His career was one of service to the East India Company in Malacca in what is now Malaysia and, after the Dutch were invaded by the Napoleonic French, he became the Governor in Java. Both his effective invasion of Java and his founding of Singapore happened despite the Company: "His way, which is the way of all impatient innovators, was to do something first and seek approval from the proper authority afterwards." (Introduction) Naturally this got him into trouble. He was censured during his career and the Company took swingeing revenge after Raffles retired.
As always with biographies, there are a host of other notables who cross the path of the subject. Raffles knew:
- Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent who was presumptive heir to the throne before she dies in childbirth;
- Charlotte's husband, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was "lodging over a grocer's shop in Marylebone High Street" (C 9) before his marriage and who subsequently was offered the throne of Greece (and turned it sown as being too turbulent) and the throne of the newly independent Belgium (which he accepted) and was uncle to both Queen Victoria and Albert the Prince Consort;
- Sir Humphrey Davy the chemist and discoverer or laughing gas, sodium and potassium, and inventor of the Davy lamp (whose house he later leased);
- John Barrow, whose later work promoting exploration into the Arctic and Africa is memorialised in Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming;
- John Hunter, the distinguished surgeon;
- Napoleon in exile in St Helena
Raffles was in Java when Mount Tambora, on an island to the east of Bali, "exploded in the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history" causing famine in England due to ash clouds blocking the sun in the "summer that never was"; Raffles collected eye-witness reports and sent them to the Royal Society (C 7)
The last few years of his life were marked with tragedy. He lost all but one of his children by his second wife (his first wife had an illegitimate child before she met Raffles but bore him no children), three of them within a devastating six months. When he retired the ship taking him home caught fire and he lost all his papers and a great deal of money and property; he was uninsured. The East India Company not only refused to compensate him and refused to grant him any pension but also charged him for wages paid while he was on leave and fined him for perquisites he had taken; he would have been bankrupted had he not died shortly after returning to England. The last few chapters are very sad to read.
Other great moments:
- "He did not have a magpie mind, picking up bright bits and pieces. He had a mind like a magnet, drawing in what caught his imagination and taking it further." (C 3)
- "The poor people of the Archipelago were like poor people everywhere. Their rules, like rules everywhere, varied between the wise and the moronic, in either case desirous of holding onto power." (C 3)
- "Raffles ... observed drily that the 'safest principle' to be adopted was that 'every colony does or ought to exist for the benefit of the motherland'." (C 6) [I am not sure I should have described that as a 'great' moment but it clearly and succinctly expresses a point of view and shows that Raffles, if flawed from our perspective, was a man of his time.
Although sometimes a little slow and overdetailed for the general reader, this book delivered a good read and a lot of enjoyment. February 2020; 312 pages