Comment: Podium: How the East was won for Britain

From a lecture by the expert on Javanese art given at the British Museum
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SIR STAMFORD Raffles was not perhaps sufficiently honoured and admired by his contemporaries in England, but his name is forever linked with a major city of our times, the city of Singapore, which he founded in 1819.

Raffles is also connected with a brief but important spell of British rule in Indonesia, in the island of Java. Taking over from the Dutch, he assumed the role of British colonial authority in the island, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. It only lasted for less than six years (1812- 17), but it created an everlasting impression.

Thanks to Raffles' personal interests, British rule in Java - and indeed in the East - was later much romanticised and idealised. Raffles was turned into a myth. He was seen as the enlightened English ruler par excellence, a man of taste and culture who loved and admired the people of South-East Asia and only wanted to help them to regain their self-esteem, unlike the highly exploitative and bloodthirsty Dutch who had ruled the island before he came along.

The myth of Raffles helped people to forget the not-so-enlightened actions of his countrymen in India before and after his own time. It is indeed a myth that lingers on, in a subtle way, even though colonialism is a thing of the past.

It should not be forgotten, however, that a great deal of what we know about Raffles in Java is from his own book, History of Java, published in 1817 in two volumes.

In this book he is obviously keen to glorify his own actions, to tell his countrymen - a number of whom were clearly his political enemies - about his benevolent measures and to persuade them that Java was worthy of colonial interest.

The "researcher" Raffles was most of all a great collector; one also wonders whether his much publicised friendship with Javanese noblemen was not somewhat hampered by his inability to converse in Javanese. He relied very much on the able diplomat John Crawfurd, whose linguistic abilities were dazzling - it was said that he had mastered Javanese in just six months - to communicate with the Javanese princes and courtiers. Raffles needed to rely on other people to collect information; he simply processed whatever other people brought to him and used the information to create his own picture of Javanese life, a picture in which he made sure that his own role as a benevolent, sympathetic English friend and master would always be apparent.

There is no denying that Sir Stamford was a highly intelligent man, full of intellectual curiosity, keen to know more about Java and its people, and it is easy to see how guilelessly he can be romanticised.

Raffles is credited with the discovery of Javanese temples. Even today travel brochures advertising tours to Java will use catch phrases such as : "It is thanks to Sir Stamford Raffles and Unesco that the site of Borobudur has been saved for posterity." Before he arrived on the scene, so it seems, the temples went uncatered for, fully neglected by the people of Java who no longer practised the ancient rituals, having been converted to Islam.

When Sir Stamford found himself in Java, as he went for one of his strolls he found one of such marvels and he immediately ordered a team of people to begin clearing the area, drawing the temples, recording their existence and searching for more. In fact Raffles himself stated in his History of Java that the Javanese did "continue to pay their devoirs" to the idols of the temples, thus making one wonder whether the temples had really been forgotten.

As a collector, Raffles was not interested only in the ancient past of Java, which he tried to dissect in order to present a picture of the island that would impress favourably his contemporaries. He was also interested in the living artistic traditions , such as the wayang (shadow theatre), the topeng (dance drama) and also the gamelan (musical ensemble). His love for detail meant that every instrument of the gamelan was precisely drawn and described in his book. This contributed to the building of his reputation as ethnomusicologist avant la lettre.

There is no doubt that even though Raffles himself did not have an easy time upon his return to England - he suffered considerable financial losses and died in 1826 at only 44 - his History of Java turned him, after his death, into a long-lasting myth and helped to create the fiction of British benign colonial rule.

Raffles erases the discomfort and guilt caused in postcolonial consciousness by the likes of Macauley, and thus British rule in the East can be remembered guiltlessly, with an elegiac aura to it.