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Sir Thomas (Stamford) Raffles [15min]

In 1819, Stamford Raffles bought Singapore for the East India Company. It became the most strategically important colony in Britain's eastern empire. His obsession was to stop the continuing Dutch usurpation of British interests in the East Indies. "This Sceptred Isle: Empire" is a narrative history of the British Empire from Ireland in the 12th century to the independence of India in the 20th, told in 90 programmes written by historian Christopher Lee and narrated by actor Juliet Stevenson. (You may listen again online to the five most recent episodes of "Empire".)

Thomas Raffles started using "Stamford" later in his career. He was born in his father's ship, standing off the coast of Jamaica. Raffles Senior had gone from cook to captain but the family fell on hard times. With little formal education, Raffles was lucky when a friend's father found him a job as a clerk in the London office of the East India Company (the same beginnings as Robert Clive and Warren Hastings). He was sent, in 1805 to Penang as assistant secretary to the Company's resident. On the way, he taught himself Malay and within two years he was an official translator as well as assistant secretary. He became a celebrated botanist as well as colonial administrator and developed ideas of cultural co-operation rarely found in the rest of the empire. Raffles was rarely in rude health and only just survived the disease-ridden environment of the East Indies. His success produced spiteful attacks from colleagues, yet another similarity with Clive and Hastings.

In Calcutta, the governor general Lord Hastings (1754-1826, not Warren Hastings 1732-1818) conceded Raffles was right when he said that the most important waterway, the Malacca Strait, should be protected otherwise British trading could not be guaranteed. The Dutch had thought of this and already had trading stations and agreements along the route.

Raffles saw Singapore Island as the choke point and in January 1819 he signed an agreement with the local ruler that the East India Company could establish a trading post - in spite of the Company's reluctance, Raffles had effectively annexed the island and Singapore was eventually incorporated in the Straits Settlements.

Raffles understood that whatever Singapore's strategic value, the criterion of colonial administration was: will it show a relative trouble free profit? Hence his own opinion that contained an important qualification of British colonial policy at the start of the 19th century: "Our object is not territory but trade… a great commercial emporium and a fulcrum whence we may extend our influence politically as circumstances may hereafter require… By taking immediate possession we put a negative to the Dutch claim of exclusion and at the same time revive the drooping confidence of our allies and friends. One free port in these seas must eventually destroy the spell of Dutch monopoly and what Malta is in the west, that may Singapore become in the east…"

Raffles left in 1824 but Singapore grew in importance to every British colonial commercial and military plan for more than a century to come.

Read entire article at BBC Radio 4 "This Sceptred Isle: Empire" 44th of 90