Monday, September 28, 2009

Book preview: Farquhar and Raffles fall out

In the run-up to the launch of our book Singapore: A Biography in mid-October 2009, we'll be releasing a short book preview on this website every Monday. Today's preview is from the 'Settlement' section, which covers the years 1819 to 1824.

In 1819 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded a British port in Singapore. But ‘like a man who sets a house on fire and then runs away’ (as one contemporary observed, but read our book for more details), Raffles returned to his post in Bencoolen, Sumatra, leaving the settlement to its first Resident Major William Farquhar. Farquhar was Raffles's trusted aide, but things didn't quite work out smoothly. Our story picks up in 1823, on Raffles's last visit to Singapore.

Farquhar and Raffles fall out
Within a year of Raffles’s return, relations had soured between both men to the extent that not even Farquhar’s near-fatal stabbing at the hands of Sayid Yassin could salvage them. In January 1823, Raffles wrote a letter to his East India Company (EIC) superiors in which he felt compelled to tell them that he considered Farquhar ‘totally unequal to the charge of so important and peculiar a charge as that of Singapore has now become’. He then struck out at Farquhar’s undesirably close involvement with the locals. In a thinly-veiled reference to Farquhar’s Melakan wife Nonio Clement, Raffles argued that the Resident’s ‘Malay connexion’ afforded ‘an opening for such an undue combination of peculiar interests as not only to impede the progress of order and regularity but may lay the foundation of future inconvenience which may hereafter be difficult to overcome’.

The growing distaste that Raffles felt towards Farquhar even extended to the Resident’s appearance. In March 1823, Raffles commented to Farquhar on his ‘departure from the usual etiquette in dispensing with the Military Dress of his rank’. The next month, he told Farquhar that he had written to Calcutta on the matter and was awaiting the Company’s judgment. Farquhar’s response was to claim that he was only required to wear his uniform when he acted in his capacity as military Commandant. Presumably, he felt that when acting as Resident he should be allowed to forego clothes that made him uncomfortable in the local humidity. However, the matter of the Resident’s dress was perhaps symptomatic in Raffles's mind of a general lack of discipline. By the end of the month, Raffles had Farquhar informed (by proxy!) that he was to be relieved from his official duties.

The way Raffles treated Farquhar certainly invites condemnation. But to be fair to Raffles, he returned to Singapore in 1822 practically a broken man, worn down by his grief and seemingly subject to the onset of brain disease. To find his ‘almost only child’, as he called Singapore during his final visit, in a less than ideal state, bustling with activity, yet unkempt and vice-ridden – apparently through the decisions of a colleague who seemed to have let himself go a little too ‘native’ – was an added pressure on an overwrought mind. And, in one respect, Raffles was justified in his condemnation of Farquhar. The Scot had chosen to turn a blind eye to slave-trading and thus to a practice outlawed across the British Empire. One slave-trader had been so delighted to carry out his business undisturbed in Farquhar’s Singapore that he sent both Raffles and Farquhar the gift of a couple of slaves as a mark of gratitude.

The acrimony between both men continued after they returned to Britain – and in Farquhar’s case even went on after Raffles’s death. Though the EIC formally decided in Raffles’s favour over Raffles’s assertion that he was the sole founder of the settlement at Singapore, Farquhar continued to fight for equal recognition, publicly criticising Sophia Raffles’s Memoir for the way it accorded Raffles ‘exclusive merit’ for Singapore’s establishment. Indeed, Farquhar might be said to have literally carried his case to the grave. When he died in Scotland in 1839, his tombstone read:
During 20 years of his valuable life he was appointed to offices of high responsibility under the civil government of India having in addition to his military duties served as Resident in Melaka and afterwards at Singapore which latter settlement he founded…
Unfortunately for Farquhar, it took at least another century for historians to sit up and take notice. Sophia Raffles’s heroic narrative, combined with the prevailing ‘great man’ theory of history (in which, with his untidy appearance and Eurasian mistress, Farquhar must have appeared a raggedy misfit) ensured that Raffles continued to receive the sole credit as modern Singapore’s founder. Today, the island city-state bears no street or place or edifice which remembers Farquhar, whereas those dedicated to Raffles are numerous. Ironically, the one street that did bear Farquhar’s name used to lie in the Malay suburb of Kampong Glam, but it was demolished by the inheritors of Raffles’s urban legacy – Singapore’s modern town-planners.

Yet modern scholars have begun to re-appraise Farquhar’s contributions. If Raffles was the founding father of the Singapore settlement then, as historian Ernest Chew puts it, ‘it was really Farquhar who had to play the role of mother and nurse to the infant during its first four years’. Or as another scholar Karl Hack argues, it was Farquhar’s knowledge of the Malay rulers and their dynastic disputes that provided Raffles with his vital ‘entry-point’. Though Raffles was brilliant he was also ‘utterly impractical’ and it would have been ‘a disaster’ if he had set about the establishment of the modern entrepôt by himself. Indeed, the trust that local people had in the Raja Melaka was what brought many of them to Singapore in the first place, and ensured the settlement’s survival.

We perhaps gain a glimpse into the judgment of the time when we compare what we know about both men’s departures from the island. Munshi Abdullah tells us that Raffles departed Singapore on 9 June 1823 with tears in his eyes, sent on his way by ‘hundreds’. Mr Farquhar eventually left six months later and in Abdullah’s account was bade adieu with much greater fanfare. Thousands came to say farewell, bearing different kinds of gifts, including ‘some who did not have a dry eye for the whole of those two days’. As Farquhar’s ship pulled out of harbour ‘people of all races put out in their boats’, gaily decorated with ‘flags flying’ and with ‘bands playing’, trying to follow him as he set sail for the horizon.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography will be published in mid-October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore, Editions Didier Millet & Hong Kong University Press.

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