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The Straits Settlements

From den of pirates to port city

Stamford Raffles was the son of a sea-captain and had been born on his father's ship off Jamaica in 1781. His family was poor, and after very little schooling he became a clerk in the East India Company's office in London at the age of fourteen. There he worked so hard that he won the esteem of his employers and at the same time managed to continue his education during his leisure hours. His chance came in 1805, when Penang was made a Presidency and he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Government there. On the long voyage to the East Raffles set himself to learn all he could of the language and history of the Malay people among whom he was to work. Soon after his arrival at Penang this knowledge led to his being employed as the official Malay translator, and in 1807 he was promoted to the post of Secretary to the Government.

By this time, the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing and the Dutch in Java began collaborating with their French allies in Mauritius in denying Britain naval supremacy and trade in the East. Britain was compelled to capture both islands. Mauritius was captured in 1810 and a great invasion task force came to Penang the next year. From Penang, it moved down to Melaka where Raffles had been organising an intelligence unit; and then it crossed to Java, which was quickly captured.

When the war ended in Europe, the British wanted a powerful Holland in Europe to act as a buffer between it and France, and so Java was restored to it. Raffles, however, loathed the Dutch administration in the East and firmly believed it was in Britain's greatest to retain Holland's eastern possessions. He was furious but could do nothing. However, he was saved by his enemies, the Dutch. On their return to Java, they re-imposed, with greater effectiveness than before, their old regulations and trade restrictions.

In late 1818, he was instructed by the authorities in India to see if he could establish a British trading post at Riau, if this could be done without a quarrel with the Dutch. He sailed to Penang and then on down the Straits of Melaka. He took with him William Farquhar, who had been in charge of Melaka during the war. He did not go to Riau, for the Dutch had returned there and garrisoned it. He went instead to the Carimon Islands nearby. Here, he found fresh water, but the harbour was unsatisfactory. So he sailed from there to Singapore in January 1819, landing at the mouth of the Singapore River on a beach littered with skulls - it was then a den of Malay pirates.

Raffles found a small village inhabited by about 150 Malays and Orang Laut, who lived by fishing and piracy under the leadership of the Temenggong of Johore, the actual ruler of that state, since the Sultan was a mere puppet of the Bugis Raja Muda and the Dutch in Riau. Raffles made an agreement with the Temenggong for the establishment of a factory, but this needed confirmation by the Sultan. Major Farquhar was sent to try to get this, but as was to be expected, the Raja Muda and the Sultan were too much in the power of the Dutch to commit themselves.

Then Raffles had another idea. When the late Sultan Mahmud died in 1810 his eldest son, Tengku Long, was away in Pahang, where he was marrying the Bendahara's sister. According to Malay custom, the heir to the throne must take part in the funeral of his predecessor before being installed. In the absence of Tengku Long, the Bugis Raja Muda had installed his younger brother, Abdur-Rahman, although there is some doubt whether this was legally done, because the regalia was still retained by the wife of the late ruler, who supported the elder brother's claims. In any case, Tengku Long was living as a penniless pretender in Riau when two messengers sent by Raffles brought him to Singapore, where he was received and recognized as the rightful Sultan Hussein of Johore. A treaty was then made with the new Sultan and the Temenggong by which they agreed to the East India Company establishing a factory in return for payments Of $5,ooo a year for the former and $3,000 for the latter.

In order to draw to Singapore all the trade he could, Raffles declared that the port was to be free and open to the ships of all nations, free of duty, equally and alike for all. This was the foundation upon which Singapore built up its great entrepot trade. Raffles hoped to make Singapore a centre of learning as well as commerce, and laid the foundations of the " Institution " now named after him. This was originally intended to be the beginnings of a university where the languages and cultures of the Malayan peoples could be studied.

Raffles then returned to Bencoolen to wind up his affairs there before retiring to Britain. By this time it was certain that Singapore would not be given up. Raffles had achieved his object,. but at a terrible personal cost. His first wife had died in Java, and three of his four children perished in the unhealthy climate of Bencoolen. He returned to Britain old before his time and weakened in health if not in spirit. As a crowning misfortune, the ship in which he sailed was destroyed by fire, and most of the collection of natural specimens and Malay manuscripts which he had gathered together was lost. Even after he was in retirement, the East India Company treated him meanly in money matters and gave him scant thanks for his great work. In 1826 he died suddenly on the eve of his forty-sixth birthday.

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