Sir Stamford Raffles in Southeast Asia

Gambang, 1700s or early 1800s, North coast of eastern Java, Surabaya-Gresik region © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sir Stamford Raffles the founder of modern Singapore, author of The History of Java and discoverer of Borobudur, was an early collector of Southeast Asian art, as can be seen in the new exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman, Raffles in Southeast Asia

It is ironic that Raffles’ name is immortalised in a luxury hotel, Raffles of Singapore, as it should be famous for the discovery of a Buddhist temple, Borobudur. But it is as the founder of Singapore in 1819 that Raffles is being celebrated in this bicentennial year, although the extraordinary achievements of his short life extend beyond any accolade of five stars.

An Oil Painting of Sir Stamford Raffles

The portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (1781-1826) painted by George Francis Joseph in 1817 is in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and one of the few images of him in Britain. It shows a man of supreme confidence and success. Seated elegantly in a high backed chair with his left hand hanging gracefully over its arm, Raffles, dressed in a black court costume with white collar and cuffs, his silk stockinged legs crossed, holds in his right hand the declaration of his knighthood just bestowed upon him that year in London by the Prince Regent.

It was conferred in response to Raffles’ having dedicated to the Regent his book The History of Java and for his services to that island between 1811-1816 while Lieutenant-Governor during British rule. The founding of Singapore, which made him ‘a protagonist on the world stage,’ as Maurice Collis writes in his book Raffles, changing the course of Southeast Asian history, was still two years away.

This portrait is significant not only for its honoured sitter but for the objects on the table on which his elbow rests: a carved stone seated Buddha, eyes downcast, holding a long stemmed lotus flower; a small bronze Buddha in lalitasana ,or ‘royal ease’ pose, one hand in vitarka mudra; a bound leather book, The History of Java, with gold edged pages; a quill and glass pot of ink in a silver stand; and written sheets of paper. Chosen to enhance his image, these pieces show Raffles’ greatest interests as an art collector, writer, scholar, explorer, polymath, humanist and man of endless intellectual curiosity who introduced Javanese culture and history to the western world.

Modest Beginnings

Yet the assurance and composure he exudes in the picture of Sir Stamford Raffles belie his modest beginnings. For Raffles was the son of an impoverished sea captain, Benjamin Raffles, born on his slaving ship off the coast of Jamaica in 1781. His father, unable to afford his education, sent him to school in Hammersmith for only two years and then despatched him at 14 years old to be a clerk at the East India Company in London.

But Raffles was a natural scholar, avidly reading at night by the light of candles (to his mother’s alarm as she could not afford them) and indefatigable in his quest for knowledge. In 1805, at the age of 24, the East India Company, recognising his potential, sent him to Penang as Assistant Secretary to the Government, taking with him his new wife, Olivia. During his voyage by sea he learned Malay, making himself indispensable to his colleagues.

Journey to Melaka

In 1807, he went to Melaka in time to prevent the British demolishing the Portuguese fortress. By 1811, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Java, at the age of 30 years old, when the British seized control of the island from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Sir Stamford Raffles, inquisitive and open minded, lacking the Eurocentric views of his contemporaries, immediately understood that here was a rich and historic culture. He was fascinated by Java, its society and people. He abolished slavery and introduced humane laws, freeing peasants from arbitrary taxation, overturning oppressive practices of his Dutch forbears, bringing in new trade regulations, reforming the legal system, suppressing piracy and researching the natural resources of the island.

Raffles’ Interests

Interested in geology, botany, entomology, ichthyology and zoology, he collected butterflies, insects, moss, fungi, molluscs, birds and plants and sent them to institutions such as the Oriental Museum in East India House. To foster trade with Japan he even sent an elephant to Nagasaki, which astonished the recipients who, having never seen anything like it, commissioned an artist to create a painting of it. But, importantly, Raffles became an art collector.

An avid collector, Sir Stamford Raffles began to acquire artefacts of all kinds, forming a unique collection of Javanese court art, including masks, manuscripts, carvings, sculptures, drawings, musical instruments, gamelan orchestras, wooden marionettes and shadow puppets, wayang kulit. Wayang is the highly developed Javanese form of shadow theatre dating back to the 11th century, played in villages throughout Southeast Asia, to mark rituals such as marriage or birth, directed by a dalang, a puppeteer and spiritual story teller. Intricately carved pieces of buffalo hide, painted black, gold, white and red, and manipulated by rods in the arms and through the centre, are placed behind a screen of white cotton, lit from behind by candles.

Raffles Collection of Wayan Puppets

Raffles collected two different types: wayang purwa, the original and most popular form, based on tales from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and wayang madya, based on medieval Javanese romantic tales about the princes Panyi and Damarwulan. Wayang golek are wooden three dimensional puppets manipulatd by rods. Much of this collection of 2,000 pieces, includes 360 puppets, the oldest known in existence, 360 drawings of Hindu Buddhist sites, 100 Buddhist sculptures in metal, several in stone, two Buddha heads, 130 masks, 44 wooden puppets and 46 wayang golek, were partly given to the British Museum in 1859 by his widow, his second wife Sophia, and the rest later in 1939 by his great grand niece.

Raffles Family Collection in the British Library

It is one of the most systematic compilations of Indonesian material in existence. In the British Library, the Raffles Family Collection contains 150 topographical and natural history drawings from Indonesia and Malaysia, family correspondence and papers, and a collection of diplomatic letters in Malay. One of the gamelan orchestras he brought back is now in Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. The frames for the instruments are unique and nothing like them survives in any other known gamelan. The instruments are carved to represent peacocks, dragons, deer and other animals.

Commissioning Artists

Sir Stamford Raffles commissioned artists to record these objects as well as costumes and customs, animals and birds and flora and fauna. Their drawings capture the elegance of batik clothing and Raffles described in his book the painstaking traditional process of batik production with hot wax and starched cloth and dyeing with dyes such as indigo. He sent pieces back to Britain where batik had never been seen. Two skirt cloths (sarungs) in the British Museum, with parung rusak design, reserved for royalty, are among the earliest ever collected.

It is thought they might have been gifts to Raffles since he would have been unable to acquire such royal textiles in any other way. He was also presented with a ceremonial dagger, a kris, a particular honour. They show that his interest in artefacts was wide ranging and extensive. If an understanding and historiography of a civilisation can be made through its material culture, then Raffles’ appetite for knowledge was omnivorous. He had quantities of helpers bringing him pieces, according to Maurice Collis, who adds that even the Malay sultans were asked to write the history of their states to be included in The History of Java.

Raffles Reaches Java

Then, in 1814, rumours reached Raffles of a ‘hill of statues’ in central Java, an area covered with jungle and volcanic ash from the nearby volcano Mount Merapi. He was the first colonial ruler to take an interest in the country’s antiquities and had already begun to record its many monuments. He sent a Dutch surveyor, Hermanus Cristiann Cornelis, to investigate and the reports hastened his own visit in 1815. But before this, he suffered a tragic loss as his wife Olivia died of tropical illness. So intense was his grief that his reaction was to throw himself into work.

The History of Java

He dedicated himself to writing The History of Java, an encyclopaedic, seminal study of Java, contributing hugely to Western knowledge of the East and still used by scholars today. In 1815, undaunted by the 400-mile journey across difficult tropical terrain, he finally arrived at the jungle covered site on the fertile Kedu Plain to find a vast structure built of andesite covered with panels of exquisitely carved relief carvings – the Buddhist temple of Borobudur.

Sir Stamford Raffles was, as Collis writes, ‘captivated by it as a work of art,’ even if he was, as Collis claims, uncertain whether it was Hindu or Buddhist. ‘We are at a loss,’ wrote Raffles, ‘whether most to admire the extent and grandeur of the whole construction, or the beauty, richness and correctness of the sculpture’. Filled with awe, he organised drawing, measuring and recording details about the numinous structure with its rising four square terraces, three circular terraces,1,460 radiant relief carvings, 504 life size images of the Buddha and 72 perforated stupas culminating in a single, large, empty stupa at the top. Dating from the 9th century and the period of the Sailendra (‘Lords of the Mountain’) dynasty in Java, the exquisite narrative carvings form a divine exposition of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, as later scholarship would reveal, with figures in meditative and graceful movement, sculpted with sublime expressions.

As John Miksic writes in Borobudur Golden Tales of the Buddha, ‘Borobudur is too complex to state with a simple shape and the monument does not proclaim itself loudly. It reposes gently, its outline quietly hinting at great power lying beneath the surface.’ Locals, Raffles learned, referred to it as ‘Boro Bodo’. It reinforced his initial belief that here in the island of Java had been a great civilisation. ‘The great extent of the masses of building covered in some parts with the luxurious vegetation of the climate, the beauty and delicate execution of the separate portions, the symmetry and regularity of the whole, the great number and interesting character of the statues and reliefs, with which they are ornamented, excite our wonder …’. He incorporated his findings, with drawings by William Daniell, into The History of Java.

Stone Buddha Heads from Borobudur

One of the two fallen stone Buddha heads that Raffles brought back is on display in the British Museum (and mentioned by Neil McGregor in The History of the World in a 100 Objects). Like Henri Mouhot, the Frenchman who was said to have ‘discovered’ Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 1861, Raffles’ endeavours revealed to the world the temple of Borobudur. As Miksic states, Borobudur made Europeans aware of the high level of civilisation which has been attained in ancient Southeast Asia.

Recalled to England

But in 1816, in the midst of his discoveries and collecting, he was recalled to England to account for his expenses. Java would pass out of British control and return to Dutch rule. As Phil Grabsky writes in The Lost Temple of Java, ‘it was unfortunate that it was a Briton who discovered Borobudur at that time, because with Java’s return to the Dutch, it had very little impact’. As he points out, it was not until Mouhot’s descriptions of Angkor in 1861 that international interest in Southeast Asia was fostered.

Raffles sailed back in 1816 with 30 tons of objets d’art, in 200 boxes, that form much of what is now the British Museum collection of 1,500 pieces. These were admired as exotic artefacts by numerous illustrious visitors to his home in London, including Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and mother of the Prince Regent, who asked to view them, helping to make him a celebrity. This led to the recognition of Raffles’ cultural achievements by the Prince Regent, who knighted him in 1817. Nigel Barley writes in The Golden Sword, Stamford Raffles and the East, that ‘the motive behind the collection seems to have been to document the high level of Javanese civilisation as an argument for the continuation of British rule’.

Establishing Singapore

Although Raffles was feted in England, knighted and remarried happily to Sophia Hull, his colonial reforms had not pleased the East India Company which then posted him to Bengkulu in Sumatra where the order of the Golden Sword would be conferred on him by the Sultan of Aceh. En route in 1819, on 28 January, he anchored at Singapore, a small, hot and humid island, and landing on 29th, declared it geographically perfect as a trading port. With prescience, he negotiated with the sultans for trading rights for Britain, little realising that Singha Pura would become the greatest port in Asia. Opening up the East to the West, it was, writes Collis, ‘the first, the essential step towards events of world magnitude’. Raffles’ vision would be recognised only long after his demise.

Raffles Quest in Sumatra

Continuing his quest for knowledge and collecting in Sumatra, he acquired more art objects and botanical specimens. Then, after four of his children had died tragically in epidemics, Raffles, whose own health was frail, declared ‘Our spirits are completely broken’, adding ‘Either I must go to England or, by remaining, die’ and decided to return home. He would sail in 1824 on the Fame with all his treasures in hundreds of boxes, files, notes, maps, drawings and even animals in cages. But after the ship left the port on 2 February, it caught fire that night and sank. Raffles and everyone on board was saved, but everything else was lost.

As Nigel Barley writes, ‘it transformed Raffles from the greatest benefactor of Indonesian studies into their greatest misfortune’. He and Sophia rowed to safety and Raffles began swiftly collecting again, redrawing his lost maps, gathering material and whatever he could find to bring back to London two months later on the ship the Mariner. When he returned, Raffles founded the Zoological Society, became President of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vice-President of the African Institution and Language Institution, a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and supported the British Library and the Natural History Museum. Nevertheless, his achievements went unacknowledged by the East India Company who presented him with a bill. Financially he was ruined.

The Death of Sir Stamford Raffles

A day before his 45th birthday, on 5 July 1826, Raffles died of a brain tumour at his home High Wood, in Hendon. The vicar, Reverend Theodore Williams, at Hendon Parish Church refused to put a plaque on his tomb, because Raffles had opposed slavery, and the vicar had owned an interest in a West Indian plantation.

But Lady Sophia spent the rest of her life fighting for recognition of Raffles and what he had achieved. Eventually his friends and admirers had a marble statue of him made by Sir Francis Chantrey, inscribed with an encomium concluding that he had ‘worked for the good of his country and the glory of God’. A tribute to his growing posthumous reputation, it was placed in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey in 1832.

Public Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles

The statue, along with the George Joseph portrait, is among the few images of Raffles in public places in Britain. Singapore, by contrast, especially in this bicentennial year, has statues and memorials everywhere. Galleries, schools, hospitals, educational institutions, shopping malls and, of course, a luxury hotel have all immortalised the name of Raffles.

This September the British Museum will open an exhibition on Raffles, in addition to the one in Singapore last month. This British exhibition will display artefacts he collected in Java and Sumatra, bringing more understanding and recognition in Britain of an extraordinary man without whom the world might never have had Singapore or learned about Java and the great temple of Borobodur.


Explore the collection of Sir Stamford Raffles at  the British Museum