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Letters from Raffles

An exhibition of Sir Stamford Raffles' correspondence in the 19th century sheds light on the founding of modern Singapore.
The Straits Times - August 29, 2012
By: Huang Lijie
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Letters from Raffles -- PHOTO: PANDORA WONG

Twenty letters penned by Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, which have never been seen before by the public, will be displayed for the first time at the National Library from today.

They are the highlight of the National Library exhibition, Raffles' Letters: Intrigues Behind The Founding Of Singapore, which features 86 artefacts, including valuable maps and books from the early 19th century.

The precious letters offer a rare and intimate look at what went on in Raffles' mind, and his anxieties as he sought to secure a port settlement for the British East India Company in the East. The writings also offer deeper insight into his role in the machinations that led to the founding of Singapore in 1819.

The focus of the show is 13 letters formerly in the possession of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, the 1st Marquess of Hastings and Governor-General of India. Hastings supported Raffles' bid to establish a new settlement in the East, which later came to be Singapore. The set of correspondence, dating from April 1818 to October 1824 and addressed to Hastings and his associates, is on loan from the Bute Collection at Mount Stuart in Scotland.

The private collection of art and artefacts was founded in the 18th century by John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute in Scotland. Hastings' papers entered the collection, housed at the Bute family's ancestral home in Mount Stuart, in the early 20th century when they were acquired by John Crichton-Stuart, 4th Marquess of Bute and Hastings' great-grandson. The identity of the seller of the letters is not known.

Dr Kevin Tan, 51, former president of the Singapore Heritage Society and curator of the exhibition, says: "The public typically knows Raffles as the visionary who came, saw and conquered, but they may not be aware of the intrigues behind his founding of Singapore."

An example, he says, is seen in a letter Raffles wrote to Hastings' political secretary John Adam, citing Singapore's advantageous position. It may have been a savvy attempt to indirectly influence Hastings' opinion of the new settlement.

Raffles' foresight in establishing a port here helped the British counter competition from Dutch trade in the Malay Archipelago.

The letters from the Bute are complemented by six others from the National Library's collection, also exhibited for the first time. In some of these letters, addressed to various British officials, Raffles expresses his pleasure at Singapore's success as a trading port.

Artefacts are drawn from other collections too, including a limited-edition memoir of Raffles from the Tang Holdings Collection, which acquired two rare collections of Raffles memorabilia in 2004 and 2005 for $1.7 million.

The exhibition displays the letters in chronology and complements the story they tell with sections that sketch out the private and public context of the writings. They include a section on Raffles' personal life and another on the Anglo-Dutch rivalry that spurred his race to found a settlement in the East.

There is also a section devoted to a replica of what is believed to be the earliest landward map of Singapore town. The 1820 map in the Bute Collection contains details not seen in later maps, such as the exact location and orientation of local chief Temenggong Abdul Rahman's residence, which corresponds to the location of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Empress Place today.

Temenggong Abdul Rahman and Sultan Hussein Shah signed the treaty that gave the British permission to set up trading settlements, marking the founding of modern Singapore.

There is no clear indication as to who had commissioned and drawn the map, although its date points to it having been made after Raffles had landed and surveyed the island.

The exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Singapore Heritage Society, the Mount Stuart Trust, which owns the Bute Collection, and a leading British scholar on Raffles, Dr John Bastin, who is based in Britain.

The realisation of this show has a fascinating story too. The series of events began with a 2009 exhibition at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh of Raffles' plant collections, which was curated by British botanist Henry Noltie.

Mr Andrew McLean, a former archivist at Mount Stuart who visited the exhibition, ended up discussing with Dr Noltie about documents relating to Raffles that were held at Mount Stuart. Dr Noltie then put him in touch with Dr Bastin.

Dr Bastin, who is in his 80s, says: "When I received copies of the letters from the Mount Stuart Archives about three years ago, I realised their importance for the history of Singapore and I informed the National Library."

The library's assistant director of national heritage, Mr Chung Sang Hong, 42, says: "Given the significance of Raffles' letters in the Bute Collection, and that we also have his letters in our rare materials collection, an idea was mooted to have an exhibition on these artefacts to shed light on Singapore's founding history."

Mr Tan, who is enthused by the rare showcase of Raffles' letters here, says: "There is nothing like feeling the aura and standing in front of the real letters of Raffles."


Where: National Library Gallery, level 10, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

When: Till Feb 28 next year, 10am to 9pm, daily, closed on public holidays

Admission: Free


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