The tumultuous British period was overseen by Britain's Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. In essence, Hannigan notes, the entire occupation known as the British Interregnum, was “a rogue operation” marked by “tragedy and death, hatred and hypocrisy, drama and drunkenness, and some very dark doings indeed”.
Meanwhile Raffles, who founded Singapore, comes off looking far less than the exulted hero one finds in any Singaporean history, in part simply through Hannigan rifling through his bountiful personal correspondence in the British Library.
This is the best sort of history, really: one that shatters mainstream preconceptions and uncovers a fresh perspective on a well-known figure previously seen in an exclusively positive light.
Rather than a dry academic history, Hannigan trawls through a vast array of primary sources, both British and Javanese, to paint a colourful and compelling portrait of the land, people and events over those five years, with particular attention to Raffles.
We found the part-biography of Raffles the most compelling part: His ineptitude, ambition and arrogance really do not reflect well upon his legacy. While on the one hand this certainly makes him a more interesting character than the histories of Singapore might have you believe, on the other, it meant he wreaked horrible havoc in Java, and on the Javanese.
Fresh from Melaka and before that Penang, Raffles arrived in Java aged just 30, and was put “in absolute charge of an island the size of England with a population of some 5 million people… In short Raffles had been appointed the uncontested oriental despot of the Land of Promise”. Perhaps it’s no surprise that someone so young, inexperienced and foreign handed such power made such a violent mess of things.
Raffles based himself in today’s Bogor, then known as Buitenzorg; a statue of his wife Olivia stands in the botanical gardens of Bogor. Otherwise, the remnants of the brief British period in Indonesia extend to the traffic being driven on the left (we admit to never wondering about this ourselves and being surprised to learn this) and very little else, Hannigan notes. Still, what has otherwise largely been relegated a footnote in history was a brutal, difficult period for the Javanese with a lingering political and social impact. It's an important period for historians to consider.
This is a book for fans of the more arcane aspects of Indonesian history, and for lovers of political biographies. Read it if you plan on travelling in Java, or indeed Singapore, as a counterbalance to the hagiographies of Raffles you are likely to encounter there.
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