Raffles, warts and all

Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java
Tim Hannigan
Monsoon Books
Retail price: S$19.80
November 2012

SINGAPORE, as we all know, is filled with streets, schools, hospitals and businesses named Stamford or Raffles, after Sir Stamford Raffles, the acknowledged founder of the place.

A new book sheds new light on the man, his exalted place in history, and the dark side of British colonialism. Yet despite it being the top-selling title at last month's Singapore Writers Festival where it made its debut, the book has yet to prompt much in the way of a Raffles re-evaluation.

There is time for that; in the years leading to the 200th anniversary of the 1819 founding of modern Singapore, Raffles is sure to get a sizing-up by modern standards.

History has been kind to Raffles, with some 15 biographies that are fundamentally admiring and generally follow the example of the very first, Memoir Of The Life And Public Services Of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, penned by his loving wife Sophia Hull after his death in 1826 at age 44.

Enter Tim Hannigan, whose new book Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java follows Raffles' earlier exploits in South-east Asia, in particular the British-led invasion of Java in 1811 and what Hannigan calls the five-year British Interregnum, a somewhat forgotten period of history.

A British-born journalist who has spent many years living in Indonesia and who specialises in Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent, Hannigan says he didn't set out to write a Raffles biography. Nor did he set out with a contrarian view of British colonialism.

Instead, he was planning to explore a short episode of Indonesian history, prompted by a frequently heard gripe among Indonesians that their country would have been better off - more like modern, well-functioning Singapore - had it been colonised by the British instead of the Dutch.

Hannigan's research led him to the archives of the British Library, where he pored over Raffles' personal correspondence from the period, five years' worth of weekly newspapers on microfilm, and reports between the East India Company headquarters in Calcutta and colonial Batavia. He also relied on contemporary Javanese accounts of the period.

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