Raffles and Singapore go together like a horse and carriage; it is impossible to think of one without the other.
Thomas Stamford Raffles was an unlikely empire builder. Born into modest, cash-strapped circumstances, he had little formal education. He stood only about five feet four inches tall and wouldn’t have weighed ten stone ringing wet. He spent the first ten years of his working life with the East India Company hunched over a desk in London transcribing letters. He developed a stoop. But he rose pretty high.
Raffles makes a tricky subject for a biographer but Victoria Glendinning‘s book is a success. In a way, Raffles didn’t do much. He held administrative posts in what was called the East Indies and had dreams of the top job – the Governorship of Bengal – but never got even close. He won territory but he never fired a shot. Once he half-drew his sword when a negotiation got ticklish but it’s doubtful he would have known what to do with it.
Raffles was a competent linguist who mastered several languages, and though no despot, he favoured authoritarian solutions when required. He had prodigious energy until repeated bouts of malaria, personal grief and financial stress wore him down.
He was centrally important to, though not quite alone in the selection and development of Singapore. After some reversals in earlier posts, Singapore represented his ‘golden opportunity’ and he seized it, somewhat ruthlessly.
What Glendinning has done is leaven the dull administrative and diplomatic machinations of Raffles’s career with an engaging account and analysis of his character. People liked him: not everyone, but enough and in the right places to make his career successful. ‘Affable’ he was called by many and this comes through in the letters he wrote, which must have numbered in the thousands. When something happened, and even when it didn’t, Raffles wrote a letter.
Apart from the abundant sources provided by the records of the ‘Honourable Company’, the letters, diaries and publications of his contemporaries and Raffles’s own letters and voluminous reports, Glendinning has drawn on a mighty memoir written by Raffles’s second wife.
Their relationship is full of interest. Wife one (Olivia) got a mention only in a footnote in wife two’s (Sophia’s) tribute and, uncharitable though this is, it’s clear that Sophia eclipsed her predecessor. She bore Raffles five children, only one of whom survived him, trekked with him through tropical jungles and was with him through his greatest trials, which were many, sometimes of his own making.
Glendinning’s writing is lively without being superficial. The characters come to life in their strangeness – their assumptions of racial superiority and their devotion to their Asian servants. Europeans in the tropics thought nothing of travelling with enormous loads of comforts, beds, cooking utensils, tables, cutlery. They loaded ships with tons of curios because they didn’t have to lift a finger themselves to move them.
Sir Stamford (as he became, disappointed that the honour fell short of what he’d hoped for) and Lady Raffles kept their children with them rather than despatch them home, because they were interested in their development and loved their company. A modern reader approves. The older son Leopold died at a young age, followed quickly by two sisters and a brother. Raffles wrote that the death of the others was ‘as nothing’ compared to that of Leopold. These pre-Victorians were not quite like us.
An oddly modern note is struck in the account of the exchange between Raffles and Colonel William Farquhar, who had a claim to be equally as important in the establishment of Singapore as Raffles. Although the two men occupied buildings within sight of each other, they sent multiple written messages, via servants, back and forth, squabbling over details and points of protocol, that read like the kind of vituperative emails exchanged when dissention arises within government offices and university departments.
Above all, the reader of a biography wants to know the answer to one question – what was he or she like? Readers of this book, interested in the man who helped create one of the great global trading hubs and whose name is attached to one of the most famous hotels in the world, will find out.
Victoria Glendinning Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, Profile Books, 2012, HB, 352pp, $45.00
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