Raffles & the British Invasion of Java

by Tim Hannigan

The book covers a fascinating, obscure moment in colonial history: the launching of Stamford Raffles’ career with the five-year invasion of Java. Those five years are rich with material that Hannigan presents with a fresh eye, sensitive to the Javanese side of the story. The author sometimes seems to be nursing a grudge against his subject – the treatment of Olivia Raffles is downright mean – but the cloud of myth around Raffles is apparently pretty thick, and the author cuts through it with some sharp observations. The moments of contact between the British and royal courts are particularly entertaining. According to the Raffles’ legend, an armed standoff in the court was defused by his skill in the Malay language. Instead, Hannigan convincingly shows, “For Raffles to start griping in Malay over the seating arrangements would have been equivalent to him berating George III in the idiom of a fishwife”.  There are many episodes that get similarly perceptive treatments. The 5-year occupation marks the transition to high colonialism, and Raffles appears to have won his reputation not for being a liberal reformer but for being the imperialist’s imperialist just as the Empire was getting into full swing.

It is great material and great analysis, but the writing sometimes was distracting. There is a lot of overdescription and the alliteration jumped out all over the place: “… a few feverish friars, fast forgetting their catechism …” Once you notice it you can’t stop noticing it: “… begun plotting to place a pliant puppet…” You wish an editor had said something along the way.

All in all, I enjoyed the material and the author’s analysis a great deal. Recommended to anyone interested in the archipelago.

Tim Hannigan’s Footnotes and Sidelights from the Story, including Malaysia’s famous Munshi Abdullah writing about Englishmen riding the green horse:

their mothers would say, “Be quiet, the drunken Englishman is coming,” and the children would be scared and keep quiet.

R&TBIOJ Goodreads page.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. Hi Zayn,

    Thank you so very much for the review! It’s absolutely wonderful to know that someone has not only enjoyed the book, but has entirely grasped the points I was trying to make – about “the Javanese side of the story”, and about Raffles’ being “the imperialist’s imperialist”, rather than “the last colonialist it’s OK to like”.

    And your criticisms are entirely merited too. Overwriting is what I do. Some people like it; some people don’t. But my goodness – you’re right about the alliteration! Honestly, I’m usually unaware that I’m doing it, but now you’ve drawn my attention to it I realise that I am indeed afflicted with an aggravatingly affected alliterative addiction. I’ll have to try to stop!

    If you’re at all interested I’ve been posting various outtakes from the book online here: http://rafflesandjavablog.wordpress.com/ (the first draft was 80,000 words longer; much of the bulk was doubtless made up of needless alliteration, but some interesting stuff did end up on the cutting room floor).

    Thank you once again!

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