Raffles and the British Invasion of Java by Tim Hannigan

This highly controversial work courageously debunks many of the myths that we have come to believe about Sir Stamford Raffles, who gained lasting fame as the founder of Singapore but also became one of the shapers of the development of “high” colonial Dutch Java. Told in full for the first time, this perceptive and exciting military and social history tells the story of how the British attempted to bring the full force of European colonialism to a tropical island where Muslim sultans claimed descent from Hindu gods.

On a hot August afternoon in 1811, an army of 10,000 British redcoats and Indian sepoy splashed ashore through the muddy shallows off Batavia to conquer the Dutch colony of Java. It was Raffles and a tight inner circle of advisors and lieutenants who presided over the British occupation of the island for five turbulent years. Known as the “British Interregnum,” the most far-flung sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars, this little understood period has never before been told in as much detail. Major histories only give the period a few paragraphs at most.

The whole book starts out with the assertion, often heard even by educated Indonesians, that they would’ve been better off if they had been colonized by the British and not the Dutch. The writer then thoroughly explores the bloody battles and furious controversies that marked British rule in Java, and reveals Raffles – long celebrated as a hero, a liberal and a visionary, ‘the last colonialist it’s OK to like’ –in a shocking new light. Indeed, Raffles made for a very strange sort of hero.

This history features the dramatic Battle of Batavia, the sinister British expedition to Palembang, a series of bloody battles between soldiers and civilians, fights between Englishmen and Javanese and a gut-wrenching duel between a buffalo and tiger. The crux of the literary narrative is the clash and deep irreconcilable abyss between nascent European colonialism and the old courtly culture of Java. In an effort to impress the people of Java with the might of British power, Raffles attacked, wrecked, cowed and humiliated Java’s most powerful and influential native court.

Not only did the British break the power of the venerable Javanese kraton, but introduced opium to Java on a large scale, entrenched the position of Chinese middlemen, set up a strong sense of racial separation between the rulers and their subjects and created the concept of extracting maximum agricultural wealth from the island. One of the most enduring myths about Raffles during the strange half-decade that he spent on Java was that he hated slavery. Actually, the man was not an abolitionist and allowed the trade of slaves under the age of 14 and even kept 77 slaves in his own home.

Another myth punctured is that the famous man “discovered” Borobudur and Prambanan. Though Raffles ordered the recovery of a number of epic Hindu temples, he competed jealously with others for scholarly praise. He failed miserably in his attempts to institute radical administrative reforms. Rather than being a liberal, he crushed dissent, sacked and looted palaces and incited massacres to further his own insatiable ambitions.

Told with sensitive eye to the Javanese side of the story, there are capsule summaries of Javanese cultural institutions like wayang theatre; entertaining discussions of such cultural arcana as amok and kris; the social hierarchy, intrigues and beliefs of the Javanese aristocracy; hilarious portraits of native rulers; the flaws and strengths of historical personalities such Lord Minto, Governor General Daendels and Rollo Gillespie, and a beautiful three-page long description of the wonder that was Java – its geography, history, village life, legends, commerce, manners and insights into the Javanese character. The hilarious mini-biographies of long forgotten officials and players in the drama of the British takeover from 1811 to 1816 are some of the book’s most fascinating sections. These reckless and scandalous characters would be unknown to history if their lives were not presented so vividly in this work. Even the footnotes make vastly entertaining reading.

Author Tim Hannigan drew upon primary Dutch, British and classical Javanese archival source material in which even standard Indonesian was of little use. He plumbed scholarly journals, maps, account books, a small body of obscure academic papers and myriad biographies of Raffles. He spent weeks in the bowels of the British Library combing through India Office Records, Raffles’ own personal correspondence, reports from provincial administrators marooned in remote Javanese hill towns and five years worth of weekly English language newspapers on microfilm spanning the entire period of the Interregnum, its run-up and its aftermath.

This British author is no stranger to Indonesia. Hannigan first arrived as a callow young English teacher in the seething Javanese city of Surabaya. Moving on to become a fluent Indonesian speaker and freelance travel writer, he explored the country from the tip of Sumatra to the marshes of Papua, from the Java hinterlands to the far southeastern islands. The fact that he has immersed himself so completely in the life of the country makes him particularly skilled at re-creating the tactile atmosphere of a place in its historical context: the sounds and smells of harbors, wharves and trading houses; vivid physical details of the toil of laborers; the cadence of various dialects; the social ranks and privileges of colonial types; the timeless household rhythms and family cultures of the main characters, all in a language that is lively, original and daring.

To support his retelling of events, he is fond of quoting eyewitness accounts of the day in the quaint and archaic English that was in use over 200 years ago. He uses italics and punctuation to mercilessly drive home his points. A short glossary provides just enough terms for someone unfamiliar with the country to appreciate the narrative. The book is an even richer reading experience for those who have a great knowledge and understanding of Indonesian history. I missed the inclusion of an index or at least a more detailed Contents page, which would’ve made the book more useful as an historical reference.

Exploding myth after myth and putting to rest historical speculations and misconceptions, revealing the man’s motives, deceptions, blunders and arrogance, Raffles and the British Invasion of Java deftly brings to life for virtually the first time an obscure and long forgotten period of Indonesia’s colonial history in a highly readable and fresh style. It’s seldom that history makes such wonderful reading.

Raffles and the British Invasion of Java by Tim Hannigan, Monsoon Books 2013, ISBN-978-9814358859, paperback, 368 pages, glossary, bibliography. Available for Rp189,000 at Ganesha and Periplus bookstores.

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