On the pa­per trail with an ace of bu­reau­crats

Raf­fles and the Golden Op­por­tu­nity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sam Leith The Spec­ta­tor

HOMAS Stam­ford Raf­fles (1781-1826) is a man whose name is now bet­ter known than his do­ings. Most of us will have had the vague sense that he is the Bri­tish states­man who founded mod­ern Sin­ga­pore (we’re half right about that) and a still vaguer sense that his was a life of glam­our, buckle and swash. About that, we are a bit less than half right.

Raf­fles’s whole ca­reer was spent in and around the East­ern Ar­chi­pel­ago — Pe­nang, Malacca, Ben­coolen, Java — as an em­ployee of the East In­dia Com­pany. In his hard­work­ing, rather short life (he died at 45 of a nasty con­di­tion in­volv­ing a gi­ant ve­nous lump in his brain), Raf­fles rose by charm, ap­pli­ca­tion and in­ge­nu­ity from be­ing an un­e­d­u­cated 14-year-old clerk in In­dia House to se­nior gu­ber­na­to­rial posts in mosquitorid­den out­posts of the Bri­tish em­pire.

To the credit side of his ledger was a con­sis­tent de­ter­mi­na­tion to erad­i­cate slav­ery and the opium trade, a gen­uine in­ter­est in un­der­stand­ing and pre­serv­ing the na­tive lan­guage, cul­ture, flora and fauna of the places un­der his com­mand and a utopian rather than ra­pa­cious no­tion of how an east­ern em­pire might flour­ish un­der a sort of Pax Bri­tan­nica. He even wrote a his­tory of Java, though not ap­par­ently a very good one.

To the debit side we could put ar­ro­gance, pet­ti­ness, van­ity, a ten­dency to take credit for the work of oth­ers, a lack of hus­bandly gal­lantry (he wrote proudly to his cousin that ‘‘ nei­ther rank, for­tune nor beauty’’ had in­flu­enced his choice of bride) and a slightly elas­tic sense of fi­nan­cial pro­pri­ety.

In the open­ing pages of Raf­fles and the Golden Op­por­tu­nity, bi­og­ra­pher Vic­to­ria Glendin­ning pays trib­ute to her sub­ject’s ‘‘ lov­ing heart’’ and his ‘‘ un­usual re­sources of en­ergy, cu­rios­ity and re­silience’’. She clearly likes him. ‘‘ He was not a ge­nius,’’ she writes (the reader will agree), ‘‘ but like all am­bi­tious vi­sion­ar­ies, he had a streak of ge­nius.’’

I wouldn’t quite say vi­sion­ary was the word, but he did have an idea: he wanted to ex­pand the East­ern Em­pire, and he tended not to wait for the of­fi­cial go-ahead be­fore do­ing so.

Given that ex­chang­ing let­ters with the high­ups in Lon­don could eas­ily take a year or two, and those high-ups were prone to change their minds, you can’t wholly blame him.

Ar­rang­ing the in­va­sion of Java dur­ing the Napoleonic Wars was a first bash at this ex­pan­sion, and the es­tab­lish­ment of Sin­ga­pore in 1819 was, as the sub­ti­tle sug­gests, his

golden op­por­tu­nity


is Me By Vic­to­ria Glendin­ning Pro­file Books, 350pp, $45 (HB) and his last­ing legacy. The Bri­tish government and the East In­dia Com­pany — a scle­rotic be­he­moth Adam Smith had called an ab­sur­dity five years be­fore Raf­fles was born — were happy to reap the ben­e­fit when it all turned out fine, though they didn’t ex­actly give him all the thanks he thought he was en­ti­tled to.

Near the end of Raf­fles’s life, the for­eign sec­re­tary wrote to him: ‘‘ I can­not deny that your ex­treme ac­tiv­ity in stir­ring dif­fi­cult ques­tions, and the free­dom with which you com­mit­ted your Government with­out their knowl­edge or author­ity to mea­sures which might have brought a war upon them, un­pre­pared, did at one time oblige me to speak my mind in in­struc­tions of no very mild rep­re­hen­sion. But I was not the less anx­ious to re­tain the fruits of your pol­icy, which seemed to me really worth pre­serv­ing.’’

So, the bare story is all there, and found­ing Sin­ga­pore (or co-found­ing it) is quite some­thing to have on one’s CV. Nev­er­the­less, half­way through this book I thought to my­self: Poor Vic­to­ria Glendin­ning! She’s a distin­guished writer, a care­ful scholar and has ev­i­dently put the work in. But Raf­fles — against all ex­pec­ta­tions — is a truly dull dog. If Sid­ney Reilly was the Ace of Spies, Raf­fles could as well have been called Ace of Bu­reau­crats.

The au­thor rather touch­ingly ad­mits it. In Java, ‘‘ His most rad­i­cal re­forms were con­cerned with the cur­rency cri­sis and the sys­tem of land ten­ure, and are cen­tral to an as­sess­ment of his ad­min­is­tra­tion . . .’’

Even Raf­fles’s friends were rather dull. His in­tel­lec­tual soul­mate John Ley­den died of some­thing he con­tracted from a par­tic­u­larly dusty ar­chive room. His great pa­tron Lord Minto was de­scribed by for­eign sec­re­tary Ge­orge Cur­zon as hav­ing been ‘‘ one of the class of gov­er­nors-gen­eral who leave no par­tic­u­lar mark on his­tory and cease to be re­mem­bered ei­ther for good or ill’’.

At times, Sin­ga­pore aside, the same seems to ap­ply to our hero. One moment we read that Raf­fles’s first wife, Olivia, ‘‘ left her mark in Batavia’’, but by the fac­ing page we are as­sured that ‘‘ Raf­fles and Olivia were not in Java long enough to ef­fect per­ma­nent changes, for good or ill. Those that did last were triv­ial.’’ In Sin­ga­pore, Raf­fles set up a ‘‘ Botanic and Ex­per­i­men­tal Garden’’. Is it still there? No. ‘‘ It did not thrive.’’

Time and again, some­thing in­ter­est­ing or dra­matic threat­ens to de­scend, and doesn’t quite. We learn all about the ter­ri­ble poverty and so­cial un­rest in Eng­land when Raf­fles was there in 1817 — but ‘‘ none of this wretched­ness im­pinged on Raf­fles’’. He met Napoleon briefly, on St He­lena, and formed a poor opin­ion of him — but the ma­jor­ity of his 25-page let­ter on the sub­ject de­scribed hang­ing around wait­ing. The war he pre­cip­i­tated with the Dutch was only ever a ‘‘ pa­per war’’.

Even Raf­fles’s re­la­tion­ships with his en­e­mies — he made quite a few — tended to be played out in pro­ce­dural com­plaints and counter-com­plaints to com­pany high-ups in In­dia or Lon­don. Raf­fles’s fall­ing out with the mil­i­tary com­man­der Wil­liam Farquhar — who prop­erly shares the credit for found­ing Sin­ga­pore — was mostly con­ducted at the level of what even his bi­og­ra­pher calls ‘‘ bu­reau­cratic trivia’’, and in­cluded a ‘‘ lu­di­crous lon­grun­ning let­ter-row about a con­sign­ment of floor­ing tiles’’. How you start to long for the odd duel. An­other en­emy, ‘‘ Rol­lick­ing Rollo’’ Gille­spie — drinker, war hero and bor­der­line psy­chopath — shows prom­ise, but then spends most of the book off­stage.

Of course, there are mo­ments of drama and hu­man in­ter­est. Raf­fles’s lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with his chil­dren is de­light­ful, and the se­ries of catas­tro­phes that took them from him — his sec­ond wife, Sophia, bore him five, of whom only one out­lived him — can’t but be af­fect­ing. Sophia had made a gold chain bracelet with five gold lock­ets ‘‘ con­tain­ing a scrap of hair from each of her chil­dren, with their names and dates in­scribed on the re­verse. Only Ella’s did not have the date of death as well as of birth.’’ But such de­tail is thin­ner on the ground than the reader would like, and there’s a cer­tain amount of cir­cum­stan­tial pad­ding.

It seems pos­si­ble there was a strug­gle to find colour in the source ma­te­rial: af­ter all, one of the great late dis­as­ters of Raf­fles’s life was a ship­board fire as he was re­turn­ing from the trop­ics that con­sumed all his pos­ses­sions, in­clud­ing his vo­lu­mi­nous pri­vate pa­pers.

That’s tough luck. And ‘‘ print the le­gend’’ is no help to a se­ri­ous bi­og­ra­pher. Still, I re­gret to say I closed the last page of this bi­og­ra­phy feel­ing slightly less in­ter­ested in its sub­ject than when I opened the first.

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