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How Well Do You Know Your Singapore History? Textpat Wives on the Singapore Bicentennial and Stamford Raffles

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When Stamford Raffles met Singapore…

Did you know January 29 marks the 200th anniversary of the date Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore? In the intervening years historians’ views on Raffles have constantly evolved; while he was once considered the “founder” of Singapore – despite the fact it was a trading port for hundreds of years before he arrived – he’s at other times been viewed as a scholarly expert on Southeast Asia, a progressive reformer, a committed imperialist, and even a plagiariser. (We can’t wait to find out more at the upcoming Bicentennial exhibition Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman, which opens 1 February at the Asian Civilisations Museum! But we digress…)

Good or bad, innovator or imperialist, Raffles undeniably changed the course of Singapore history. Exactly how well do you know your early Singapore history, mama? In honour of the bicentennial, the lovely, sarcastic ladies at Textpat Wives have kindly shared an excerpt from their [bestselling!] new book, The Expats’ Guide to Singapore: Finding Your Feet on the Little Red Dot. In their view, Raffles may very well have been the original expat frazzled by the Singapore heat. 

Read on for a good laugh…and some historical enlightenment! 

The year is 1819. Britain and Holland (as it was then) hate each other and are continuously bickering over who has the greatest empire in the world. Britain has many commodities-based interests in the East Indies, but has just had to hand Malacca back to the Dutch under a war treaty. Enter Stamford (later Sir Stamford) Raffles. In the course of the previous eight years he had busied himself: fighting the French and the Dutch in Java―for which he earned himself the position of Java’s Lieutenant Governor; writing a book on the history of Java; getting himself a knighthood in England; and acting as Governor-General of Bencoolen (now Bengkulu), Indonesia. (Say what you will about the people of old, but when they put their minds to it, and when they weren’t dropping dead of scurvy and malaria right and left, they were pretty accomplished.)

To cut a very long, politically-charged story short, Raffles started scouting about for a new settlement, which could protect Britain’s interests from the ghastly Dutch. (Bencoolen just wasn’t cutting it, apparently.) On January 29, 1819, he landed at what is now Boat Quay and decided This is it! (Actually, accounts differ as to where he landed, and what he said. He definitely landed at St. John’s Island on January 28, and then the next day either landed at the mouth of the Singapore river at Boat Quay, or went somewhere else on the island, at the mouth of a different river, entirely. As for what he said, we truly have no clue, but suspect that it was something along the lines of: “F*ck, it’s hot”;Oops, I forgot the insect repellent”; or “Good Lord, is that a crocodile?”)

Anyway, along he came, and saw that there was a deep natural port, lots of fresh water, and plenty of timber (good for boat-building and repairs, in the olden days) and—BEST OF ALL—no Dutch. The only inhabitants of the swampy, jungly island were some Chinese planters and a small Malay settlement, all of whom were governed by the Sultan of Johor, Hussein Mohamed Shah.[1]

Funny story, though, about this Sultan (let’s call him Hussein for short). He was the eldest brother, and therefore rightful heir to the throne upon the death of his father. But his younger brother, Sultan Abdul Rahman, had seized control of the island, and big brother Hussein had actually been sent to sulk on one of the Indonesian islands south of Singapore. (Rumour has it he was penniless, but maybe being penniless isn’t so bad if your exile means sunning yourself on an island beside a turquoise sea for the rest of your life.) Little brother Abdul, who had taken over Singapore, was tight with the Dutch, and when Raffles showed up, Abdul wasn’t about to let him just traipse in and take over. Faced with this, Raffles went totally Game of Thrones. He sent a ship to pluck Hussein off the beach, brought him to Singapore, and propped him up at a fancy desk with a pen. Then he reminded him that he was the rightful heir to the throne—so screw his brother—and got him to sign a treaty giving the East India Company[2] a trading post in Singapore. In exchange, all Hussein wanted was five thousand Spanish dollars per year, and the protection of the British. (Biggest reward, though, was probably the pleasure of putting his uppity little brother in his place.)

Raffles, having pulled off this questionable little bit of diplomacy, buggered off back to Bencoolen as soon as the treaty with Hussein had been signed—on February 6, 1819—leaving Major William Farquhar in charge, with an order to, effectively, start a thriving trading settlement from scratch. (Not exactly easy-peasy. The next time your boss asks the impossible of you, think of poor Farquhar. And then say, “Far-Who?” Because nothing is even named after the poor guy, unlike Raffles, whose name is everywhere.) [Some of his descendants have done ok for themselves, though. –Ed]

To ol’ whatshisname’s credit, he did a great job; he created the only free port in the region, which he knew would entice traders, eager to avoid the Dutch trade restrictions. (See? The founding of Singapore is really all about the Brits pissing off the Dutch.) Traders flocked here, and in their wake came settlers, and money. By the time Raffles returned in 1822, the population had increased five-fold (to 5,000) and trade was booming. Raffles, however, wasn’t impressed. As well as being furious at Farquhar for having sold gambling licences, he found that he had returned to a fairly lawless, chaotic settlement; there was no plan in place to control the mounting population, nor were there many public services. He fired Farquhar, and set about devising a nice orderly plan of streets on a grid system: Europeans in one area, Chinese in another, Indians over here, Muslims over there, etc. It’s actually a fascinating map to look at (the original is kept at the National Museum of Singapore), as so much of the original plan has remained.

Farquhar’s successor, Crawfurd, signed a further treaty in 1823 which brought the entire island under British Law, and a treaty with the dreaded Dutch confirmed it as a British Possession. (The Dutch took all of Sumatra instead. Ah, how simple things were in the olden days … if you were a conquering white man, of course! All you needed was a map of the world, a quill, perhaps a few jugs of ale, and the cold hard colonial spirit of the Empire.) In 1823, Raffles left Singapore for the last time. He died in England, in 1826, aged just 44.

The Expats’ Guide to Singapore is available for purchase online, or at fine Singapore bookstores like Books Actually

[1] Johor is a state in southern Malaysia, just across the straits from Singapore. The Sultan of Johor is the state’s sovereign ruler, and the office has been in existence since the early 16th Century. [2] This was the body through with the British Government traded in the East Indies. It was essentially an agent of the British Empire. * Lead image courtesy of Ancient Civilisations Museum, sourced via Dream of A City; Sir Stamford Raffles painting by George Francis Joseph courtesy of Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, sourced via Wikipedia; Singapore river view image and Malay Peninsula image by National Museum of Singapore

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