Raffles (1A)

Explorer, politician, naturalist, visionary ... Sir Stamford Raffles was the most important figure in the transformation of a small Malay fishing village into a strategic port for Asian maritime trade.  Because, as we shall now see, Sir Raffles’ story is closely linked to the sea.

Raffles was born on 6 July, 1781 on a ship captained by his father, Benjamin Raffles, who was sailing the Caribbean near Jamaica. Soon afterwards, at the age of 14, he joined the British East India Company in London as a clerk, as his father was bankrupt and could not pay for his education. Raffles used his time off from work and nights to study history, geography and languages.

In 1805 he was chosen to travel to the island of Penang, now Malaysia, to work as a secretary. He learned Malay very quickly, as he was one of the few foreigners at that time who really made the effort to learn the local culture. Thus, in 1807 he was given an important political appointment in the area.  To give you an idea, he went from 70 pounds sterling as a clerk to more than 1,500. A truly meteoric rise.

In 1811 he became lieutenant governor of Java and later, Governor of Bencoolen, now Sumatra. Meanwhile, in 1815 Napoleon was fighting the battle of Waterloo and the Dutch were controlling the sea beyond India until 1816.  England was lagging behind.

It was Raffles who, a short time later, convinced the governor general of India Lord Hastings and the British East India Company itself to finance the construction of a new port in the Straits of Malacca and fight against the Netherlands’ commercial dominance in Southeast Asia.

His vast knowledge of Malay culture and his entrepreneurial nature led him to Singapore on 29 January 1819 and to the successful creation of a free port.

Although his name is closely linked to this city, it is not known if Raffles actually spent much time here. But he is known for his great work in Singapore’s organization and urban planning as well as the creation of important public spaces.  He had a passion for local flora and fauna and a profound knowledge of the Malay people.

Just 5 years later, Raffles returned to England, where he founded, among other things, the London Zoo. Unfortunately, a couple of years later, he died of a brain tumor on July 4, 1826.

Despite all his professional successes, Raffles’ personal life was full of sacrifice and suffering.  He experienced many health problems, the early death of his first wife after only nine years of marriage and the death of 3 of the 4 children he had with his second wife. Even on his return to England in 1824, the boat on which he and his family were travelling caught fire and all his work sank into the ocean with the boat.  This work included his notes on the history of Borneo and Sumatra, as well as on the founding of Singapore, and more than 2,000 of his wildlife illustrations.  All his work was lost in one night. To top if off, he faced legal problems once he arrived in London, as Farquhar was posing as the founder of Singapore.

Sir Stamford Raffles’ life was short but very intense.  Above all, it showed us that the respect and understanding of others are the keys to making the world a better place.

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