At the start of his career, Thomas Stamford Raffles dreamed of a vast British realm in Southeast Asia. By the end, that vision had narrowed to a single British-held island off the coast of Johor. But in truth, the “Singapore concept” had been there at the core of Raffles’ ambitions from the very beginning – the idea of a tiny enclave of free-trading British territory deep within a patchwork of Dutch possessions and local states.
This lecture explores the overlooked stories of the earlier, alternative Singapores: Java, Bengkulu, and, most controversially, Bangka and Banjarmasin – places where Raffles’ dealings involved massacres, slavery, and arch Machiavellianism. Could today’s city-state have instead grown up at the mouth of a Sumatran river, or in a swampy morass on the coast of Kalimantan?
The lecture also looks at the history of a myth: the story of how Raffles’ image was posthumously crafted, turning a scandal-dogged failure into a visionary hero with a reputation secure enough to transcend the shift from the age of European empire to postcolonial modernity. How should we handle this mythical construct in the 21st century? And can we ever reach beyond it to the real man – complex, contradictory, flawed, and fascinating – who first stepped ashore in Singapore two hundred years ago?
About the speaker
Tim Hannigan is a British author and academic. He was born in Cornwall in the far west of the UK, and was formerly based in Indonesia. He now divides his time between Ireland and England, but is still a regular visitor to Southeast Asia. He is the author of several narrative history books, including Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, which won the 2012 John Brooks Award, and the bestselling A Brief History of Indonesia. He is currently based at the University of Leicester, where he is completing a PhD focused on ethical issues in contemporary travel literature.
Image: Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu, showing the Government House and Council House. Coloured aquatint with etching; drawn by Andrews, around 1794–98; engraved by Joseph Stadler; published by William Marsden, 1799. British Library [P 329].