore after signing a treaty with a local ruler.
The tiny backwater at the foot of the Malay peninsular was one of many British settlements across the world, and there was little early indication it would develop into one of the world’s busiest ports.
But with a strategic location on global shipping routes, it quickly became a thriving trading hub. It has cemented this position since independence in 1965 and has also developed into a leading financial centre.
Unlike other governments in the post-colonial era, Singapore did not reject its past under foreign rule but largely embraced Raffles as a symbol of free trade – his name is everywhere, from hotels to shopping malls, and a statue of the Briton stands at the spot he is thought to have arrived in the city.
But Raffles did far more than establish Singapore, as an exhibition at the city’s Asian Civilisations Museum highlights.
“Raffles played several roles in 19th century Southeast Asia,” says museum director Kennie Ting. “Beyond the mythical ‘founder figure’ of Singapore, he was also a scholar and statesman”.
Debt and shame
The exhibition, part of events to commemorate two centuries since Raffles arrived in Singapore, showcases about 240 objects including many collected by the colonialist, who also had stints on Java island and in what is now Malaysia.
Among them are exotic items such as decorated masks, wooden figurines, shadow puppets, and traditional percussion instruments, which are reminders of less well-known – and less successful – periods during Raffles’s time in the region.
Many were collected when he was stationed on Java (now part of Indonesia) as lieutenant-governor for several years from 1811.
After seizing control of the island from the Dutch and French, Raffles sought to institute reforms such as seeking to stamp out the slave trade.
He banned the import of any more slaves but many people – including British officers – continued to use them.
There were also controversial aspects to his rule, however, notably an assault by his men on the powerful kingdom of Yogyakarta and looting of the sultan’s palace.
The East India Company became displeased as Java slipped into debt and, after it was returned to the Dutch, Raffles headed back to England out of favour with his bosses.
“He was in disgrace with the company, he was losing them a lot of money,” explains Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the biography “Raffles and The Golden Opportunity”.
She describes him as “very disobedient and recalcitrant with the East India Company”, adding that he “always thought he was right”.
During his time back home, he published “The History of Java”, which helped cement his reputation as a scholar.
Many objects displayed at the Singapore exhibition, which runs until the end of April and is organised in collaboration with the British Museum, are mentioned in the work.
Raffles returned to Southeast Asia in 1818 as governor of Bencoolen on Sumatra island.
As in Java, he set about instituting reforms, and not long afterwards founded Singapore. Some say he laid the foundation for the modern, cosmopolitan city-state by establishing a free port which quickly attracted people from around the world.
Still, this seemed of little importance to the East India Company – whose primary aim was to turn a profit – and when he returned to England they refused to give him a pension and he was ordered to pay huge sums to cover losses.
He died two years later aged 44, in huge debt to the company – a far cry from his modern image as the visionary founder of Singapore.
The exhibition, “Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman”, also displays items from outside his collection, including some originating in Javanese and Malay royal courts.