On Raffles and the danger of traditional biographies

The statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles stands before the creamy columns of the Victoria Theatre in a quiet corner of central Singapore.  Double life-size, he cuts a magnificent figure, with shoulders squared and best foot forward.  At the base of the statue is an inscription to his “Foresight and Genius”.

There is much that is remarkable about this monument – not least that it is still standing.  While his contemporaries have been toppled from their perches in post-colonial cities across the globe, Raffles, a 19th century British imperialist, is still there at the heart of a modern, independent Asian nation.  But the most remarkable thing of all is that the statue was erected in 1919.  Raffles himself died in 1826 with a moth-eaten reputation, a litany of blunders and insubordinations fresh in official memory, and no great epitaphs to his name.  This, then, is not a monument to a man, but to a legend of a later century.

But for me the Raffles statue in Singapore symbolises something more: the great and often egregious power of biography, and the critical inadequacy at the core of the traditional biographer’s craft.

I never planned to write a biography of Raffles.  I wanted to write a book about the British occupation of Java – the five-year interregnum between 1811 and 1816 during which Britain ousted Holland from Indonesia and took control of their nascent empire.  I had been reading and writing about Indonesia’s past for several years; I had the cultural and historical contexts already on file, and now I wanted a story that would draw on them.

I knew that Raffles had headed the British administration in Java, and I thought that I already knew his story – a lowly clerk who rose rapidly through the East India Company ranks, ran Java, oversaw a Sumatran outpost, and ultimately founded Singapore.  Somewhere along the line, I thought, I had read a book about him.  But the vague vision that flickered in the back of my imagination – of scholarship, liberalism and decency – seemed to have been formed mainly by osmosis.  So when I made my first forays to the wellspring – the mass of archive material from the British Interregnum now held in the British Library – I was baffled.

“Decisive proof of the strength and determination of the British”

Within hours of beginning my research I found myself stumbling over evidence that seemed entirely at odds with that osmotic image.  Here was Raffles – represented in his own handwritten letters – as a swaggering imperialist bully-boy of the first rank, spitting fire at “native insolence” and calling down shock and awe on Javanese royal courts as a “decisive proof to the Native Inhabitants of Java of the strength and determination of the British”.  Here too was the sensitive scholar dismissing the people of Borneo as uncultured savages, “abhorring the tenets of Mahometanism”, and pondering how best to wring the maximum cash returns from the penniless peasantry of Java.  It went on, and it got worse: here he was inciting the massacre of an isolated community of Dutchmen to provide an excuse for a land-grab, and ordering the kidnapping of “women of loose morals” to serve the whims of an unhinged English despot by the name of Alexander Hare.

It was only when I was already knee-deep in the archives that I began to explore the books that had already been written about Raffles in search of cross-references.  What I found there was truly bizarre.


In the two centuries since his death there have been more than a dozen full-length biographies of Thomas Stamford Raffles.  But as I called up volume after volume from the library stores I found it impossible to reconcile what I read in them with what I had already discovered in the manuscript sources.  All of the biographies were chronically uncritical.  Manifestly outrageous events in which the Raffles of the archives appeared irredeemable were energetically spin-doctored on the printed page.  The biographers skipped from unflattering episode to unflattering episode, apparently approaching each as an exercise in lateral thinking.  The diverse legion of contemporaries who took issue with Raffles, both personally and professionally, were dismissed en masse with astonishing vitriol.  An apparently serious mid-20th century biographer called one of Raffles’ critics a “hyena”.  It was all very strange, but it was obvious how it had happened.

Raffles certainly took a mythomaniac approach when writing about his own story, but he convinced few outside his own circle, and he suffered significant official censure until the very end of his life.  But four years after his death his widow, Sophia, published his first biography.  Sophia’s Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was a deliberate effort at rehabilitation, a glowing paean to a misunderstood man, and it started a long relay.  The next biography was published in 1897, at the very zenith of the British Empire when the brash demonstration of British determination went down very well indeed.  The author, Demetrius Charles Boulger, had taken Sophia’s Life as his starting point, and had taken Raffles’ own word as gospel too.

The biographers who came after simply followed suit, despite the ebb of the imperial tide.  There were so many of them, and they did their job so well, that they created a discourse on “Raffles the hero” so loud that you didn’t even need to read a biography to hear it; all you needed to do was pass briefly through Singapore, or flick through a Lonely Planet guidebook to Southeast Asia, and that liberal, gentlemanly image would sneak in.

Adoring biographers

But I soon realised that the rank of adoring biographers could hardly be held accountable.  My own approach to the Raffles story had been entirely fortuitous: the odds of a writer coming to the books after exploring the archives were slim to say the least.  Most of the earlier Raffles biographers would have first properly encountered him in an earlier biography.  Boulger began with Sophia’s Life; Wurtzburg’s almost certainly started with Boulger, and so on.  Having already read a few adoring biographies before calling up the first bundle of manuscript sources, each new researcher already had certain sympathies fixed and certain agendas formed.  And if you are faced with the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of a man you already admire – adore, even – kidnapping prostitutes or inciting massacres, you have a simple choice: give up and go home, or find a way around.  And this is what biographers have been doing for centuries.

The biography is a far older literary form than the novel, and its genesis can be found in the work of the scholar-monks of the early medieval era.  The first biographies were the Lives of the Saints, books charting the journey from cradle to grave of the sanctified figures of the church.  Sometimes the subject was long-dead, or even apocryphal, and the biographer would be left to trawl the tracts in a forensic operation of reconstruction.  But sometimes the saints had died within living memory, leaving an archipelago of flesh-and-blood points of contact – men who had known them in life and who could be interviewed for first-hand accounts of their doings.  Occasionally the writer had known their subject in person.

The First Biographers

So the research methods of these early biographers were essentially those of their modern counterparts, and indeed, if you read 9th century accounts of Saints, penned at some cloistered desk amongst illuminated scrolls, you will find a strikingly familiar form.  The beginning is invariably the beginning; there is a thumbnail genealogy of the parents, and a selection of childhood anecdotes chosen with the infinite benefit of hindsight for their apparent highlighting of the way ahead.  Adulthood looms, a monastic career is sketched, challenges laid out, and travels recounted, before the ultimate demise.  The book generally ends with a reflective coda.  Either these ancient authors had a strikingly modern sensibility, or latter-day biographers are spectacularly old-fashioned.

But it is necessary to remember the purpose of these first biographies: they were, quite literally, works of hagiography.  Their aim was to establish, emphasise, and at times embellish, the saintly nature of their subjects, and at all costs to underplay the faintest suggestion that they might have been less than admirable.  This hagiographic myopia was such an integral part of the template that it endured even as later generations of biographers moved on to secular figures in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These authors almost always regarded their subject as a hero, and they embarked on their task with the same motivations as the monks.

Even in the 21st century, the bulk of biographies remain resolutely traditional in form. Many of them are still subtitled “A Life”, as if offering a conscious nod to their monkish antecedents.  And they remain essentially hagiographic.  In the early chapters of countless biographies an intensely selective set of possibly apocryphal childhood anecdotes are presented, plucked from a great mass of more mundane incidents and set in place only because of their supposed indication a future life in adventure, warfare or politics.  This is precisely what those medieval hagiographers did.  Even the apparent injections of modern and post-modern sensibilities into the biographer’s craft in the 20th century were rapidly subsumed by unswerving tradition: the influence of Freudian psychology proved a superficial radicalism as a distant mother or an absent father merely helped set our hero on his way to originality, and a period of later conflict or turmoil simply echoed the greatest of all hagiographies, with a Nazarene carpenter fighting devilish whispers in the Judaean Desert.


In an age in which we like to think of our approaches to history as more knowing, however, there is a grave danger in these traditional approaches to biography, a danger clearly demonstrated in the case of the Raffles legend, where the magnum opus of an aggrieved widow and a later reliance on biographic convention led to a spectacular skewing of popular memory.  My own approach to that topic meanwhile – side-on and from the context to the man, rather than from the man to the context – shows just how easily an alternative angle can plough through the levees flanking a thundering hagiographic discourse.

My accidental approach to Raffles is a far from practical model: would-be biographers can hardly be expected to wander aimlessly around the backwoods of history in the hope of stumbling upon an overgrown backdoor to some well-known life story.  But to avoid the latent risk of myopia and apologia in traditional approaches they should be seeking out new angles and new forms; they should be fighting to reject the monks’ model.

This is not, let me make it very clear, a clarion call for hatchet jobs.  Wanton iconoclasm is wearisome and reductive, and can still find itself trapped in a traditional mould.  Instead biographers should be looking for ways to approach and use life stories that avoid the monks’ trod, even if they remain ultimately adoring of their subject.

Use the narrative of a life as a way of telling some other story – make Sir Richard Burton’s explorations of the Nile a hook for the tale of the indigenous peoples of central Africa; tell the story of modern Greece with Patrick Leigh Fermor as the background, rather than the other way around.  Start side-on, backwards, any which way but at the beginning.

There have, of course, been admirable efforts already.  Patrick French’s “travelling biographies” of Sir Francis Younghusband and VS Naipaul, with the author taking to the stage in the first person at points throughout the narrative, offered powerful insight and authentic empathy.  Pico Iyer’s The Man Inside My Head, despite flirting with the solipsism inherent in autobiography, was as fresh and original a way to tackle Graham Greene as you could hope for.  But the biographer’s default remains hagiographic, as Artemis Cooper’s new – but entirely traditional – biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor shows only too well.

Of course, there will always be traditional biographies so well written that they stand on literary merit alone – like Nicholas Shakespeare’s Bruce Chatwin.  And there will always be life stories so remarkable that they justify a conventional telling – Leigh Fermor’s amongst them.  But as the statue of Thomas Stamford Raffles outside the Victoria Theatre in Singapore shows, all too often to take such a biographic approach is to produce something as inflexible and unreal as the image of a medieval saint in a stained glass window.

Tim Hannigan

Tim’s book Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, 2012, is published by Monsoon Books.

See also Tim’s article on writing his book, Murder in the Hindu Kush.

3 thoughts on “On Raffles and the danger of traditional biographies

  1. Victoria Glendinning, author of Raffles and the Golden Opportunity responds to Tim’s article:

    ‘Everyone who knows anything at all knows that the memoir by Raffles’ widow was partial and partisan, and that from the late nineteenth century until the middle of the last century Raffles was recruited by his biographers as an emblematic hero of Empire. Also, that in the immediate post-colonial period his integrity and achievement were questioned and denigrated. That revisionism, natural and even necessary at the time, is by now just as stale and ‘kneejerk’ as the previous heroic image.

    In 2012 it’s possible to divest oneself of both myths, and to stop treating him as a shadow puppet, projected on to a screen. What RAFFLES AND THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY does is to zoom in on the real man without preconceptions, uncovering his strengths and weaknesses, his ideas, his ideals and visions, his inconsistencies and failures and misfortunes, his courage and vision. He wanted success and fame – and he wanted to do good. He was on the side of the peoples with whom he lived, not seeking immediate profit either for himself or for the East India Company.

    He was neither a saint not a monster. He was like what you and I might be, had we his background and experiences, and if we had only been born with his resilience, energy and curiosity.’

    Victoria Glendinning

  2. The policy of decentralization was initiated in 1903 to allow more local autonomy and encourage emigration from crowded Java to the outer islands. Java was only one-fifteenth of the area but had two-thirds of the population of Indonesia. The Dutch only allowed the councils to be advisory, and the real government remained centralized. To vote on a city council one had to know Dutch and pay more than 300 guilders in annual taxes. Most Europeans resided in cities, but most natives lived in rural areas. In 1899 the Japanese had gained equal rights with Europeans in the Netherlands Indies, but Chinese efforts to get the same status were resisted. In 1901 the Chinese began forming trading associations called Siang Hwee. The famous Dutch novelist Louis Couperus wrote The Hidden Force about colonial life in 1900. Piet Brooshooft (1845-1921) edited the Dutch newspaper The Locomotive and included articles by Snouck Hurgronje on how to understand the natives. Reporters described their declining welfare from poverty, crop failures, famine, and epidemics while the Dutch standard of living rose from 1902 to 1913. Sugar-cane workers often protested by burning the crops. In 1911 they burned 1,383 cane-fields in the Pasuruhan region of East Java.

  3. Pingback: The Fall of Singapore – the British Army’s Greatest Humiliation [History in an Hour] — War History Online

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