Sir Stamford Raffles, the multi-talented adventurer who made his mark in more than just Singapore.

IT’S an enormous relief to find that Sir Stamford Raffles wasn’t umbilically tied to Singapore. Our southern neighbour has always taken an innovative line on the British colonial presence. All the good points of imperial ambition have been condensed in the form of this one individual, who was by the standards of the time quite a role model. This doesn’t mean he spent much time in Singapore. As a new exhibition at the British Museum shows, he actually gave more of his short life to Java.

Despite the exhibition being called “Sir Stamford Raffles: Collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824”, it’s really about Java, despite arriving at the British Museum via the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. The end date 1824 marks the British taking over the whole of Singapore, a few years after Raffles had been removed as the British governor of Java.

Trade cloth from the Coromandel coast collected in Sulawesi.

More than just a traveller and administrator, he was a linguist and scholar with an eye for aesthetics. Unlike most British colonial bureaucrats, he was a tireless collector. His accumulated works are largely what the British Museum has on display.

The politics of Java was complicated during the Napoleonic Wars, which reached all the way over to Southeast Asia. Having been the top man in Java for a few years, at the age of 30, he had to leave in 1816. Most of his economic ambitions had been a disaster. One of the few administrative innovations that lasted was driving on left – as opposed to the usual Continental, Dutch practice of driving on the right.

His appreciation of local culture – when not attacking the royal courts – was more successful. He took back with him numerous Javanese objects. These included almost 450 puppets, over 700 coins, more than 350 drawings, over 130 masks, more than 120 small metal sculptures and five small stone sculptures. Once he was back in Britain, Raffles’ collections became a centre of attention as so little was known about Java in Europe at the time. At this point, Raffles the scholar got down to his comprehensive History of Java, published in 1817.


Some of the many Hindu and Buddhist bronzes collected from Java. Most are from about a thousand years ago.

The Javanese heritage that Raffles brought back to England was not all pillaged. At least most of it survived unlike his collections from Sumatra, which all went down when his ship sank. The main Javanese collections are divided into two groups: there are drawings of ancient Hindu-Buddhist stone monuments and stone sculpture, numerous small metal sculptures, and a few small stone sculptures from the early historic period (6th–15th centuries). The other, very different, group comprises theatrical items from 18th to early 19th-century Java.

Mask of the demon Macan Laut, Central Java, late 18th to early 19th century.

In his History of Java, Raffles discussed topics ranging from geography, botany, agriculture and commerce, to customs associated with major life events, dress, history, antiquities, literature, language and theatre. Despite this, his collections do not reflect the full range of Javanese activities. This may partially be due to the study of human cultures not yet having developed.

There’s a suggestion that his intention was certainly not to present an overview of Javanese culture. Somewhat surprisingly, the British Museum thinks it likely that “he amassed specific materials for a particular purpose: to demonstrate that the Javanese were an advanced civilisation (in his opinion) and to chart the historical progression of the island.”

This would make him even more exceptional than had been thought previously. Equally unusual was his interest in pre-Islamic culture at a time when Europe was fascinated by the Islamic world. It seems that his regard from the Hindu-Buddhist roots of the region was stronger than the pull of Islam.

Detail of an 18th century dish from China, found in Java, depicting Jesus and St John the Baptist.

There’s a superb assortment of the small Hindu-Buddhist bronzes that are among the most globally collected element of Southeast Asian art. There’s even an extremely rare Christian work. This large blue-and-white ceramic dish from China shows Jesus being baptised. These items were made in the 18th century for export to Europe; to find one in Java is exceptional.

Where the exhibition shows Islamic works, they tend to be representatives of the transition from pagan to monotheistic belief. There is, for example, a wonderful drawing of the tomb of a Javanese Muslim holy man. It has some of the look of the Taj Mahal about it, but more important for Raffles was the story of how Islam developed in Java.

Kris and sheath, 18th century, Java.

Inevitably, he also collected kris. In his History of Java, he records that “Cutlery of every type is made by the smith. The most important manufacture of this kind is the kris, or dagger, of the peculiar form known to be worn by all the more civilised inhabitants of the Eastern Islands.”

There’s a strong possibility that Javanese Muslims kept him away from mosques and other locations that might impress European visitors. This was perhaps for the practical reason that they feared the kind of souvenir hunting that was rampant at the time. They would have been right to be wary.

Despite Raffles’ high-minded aspirations, he was as prone to pillage as any other foreign invader. When his forces overran the Sultan of Yogyakarta, they helped themselves to the entirety of the court archives. Raffles was, at least, more interested in the documents. His compatriots walked away with a fortune in gold and gemstones, which are not on display in this exhibition.

Sir Stamford Raffles

Collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824 at the British Museum

Ends Jan 12, 2020