Sunday, November 04, 2012

The other Raffles

It is not uncommon to hear Indonesians say that their country would likely have been far better off today had it been colonised by the British rather than the Dutch, but few are aware that, for five years in the early 1800s, the British were in charge of Java and left a legacy that continues to rankle.

In August 1811, a 12,000-strong army from the British East India Company - split almost evenly between European and Indian sepoy regiments - invaded the Dutch colony while Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, both an ally and occupier of Holland.
The soldiers landed in what is north Jakarta today, and moved swiftly to subdue resistance from Dutch holdouts and local rulers across Java.
Heading this enterprise was Thomas Stamford Raffles, who became lieutenant-governor of Java at the age of 30. He would set up home in today's Bogor, and later go on to found modern Singapore.
The story of Raffles has been overwhelmingly positive - he is largely regarded as a hero and an enlightened man who also wrote a two-volume History Of Java and "discovered" the ninth-century Buddhist temple complex of Borobudur.
But a new book by British author and journalist Tim Hannigan, titled Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java, offers a vastly critical picture of the man.
It comes 200 years after Raffles led an assault on the biggest kingdom on Java, Yogyakarta.
Hannigan says Raffles hardly discovered Borobudur - locals knew it was there - and describes his epic tome on Java's history as "simply a grand exercise in sanctioned plagiarism".
He also paints a vivid portrait of how Raffles inflicted a humiliating defeat on the sultan of Yogyakarta and other local rulers, spared no sensitivity in showing who was in charge, and set the stage for decades of resentment against colonial rule that would bite the Dutch when they returned in 1816.
Hannigan drew on letters written by Raffles and records and reports sent to the East India Company headquarters in Calcutta, now archived in the British Library, as well as Javanese and other accounts of the period, taking two years to piece together a gripping narrative.
Describing Raffles looking on at the armed assault on the kraton, or palace, in Yogyakarta in June 1812, he writes that Raffles was "a man a very long way from the pedestal that was later constructed for him".
When a senior prince warily tried to extend European greetings to Raffles after he had installed the crown prince as his approved sultan of Yogyakarta, his right-hand man John Crawfurd - who would later become the second Resident of Singapore - "gripped the nape of the prince's neck, forced him down onto the floor and thrust his face onto the lieutenant-governor's trouser-clad knees".
"In two centuries no member of a royal Javanese court had ever made such a humiliating gesture of obeisance to a European, let alone been roughly manhandled into doing so," Hannigan writes.
He paints a picture of a Raffles who "regularly misled his peers and his superiors, who was manipulative, jealous and petty, and was, at times, completely out of his depth".
Hannigan tells The Sunday Times he hopes the book makes readers see that the established legend of Raffles has obscured a lot of what he did in South-east Asia.
He also hopes academic historians might be encouraged to look at Raffles again, especially the idea that he and the period of British rule in Java are a microcosm of the shift from 18th-century "company colonialism" that offered a chance for cultural crossover and mutual compromise towards the grand, inflexible and hubristic imperialism of the 19th century, whose legacy continues to rankle many.
Hannigan's book comes just as the first biography of Raffles in some 40 years is also published. Raffles And The Golden Opportunity, written by Victoria Glendinning, tells the story of Raffles the adventurer who often got where he did by disobeying orders, but also depicts the personal side of the man.
If Hannigan's book ends when Raffles departs Java, dogged by corruption allegations over land sales, Glendinning's narrative offers a broader and more balanced overview of the ups and downs in his life and his extraordinary rebound on his return to England.
He was knighted. He also remarried - his first wife had died in Java - and then returned to the east to govern the outpost of Bencoolen at a time when the Dutch were flexing their muscle once more.
His "golden opportunity" came when he staked out Singapore early in 1819, but even that stint was short-lived and his ship caught fire on his final journey home, taking with it many of his possessions. He died in debt in London, aged 45.
Glendinning says her book seeks to demythologise Raffles without diminishing him. And as with any assessment of historical figures, intentions perhaps matter as much as outcomes.
"He made no fortune for himself," she wrote in The Guardian. "Volatile, inconsistent, energetic, resilient, he wanted fame, and he wanted to do good."
Both books are available at major bookstores. Hannigan and Glendinning will be discussing their books and Raffles at the Singapore Writers Festival next Sunday.