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In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles Paperback – 28 Feb 2010
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About the Author
Nigel Barley is the author of more than ten books with Penguin, Time Warner and Little,Brown, and his books have been translated into twenty languages. Several of his books are required reading for students of Anthropology. Barley has a PhD in Anthropology from Oxford and worked for many years as a curator at The British Museum. Having escaped from the museum, he is now a writer and broadcaster and divides his time between London and Indonesia.
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Nigel Barley, the English anthropologist, and Indonesian specialist, has written an extremely readable account of Raffles' life and achievements, interspersed with fascinating parallels from Indonesia's first President Sukarno's life story. Both came from poor families, both were intelligent, both liked books and both visited the same places. Raffles had only two years of proper schooling.
Raffles was born in 1781 on a ship in Jamaica, joined the English East India Company at the age of 14, as the lowest form of clerk, and worked in London until he was sent to Penang in Malaya in 1803. By the time the six month sea voyage was over, he had taught himself Malay. As Assistant Secretary to the Governor of Penang, he did all the important jobs and in his spare time researched local history and customs. Raffles liked the people and respected them.
In 1808 the Company transferred him to Malacca, further down south, to gather intelligence about Java. England was at war with Napoleon and worried that the French fleet would use the Dutch colony of Java. The English blockaded Java. The French, who were in nominal control, quickly surrendered to the British army. The victory was hardly noticed back in Europe.
At the age of 30 Raffles found himself the sole ruler of Java, whose civilisation he found enchanting. He was the Lieutenant-Governor and set about changing everything. The first thing he did was abolish torture, which was part of the Dutch judicial process. The Dutch believed in monoplies. Raffles believed in free trade. He revised the customs regulations entirely. Java's finances were in chaos. The Dutch had little interest in the welfare of the people, but Raffles ruled like a benevolent dictator. He abolished the importation of slaves and reduced the local rulers' powers. Living in the National Palace in Bogor, he created the Botanical Gardens. Later he discovered the World's largest flower, which was named Rafflesia arnoldii after him. The island was surveyed for a new land tax. As a result Borobudor, the largest Buddhist temple in the World, was "discovered" outside Yogyakarta. He even bothered to work out the traffic regulations and followed the English rule of driving on the left. The Dutch drive on the right but they were not concerned with such matters.
With the defeat of Napoleon Raffles and Java were unimportant and he was fired. He was not even allowed to supervise the transfer of power back to Holland. Exhausted he returned to England with 30 tons of luggage, many pieces of which are now in British museums, such as the Raffles Collection of the British Museum. Interested in everything and a true scholar he wrote the monumental The History of Java, which is still in print. He was knighted, became a Fellow of the Royal Society and married for the second time. After 30 months, in 1818 he was back in Indonesia and given the Company post in Bengkulu in Sumatra.
Raffles enjoyed his time in Bengkulu. His new wife gave him four children. He abolished gambling, freed up the pepper trade and set up schools. He visited the ancient city of Singapura and secured his greatest triumph - the founding of Singapore in 1819. The good times, however, were not to last - three of his children died. Raffles and his wife were also dangerously ill. He had a brain tumour, which was to kill him in six years.
Desperate to leave in 1824 they had to wait three months for a ship home. Their clothes and 122 boxes of research papers, animals, plants and books took up a third of the vessel. After a day at sea, the ship caught fire and they lost everything. It was the greatest blow ever to Malay literary studies. He eventually made it back to London and despite ill-health established the London Zoo and became the first President of the Zoological Society.
In 1826 Raffles' Javanese bank went bankrupt and he lost most of his capital. Then the Company presented him with a bill for £20,000 for accounting irregularities. To cap it all they demanded repayment of the expenses in founding Singapore. Raffles died later that year. The Company were surprised that he had so little money and reduced their claim against his estate to £10,000, thereby leaving his widow with nothing.
Nigel Barley retraces Raffles' steps, including visits to Nias and Bali, and entertainingly recounts stories of the people he meets along the way. The book is also a modern travelogue. Raffles accomplished a lot during his short lifespan of 44 years. I recommend this book warmly.
This is where Barley's book lets down the reader. At 298 pages, there is simply too little detail about Raffles' (or Karno's) life to be complete and there are large gaps, particularly around Raffles' acquisition of the tip of the Malay Peninsula and his work on the island. Unfortunately I had to refer to Wikipedia, and then, more pleasantly, to Turnbull's excellent work on Singapore for additional detail about Raffles' contribution to the founding of the city state. Barley could do a better literary service by extending the book to encompass more detail about the Raffles (and to some extent Karno) biography but this might detract from the present-day travel aspect designed to place the book into a more unique genre than simple history. Be that is it may, the book was entertaining and made me want to visit Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (again) to experience these unique cultures.
Now a word of caution, the edition I received from Amazon is full of typographical errors, on most pages. For example, at the beginning of the book, the letter "i/I" is replaced by "1"; many words have inappropriate letters substituted into them to make then unreadable; and some sentences have missing words. The proofing of this text has little to recommend it but yet I'm not sure how to bring this to attention to Amazon or the publisher. Needless to say the book has been rated on its merit and not because of the typographical errors.
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