Stamford Raffles: A Complicated Legacy

Singapore is cheerfully celebrating its “bicentennial,” the 200-year mark since its “founding” by British Statesman Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles. I use a lot of quotation marks here since a less generous interpretation of events might say that it’s been 200 years since this island was stripped from the Malay sultans, colonized by Raffles, and rolled into the great British Empire. In any case, whether you see Raffles as a benevolent founding father or yet another perpetrator of colonial oppression (though truthfully, there weren’t many people living on the island in 1819 to oppress), you can explore the man and his work in more depth at the new exhibit at the Asian Civilizations Museum.

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Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles by George Francis Joseph, 1817

If you’re looking for an exploration of Raffles as a colonizer, politician, and lieutenant governort (as I was), this exhibit might disappoint you. “Raffles in Southeast Asia,” a joint project with The British Museum, focuses instead on Raffles’ interest in and reporting on the art and culture of Java, Singapore, and the larger Malay world.

Raffles wasn’t just a statesman; he was a naturalist, an author, and a collector of virtually everything he could get his hands on. For example, he put together a collection of wayang topeng dance masks …

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… another one of krisses (Indonesian daggers) and their sheaths …

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… and yet another one of shadow puppets, which includes Trigangga, the son of Hanuman (the monkey god) …

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… and the brother of the great Prince Panji:

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Raffles didn’t always know what he was doing when he collected stuff. For example, he loved shadow puppets because he thought that they reflected a collective national history — which, to him, was a mark of a civilized society. But these shadow puppet plays all portrayed stories from various mythologies, not Javanese history.

Many objects were too expensive or complicated to carry out of Java by boat, so Raffles = drew them, as with these atap huts …

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… and the pieces of this gamelan orchestra:

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When Raffles wasn’t drawing things himself, he was hiring other people to draw them for him. He employed multiple Chinese artists to paint renderings of local flora and fauna, including the durian plant …

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… and this wonderful Malaysian tapir:

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He even went one step further, having all sort of tiny replicas made, including krisses and farm equipment and musical instruments. Here is a miniature gambang, a sort of xylophone that you’d find in most gamelan ensembles:

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Raffles was so taken with all of these items — and so proud of what he’d done as a lieutenant-governor in Java, and so mad that the British had returned the island to the Dutch — that he wrote a book about it in 1816. His History of Java is both thorough and full of observational inaccuracies:

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For all the time that Raffles spent in Java, he never really understood that the Muslim populace still had deep connections to both Hinduism and Buddhism (to Raffles, you could only ever affiliate with one religious group, not three). So he often gave flawed descriptions of characters and ornaments such as this one, a Hindu decoration that would have been part of a palanquin used for an Islamic circumcision ceremony:

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Makara, the crocodile-fish-goat-elephant vehicle of the river goddess Ganga

Raffles and other European colonists of the early nineteenth century also spent a great deal of time exploring (and sometimes uncovering) great ancient Javanese temple complexes like Borobudur. If you look closely , you can see little people in top hats directing the clearing project at Candi Sewu:

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Raffles thought that these temples had been built by visiting Indian princes; for some reason, he never really believed that the people of Java were capable of creating monumental structures. He wasn’t alone; some Europeans even speculated that the Egyptians had come over to help with the building projects, as you can see from their portrayal of this building at Candi Sukuh:

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But Raffles did believe that these monuments demonstrated that the people of Java had once lived as part of a great civilization — and that they could, therefore, be civilized once again by the British. To help prove his point, Raffles once again commissioned people to create drawings of what he found, including sculptures …

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Shiva’s mount, Nandi the bull, 

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Ganesha

… bas-reliefs …

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Carvings at Candi Pringapus

… and architectural features:

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These sketches, however, were not always true to life. For one example, you can compare this drawing …

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Shiva riding Nandi

… to the real thing:

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A a side note, the most puzzling curatorial note of the exhibit was in this section, next to this sketch …

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… which has been labeled, “drawing of a Ganesha sculpture that has been misunderstood.” I have no idea how this sculpture has been misunderstood — that’s not explained — nor whether the misunderstanding has been cleared up.

Eventually, the exhibit shifts briefly away from Raffles and toward the Malay sultans and royalty who were in power when Raffles arrived in the area. These nobles are represented here by artifacts such as krisses, batiks …

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… and valuable metal objects (this ceremonial fan was part of a set of sacred royal regalia that the Dutch eventually wrested from the Indonesian Riau-Lingga palace in 1911):

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The exhibit does offer some history directly related to Raffles, but it is very limited. The most interesting piece is this copy of the 1819 “Treaty of Friendship and Alliance”:

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Signed by Raffles, the Sultan of Johor, and the temenggong (a sort of security chief) who had been overseeing Singapore, this is the document whose bicentennial we are now celebrating. This treaty allowed the East India company to develop a trading post in Singapore, and it put Raffles in a position to begin governing the island as he saw fit. Raffles’s dream of a thriving free port soon blossomed into a reality.

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A View of Singapore Harbor, circa 1850

But Raffles himself wasn’t here for long — between time spent pursuing his naturalist hobbies at his summer house in Bencoolen (on Sumatra) …

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… and repeated family tragedies (four of his five children died in the span of just three years), he spent less than two full years in Singapore. In 1824, he and his wife decided to return to England. Just fifty miles off of the Indonesian shore, tragedy struck again: Raffles’s ship caught fire, and while the people made their way to safety in lifeboats, all of his drawings and thousands of collected items were destroyed.

Still, Raffles enjoyed brief success back at home before his death in 1826. Most significantly, he founded the Royal Zoological Society of England. Multiple species have since been named after him, including the Raffles’ malkoha …

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… and the rafflesia, the largest flower in the world (this fascinating plant grows up to a meter wide, has no stems, leaves, or roots, and smells like rotting flesh):

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I learned a good deal from this exhibit, and I really enjoyed it once I settled in. But I’d come in expecting something a bit different — advertisements for the exhibit invite you to question whether Raffles is a “committed imperialist, and even an plagiariser,” but the exhibit itself barely touches on these points. Instead, you’ll get to see some of the world both through Raffles’ eyes and, to a lesser extent, as it really may have been. There’s a little bit of everything for lovers of religion, culture, anthropology, and nature, all through a few different historical lenses.

By the way, if you’re looking for a place to have dinner after you visit the museum, I would highly recommend Moosehead. Just a ten-minute walk away, it offers excellent small plates. The roasted cauliflower alone was worth the trip, but the beet and goat cheese salad with hazelnut dressing made me want to return again and again.

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