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Jane Ridley

Father of Singapore

Raffles and the Golden Opportunity 1781 - 1826
By Victoria Glendinning (Profile Books 349pp 25)
Raffles: clerk made good

Two years ago Victoria Glendinning announced that she was having to self-finance her new book, a biography of Stamford Raffles, because she was unable to find a publisher. 'They want Victoria to do exactly the same as before,' she explained to The Guardian, adding that when the publisher suggested that she should write yet another life of the Brontës, 'I nearly fell off my chair.' That Glendinning of all people should be forced to write a book without a commission struck chill into the hearts of many authors, and prompted much doom-laden speculation about the imminent death of biography. But for Glendinning, at least, the story has a happy ending. Raffles is published by Profile this month.

The life of Raffles, the self-made adventurer and founder of Singapore, is new territory for Glendinning, who achieved fame as the biographer of figures such as Vita Sackville-West, Anthony Trollope and Leonard Woolf. But Glendinning's decision to break out of the publishing comfort zone of Bloomsbury and literary biography and enter the world of Niall Ferguson has paid off.

The history of the British Empire is widely taught in universities, partly because it is about the only bit of British history that is genuinely global and multicultural. When I teach this course - sorry, module - Raffles might feature as a name in a lecture on a topic such as the 'Turn to the East in the early 19th century', but I am ashamed to admit that until I read this book I knew next to nothing about his career, and I suspect that I am not alone in this. Glendinning's sparkling new life is a timely reminder that the British Empire was not all about trade and politically incorrect exploitation. It was also an extraordinary adventure and the human story has been neglected for far too long. Raffles was a Londoner. Born in 1781, he grew up in the dreary suburb of Walworth. His father, a ship's captain turned drunkard, deserted the family, and Raffles received hardly any formal education. Aged 14 he joined the East India Company as a clerk in India House, copying documents, and this extraordinary institution became his life. Glendinning vividly describes an organisation, crippled by routine and sunk deep in inertia, that took years - literally - to make decisions and react to events on the other side of the globe. Out east, however, the company offered thrillingly unregulated opportunities for conquest, glory and the amassing of huge fortunes. During the Napoleonic Wars, under pretext of fighting the French, this anachronistic chartered company, founded in the 17th century, became the unlikely vehicle for the conquest of the Indian subcontinent as well as the East Indies.

The 24-year-old Raffles was posted to Penang in Malaya in 1805. He brought with him his new wife, Olivia, ten years older, a raffish widow and old India hand with a murky past to whom he was genuinely devoted. Raffles was a fiercely hard worker, but his time in Malaya was not all devoted to administration. He turned himself into a scholar too, learning fluent Malay and collecting antiquities and animals.

Promotion in the East India Company depended upon patronage, and Raffles managed to gain the friendship of the governor-general, Lord Minto. Backed by Minto, he plotted an ambitious coup: the invasion of the Dutch colony of Java (the Dutch were allies of the French, so this was fair game). Minto put Raffles in charge of the new colony, but Java was bankrupt. Raffles couldn't make it pay, and he quarrelled with his colleagues, who plotted against him. Glendinning is excellent on the snakepit of East India Company politics. Raffles was sacked, and Java was returned to the Dutch in 1815. He sailed home apparently a broken man, tainted by allegations of corruption; he was sick and alone - Olivia had died in 1814.

Astonishingly, he bounced back. In London he was lionised. He wrote an acclaimed History of Java, was taken up by Princess Charlotte, and was knighted by the Prince Regent. As Glendinning shows, the collections of antiquities and animals that Raffles brought back from the East were hugely valuable because they brought him fame and status as an explorer. He changed his name from Thomas to Stamford and took a second wife, Sophia Hull. Raffles had become a celebrity, and this made it hard for the East India Company to dismiss him.

Raffles and Sophia returned to the east, this time to govern Bencoolen, a remote outpost on the coast of Sumatra. Like Java, the place lost money. Raffles failed to balance the books. He annoyed his superiors, as he had before, by overstepping his powers. But he did one brilliant thing. Asked to find a trading port on the increasingly valuable route from India to China, he bought the wild island of Singapore from its Malay rulers.

This was a stroke of genius. Singapore was perfectly sited, and the new town boomed instantly. Raffles's family life prospered too. Sophia, who was as strong as an ox - she insisted on accompanying him while pregnant on hair-raising journeys of exploration into the interior - produced four children in quick succession. Raffles enjoyed a brief idyll of happiness.

It was all too brief. Compellingly related by Glendinning, this part of the book is unputdownable. Three of Raffles's small children died within six months of each other from dysentery. He became ill himself, suffering from constant, shattering headaches. He quarrelled with the man he had put in charge of running Singapore and sacked him with uncharacteristic brutality - a mistake for which he would later pay. Desperate to get out, Raffles and Sophia set sail for home. Their ship burst into flames, and Raffles lost all his possessions, including his precious collections and his animals, which formed the capital for his retirement. Back home the company refused to compensate or pension him, but instead invoiced him for a massive debt. His headaches turned out to be the symptoms of a fatal brain condition, probably caused by tropical fever, and he died aged 45 from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Glendinning has rescued Raffles from decades of neglect and post-colonial guilt. Vivid, beautifully written and a terrific read, this is a wonderful biography. Those publishers who rejected it were fools.

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Jane Ridley's Bertie: A Life of Edward VII was published in September by Chatto.

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