January 4, 2013 7:38 pm

Tales of colonial derring-do

The relationship between Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar was close, rivalrous and ultimately bitter

Sir Stamford Raffles gets all the good press. Somehow the name helps, suggesting a winning combination of raffish and ruffled. And the co-founder of Singapore and founder of London Zoo, as Victoria Glendinning’s fine new biography Raffles: And the Golden Opportunity makes clear, was an attractive and charismatic figure who achieved much in a short life blighted by tropical illness. One of the brightest lights of the East India Company, he was a firm opponent of slavery and managed to combine colonial derring-do with serious botanical and zoological research – a cross between Cecil Rhodes and Gerald Durrell.

The other co-founder of Singapore, William Farquhar, gets a less good press, partly perhaps because he had a name that is far more difficult to spell and pronounce and less likely to be given to a hotel, a nightclub or a street. The relationship between Raffles and Farquhar was close, rivalrous and ultimately bitter. The two employees of the East India Company collaborated on one of the most successful acts of colonial settlement in history and shared (like many Company men) an intense and active interest in natural history; but Raffles, who praised Farquhar’s good nature and “warm and ... kind heart”, ended up stabbing him in the back, dismissing him from his post as Resident of Singapore without proper justification, blackening his character and taking credit for several of his zoological discoveries. Farquhar never forgave this betrayal, and spent much time and energy in later life trying to set the record straight, claiming at least equal responsibility for the foundation of Singapore.

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Harry Eyres

Raffles’ and Farquhar’s great adventure and colonial success came in January and February 1819, when in the space of nine days they set up the trading post that would become one of the world’s most successful cities. Here at least they worked harmoniously on choice of site (though later they would argue on who had suggested Singapore first) and negotiations with local rulers, particularly the splendidly named Temenggong of Johor. Raffles obviously trusted Farquhar at this point, because after the founding ceremony he sailed off to Sumatra, leaving Farquhar in charge.

Singapore thrived under what James Matheson (later co-founder of Jardine Matheson) called “the mild sway” of Major Farquhar. Farquhar certainly had reason to be proud of the development of the settlement. “Nothing can possibly exceed,” he wrote exultantly in March 1820, “the rising trade and general prosperity of this infant colony.” The population of Singapore reached 6,000 in 1821 and 12,000 by 1823.

The tensions that arose between Raffles and Farquhar when Raffles returned to Singapore in 1822, and resulted in Farquhar’s summary dismissal from the post of Resident, were partly caused by disagreements over style of administration. Farquhar had a “native wife”, the half-Malay Nonya Clemaine by whom he had six children, whom he supported even when he returned to Scotland and married a younger bride. He was thus embedded in Malay society in a way that Raffles, for all his mastery of the language, never was. His “mild sway” included the toleration – among the native though not the European population – of the opium trade and of slavery.

In one way, despite his unfair treatment at the hands both of Raffles and of posterity, Farquhar was fortunate. He managed to preserve the most enchanting and appropriate monument, for a man who made himself widely loved and appreciated in a far-off place, and had the intensest interest in its flora and fauna. That monument consists of his collection of 477 natural history drawings, commissioned from unnamed Chinese artists when he was Resident of Melaka from 1795 to 1818, brought by him to Singapore and then on to London. Unlike the greater part of the collection of his rival Raffles, which was burnt in a ship fire, the collection survived these perilous journeys; in 1826 Farquhar donated it to the Royal Asiatic Society in London. The drawings remained with the society, which loaned six of the eight volumes to the Natural History Museum, until 1993 when the collection was sold to the Singapore stockbroker Goh Geok Khim, who presented it to the National Museum of Singapore.

For those who cannot make it to Singapore to see the originals, there is a two-volume folio by Editions Didier Millet – quite the loveliest book I have had the luck to leaf through in the past 12 months. The coloured drawings are captivating in their combination of Chinese nature painting tradition and a more scientific European approach.

I especially like the Malayan tapir, a species Farquhar discovered and a specimen of which he kept as a pet. He praised its “mild and gentle disposition” (maybe not so different from his own) and sympathetically noted that “it seemed very susceptible of cold”.

The collection of drawings is not just a personal memorial but a reminder of the scientific research and interests fostered by the East India Company; of a time when commercial development and ecological care went hand in hand.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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