Exhibitions and events
Sir Stamford Raffles – collecting in Southeast Asia

Thomas Stamford Raffles was born onboard a ship in July 1781. His family was of modest means and he began work as a clerk with the East India Company at age 14. Due to his diligence as well as special patronage, he was promoted and sent to Southeast Asia in 1805.

In March 1816, Raffles sailed away from the island of Java where he had been Lieutenant-Governor for nearly five years. Among his substantial luggage containing administrative papers and correspondence, bottles of alcohol, raw materials, Japanese objects, gold, furniture and other private possessions were numerous Javanese objects. These included almost 450 puppets, over 700 coins, more than 350 drawings, over 130 masks, more than 120 small metal sculptures and five small stone sculptures. Once in Britain, Raffles’ collections became a centre of attention as little was known about Java in Europe at the time. Raffles settled down to the task of writing his two-volume work, The History of Java, which was published in 1817.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, James Thompson (1788–1850). Britain, 1824. Etching on paper.

As a result of Raffles’ collections as well as his social and scholarly efforts, he was invited to join the Royal Society, the leading body of scholarly investigation in early 19th-century Britain. Raffles also became friendly with the royal family, particularly Princess Charlotte, the only child of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. After dedicating his History of Java to the Prince Regent, Raffles was rewarded with a knighthood in May 1817.

Part of Raffles’ purpose in cultivating the royal family was to gather support for his ideas. His main belief was the importance of establishing a British free-trade port in Southeast Asia to facilitate connections between Britain’s Indian colonies and its trade interests in China. Java’s location was ideal, and Raffles was strongly in favour of Britain keeping the island as a colony. After the British returned Java to the Dutch at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Raffles looked for a new site. He eventually took advantage of a succession dispute to establish Singapore as a British port in 1819. It is for this that he is primarily – and controversially – remembered today in Britain.

If we rewind to 1817, with the establishment of Singapore yet to come, Raffles was departing Britain to be Lieutenant-Governor of Bengkulu (Bencoolen), in southwest Sumatra. He left his Javanese collections behind with friends and family in London, but took many of his papers and letters from Java with him. Once established on Sumatra, Raffles studied the local cultures and collected natural history specimens and drawings, information about the region, and cultural materials. Tragically, all these things sank with Raffles’ ship on his homeward voyage in 1824. There was no loss of life, but everything else went down. All of Raffles’ administrative and collecting work was lost, including numerous irreplaceable Malay manuscripts, some dating from the 1400s. There were also more than 2,000 natural history drawings, live animals, including a tiger, and large amounts of information about the islands of Singapore, Borneo, and Sulawesi (then called Celebes). He had planned to write a history for each of these places. The destruction of all this material ended Raffles’ development as an expert on Southeast Asia. He arrived in Britain with few objects to attract the attention of London society again (although he did co-found London Zoo). The loss of his papers also means that nobody knows where or how he acquired his collections, including the ones from Java. The British Museum is currently studying the surviving Javanese objects stylistically to determine where on the island they originated.

The main Javanese collections are a curious group, consisting of two quite different types of materials. On the one side, there are drawings of ancient Hindu-Buddhist stone monuments and stone sculpture, numerous small metal sculptures, and a few small stone sculptures from the early historic period (6th–15th centuries). On the other are theatrical items from 18th to early 19th-century Java. In his History of Java, Raffles discussed topics ranging from geography, botany, agriculture and commerce, to customs associated with major life events, dress, history, antiquities, literature, language and theatre. However, his collections clearly do not reflect this range of Javanese activities. This may partially be due to the fact that the study of human cultures had not yet developed (anthropology emerged later in the 19th century). It also suggests that Raffles’ collections were not gathered to represent Javanese culture generally. Instead, the indications are that he amassed specific materials for a particular purpose: to demonstrate that the Javanese were an advanced civilisation (in his opinion) and to chart the historical progression of the island.

The group of drawings depicting ancient Hindu-Buddhist sites and the accompanying stone sculpture on Java are easily explained. Europeans at the time were fascinated with the historic monuments they encountered in Asia and the Hindu and Buddhist religions.

Architectural details of the temples labelled Nunkulo (Srikandi) and Sedéwo (Puntadewa) on the Dieng Plateau. G. P. Baker (786–1850), 1815, ink and wash on paper.

They also wanted to understand the histories of the various cultures. In part, a chronology of royalty helped the Europeans fit Asian cultures into the hierarchy of civilisations that they had developed. In their opinion, European society was the most civilised, and they judged other societies based on European criteria. These included the presence of writing, stone monuments, a progressive, European-style form of government, commerce, and an interest in history. Additionally, European society was experiencing a craze for ‘the Picturesque’ imagery depicting deserted and ruined buildings covered in vegetation. The ancient ruins of Java revealed an ‘advanced’ civilisation by European standards and at the same time satisfied contemporary European aesthetic ideals. Raffles commissioned sites to be cleared of vegetation, surveyed, and illustrated, and he also acquired drawings and plans from Dutch surveyors who had been on the island prior to the British invasion.

Pair of drawings showing a temple covered in foliage (right), and as imagined in a complete state (left), with commentary by G. P. Baker. H. C. Cornelius (1774–c.1833), around 1807, ink and wash on paper.

As can be seen from the examples here, some of the drawings are plans and details, but others are images that the artists adapted to appeal to European taste. The pair of drawings depict a temple in its ruined state and what the artist thought it looked like when new. Not everybody agreed with these changes. G P Baker, who worked for Raffles, was particularly critical and annotated a number of the drawings. The comment on this pair reads ‘Pure imagination or invention,’ which is correct: they do not accurately represent the building. Despite the inaccuracies, Raffles included similar images in his History of Java.

More than 120 small metal and stone sculptures collected by Raffles also date to the Hindu-Buddhist phase of Javanese history. Most are Buddhist, like the image of the bodhisattva Vajrapani shown here.

Statue of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, AD 800s, bronze.

Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who help others to advance spiritually. However, Raffles claimed that he had a complete set of Hindu gods, indicating how little Europeans knew of Asian religions at the time. The statement also shows that he wanted to develop comprehensive collections. While people collected natural history objects in systematic groups in the early 19th century, Raffles was one of the first to apply this method to cultural materials.

The practicalities of collecting also affected what Raffles acquired. Both the metal and stone sculptures are small and relatively light, as, of course, are the drawings. Collection development only became part of colonial policy in Asia later in the 19th century, so Raffles funded the transportation of his collections himself. Consequently, he acquired objects that could be moved with relative ease for his personal collection. The stone and metal sculptures were small and easily shipped, and Raffles commissioned drawings of the heavy and immovable objects. Thus, we can see that Raffles collected objects from early Java because they satisfied European ideals and beliefs – and were easy to move.

Let’s return to the other half of Raffles’ collection, which consists of theatrical objects. These include masks, gamelan orchestral instruments, and three types of puppets – flat shadow puppets made of animal hide, flat wooden puppets, and three-dimensional wooden puppets. All the theatrical items are beautifully carved, painted, and decorated with gold leaf. Because of their high quality, the assumption has been that Raffles’ collections came from the infamous British sack of the court of Yogyakarta, which occurred on his orders in June 1812. We have found that this is not the case for most of his collections. For example, we now know that the masks were new when Raffles acquired them because they are unused. He probably purchased them or received them as presents.

Mask of the character Kyai Manila, late 1700s- early 1800s, wood, pigment, gold leaf.

Gift-giving was a common part of diplomatic and political exchanges at the time, and Raffles regularly interacted with the courts at Cirebon, Madura, and Surakarta (now Solo). Having recently collaborated with Javanese academics, it is now possible to say that the styles of the puppets and musical instruments Rev William Charles Raffles Flintmeans they are probably from these courts, rather than Yogyakarta. Therefore many of his theatrical items were most likely gifts, purchases, or commissions.

Puppet of the character Menak Jingga, the main villain in the Damarwulan narratives.
Wood, fibre, pigment, gold leaf, late 1700s or early 1800s

The theatrical objects are relatively portable, but the flat wooden puppets and three-dimensional puppets have had their support rods cut off, probably to ease transportation. The large numbers of masks, puppets and instruments show that Raffles also collected these objects in sets. However, the groups of puppets are not complete in Javanese terms. For example, there are few main characters and many demons, and as a result, a puppeteer could only present a few episodes from the long epic tales performed in Javanese theatre. It is evident that Raffles did not understand the roles of the various puppets in presenting Javanese narratives.

A demon, Buta Kimul, Cirebon, Western Java, late 1700s-early 1800s, hide, horn, pigment, fibre, gold leaf.

But, the question remains as to why Raffles bothered to acquire theatrical materials at all. Such objects were not commonly part of European collecting in the early 19th century. Because of the gold leaf on the objects and the fact that performances were often held at court, Raffles associated the theatre with the Javanese upper classes, but he also noted that commoners happily watched the plays all night (performances lasted through the night). He also connected it with national history, writing in his book that the different types of theatre represented different phases of Javanese history. All these features confirmed Raffles in his belief that the Javanese were ‘relatively civilised’, as an interest in national history was an important marker of civilisation to Europeans. To him, it meant that the British should colonise the island permanently in order to assist the Javanese to improve themselves. These were typical ideas in early 19th-century Europe and provided the rationale for colonisation and exploitation in many instances. Thus, the two halves of the collections – Hindu-Buddhist material and theatrical objects – clearly were not separate in Raffles’ mind as they provided a continuum from an early period of Javanese history to a later one.

The majority of Raffles’ collections came to the British Museum in 1859, when they were donated by his nephew, Rev William Charles Raffles Flint, and the remainder arrived in 1939 from Raffles’ great-grandniece, Mrs J H Drake. The objects provide intriguing insights into early 19th-century Britain and the ideas circulating there, but more vitally, they preserve a record of Javanese art and court culture before and during Raffles’ politically notorious governorship.

Sir Stamford Raffles: collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824 is open in Room 91 until 12 January 2020.

Exhibition supported by the Singapore High Commission.