Sir Stamford Raffles is best-remembered as the founder of modern-day Singapore.
A new exhibition sheds light on less well-known exploits of a man criticized as a disobedient adventurer and bloodthirsty imperialist. On Feb. 6, 1819, Raffles, an agent of the East India Company that 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 Peninsula 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.
Strategically located on global shipping routes, it quickly became a thriving trading hub, a position cemented since independence in 1965, and more recently developed into a leading financial center.
Unlike other postcolonial governments that have tended to reject their past under foreign rule, Singapore 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.
“Raffles in Southeast Asia,” an exhibition at the city-state’s Asian Civilisations Museum, mounted in collaboration with the British Museum, highlights that Raffles did more than establish Singapore.
“Raffles played several roles in 19th-century Southeast Asia,” museum Director Kennie Ting told AFP. “Beyond the mythical ‘founder figure’ of Singapore, he was also a scholar and statesman.”
Among the events commemorating two centuries since Raffles arrived in Singapore, the exhibition showcases about 240 objects.
The number includes many pieces collected by Raffles himself, who also had stints on the island of Java and in what is now Malaysia, as well as items originating in the Javanese and Malay royal courts.
Included are exotic items like decorated masks, wooden figurines, shadow puppets and traditional percussion instruments, reminders of less-well-known, and less successful, periods of Raffles’ 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 more slaves though 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 the 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 favor with his bosses.
“He was in disgrace with the company,” Victoria Glendinning, the biographer behind “Raffles and The Golden Opportunity,” observed. “He was losing them a lot of money.” She described him as “very disobedient and recalcitrant with the East India Company,” adding that he “always thought he was right.”
Back home, he published “The History of Java,” which helped cement his reputation as a scholar.
Many objects displayed at the Singapore exhibition are mentioned in the work.
Raffles returned to Southeast Asia in 1818 as governor of Bencoolen on Sumatra. As in Java, he set about instituting reforms, and not long after founded Singapore.
Some say he laid the foundation for the modern, cosmopolitan city-state by establishing a free port that quickly attracted people from around the world.
This seemed of little importance to the East India Company, whose primary aim was to turn a profit.
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, hugely in debt to the company. It’s a far cry from his image as the visionary founder of Singapore.
“Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman” is up at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum through the end of April.