Childhood & Early Life
Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles was born on July 6, 1781, at the sea, off Port Morant, Jamaica, on his father’s ship, ‘Ann.’ His father, Benjamin Raffles, was a merchant captain. His mother’s name was Anne Lyde. As his father had lost a lot in trade, Raffles had a modest upbringing. He studied in a boarding school for a few years.
Raffles could not continue schooling due to his family’s debts, and at 14, he had to take up a job to support his mother and four sisters. In 1795, he began working for the ‘East India Company’ as a clerk.
Despite his insufficient formal education, he achieved good progress at work, as he taught himself science, natural history, and several languages.
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In 1805, Raffles was sent to Penang, an island in the Strait of Malacca, as an assistant secretary to the new governor, Philip Dundas. Prior to that, in 1804, he had married Olivia Mariamne Devenish, a widow who was 10 years his senior.
Raffles learned the Malay language, along with the history and the culture of the locals. His knowledge brought him to the notice of the governor-general of India, Lord Minto, who invited Raffles to Calcutta. Together, they planned to snatch Java from the French (as the French were using Java for destroying British ships). Lord Minto appointed him as an agent to the governor-general of Malay State.
After his return to Malacca, Raffles joined British officers such as Admiral Stopford, General Wetherall, and Colonel Gillespie, on the expedition against the Dutch and the French. On reaching Batavia, they did not face much opposition from General Jan Janssens, who tried to retreat to the north-central coast of Java but was captured later.
On September 11, 1811, Lord Minto proclaimed Raffles as the lieutenant-governor of Java. At the age of 30, he became the administrator/ruler of Java. He brought in several reforms to improve the lives of the locals. He carried out military expeditions to overpower Java princes, thus expanding the British power.
Raffles also charged on Palembang in Sumatra and captured Bangka Island. He introduced improvements in the government (legal and judicial systems) and laid down restrictions for the slave system. However, his administration could not collect as much profit as expected by the ‘East India Company.’
His wife, Olivia, died on November 26, 1814, which was a traumatic event for him. Though Raffles sent a report stating the importance of Java for British trade in the region, Java was handed over to the Netherlands under the 1814 ‘Anglo-Dutch Treaty.’ Subsequently, he was called back.
On November 25, 1816, Raffles left Java for England (in a disgraced condition). Though his administration was perceived unfavorably by the ‘East India Company,’ the Dutch continued many of his reforms when they got the island back.
In England, Raffles was elected as a ‘Fellow of the Royal Society.’ In May 1817, he was awarded the ‘Knighthood’ by the Prince Regent, King George IV. He published ‘The History of Java’ (1817), a book about the past accounts of the place. On February 22, 1817, he married Sophia Hull.
Raffles was made the lieutenant-governor (with restricted authority) of the pepper-port Bencoolen/Bengkulu on Sumatra’s west coast. In November 1818, he took charge of the place. It was in a decrepit condition. He brought in new reforms and tried to put an end to slavery by replacing slaves with convicts sent from India.
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Raffles realized that the British needed a strategic port to counter the Dutch domination in the Far East trade. Along with the British Resident of Malacca, Col. R.J. Farquhar, (who explored the area), Raffles decided that the island of Singapore (Singapura) was an ideal port for British trade.
Raffles made a voyage to Calcutta to convince Lord Hastings, the governor-general of India, that it was necessary for the ‘East India Company’ to have a post around the Strait of Malacca for profitable trade. He returned with a permission to proceed with the necessary action.
Raffles and Farquhar reached Singapore on January 28, 1819. After negotiating with the people concerned, the ‘Treaty of Singapore’ was signed on February 6, 1819, with Hussein Shah, the Sultan of Johor, with the help of the Temenggong of Johor. The treaty transferred the control of the island to the ‘East India Company’ and allowed it to establish a settlement in Singapore. By the ‘Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London’ in 1824, the two countries came to an agreement about trade in the area. However, prior to that, Raffles was instructed not to be intrusive.
Farquhar was appointed as the Resident of Singapore. Raffles returned to Bencoolen, where he introduced educational reforms and regulations against forced labor. He also allowed religious freedom and worked for the preservation of natural resources and the local culture.
Bencoolen was a disease-infested place. Raffles’s sons, Leopold and Stamford, and daughter, Charlotte, died due to epidemics, leaving Raffles and his wife in a distraught state. His health was also affected. He decided to visit Singapore before returning to England.
The port city of Singapore had flourished by then. Raffles instructed engineer Philip Jackson to draw up a plan for the developing city, which is now known as the ‘Jackson Plan’ or the ‘Raffles Town Plan.’ In 1823, he made rapid administrative changes and set regulations. He declared gambling unlawful, levied heavy taxes on drunkenness and drugs consumption, and also drafted criminal laws.
After 8 months of constructive work in Singapore, Raffles left for Bencoolen on June 9, 1823. His youngest daughter, Flora, was born there in September. However, she died in November, 1823.
Raffles left for England on February 2, 1824, but his ship, ‘Fame,’ caught fire at sea. Though the people were saved, he lost all his papers in the fire. He reached England on August 22, 1824.
In 1825, Raffles founded the ‘Zoology Society of London’ and ‘London Zoo’ and also served as their first president. After retiring from the ‘East India Company,’ he was denied any pension. Instead, he was asked to pay £22,000 for the losses occurred during his administration. By then, he had become extremely ill. He died of apoplexy on July 5, 1826.
Several educational institutions and places in Singapore have been named after Raffles. Several biological species have also been named after him.