Category: News@Borobudur.

Raffles Reimagined

Katrin Figge | October 02, 2011

Ask anyone who Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was and most people would probably give the same answer: The founding father of Singapore.

Traces of Raffles can be found all over Singapore, most prominently in tourist attractions like the famous Raffles Hotel and his larger-than-life statue, both of which have become icons in the city-state.

While Raffles did achieve much in Singapore, people seem to forget — or are perhaps even unaware of the fact — that Raffles was also lieutenant governor of Java for almost five years.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Raffles’s appointment in Java in September 1811. A lecture organized by the Indonesian Heritage Society, which will take place on Tuesday in Jakarta, aims to shed some light on this lesser-known period of Raffles’s life.

The event also kicks off the society’s twice-yearly lecture series, featuring talks that generally focus on topics concerning Indonesian arts and culture, led by both locals and foreigners.

The lecture on Raffles will be delivered by Mike Nicholson, a long-time member of the Indonesian Heritage Society.

“Being a consultant has allowed me flexibility with my time, so I joined the Heritage Society,” Nicholson said. “They have a lot of activities here and it’s a lot of fun. Jakarta really is a fantastic place to be.”

Nicholson said he had always been somewhat fascinated by Raffles’s life — being British and having lived his teenage years in Singapore, it was only natural that he would take an interest in the British statesman.

However, it was only when he volunteered to hold the upcoming lecture that he started to undertake more extensive research on Raffles.

“The more I read about him, the more I wanted to know about him,” Nicholson said. “He was obviously a very interesting person, beginning with the fact that he was only 30 years old when he became lieutenant governor here and he made some really big changes.”

Raffles was born in 1781 on a ship in Jamaica called The Ann, of which his father was the captain.

“His father was probably involved in the slave trade,” Nicholson said. “But Raffles himself was very anti-slavery and he was the person here [in Indonesia] that started the abolition of slavery.”

“He was also very anti-opium, and that’s why he was not very popular with his bosses at the British East India Company, who were always looking to make profit,” he added.

“But I think Raffles was just too far advanced for them. They were a trading company, they were here to make money and a lot of things that Raffles was suggesting simply weren’t making money.”

Raffles attended boarding school in England, but after a while, his father could no longer afford to pay the school fees and the young boy was forced to start working. He eventually found a job as a clerk for the British East India Company at the age of 14.

Having an incomplete formal education, Raffles took matters into his own hands and began to study science and foreign languages in his free time and also developed an interest in natural history.

His talent and ambition did not go unnoticed. At the relatively young age of 23, Raffles was appointed assistant secretary of the new government of Penang at the northern entrance to the Strait of Malacca.

During his time in Penang, Raffles took a genuine interest in the history, culture and language of the Malay people, which would eventually become an asset to his further career, since he quickly caught the attention of Lord Minto, the governor general of India.

Minto was planning a campaign to drive the French out of Java. The French had formally annexed the island from the Dutch at that time, and Minto recruited Raffles as his agent to advise on the upcoming invasion of Java.

“The British left India with 100 ships in March 1811, heading for Indonesia,” Nicholson said. “They arrived here on the fifth of August, and within six weeks they had complete control of Java.”

After successfully occupying the island, Minto named Raffles lieutenant governor of Java.

“He made a lot of good things happen,” Nicholson said. “Raffles had a very inquiring mind and he was involved in a lot of different activities.”

One of the first things Raffles did was change the administration of Java. Under the Dutch, it had been mercantile, meaning the Dutch East India Company bought all the country’s products for a low price and sold them abroad for an immense profit.

The peasants in Java were not allowed to sell their products to anyone besides the Dutch company. Under Raffles’s rule, the system became more open, improving the living conditions of the native population.

Besides administrative changes, Raffles was also interested in Java’s cultural heritage and its flora and fauna.

“It was Raffles who arranged for Borobudur to be rediscovered,” Nicholson said. “In 1812, he sent down a party to Borobudur. He had heard of a temple somewhere in that area where even the people who lived around it didn’t really know what was there — a huge temple that was basically overgrown.”

Raffles’s team of around 150 people stayed there for a couple of months, and that marked the beginning of the restoration of Borobudur, which today ranks among Indonesia’s most famous landmarks and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Raffles also b ecame the president of the Batavia Society of Arts and Sciences, which had been established by the Dutch a couple of decades earlier but was not active by the time he arrived.

“They were basically collecting things from Indonesia and Raffles was getting people to start thinking about a single site for a museum,” Nicholson said. “The Museum Nasional was basically his idea, even though it wasn’t opened until 1869. A lot of things you can find in the British Museum are from Raffles’s private collection.”

Having always been an avid collector of plants, Raffles also discovered one of the world’s biggest specimens in 1818, which still carries his name today — the Rafflesia flower.

Raffles’s stay in Java turned out to be short-lived, though, as his reforms were not appreciated by the profit-oriented British East India Company. In 1816, he sailed back to England after the island of Java was returned to control of the Netherlands. Back in Europe, he wrote a two-volume book called “The History of Java,” which, Nicholson says, is still a good read and relevant today.

One year later, Raffles was knighted after he dedicated his book to the king and was appointed governor general of Bencoolen (Bengkulu), marking his return to Southeast Asia. In February 1819 he founded the city of Singapore — the milestone in his life for which he is most famous today.

“There were only a few fishing villages there at that time,” Nicholson said. “But Raffles was able to establish a very well-organized Singapore — and you can still see that today. I believe that if he had spent 10 more years here in Indonesia, Java would be a very different place today.”

Raffles returned to England in 1824 and died two years later, one day before his 45th birthday.

Although Raffles is regarded as a great administrator these days, as well as a pioneering Orientalist and humanitarian, he struggled with the British authorities for most of his life.

“He had all these visions, but his bosses in the head office always said no because it would cost them too much money,” Nicholson said. “Upon his return to England, the company accused him of spending too much money on things like the expedition to the Borobudur. They said: ‘This is your hobby, so pay for it yourself.’ ”

When Raffles died, he was still indebted — leaving his wife to pay what he owed to the British East India Company.

“It was only several years after he died that people began to recognize what he had actually achieved,” Nicholson said. “I think he was a man who simply lived too early.”

Thomas Raffles: His Brief, Active Role in Java
A lecture by Mike Nicholson
Oct. 4
at 6 p.m.
Erasmus Huis
Jl. Rasuna Said Kav. S3
South Jakarta
Tel: 021 524 1069

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Category: News@Borobudur