At the end of 1810, Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in Melaka. The British invasion of Java had already been confirmed for the coming year, and Raffles had been appointed ‘Agent of the Governor-General with the Malay States’ – part intelligence agent, part promoter, part propagandist for the grand imperial adventure. He went to the task with all his customary energy, and ended up engaging in all sorts of long-distance dalliances with the far-flung royals of Indonesia – some sinister, some just plain silly…
The Listening Post
Melaka is a steamy port 250 miles south of Penang. With an oozing river, a blood-red Dutch church and a tangle of Chinese-style back alleys, Lord Minto wrote that it had a ‘rather amphibious appearance’. It stands on the eastern shores of the narrowest section of the straits that bear its name, and across the milky channel Sumatra and the sea lock hands in a mesh of mangrove-girt islands and pirate hideaways. It served the same role as Penang – a trade mart for the Indonesian archipelago, and a staging post for ships heading east towards China and west to India, Arabia and Europe. Unlike its northern rival, however, Melaka was no mere colonial construct wrought from the jungle by a gallivanting sea captain with a cannon full of small change. Melaka was an old town with layers of Malay, Chinese, Arab, Portuguese and Dutch paint splashed onto its flaking walls, and fleets from the east – from Borneo, Sulawesi, Bali and Java – had been calling there for centuries. High-prowed white Bugis schooners crowded the muddy river; Arab and Gujarati dhows and Chinese junks rode at anchor offshore, and small boats ran in from the great landmass opposite on the days when the wet west winds – called ‘Sumatras’ here – blew. It was the perfect listening post for a man looking to gather news of happenings out amongst the islands. Raffles had already been to Melaka twice. Just as Penang had earned an undeserved reputation as a healthy getaway from India, sticky Melaka had been pitched as the place to go when Penang itself wore you down, and a fever-wracked Raffles had sought respite there in 1807 and 1809.
The place had been captured from the Dutch in 1795, and as a means of advancing Penang the idea of razing it to the ground had been suggested – and even started. When Raffles visited for the first time the old fortifications had already been demolished – though the town’s British Resident, William Farquhar, was attempting to convince the higher authorities that the destruction was a woefully wrong-headed course of action. Melaka’s 20,000-strong population of Dutchmen, Portuguese, Arabs, Chinese, Malays, Javanese, Coromandel Coast Indians – and those whose ancestry was a mixture of any number of these – were well entrenched, and the town was well situated.Raffles had picked up Farquhar’s anti-demolition ideas and made them a key aspect of a lengthy and unsolicited report on Melaka that he sent to India in 1809. The Governor-General, Lord Minto, had been impressed: to wipe Melaka off the map would be ‘a most useless piece of gratuitous mischief’, he felt. The original arguments for the preservation of the town might have belonged to Farquhar, but it had been Raffles who – having made them his own – managed to bring them to the attention of the authorities. When he returned to Melaka aboard the Ariel on 4 December 1810, having sold his bungalow and left Penang for good ‘with very little regret’, he had some justification in regarding himself the saviour of the town.
A King’s Ransom
But he was too busy to relish the glory. The first letters were sent out in the direction of little-known princes on little-known islands within days, and through Christmas and the New Year and into the first months of 1811, while the monsoon rains continued to fall away to the south in Java and dirty winds continued to lash the warm tropical seas, Raffles beavered away at his desk in Melaka.
There was intelligence gathering, and strident anti-Dutch propagandising; there were reports about weather patterns and sailing routes to be collected, and all manner of rumours to be sifted. But by far the most important part of his work in Melaka, Raffles felt, was to start a correspondence with the native courts of Indonesia. They would, he was sure, be natural allies against the demonic Dutchmen. With their support an attack on Java would be assured of success; without it failure was probable. He sent letters, written by local scribes in florid Malay in the Jawi script, to the petty fiefdoms of southern Borneo, to Madura, and to Palembang, across the Straits of Melaka.
One of the most enthusiastic correspondences was with Bali. Despite Cornelis de Houtman’s much-mythologized visit in 1596, the VOC had never bothered to seize or even to set up a base in Bali. The island was, however, almost within hailing distance of the shores of East Java, and its rajas were rumoured to have close links with the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. Raffles was very eager to make contact.
In February 1811 he sent a package of presents and a sweetly worded letter to Gusti Gede Karang, the Raja of Buleleng, one of Bali’s northernmost principalities, in the care of a Lieutenant Smith – who was given a stern reminder that ‘You will be most particularly careful that neither these instructions nor any Paper or Document that can show the nature of the service on which you are engaged, be allowed on any account or accident whatever to fall into the hands of the Enemy.’ The letter to the Raja requested that, as ‘the friend of the English and the enemy of the Dutch and French’, he would assist wherever possible, and would send word as quickly and as secretly as possible to the Java courts of what the British were planning.
The Balinese reply came promptly back in language so purple that even John Leyden would have been proud of it: ‘Verily this pure writing and friendly and honourable flowing from the light of the heart extremely bright and splendid to diffuse its rays amongst all peoples united in the bonds of brotherhood and friendship’ it began. The Raja was ‘highly delighted’ with the British plan to oust the Dutch from Java, and he would be happy to cheer them on from the side-lines, but first he had something to ask of the ‘agent of the Maharajah Gilbert Lord Minto who is the highly exalted Raja of all the regions of Bengal’:
We have however a request to make to our brother, by which he will highly contribute to our gratification, which is that our brother would provide us with a pleasure boat of the length of six fathoms, proper in every respect and provided with two masts and all the furniture of which shall be in the English style, 20 kegs of gunpowder, and two kegs of priming powder very fine, one camera obscura, with a reflecting glass, and two hundred pictures, new and properly fitted up in every respect, and a burning glass which will kindle substances by means of the Sun’s rays, and send an account of their true value, and let our brother send them speedily. The price of the small vessel may be 400 dollars.
The Raja added that ‘We have no token of affection to send our brother, except a Boy of eight years of Age and a Girl of seven years of Age which are not worthy of his acceptance unless as a sign of a pure heart’, and a postscript was tagged on stating that ‘he will be very well pleased if the pleasure boat should be seven fathoms in length, but he wishes it on no account to be more.’ Unfortunately no record survives of whether the Raja’s demands were met. As for the pair of slave children, they would probably have found a ready place around the fringes of the Raffles household in Melaka, for there were already men from every corner of Southeast Asia dropping by on a daily basis.
© Tim Hannigan 2013