The Raffles Collection in London

Shadow puppet of the character Trigangga, son of Lord Hanuman the white monkey from the epic The Ramayana, Cirebon, western Java, late 1700s or early 1800s, hide, horn, fibre, pigment, gold leaf © Trustees of the British Museum

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) spent most of his career as an East India Company official in Southeast Asia. He was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java in 1811 and assumed the Lieutenant Governorship of Sumatra in 1818. Raffles is credited as being the founder of modern Singapore – but remains a controversial figure, particularly for his policies. Here, we look at exhibition of the Raffles Collection in London.

When he was Lieutenant-Governor of Java, for example, he ordered troops to attack the most powerful court, which still has consequences to this day. Over time, he has been viewed as a scholarly expert on the region, a progressive reformer, a committed imperialist and an incompetent colonial official. A large part of the Raffles Collection is now housed in the British Museum.

The Collection from Java

However, he was also an avid collector of objects from the region, particularly amassing material from Java. He acquired objects to show his European audience that Javanese society was worth colonising. This exhibition, at the British Museum, showcases an important selection of Hindu-Buddhist antiquities, different types of theatrical puppets, masks, musical instruments and stone and metal sculpture to explore the rich and diverse artistic and cultural heritages of Java, and to a lesser extent Sumatra. Today, these objects provide us with a vital record of the art and court cultures of Java from approximately the 7th century to the early 19th century.

The Raffles’ collection was one of the first large gatherings of material from the region, providing us with a window into the wider worlds of Southeast Asia and Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. The collection was given to the British Museum in two large donations, one in 1859 from Rev William Charles Flint, Raffles’ nephew, and the other in 1939 from Mrs JH Drake, Raffles’ great-grandniece. The collection today comprises around 2,000 objects, mainly from Java, but also includes items from China, Sumatra (now part of Indonesia), India, Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand).

The Raffles Collection at The British Museum

The display of the Raffles Collection includes more than 130 objects, ranging from expressive theatrical puppets in the Cirebon style from the north coast of Java and striking wooden character masks from central Java, which were new when Raffles acquired them, to ornate bronze buddhas and bodhisattvas, protective amulets (which Raffles mistook for coins), and drawings of sites, buildings and stone sculptures.

Raffles collected the different types of theatre puppet: wayang purwa, the original and most popular form, used for tales of the great Hindu epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and wayang gedog, based on medieval Javanese tales about the princes Panji and Damarwulan. A third type, wayang krucil gilik are wooden three-dimensional puppets that are manipulated by rods.

Ramayana Shadow Puppets

The Ramayana shadow puppets from Java are usually chiselled out of dried buffalo hide. These highly stylised puppets, include mythological kings, courtiers, servants, princesses, comic characters, demon and gods – exquisitely rendered, with ornate head-dresses and costumes with their slender limbs manipulated by horn rods. They are used as part of religious and life rituals, as well as entertainment. Although appearing only as shadows against a white cloth backdrop, simpingan, lit by candles or lamps, they are nevertheless richly painted and ornamented in a variety of colours.

Javanese shadow theatre, wayang kulit, literally leather shadows, is the most complex of all shadow theatre, a tradition that stretches across Asia, and dates back to the 10th century, influencing dance movements, as well as inspiring Javanese poetry and music. Performances would often last most of the night, from 9pm to dawn, and involve heroic battles, courtly intrigues and romantic liaisons. The puppeteer, the dhalang, manipulates dozens of puppets and sings the songs and voices, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra.

Java and Sumatra

Java was returned to the Dutch in 1815, and the exhibition concludes by looking at the period when Raffles was Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen (Bengkulu) in southwestern Sumatra (1818-1824). Raffles’ family suffered ill health while on Sumatra, and he booked passage on a ship called the Fame to return to Britain in 1824. Fifty miles out to sea, it caught fire and sank. There was no loss of life, but everything else went down with the ship.

All of Raffles’ administrative and collecting work was lost, including numerous irreplaceable Malay manuscripts, some dating from the 1400s. There were also more than 2,000 natural history drawings, live animals, including a tiger, and large amounts of information about the islands of Singapore, Borneo, and Sulawesi (then called Celebes). The loss of his papers also means that we do not know where or how he acquired his collections, including the ones from Java. In the two months that Raffles waited for another ship, he commissioned new natural history drawings and gathered together a few objects.

The History of Java Published in 1817

Today, the Raffles Collection formed between 1818-24 include a textile, sword, staff, two hats, and a few wood sculptures from Nias. Yet what remains of all his various collections continues to stimulate reflection on the region and its multiple and complex histories. The objects Raffles collected reveal what aspects of Southeast Asian history most intrigued Raffles – and by connection – the British at the time. Raffles had dedicated his book The History of Java, published in 1817, to the then Prince Regent (1762-1830), the future George IV.

This exhibition of the Raffles Collection is a collaboration with the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. A version of the exhibition was on display earlier in 2019 in Singapore to mark the bicentenary of the founding of the modern city-state – coverage of this can be found in Asian Art Newspaper, March 2019. Now, in this linked display, some of the loan objects from the Asian Civilisations Museum are to be seen in the UK for the first time, including an important trade textile, depicting the tree of life motif, from India.

On the London display, curator Alexandra Green, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia at the British Museum, comments, ‘Raffles has been the subject of many studies, but there has never been an assessment of the shape of his collections – why he collected what he did – so this exhibition has been an exciting exploration of new ideas.  Additionally, because all his papers were lost, we do not know how his collections originated. The exhibition has been an opportunity to conduct further research with scholars in Indonesia and to make the new information available to the public here and in Asia’.

Sir Stamford Raffles, Collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824, until 12 January 2020, at the British Museum,