BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!



The series has now ended but you can still enjoy a wealth of information on the site, from the interactive timeline to historical narratives and profiles.


Raffles, Episode 44 - 16/02/06


Singapore Harbour (Mary Evans Picture Library)

Singapore Harbour
(Mary Evans Picture Library)
View more images

In 1819, Stamford Raffles (see below) 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.

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.

Back to top

Historical Figure

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles
(Getty Images)
View more images

Sir Thomas (Stamford) Raffles 1781-1826

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.

Back to top

Did You Know...

That it was Raffles who, determined to make Singapore a working multi-cultural society, built the Singapore Institute as a college for everyone who lived in the area. In doing so, he married what he thought was best in British values with all those things that were good in Asian cultures.

Back to top

Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the Far East region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the Far East

Having lived in Malaysia & worked all over Asia, it is a pleasure to listen to this program and the excellent narration Please pass my thanks to all concerned

Back to top

Contemporary Sources

Stamford describes his hopes for success in Singapore

Excerpt from a letter from Raffles to William Marsden, 31st January 1819

"Here I am in Singapore, true to my word and in the enjoyment of all the pleasure which a footing on such classical ground must inspire. The lines of the old city, and of its defences, are still to be traced, and within its ramparts the British Union waves unmolested. This place possesses an excellent harbour and everything that can be desired for a British port in the island of St John's, which forms the south western point of the harbour. We have commanded an intercourse with all the ships passing through the Straits of Singapore. We are within a week's sail of China, close to Siam, and in the very seat of the Malayan empire. This, therefore, will probably be my last attempt. If I am deserted now, I must fain return to Bencoolen and become philosopher. My next letters will speak decidedly as to our future footing on these seas. If I keep Singapore I shall be quite satisfied; and in a few years our influence over the archipelago, as far as concerns our commerce, will be fully established."

Back to top

Have Your Say

Timeline & Map

Interactive Timeline

More on the Empire

Elsewhere on

Elsewhere on the web

Book of the series

Audio CD


Send your Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy