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.


What then can we learn from the life of Raffles?

First, he was a man of vision and determination. Without his vision, Singapore would have remained an obscure, sparsely inhabited island of the Johore-Riau empire, and then a marginal part of the expanding Dutch East Indies. Raffles envisaged Singapore to be a key economic and strategic point of Britain's India-China and Southeast Asian trade, and founded a settlement and a free port for that purpose.

Second, he stood for certain values. To him, Singapore was to be more than a trading settlement devoted to materialistic pursuits. He held strongly to moral principles on the dignity and equality of human beings, and advocated the abolition of the slave trade. He was an avid student of Asian languages, and took an interest in the botany and zoology of the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago. He therefore established a Singapore Institution dedicated to the study of the arts and sciences of Asia.

Finally, he suffered from the vicissitudes of life. He went to work in his teens to support his parents and younger siblings. His first wife and most of the children of his second marriage died from tropical diseases. The ship carrying valuable scientific specimens of his work caught fire and sank. He himself died of a brain tumour one day short of his 45th birthday.

Yet he has left an impressive record of great historic accomplishments. He wrote a notable two-volume History of Java, where he served as Lieutenant-Governor. He was the first President and founder of the London Zoological Society, which established the London Zoo. And most important of all, he gave the indispensable impetus to the founding of a new colonial settlement, which grew into modern Singapore.

References and Further Reading

Barley, Nigel. The Duke of Puddle Dock: In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

Bastin, John. Lady Raffles by Effort and Virtue. Singapore: National Museum, 1994.

Chew, Ernest C.T. and Edwin Lee, eds. A History of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Loh, Alice, ed. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles: A Comprehensive Bibliography, compiled by Eli Solomon. Singapore: National Library Board, 1997.

Raffles, Thomas Stamford. Book of Days. Singapore: Antiques of the Orient, 1993.

Turnbull, C.M. A History of Singapore 1819-1988. 2nd ed. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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

Related Materials

Main Web Page Singapore [History]

Last modified: 12 October 2002