Raffles Revealed, in a Javanese context

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

Indonesians are apt to say they wish their former colonisers had been the British instead of the Dutch. It is a comment anyone who lives in the country, and who talks to ordinary people, hears at least once, if not repeatedly.

The argument goes that if the British had run what later became Indonesia there would be larger quantities of workable infrastructure, better education, less corruption, and a parliamentary system that at least holds out some hope for the future of enabling legislation.

Indonesians point to the success of India, Malaysia and Singapore which, since long before the post-imperialists in faraway London gave up the game, have gone ahead well. It’s an attractive argument, but it’s completely superficial one in the Indonesian political context.

It does not withstand scrutiny. India is a contiguous whole with (for the most part) geography and a landscape that accommodates things like roads and railways. In much of India, right up to independence in 1947 British rule was indirect through local rulers heading minor dynasties of very great longevity. There was a sense of collective “Indianness” that predated British (and other European) colonialism and which thrived throughout lengthy imperial times. Malaysia is a multiethnic nation comprising Malays, Indians and Chinese. It has far fewer people than Indonesia and different problems that are home-grown and in no way analogous to those of Indonesia. Singapore is an artificial construct, a Chinese city, best seen as a highly successful, but fundamentally anachronistic city-state on the Venetian model.

Indonesia, by contrast, has no significant archipelago-wide national history beyond the liturgy of its independence struggle. It is still developing that narrative and the mythology to go with it. Dutch settlement – except in Java and parts of Sumatra – was not extensive and grew from little trading posts into a late-start imperial administration. Indonesia is a nation of thousands of islands and hugely diverse populations. It might suit the governing class (primarily from Java) to propose the concept of Indonesia as some sort of modern day reincarnation of Majapahit but Indonesians from elsewhere than Java – where most Indonesians live – see that as a problem, not as a solution.

All of which is a long and circuitous route into a discussion of a new book about Stamford Raffles, memorialised (ad nauseam) as the founder of Singapore. Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, by British writer Tim Hannigan brings Raffles to life in an engaging – though hardly attractive – way by focusing on another of his adventures.

There is a large body of literature on the British Empire. The imperial song is sung in many diverse ways and is heavily scored by paeanists, who like to hammer away at their keyboards, now fortissimo, now andante, occasionally adagio (the Imperial British were strong but gentle, you see) . Hannigan is not among those who believe the British Empire deserves a paean of praise. He prefers a different narrative, a more reflective – and reflexive – nuance.

This came to light in his eminently readable first book Murder in the Hindu Kush: George Hayward and the Great Game. Hayward was a casualty of the long-running standoff between Britain and Russia in Central Asia in the 19th century – known then and now as the Great Game, for thus it was.

Hannigan’s book captures something of the spirit of the novels by John Masters – notably in The Lotus and the Wind, a work of fiction that would bring a tear to the eye of the most resolute anti-imperialist – as to the almost cosmic appeal of the wild lands between the Indus and the Oxus. Afghanistan is in there, right in the middle. So is Kashmir. And for that matter, so is Ladakh, the Himalayan focus of intense Indian-Chinese rivalry.

In his new book about Raffles, Hannigan develops a narrative markedly sharper than that preferred by many imperial hagiographers. Raffles, he finds, was not a Nice Chap. Arguably too, excusing Singapore’s interest in him as a sort of transnational hero, he was not even a success.  His invasion of Java was performed while he was working for John Company, the British East India Company. The territory on which he landed, near Batavia (now Jakarta) was nominally Dutch but was controlled by the Netherlands East Indies Company, confusingly also known as John Company.

Both commercial companies – in Britain and Holland – had grown into quasi-corporate state administrations, proving the political theory that the most applicable natural law in any endeavour is that of unintended consequences. The British company was by far the greater success, but it was well on the road to eventual ruin by the time Raffles landed troops in Java in 1811.

(Its final denouement was to come 46 years later, with the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857, when the Bengal Presidency erupted in an orgy of violence finally suppressed by the British months later with the assistance of Company troops from the Madras and Bombay presidencies. The Mutiny ushered in 90 years of imperial British rule.)

As Hannigan notes in his book, Raffles had his own plans for Java that were not those of either his commercial employers in Calcutta or of the British government in London. He was a maverick, then; less a man of vision than one of impetuous disorder.

The Java landing was a by-product of the Napoleonic Wars. The French had subsumed the Netherlands and Java was thus notionally enemy territory. British policy – such as it was, and filtered via the East India Company to boot – did not envisage occupation of Java. The idea was to seize the centres of indigenous government and hand the island over to the natives. Raffles had other ideas. He apparently wished primarily to become famous. He achieved this objective in part by becoming his own plagiaristic hagiographer.

Hannigan’s book provides a perspective on Raffles that is magnificently different from that served up by other popular writers on the theme, such as Victoria Glendinning, who is surely the Hyacinth Bouquet of the genre. She seems to prefer riparian delights to dealing with real life.

Glendinning has also just produced a book about Raffles. It’s called Raffles and The Golden Opportunity. It misses one: Raffles’ politicking with the sultan of Palembang (in Sumatra) who he wished to have murder the Dutch community there. There was a lovely stand-off at the Singapore Writers Festival in November over that omission and other missing links. Hannigan’s book was the best seller at the festival. Enough said.

Hannigan has been criticised – most notably in an unfavourable review by New Zealand journalist Duncan Graham published in the Jakarta Post newspaper – for some lapses. He wasn’t writing a formal history and did not intend therefore to fully footnote the book, but he had planned “notes on chapters” giving explanations and suggested further reading and this did not eventuate.

Graham, an old Asia hand, writes of Raffles’ failure in Java:

     “There have to be explanations beyond ability, leadership, foresight and intellect — so said the curmudgeons trampled or ignored by this high achiever — and Hannigan has helped give these belittlers the chance to hack away at the image in the provocatively titled Raffles and the British Invasion of Java.

     “However, the man, like his imposing statue in Singapore, is not easily toppled. Not because some evidence against Raffles lacks substance, but because the author strains to hate when he should have let the facts do their work.”

Yet that analysis is itself self-serving and flawed. Graham characterises Hannigan as an ex-Cornish chef and one-time Surabaya chalkie and says dismissively of him that felling tall timbers requires more than a blunt blade. He questions whether Hannigan actually did the research he says he did on the Raffles papers in the archives of the India Office in London. He would like people to think, apparently, that he (Hannigan) is some sort of untutored ring-in amateur whose assumptions cannot be trusted.

This is unworthy. Hannigan is not a history scholar and makes no pretence that he is. But he writes a good yarn and he reads William Dalrymple (everyone should). He understands that while some Brits now living in reduced circumstances may find comfort in the warm glow of recovered memories (miss-memories) of their imperial past, that’s no reason to gild any lilies.

Raffles was probably not a scoundrel. But he is not an idol, either… unless one with feet of clay.

Raffles and the British Invasion of Java is published by Monsoon Books, Singapore – www.monsoonbooks.com.sg. ISBN (paperback) 978-981-4358-85-9 (ebook) 978-981-4358-86-6.