Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the son of an English sea captain, joined the British East India Company as a clerk in 1795 and was sent to Asia in 1805. When the Netherlands became part of Napoleon I’s empire, Dutch overseas possessions became a prize in the AngloFrench struggle.
In 1811 a British naval expedition of over 100 ships set sail to conquer Java and other Dutch possessions in the East Indies. Upon its conquest, Commander Lord Minto appointed his secretary, the 30year-old Raffles, as lieutenant-governor of Java.
Raffles immediately began thorough reforms based on liberal principles, overturning the oppressive Dutch plantation system that forced the people to cultivate and deliver export crops—primarily sugar, coffee, tea, indigo, and cotton—that greatly profited the Dutch East India Company.
Raffles implemented a free market system and completely reformed the internal administration of the islands. He was also interested in the local culture and history, wrote a history of Java that became a classic, and ordered the first survey of the magnificent Buddhist monument at Borobudur.
Raffles had hoped that Java would become a permanent British colony. However, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Netherlands was awarded its former possessions in the East Indies, and most of Raffles’s reforms were rescinded by the returning Dutch administration. Raffles returned to Britain in 1816 due to ill-health, was knighted, and came back to Asia as lieutenant-governor of Bencoolen in western Sumatra in 1818.
To offset the loss of Java, Raffles negotiated the purchase of Singapore, a sparsely inhabited island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula from the Sultan of Johore in 1819, assuring the British government that its location made it “the most important station in the East,” adding that as a result of this acquisition, the Dutch “are no longer the exclusive sovereigns of the eastern seas.” It had a population of 1,000 inhabitants.
Singapore was strategically located at the tip of mainland Southeast Asia and had a superb deepsea harbor. Modern cosmopolitan Singapore is the result of policies begun by Raffles: city planning, free trade, orderly government, and imposition of law and order. The city became a magnet for Asian and European shipping and immigrants of many nationalities, mainly Chinese, but also Indians and Malays.
Raffles granted the right of Muslim legal practices to the Malays but instituted English laws modified to suit local circumstances for other peoples. He also abolished slave trade and slave status for anyone who had come to Singapore after the establishment of British rule in 1819, much before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and other nations.
The Netherlands had opposed the establishment of British Singapore but was forced to accede in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London in 1824, in return for Britain’s total retreat from Sumatra. In 1867 Singapore, Penang, and Malacca (also British possessions) were joined to form a crown colony called the Strait Settlements.
British involvement in the petty and unstable Malay states to the north resulted in the formation of the Federated Malay States in 1895 when four states came under the supervision of a British resident general. In 1914 the remaining five Malay states also came under indirect British rule when they formed into a union called the Unfederated Malay States. These steps established British rule throughout Malaya.
Raffles returned to Britain in 1824 due to ill health, founded the Royal Zoological Society, and died in 1826. Modern Singapore would not have come into being save for Raffles’s vision.