Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ statue at Singapore’s Boat Quay. The statue is seen here in its usual state, but it has recently been repainted as a temporary stunt associated with the bicentenary commemorations. Seen from a certain angle Raffles seemingly disappears, sparking debate about his legacy.

The 200th anniversary of Raffles’ arrival in Singapore has galvanised debate about the legacy of this controversial figure. His modern profile owes much to his interest in heritage, which restored his reputation after a debacle in Java. Tom St John Gray has been following in Raffles’ footsteps.

Nestled among the skyscrapers and colonial buildings of Singapore’s Boat Quay stands a gleaming white statue of an imposing figure. A plaque below immodestly declares: ‘On this historic site, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819, and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis’. This year, the Asian city-state is commemorating the bicentennial of Raffles and his establishment of a British trading post under the East India Company. He was once feted as the founder of modern Singapore, but debate now swirls around his tempestuous life, with many questioning the need to mark this anniversary of colonisation. Archaeological work is also countering the longstanding belief that Singapore was merely an obscure fishing village prior to the British arrival. Excavations continue to reveal evidence of a thriving 14th-century harbour and emporium, which attracted trade and settlers from China and across South-east Asia.

Raffles was profoundly aware of Singapore’s illustrious past and wrote ‘this is the spot, the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays, and within the walls of these fortifications, raised not less than six centuries ago, on which I have planted the British flag…’. While those ancient walls soon disappeared under years of human development, the legend of Raffles endured. After his early death from apoplexy in 1826 and a slow slide into obscurity, Raffles was rebranded in the Victorian age as a hero of the British Empire, with Singapore as his treasured legacy.

Candi Prambanan is a 9th-century complex that contains more than 200 sacred structures, including Hindu and Buddhist temples. Images assembled for publication in The History of Java show the site overgrown with vegetation.

Before Singapore

His other significant achievement in South-east Asia stems from Raffles’ tenure as the first British Lieutenant-Governor of Java. In 1811, a large British force captured Java from the Dutch, and an ambitious 30-year-old Raffles was installed as the new administrator. There he mounted military expeditions against local leaders and grappled with the challenge of administering a population of 6 or 7 million people. However, his five-year interregnum would prove disastrous, resulting in financial catastrophe for the East India Company. As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, the island was handed back to the Dutch. Raffles returned to England in disgrace and attempted to salvage his tarnished reputation, but his redemption came sooner than expected and from an unexpected quarter: his interest in heritage.

In 1817, Raffles published the two-volume work The History of Java and presented a treasure trove of Javanese objects to London’s astonished high society. It would eventually secure him a knighthood from the Prince Regent, election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, and transform him into a celebrity. During his time in Java, Raffles had become fascinated with Javanese history, which had mostly been ignored by the Dutch. He dispatched assistants across the island to gather objects of interest, and encouraged locals to bring him Javanese antiques. Raffles also assembled a team of experts, tasked with investigating and recording ancient monuments. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mackenzie, an officer of the Madras Engineers, the group’s extensive field notes and drawings formed the main content of The History of Java.

These three females are carved into the stone next to a representation of a Bodhisattva at Candi Prambanan. The quality of sculpture caught the eye of Captain George Baker in 1812.

Today, the magnificent 9th-century Candi Prambanan (candi being the Indonesian word for a pre-Islamic temple) is situated 10 miles north-east of the city of Yogyakarta. The largest Hindu complex in Indonesia, Prambanan contains over 200 sacred structures, built in a system of concentric courts, with the principal temples dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. The complex has the highest concentration of Hindu and Buddhist temples in Java, which has been interpreted as evidence of a peaceful religious coexistence. Prambanan leaves the modern visitor awestruck by the towering and pointed reconstructed architecture, but when Mackenzie first surveyed the site with Captain George Baker in 1812, it was a gigantic mound of rubble. Archaeological evidence suggests it was severely damaged by a massive earthquake in the early 11th century. Prambanan was also known to the American scholar Dr Thomas Horsfield, who documented the island’s botany, zoology, and geology, and to the Dutch engineer H C Cornelius. Together with Mackenzie and Baker, Cornelius undertook a major investigation of the site in 1814, which left the team puzzled by Buddhist and Hindu temples existing side by side, and their close similarities in style.

Prambanan was documented in The History of Java, along with many other ancient sites. These included the impressive Javanese-Hindu temples of Candi Sukuh and Candi Sari, of which Baker remarked, ‘Nothing can exceed the correctness and minute beauties of the sculpture throughout, which is not merely profuse, but laboured and worked up to a pitch of peculiar excellence’. As Raffles later travelled across the hot and humid island, a glorious and romantic ancient world revealed itself to him: ‘The whole of the country lying between Gunung Dieng and Brambanan… abounds with ruins of temples, dilapidated images, and traces of Hinduism’.

Rainforest ruins

It was Cornelius who was led by a group of Javanese to a pyramidal structure so immense that it took 200 men over six weeks to clear. From under a mass of vegetation and dirt emerged the majestic ruins of Borobudur. Raffles was suitably captivated: ‘The great extent of the masses of building… the beauty and delicate execution of the separate portions, the symmetry and regularity of the whole, the great number and interesting character of the statues and bas-reliefs with which they are ornamented excite our wonder that they were not earlier examined, sketched and described’.

The 8th-century Buddhist temple at Borobudur had been reclaimed by rainforest when the Dutch engineer H C Cornelius was led there in the 19th century. It was the first great monument of antiquity from South-east Asia to be ‘rediscovered’ for a Western audience.

Restored during the 20th century, Borobudur is the world’s largest and most elaborate Buddhist temple, attracting 4 million visitors a year. Situated 25 miles north of Yogyakarta, Borobudur dates from the 8th century and was constructed using more than 2 million blocks of stone. The temple consists of a pyramidal base with five square terraces, followed by three circular platforms, and, at the top, a monumental stupa. This tiered formation is the shape of a mandala, symbolising the universe in Buddhist teachings. There is much for today’s visitor to explore, with 1,460 exquisite narrative relief panels adorning the temple walls and 504 statues of the Buddha, with 72 of these placed inside large perforated stupas. All of the statues were originally plastered and brightly painted, creating what Professor John N Miksic at the National University of Singapore describes as a ‘beacon of colour’ across the plain.

Miksic argues that Borobudur was the first great monument of antiquity in South-east Asia to have been ‘discovered’ by Westerners – as the locals were already well aware of its presence – and made famous: ‘Forty years before Angkor was publicised, Borobudur showed the world that South-east Asia had a great civilisation and artistic tradition, comparable to India and China’. Raffles dedicated only two written pages to Borobudur, but his detailed documentation of all these monumental sites, old manuscripts, statues, and ancient Javanese items, such as shadow puppets and krisses (daggers), demonstrated a highly sophisticated and advanced society.

Raffles’ collection of Javanese artefacts can now be found in the British museum. This wooden sculpture of a male Javanese figure is one of many objects on display to visitors.

Yet The History of Java was far more than a compilation of curiosities unseen by Western eyes, as Raffles was also using it to further his own agenda. The contents served as cultural propaganda harnessed to promote his imperial vision. As Raffles himself put it, ‘all my views, all my plans, and all my mind, were devoted to create such an interest regarding Java as should lead to its annexation to our Eastern empire’. Nigel Barley, author of In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles, reasons that this collection formed part of ‘a case Raffles was building that Java was one of the world’s great civilisations, the equal of ancient Greece and Rome, and deserved the ultimate honour of permanent inclusion in the British empire. It broke his heart when it was given back to the Dutch’.

Raffles returned to England in 1816, bringing with him stacks of wooden crates, packed with 30 tonnes of Javanese artefacts. These items would eventually form part of the British Museum collection, where many of Raffles’ pieces can still be viewed by visitors today. As for The History of Java itself, this is often cited as the beginning of historical archaeology in Indonesia. The two volumes are recognised to have many inherent issues, including uneven writing and jumbled facts, a lack of genuine archaeological enquiry or theoretical framework, and some incorrect chronologies. However, Miksic contends that the data in The History of Java is still unique and, in some cases, has never been superseded: ‘the book is one of the earliest examples in European literature of a genuine respect for South-east Asian art and culture, and still deserves to be considered as a landmark in the development of South-east Asian studies’.

This article appeared in issue 93 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All images: Tom St John Gray