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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Raffles of the Eastern Isles

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 14, 2010

Stamford Raffles, the British naturalist and empire builder of the Far East, was a particularly poignant example of how families became caught up, and often sacrificed, to the greater cause of collection and conquest.

The child of a slave trader, he went to work at 14, as a clerk for the British East India Company.  Ten years later, the company sent him to Penang, and he started his long career in Southeast Asia.   In 1811, he orchestrated an invasion of Java by a British expedition of 11,000 men.  He then served as lieutenant-governor there, and among other progressive measures, ended the slave trade and established rules of self-government.  But his first wife died on Java, of tropical disease.

Back in England a few years later, Raffles remarried and brought his new wife, Sophia Hull, with him to the Far East, where he became governor general of Bencoolen in Sumatra.  The two of them would have five children together while Raffles governed Sumatra, founded the city of Singapore, and somehow also managed to make significant contributions to the study of natural history.  He discovered several dozen new species, including the sun bear (Ursus malayanus), the crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis), the great-billed heron (Ardea sumatrana) and the milky stork (Mycteria cinerea), as well as the world’s largest flower, a genus of plants that parasitize palm trees, now named Rafflesia in his honor.

The transformation of Singapore into a thriving British colony filled him with unabashed mercantile delight: Here all is life and activity; and it would be difficult to name a place on the face of the globe with brighter prospects or more pleasant satisfaction.”

His private life, on the other hand, had taken a much darker turn.   Within a period of just six devastating months, his first three children died, of dysentery and other afflictions.  A new child arrived in 1823, but soon also died. He and his wife had only a young daughter left, and in Raffles’ letters it became an urgent question whether they could find a ship to get them home “in time to save our lives.”

Raffles packed up all his notes, maps, books, paintings, musical instruments, and other mementoes, as well as boxes filled with thousands of specimens of different species.  He neglected to get insurance, and shipped all their property, valued at £25,000, a sizable fortune then, at their own risk.

Two days out to sea, a fire broke out beneath their cabin.  Everyone aboard was able to get off into lifeboats, but “less than ten minutes afterwards she was one grand mass of fire,” Raffles wrote, and with the ship went much of what was left of his own shattered life.

Raffles, Sophia, and their surviving daughter would eventually get back to London, where he would become the driving force behind the creation of the London Zoo and then die, one day short of his 45th birthday.  Along with the new species he had brought to the attention of science, Singapore would be his real legacy.  Soon after the deaths of his children, he had referred to it as “this, my almost only child.”  It was as if, however reluctantly, he had swapped his flesh-and-blood for the glories of empire–a bargain many men implicitly accepted then when they voyaged out into the world as naturalists and colonizers—their lives, marriages, children, even perhaps their souls, for the glory of a new city or a new species.

Ironically, because of his anti-slavery stance, he was refused burial inside his local parish church (St. Mary’s, Hendon) by the vicar, whose family had made its money in the slave trade. The actual whereabouts of his body remained unknown until it was found in a churchyard vault, in 1914.  His tomb was incorporated into the body of the church when it was enlarged a few years later.

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