Raffles Revisited: A Review & Reassessment of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826)

Ernest C. T. Chew, Associate Professor of History, National University of Singapore

Ernest Chew has graciously shared this essay, which first appeared in Raffles Town Club, vol. 6 (Jan-Mar 2002), with readers of the Postcolonial Web. It appears with his permission and that of the Raffles Town Club, which retains the copyright.

1. Introduction: Place, Person, and Purpose

(a) Place: We meet in the Singapore History Museum, known popularly as the National Museum -- but this complex was originally named "The Raffles Library and Museum". It is located at Stamford Road. Not far away was the premier English school in Singapore, Raffles Institution -- which is now Raffles City -- and across the road was and is the Raffles Hotel

In the 1880s, a bronze statue of Raffles was placed at the centre of the Padang, the shared playground of the Singapore Cricket Club and the Singapore Recreation Club. However, in 1919, on the centenary of the so-called founding of Singapore, it was relocated to the front of the Victoria Memorial Hall and Theatre. In 1969, on the 150th anniversary of the founding, in addition to this "black" Raffles statue, the Singapore Government erected another, white, statue of Raffles, beside the old Parliament House, by the Singapore River, near the spot where he supposedly landed in January 1819.

(b) Person: There are countless places and institutions named after Raffles. If I were to ask you who he was, I think that most of you would answer, "The Founder of Singapore". Some of you would remember that he was the Lieutenant-Governor of Java and then of Bencoolen (in which capacity he established the British settlement in Singapore). Others will recall that he was interested in the Arts and Sciences; that he wrote a two-volume History of Java; that he was the first President of the Zoological Society (and thus was a founder of the London Zoo!); or that he gave the seed money for the Singapore Institution, which later became the Raffles Institution.

According to his Obituary, Raffles intended the Institution "to consist of a college, with library and museum, for the study of Anglo-Chinese literature, and of branch schools in the Chinese and Malayan languages" (17). The schools came first, followed by the library and museum, but his vision of a College of the Arts and Sciences was only realised in 1928-29, when the Raffles College was established.

On the personal side, you will recall that he was married first to Olivia, who died in Java, and then to Lady Sophia, who survived him and wrote a long Memoir in her husband's memory. Stamford and Sophia had several children, but only one, Ella, survived to her late teens, and she had no issue.

(c) Purpose: It is not my purpose to give you a biographical account of Raffles. For that you can consult the many biographies of Raffles. The fullest account is that by Charles Wurtzburg, not a historian but a businessman, whose biography, Raffles of the Eastern Isles, was published posthumously in 1954, and reissued by Oxford University Press in 1984. I would like to give you a historiographical review, and then a short reassessment of Raffles' role in the founding of modern Singapore


"Obituary of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles". The Gentleman's Magazine. July 1826, reprinted in Raffles, Thomas Stamford. Book of Days. Singapore: Antiques of the Orient, 1993.

Wurtzburg, Charles Edward. Raffles of the Eastern Isles. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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Last modified: 12 October 2002