Rediscovering Raffles 200 Years On

Nearly two centuries after it was first published in 1817, The History of Java by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, thanks to Narasi, an independent publishing company based in Yogjakarta, is finally brought out in Indonesian language. The Indonesian version of The History of Java is a doorstopper at 904 pages, an agreeable hardbound single volume assembled from the two-volume Oxford University Presss’s original publication.

To many of us Indonesians, the name Raffles somehow has the associative ring of a posh British colonial-era club house, where we imagine, to those who read a bit, Somerset Maugham used to perch himself at the bar, with his pipe and whiskey, eavesdropping on the many tales being transacted among passing colonialists. In truth, we know less about Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, whose name is emblazoned on the shingle of a five-star hotel and shopping arcade and a college in Singapore, than say Daendels or the many Dutch governors of Batavia. And here was a man, a great visionary, who saw well ahead of most colonialists of his time that the Borobudur Temple proved that civilization had been in Indonesia thousands of years prior and more importantly that through industrious organization and the flourishing artistic skills, any indigenous people were capable of building a great civilization, thus culture and civilization were not per se the dominant traits of white Western people. Years later, after his discovery of The Borobudur Temple and the eventual return to oblivion of the same site once Indoneisa was handed back to the Dutch, his insight was proven afresh with the discovery of Angkor Wat.

When he arrived in Batavia, he rectified the forced land utilization laws implemented by the Dutch to the more encouraging land tax reform, understanding the difference between enforced slavery and regulatory land use. His understanding of the natives was never influenced by the biased opinions of the Dutch, who repeatedly pictured Javanese as being ‘vengeful, insubordinate to superiors, despotic and ruthless to their subordinates, cunning …’ Raffles’s own assessment on the ‘Amuk’, blind rage, which had often been attributed to the insensible temperament of the natives by the Dutch was recorded in The History of Java: “This frenzy, as a crime against society, seems, if not to have originated under the Dutch, certainly at least to have been increased during their administrations by the great severity of their punishments. For the slightest fault, a slave was punished with a severity which he dreaded as much as death. He often preferred to rush on death and vengeance.”

On a mission from the British Empire clearly to furnish her coffers with as much gains as he could muster from the rich spice trade, Raffles made sure enough provisions were sent back home to satisfy his bosses in The British East India Company. The rest of his time here, ensconced in his gubernatorial mansion in Bogor, he preoccupied himself with his pursuits for rare floras and faunas of Java. He was the discoverer of many species of plants and animals, which have now been tagged with his name: among others, Megalamia Rafflesi (Red-crowned Barbet), Chaetodon Rafflesi (Latticed Butterfly Fish) and the well-known parasite plant that attaches itself on palm trees, grown rampantly in Bengkulu region, Rafflesii Arnoldii. He was also collector of the magic coins called Gobog Wayang, relics of Javenese currencies during his time in Java, 1811-1816, now collected in The British Museum.

The History of Java might be read by some as a historical tract of a period of time in Indonesian history, for me it should be rediscovered as testament of an enlightened mind whose love and passion for this country was shown abundantly in his clear-minded, unbiased work, the forerunner of many such enlightened minds as Clifford Geertz and Benedict Anderson, that helped illuminate to us the richness and complexity of our people and culture. In an uncertain time such as what we are undergoing now, what with the ridiculous disputes over our Wayang, Batik and folksongs heritages with our neighboring kinsfolk, and finger-wagging condescendence for our incompetent self-governance from the Land of Oz, we need to go back to these invaluable works time and again to remind ourselves that our potentials as a people and a nation and as a culture had long been recognized, undisputed and well-recorded by an impartial and erudite soul as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

If there were a luminary from a foreign nation worthy of our reassessment, in addition to the many accepted heroes in the annals of our history such as Multatuli etc., we should definitely reconsider Sir Thomas Raffles’s status in the history of our country. For after all, his idea of Singapore as a nation state with a leading port came about only after his return to Sumatra in 1819, that too because of his attachment to Java that he never stopped regretting to have been conceded back to the Dutch.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, November 18, 2008

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