The Tiger Under the Table

Founder of Singapore, emancipator of slaves, discoverer of the world’s smelliest flower: Stamford Raffles comes alive in Victoria Glendinning’s biography

Books History
Lucrative pastures: Buitenzorg, Raffles's country residence when Lieutenant-Governor of Java

The last tiger in Singapore was shot under the billiard table at Raffles                Hotel-or in the Long Bar, or underneath the bar and billiard room, which were then on stilts. It happened early in the last century, and accounts differed when I stayed there.

 Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founder, was something of a tiger under the Honourable East India Company’s boardroom table. He arrived at its vast place of business in Leadenhall Street as an extra clerk, ploughed through the paperwork, pulled strings and got his break-a posting as Assistant Secretary for Prince of Wales Island. This was the company’s name for Penang, off the coast of Malaya, eight months’ sailing distance from London and the supervisory eye of head office. From then on there was no holding him.

At the other end of the world, the war with France was grinding on, Napoleon     had overrun Holland and taken command   of its nascent eastern empire. The company set about its liberation (liberating some     loot in the process) and, when the dust settled, Raffles found himself Lieutenant-Governor of Java. Five years later, on his way back to London, he met Napoleon at St          Helena and took a dislike to him: “a monster”.

Java gave Raffles the scope that he relished. He wrote its history, he emancipated slaves and he reformed the currency, which got him into trouble. Silver had run short, paper promises were at a widening discount, Spanish ducats and ducatoons, Dutch stivers, tin doits and lumps of copper had to pass for payment. Raffles sold land to replenish his government’s coffers, and sold some on advantageous terms to himself. He was not the first nabob to line his own pockets, but Java still leaked money, and the company recalled him.

That did him no harm, because he was taken up by the Prince Regent, who knighted him. Suitably impressed, the company offered him a new appointment, this time as Lieutenant-Governor of Sumatra, where he discovered the world’s largest and smelliest flower and a tribe of cannibals who ate criminals-by Western standards, he thought, a humane form of capital punishment. Sumatra, though, proved no more profitable than Java, and a treaty soon provided that the Dutch could have them back.

Raffles still held a trump card. At the southern tip of Malaya, commanding the sea lanes to China and Japan, was an island with a harbour and a ruined citadel, abandoned centuries ago and populated by ghosts. This was Singhapura, the Lion City. Raffles arrived, took a lease from the island’s chieftain and his suzerain, the Sultan of Johore, and set out to plan and build what became another city.

Singapore was established as a free port, “the trade thereof open to ships and vessels of every nation free of duty, equally and alike to all”. To his backers in London, Raffles explained: “Our object is not territory but trade, a great commercial emporium, and a fulcrum whence we may extend our influence politically.” That now bears the stamp of a prophecy, and his great commercial emporium has become the world’s most prosperous city-state.

Back in Leadenhall Street, Raffles submitted a statement of his services and asked for his reward. He got a mixed report-that land sale still counted against him-and a statement from the accountant’s department, showing that he owed the company £22,272. It was settled after his death. His last plan had been to establish a zoological garden in Regent’s Park, which would bring tigers to London.

 He is, of course, the hero of Victoria Glendinning’s account, so the company has to be the villain: “Not too big to fail”, she sourly concludes. Most companies have short lives, and for most of its 250-year life-span, this one succeeded-but it could not always be expected to have the courage of its intransigent servant’s convictions. As head offices find, tigers resent being herded.