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Rotten Residents and Rising Royals

Once the British had successfully conquered Java in 1811 they were left with an enormous island to run, and a serious problem with manpower.  The invasion itself might have been a grand project, but after the troop ships departed in October 1811 the new British colony was left with a skeleton crew.  Just as in the bad old days of the VOC, men with questionable qualifications were pressed into purposeful roles.  The Dutch had run Java through a series of residents in different districts, under who were subdivisions of local regents.  Despite the strident anti-Dutch propaganda that had accompanied the invasion – with its talk of misrule and corruption – so severe was the shortage of staff that leaving many of these original administrators in place was Raffles’ only option.  Over the early months of British rule detailed reports were called in from these far-flung Dutchmen, sweating in their crumbling bungalows all over Java.

Grovelers and groaners

Outpost: lonely Dutch residencies such as Salatiga were scattered across Java
Outpost: lonely Dutch residencies such as Salatiga were scattered across Java

The residential reports give an amusing glimpse of the gamut of attitudes and emotions amongst the Dutch at the British takeover.  Some were upright but apologetic.  The newly appointed resident of Karawang, a man by the name of W. Offers, bemoaned the state of the territory he had recently inherited – the roads were so bad “that it was impossible to go even on horseback from one Regency to another in the Rainy Season”.  He was eager to stress, however, that none of this was his fault, and he gave assurances of the district’s potential.

Other residents – like the head of the Eastern Districts, van Middelkoop – sent in reports brim full of recommendations.  There was no beseeching; only sober recommendations for administrative changes, lists of the superfluities that could be cut and the gaps that should be plugged, and a faint hint of disproval at these ignorant incomers.  Other reports, like that of Engelhard the Yogyakarta resident, were awash with worldly weariness.

Still other Dutch residents abandoned all dignity in their fawning desperation to cling to their jobs under the new management.  The Cirebon resident, Matthias Waterloo (who had previously been based at Yogyakarta), abased himself before the mighty British in his grovelling report, declaring his “readiness to shake off a yoke which had become unsupportable” and heartily recommending himself and his family to British protection.  “No Hollander ever will be a Frenchman”, he declared.  However, he was obviously as terrified of being judged a traitor to his own flag by the British for throwing himself so fully on their mercy as he was of the prospect of unemployment: “It is not to serve an enemy to my mother country that has induced me to enter into the service of the British Government, by no means” he simpered; “I can declare with the most sacred truth that I never would have thought of it if I still had been under the Dutch Government”.  It was all the fault of those terrible Frenchmen!  He went on labouring this point for two whole pages.

Waterloo was also eager to stress the prospects of his district.  “Wheat and all sorts of vegetables and fruits of the earth… would grow luxuriously if there were only persons here who had a sufficient knowledge of the mode of growing them,” he breathlessly declared.  The problem, of course, was the natives: “The Javan of Cheribon is very lazy and in the highest degree superstitious a slave to his ancient customs and therefore very difficult to reason with.  Timid and effeminate, there is no such thing as spirit or enterprise…”

In truth, the economic failure of Java had a great deal more to do with Dutch methods than some fatal flaw in “the native character”.  By the turn of the 19th century their empire under the aegis of the VOC had been in a state of terminal decline.  Meanwhile, as quasi-commercial colonialism went to seed, the Javanese had been quietly reasserting their glittering pre-eminence in the green heartlands of Central Java.  By the time Raffles arrived, Yogyakarta was a truly great town.

Return to glory

The Javanese royals who had presided over the chaos of late-Mataram, and who had seen the partition of the kingdom, had passed away into the realm of spirits, and towards the end of the 18th century a new generation of aristocrats had taken control of the courts.  These were the men who would be on the various thrones when the British arrived in Java, and while their fathers – by studiously ignoring each other, and making sure that they were never required to meet in person – had managed to bring a certain legitimacy to the divided kingdom, the younger men would look to test both the clauses of the Giyanti Treaty, and the resolve of the Dutchmen.

Sun of Kings: Hamengkubuwono II

The second post-partition Susuhunan of Surakarta ascended to the throne in 1788, and almost immediately came close to provoking a major confrontation with both the VOC and the rival Javanese courts.  The second Sultan of Yogyakarta, meanwhile, was crowned in 1792.  He had already rebelled against his aging father, overseen the erection of a grand curtain wall, 45 feet high and three miles long, ringing the entire Kraton including the Taman Sari and attendant quarters, and had written a mystical text entitled the Book of the Sun of Kings in which Mataram was reunited and the European colonialists in Java were annihilated by the combined forces of God, the Queen of the Southern Ocean, and a righteous – and decidedly autobiographical – prince.  If the officials of the Dutch VOC hadn’t been so drunk, decrepit and depressed they would probably have been worried.

Forts and failure

19 java
Glittering: Yogyakarta was a refined city by the time the British arrived

By this time, however, the VOC was on its very last legs.  Throughout Mangkubumi’s illustrious reign as Sultan the Dutch had never really managed to get the measure of Yogyakarta (the first Sultan’s “most notable physical trait”, it was recorded, “was the habit of answering importunate Dutch requests with an enigmatic smile”), and even once his somewhat less illustrious son took over they struggled to understand, let alone orchestrate, events inside the Kraton.  They had built a fine official residence on the northern edge of the Alun-Alun and had installed a European official as representative at the court, but their attempts to build a small fortress just to the east of the residency had turned into a farce.  Through corruption, incompetence and prevarication the project took decades.  Ground had been broken in 1764, but 16 years later the then resident reported that the work had “made little progress”.  Over the next decade a succession of Residents sent reassuring letters to Batavia, promising that the fort was “nearly ready”, but in 1790, more than 25 years after Mangkubumi had sanctioned the project (and after the Javanese themselves had managed to fortify their entire Kraton in a matter of weeks), it was only “very near completion”.  In fact it is by no means clear if it was ever really finished, or if the little Dutch garrison had actually properly moved in by the time the British arrived in Java.

The Dutch had a little more control over the court in Surakarta, but the list of late 18th Century Residents there amounted to a procession of the corrupt, the crooked and the conniving.  Incredibly, the position of Dutch Resident at Surakarta was unpaid, yet through pilfering from the treaty-sanctioned collection of birds’ nests for the soup trade, through extorting money from minor princes and even from the Susuhunan himself, and through pocketing transport tolls and business duties, the Residents accrued enormous black fortunes.  They also generated a great deal of hostility.  At least one of them seems to have been poisoned for his efforts.

This then, was the state of the royal Javanese world, and the role of Europeans within it, at the start of the second decade of the 19th Century; these were the courts and the kings who, in the words of one rather romantic British observer, constituted the “the Pith, the Sinews, and the Strength of Java”, and these were the men that Raffles was determined to dominate…

© Tim Hannigan 2013


Pulau Penang and the the Mad Marquis

In September 1805 a youthful Thomas Stamford Raffles – with his new wife Olivia in tow – arrived on a ship called the Warley at Pulau Penang, known to its English inhabitants as Prince of Wales’ Island.

Penang lies across a murky channel from the dark green foreshore of the Malay state of Kedah.  It is one of the three great entrepôts and melting pots that have at various times held sway over the Straits of Melaka.  The first was the town that gave this mighty shipping lane its name – Melaka; the third and final would be Singapore.  But the early 1800s were the middle act of the Straits’ history, and the preeminent port was Penang.

Outpost: Penang in the early 19th century

Penang is the English corruption of the Malay word pinang, referring to the tooth-staining betel nut that the island is said to resemble.  It had long been a little-used offshoot of the jungle realm of the Sultan of Kedah.  No one lived there besides a few fishermen.  But two decades before Raffles’ arrival a British outpost had been founded at the island’s northeast promontory by a wandering sea captain called Francis Light.

Light of the East

Light, who was born in the tiny village of Dallinghoo in the Suffolk flatlands, had served in the Royal Navy in his youth, but by his mid-twenties – with a bare minimum of sea knowledge under his belt – he had set himself up as skipper of a private trading ship, plying the monsoon-chased waters of the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.  He ran out under sail from the east coast of India to Thai islands, Burmese river mouths and Malay harbours.  It was during these wanderings that he had first drifted past Penang, noted its sheltered channel and prime position commanding the head of one of the world’s great maritime thoroughfares, and made the acquaintance of its owner, the Sultan of Kedah.

For fifteen years he made a nuisance of himself whenever his little ship docked in the steaming river mouths of Calcutta and Madras, pestering anyone who would listen with his calls for a British base in Southeast Asia, and with his claim for Penang as the perfect location.  It was a tough sell: spice was a long-forgotten story, the China trade was not yet in flood, and the preoccupying era of expansion into India was underway.  But eventually, in 1786, the Governor-General authorised Light to strike a deal with the Sultan of Kedah, to lease the island, and to build a town.

Resting place: the grave of Francis Light in Penang
Resting place: the grave of Francis Light

Various charming, if apocryphal, stories attach themselves to the founding of Penang.  The best known has it that Light ended up married to the Sultan’s daughter, thrown into the land-contract as a fragrant bonus.  The 1780s were still within the era during which it was not entirely anathema for prominent Englishmen to marry high-class natives in the name of love or political expediency (though such days were already very much numbered).  However, it seems that Light actually married not a Malay princess, but an Asia-born Portuguese woman called Martina (setting up exotic outposts must have run in the family: one of their sons, William, later laid out the foundations of the Australian city of Adelaide).  Another well-worn tale has it that as an incentive to clear the tangled coastal jungle at the site of Penang’s future capital, Georgetown, Light was in the habit of firing cannon-loads of silver coin into the trees.  In the scramble to seek out the fallen cash, the story has it, his labourers hacked in hours through vast swathes of tangled undergrowth that would otherwise have taken them weeks to clear.

The little outpost grew quickly under Light’s command as a “port of refreshment for the King’s, the Company’s and the Country Ships”, and its status as an untaxed free port for boats of all nations soon saw it drawing trade away from Dutch harbours further down the Straits and out in the islands beyond.  Francis Light himself succumbed to fever in 1794, but with the old Anglo-Dutch rivalry given a new Napoleonic impetus, Penang did not stagnate.  It was the forward base for British efforts to evict the VOC from Melaka, Maluku – and eventually Java – and in 1803 it was chosen as the spot at which to develop new shipyards replacing scarce English oak with abundant Asian teak.  But still, the step that the East India Company’s government took in 1805 was a little over the top: they decided to upgrade Penang from a mere outpost to a presidency, a territory under the rule of a governor on par with Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.

The existing British community at Georgetown must have wondered if it was a joke when they first heard the news; they must have hoped it was when they learnt the details.  In the kind of antagonistic decision more often associated with modern-day management practices, the Company had decided to ship in the entire administration of the new Fourth Presidency from outside – 26 men, newcomers all, from the Governor to the chaplain, on combined salaries that amounted to an eye-watering £43,500.

As Raffles – who despite now earning £1500 a year was still at the bottom of the administrative pay grade – stepped down from the Warley into the heat and dockside clamour he may have detected a decidedly bitter odour adding its own spice to the exotic first breath of the East; it was emanating from a welcoming committee composed of the ousted old guard.

Fresh off the Boat

Penang was by no means as thoroughly cut off from the upper levels of Company control as Java was from Amsterdam.  But Madras and Calcutta were still several weeks’ sailing away – and it was a risky crossing during the months when the monsoon whipped the Bay of Bengal into a maelstrom of squalls and storms.  As a consequence it was a place quite used to toddling along at its own pace, and the arrival of the new presidency government – with Phillip Dundas as Governor, and Thomas Raffles as Assistant Secretary – was akin to a very large elephant suddenly boarding a very small boat.   The previous lieutenant-governor had been outraged at the unilateral changes, not least because he had not been offered so much as an honorary post in the new administration.  Those who did remain often found themselves radically downgraded (the former First Government Secretary was reduced to the status of a jobbing tax collector for example) and taking orders from brisk young men, quite literally fresh off the boat.

Staging post: Penang in Raffles’ era

And to make matters worse the new injection of activity had seen prices soar.  Spanish dollars were used as the common currency of Southeast Asia at the time, and Governor Dundas was soon writing back to Calcutta to complain that “a dollar here does not go as far as a rupee in the other provinces”.  Houses were in short supply; rents rocketed, and junior civil servants were obliged to bunk up at Flower Pot Hall, a boarding house owned by a Mr Porter on the seedy alleyway of Love Lane.  The rent was a dollar and a half a day, which included a bottle of wine between four men.

But the new arrivals – and the new money – brought a certain buzz to the little island, and for Raffles it was a staging post from which to launch himself on a mercurial career. Throughout the second half of the first decade of the 19th century he beavered away in Penang, slogging through long, deskbound hours over chaotic paperwork.  He took on any number of official roles, and in the first of many disputes with his employers he got entangled in an argument over his salary.  With all the extra roles he had taken on it had crept significantly upwards – a little too high, the courts decided in 1807, and he was ordered to repay the excess.

The stress, the heat and the insects took their toll, and Penang itself seemed to be stagnating.  The much-vaunted dockyards only ever managed to produce one ship; the place was a little too far north along the Straits of Melaka really to flourish as a port, and in 1808 a catastrophic fire tore through Georgetown and did £75,000 worth of damage.  Periodic bouts of fever began to drag Raffles down, and with it a degree of fear and frustration which he expressed in a letter to a friend in 1808:

I am convinced my health will never permit me holding this office many years.  If therefore I am not to look for a seat in [the East India Company] Council, or some quiet place in the Government, I must either fall a sacrifice or apply for the first vacancy in the Collectorship or other subordinate office.  My constitution was always delicate; with care I have no doubt it could last as long here as in England.  Without it, it will soon break up.  I am afraid they will work the willing horse to death; all I ask is to see the end of it…

Fortunately for Raffles the man who would soon provide him with the almighty leg-up he felt he deserved had already arrived at his post in Calcutta.

The Mad Marquis

Gilbert Elliot, the First Earl of Minto, had been chosen for the role of Governor-General by the Directors of the East India Company as what they hoped would prove a very safe pair of hands.  They were desperate for a period of quiet, for Minto’s predecessor – Richard Colley, the Marquis Wellesley – had been an absolute nightmare.

Nightmare: Richard Colley the Marquis Wellesley

Wellesley had had a great deal in common with the long-dead Jan Pieterszoon Coen of the VOC: he had no concern for financial costs, hated Indians, and cared only for territorial expansion and general colonial aggrandisement.  By the end of his term he had brought the Company to the brink of bankruptcy.  A contemporary wrote of him that “The desire of fame is his ruling passion & it is insatiable, too often indeed ridiculous”.  He was spectacularly arrogant, treated the native princes who were supposed to be the Company’s allies with contempt, and poured general scorn on just about everyone.

In a letter to his unfortunate French wife Hyacinthe (a curious choice of partner for a committed Francophobe) he declared of Calcutta’s European residents that “the men are stupid, are coxcombs, are uneducated; the women are bitches, are badly dressed, are dull”.  The Company merchants meanwhile, were “so vulgar, ignorant, rude, familiar & stupid as to be disgusting & intolerable; especially the ladies, not one of whom, by the bye, is even decently good looking”.  Judging by this he might have made a suitable pen-pal for Olivia Raffles, but as it was it was Hyacinthe – who had sensibly chosen to stay in England – who had to read his vitriolic screeds and his sneering taunts of infidelity: “As for sex, one must have it in this climate”.  When he embarked on plans for a massive and costly new Government House at Calcutta, the Directors in Leadenhall Street decided that enough was enough and gave him the boot.  He returned to England where he was involved in several scandals with street prostitutes.  Hyacinthe left him, and his own exasperated brother declared that “I wish that [he] was castrated…”

Wellesley had successfully stacked the Company’s debts to a monstrous £31.5 million (well over £1 billion in today’s money), and they declared that under his command India had “been turned into a despotism”.  Everything, they fervently hoped, would be different under Minto.

Safe pair of hands: Lord Minto

Minto was certainly a much more personable and liberal character.  His relationship with his wife was rather different from Wellesley’s, as were his letters home.  They are charming, full of little jokes and indiscretions about the absurdities of high office in India, and they suggest a man still very close to his partner of three decades: “The first night I went to bed at Calcutta,” he wrote, “I was followed by fourteen persons in white muslin gowns into the dressing-room.  One might have hoped that some of them were ladies; but on finding there were as many turbans and black beards as gowns, I was very desirous that these bearded handmaids should leave me”.

In India itself Minto did indeed do as the Company had hoped; he was eventually subjected to some cruel comments about the total inconsequence of his six-year term.  However, he was not entirely a sap, and at the height of his reign he would hand over to the horrified Directors a huge tranche of potentially very costly new territory that they had never asked for – and that was not even part of India.  It was Lord Minto who would order the rogue operation of the Java campaign, and who would place the inexperienced Raffles at its head…

© Tim Hannigan 2013

Munshi Abdullah and the Majapahit Mirage

In the early months of 1811 preparations for the British invasion of Java got underway in the steamy Malayan port of Melaka.  In its day this was the key entrepôt of narrow straits between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, and it was here that Thomas Stamford Raffles found himself appointed ‘Agent of the Governor-General with the Malay States’, tasked with intelligence-gathering, propagandising, and treating with Indonesian kings.  As he beavered away at his desk Raffles was surrounded by a motley collection of acolytes, assistants and advisors.

Mounting the Green Horse

One hanger-on of the Raffles clique in Melaka was a precocious local youth of mixed Malay, Arab and Indian blood who was taking in everything he saw and storing it away for future reference.  His name was Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir; he was about 14 years old, and his father, Lebai Ismail, was Raffles’ chief translator.  Years later, living in Singapore, Abdullah recorded his memories of these heady days.  Raffles, he makes it clear, was not your average Englishman:

At that time, there were not yet many English in the town of Malacca and to see an Englishman was like seeing a tiger, because they were so mischievous and violent.  If one or two English ships called in at Malacca, all the Malacca people would keep the doors of their houses shut, for all round the streets there would be a lot of sailors, some of whom would break in the doors of people’s houses, and some would chase the women on the streets, and others would fight amongst themselves or cut one another’s heads open…  Moreover, a great number were killed owing to their falling into the river, owing to their being drunk; all this made people afraid.  At that time, I never met an Englishman who had a white face, for all of them had “mounted the green horse,” that is to say, were drunk.  So much so, that when children cried, their mothers would say, “Be quiet, the drunken Englishman is coming,” and the children would be scared and keep quiet.

Such behaviour by Europeans had long form in the region, and as far back as the 17th century a treaty signed by the Dutch with the sultanate of Banten contained clauses demanding that measures be taken to stop white soldiers and sailors stealing from the markets, behaving in an ‘unseemly’ fashion in mosques, molesting women in the streets and in their homes, and from leering lecherously at the royal ladies when they performed their open air ablutions at the riverside.  Given this heritage it is little wonder that Abdullah was so impressed by a sober white man who took a polite interest in local culture.

Literary Legend

Chronicler: Munshi Abdullah

Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir is usually referred to in English as ‘Munshi Abdullah’.  Munshi is a word of Arabic origin meaning ‘to educate’, but in India and British-ruled Asia it was generally taken to mean a scribe, a translator or a language tutor – in short, a secretary.  Abdullah was far more than this, however: he was a talented and highly original writer, and his autobiography, the Hikayat Abdullah – from which the descriptions of Melaka and Raffles are drawn, and which was first published in 1849 five years before Abdullah’s death during a pilgrimage to Mecca – was hugely influential for later writers, and remains a vital source for local impressions of early colonial Malaya.Today, in the post-colonial era, Abdullah often comes in for criticism – both for the litany of obvious inaccuracies and inventions in his accounts, and for his presumably self-serving devotion to the colonial overlords, as the British were soon to become. But in spite of all this, he is still regarded by many as the founder of modern Malay literature.  He departed from the conventions of highfalutin courtly language and used colloquial Malay to report what he actually saw in clear, descriptive terms.Abdullah’s sketches of the appearance and character of the important Englishmen who passed through Melaka on their way to Java, though rarely less than adoring, are nonetheless full of the little details that are usually lost amidst the clichéd platitudes they heaped upon one another.  He spotted Raffles’ squint and his stoop, and recorded his ceaseless scribbling; he noticed his interests in the flora and fauna of the Malay Peninsula, how he kept a barrel of arak for pickling the corpses of snakes and scorpions brought in for his collection by local hunters, and he pinpointed his various tics and foibles.  Raffles would work each night until after midnight, Abdullah noted, and ‘the next morning he would go to what he had written and read it while walking backwards and forwards’.  Charmingly, he remembered that the Englishman ‘spoke in smiles’, while somewhat less charmingly he noted that Olivia was ‘as active as the cockroach which has no tail’.

Abdullah also remembered a certain trouser-wearing orang-utan, which was a prominent member of the Raffles household.  It had been delivered to Melaka as a gift from the Raja of Sambas in Borneo: ‘So he [Raffles] put trousers on the mawas [orang-utan], with coat and hat complete, which made it as like a little man as possible, and he let it go, when it soon became apparent that its habits were those of mankind; the only fault being that it could not speak.’

Man of the Forest: the Orang-utan

Orang-utans need little introduction as Asia’s only great ape, resident of the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra.  Their name, however, is worth an explanation as it is one of very few Malay terms to have entered English.  It means, quite simply, ‘forest man’, orang being person, and hutan meaning forest.  Mawas, as used by Abdullah, was the local name for the apes in Sumatra.  The other Malay word most commonly used in English is amok, as in ‘to run amok’…

Majapahit State of Mind

While the trouser-clad orang-utan shuffled from room to room, and the young Abdullah squirreled away his astute observations, Raffles had much on his mind.  By early 1811 he had received word from his boss and patron, Lord Minto, that official instructions about the Java project from London were to ignored, and – for the time being at least – Britain would be holding on to the island once the Dutch were ousted.

Raffles was delighted, but something still worried him.  He understood that Java might eventually be abandoned by the British in the event of outright peace in Europe.  With this in mind he had already written of the advantage of overturning all the old treaty arrangements that the Dutch had had with Javanese courts so that ‘the European Enemy shall never again be enabled to repossess his former footing on the Island’.  Sweating away in Melaka and dreaming of Batavia he had begun to come up with an idea of how to go about this.  It was an idea that showed how thoroughly he had burst from the intellectual straightjacket of a colonial administrator, and spiralled off to the outer limits of orientalism.

Colonial-era European scholars of Asia were almost always hidebound by the conventions of their own history, by school-forged ideas of all-powerful Greece and Rome, and the compelling notion of Decline and Fall.  They declared the current natives deeply degenerate, and then raised Parthenons and Coliseums out of the tumbled masonry of Borobudur and Angkor Wat.  In the interests of ensuring that the Dutch would lose Java forever, Raffles now did the same with Indonesia.

He had probably first heard stories of 14th century Majapahit, the last of Java’s great pre-Islamic kingdoms, during his early days in Penang, and the scholar-poet John Leyden had helped him to sketch in the details, peopling its palaces with white-clad, shaven-headed men who looked suspiciously like Roman senators, and making it an all-powerful, all-conquering, Southeast Asia-swallowing empire.  This vision of Majapahit – one first codified by the British in the early 19th century, but not entirely sanctioned by modern historians – remains a key pillar of modern Indonesia’s national identity.  Raffles planned to use it for his own purposes, and he wrote to Minto to explain how:

In ancient times, the Malay Chiefs, though possessing the titles of Sultans or Rajahs, and with full possession of authority within their own domains, yet all held by a superior Suzerain, who was King of the ancient and powerful estate of Majopahit [sic] on the island of Java, and who held the title Bitara…  Now though the present Malay Chiefs are jealous and punctilious in high degree about their own titles, they are by no means equally so respecting holding of a superior whose title would save their own dignity; and I conceive they must easily be prevailed upon by suggestions, to invest the Governor-General of India with the ancient title of Bitara, equivalent to Lord Protector

In short Raffles wanted to raise a mythological Majapahit from the dead, and to make Lord Minto its emperor.  He never quite succeeded; in fact, little more than a year later he would preside over the sacking and looting of the Javanese palace with one of the strongest claims to the Majapahit mantle.  But during their brief stay on the island Raffles and his compatriots would indeed give the pot of Javanese history such a vigorous stir that it would still be seething and bubbling like a strange volcano decades after they had gone…

© Tim Hannigan 2013

The Bali King and the British Agent

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

Aquatic appearance: 18th century Melaka

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.

Man on the spot: William Farquhar

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.

A later Buleleng Raja – without a boat

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

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