by June Lee

Sir Stamford Raffles’ diplomatic achievements are well known. His extensive involvement in the British invasion of Java, the restoration and governing of Bengkulu, the abolition of slavery and, of course, the founding of Singapore and Raffles Institution are all well documented. However, Raffles had a “wild side” to him that is less well known: his love of animals and all things natural.

Though less appreciated, Raffles’ love for natural history and its impact, are perhaps more intriguing. The London Zoo and the soon to be opened Lee Kong Chian Natural Museum in 2015 in Singapore – the reincarnation of the original Raffles Museum, for instance, are testaments to his legacy in the natural history world.

Raffles began as an East India Company trader, conquered Java, founded Singapore, and was a voracious wildlife enthusiast. He commissioned many exquisite illustrations of rare and undiscovered plants and animals from Sumatra and the surrounding region.
Raffles began as an East India Company trader, conquered Java, founded Singapore, and was a voracious wildlife enthusiast. He commissioned many exquisite illustrations of rare and undiscovered plants and animals from Sumatra and the surrounding region.  Portrait by James Lonsdale exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1818 (Reproduced with permission from the Zoological Society of London)

 

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Raffles was a man deeply fascinated by the amazing diversity of animals and plants of the East Indies. During his tenure there, he enjoyed trekking through different parts of the region with his companions to discover the wide variety of tropical animals, insects, birds and flowers. On one expedition, he and famous scientist, Dr Joseph Arnold, made the sensational discovery of a giant-parasitic flower in Sumatra. The flower was later named Rafflesia arnoldi after Raffles and his friend.

The Rafflesia (Rafflesia arnoldii), an extraordinary parasitical plant endemic to Sumatra, discovered by a Malay servant but attributed to Joseph Arnold and Raffles, who commissioned this print made by the Weddell firm of botanical engravers in 1826. This image and the others presented in this article are drawn from Raffles’ Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, with the permission of the British Library. © British Library Board/P1969.
The Rafflesia (Rafflesia arnoldii), an extraordinary parasitical plant endemic to Sumatra, discovered by a Malay servant but attributed to Joseph Arnold and Raffles, who commissioned this print made by the Weddell firm of botanical engravers in 1826. This image and the others presented in this article are drawn from Raffles’ Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, with the permission of the British Library.
© British Library Board/P1969.

“Raffles was a product of the Victorian era of exploration and enlightenment. They wanted to understand the natural world. It was not unusual. (William) Farquhar did it and so did others. Some of these people were quite gifted in their ability to explore, catalogue and understand the flora and fauna of the lands they visited. They hired local workers to help them put together a collection and local artists to paint the specimens,” commented historian Dr Kevin Tan (RI 1977 & 1979), Past President of the Singapore Heritage Society.

Like many explorers during his time, Raffles employed zoologists and botanists to discover what they could about the animals and plants of the region. He was so passionate about discovering these exotic species that he would often pay his assistants out of his own pocket to collect natural specimens ranging from leaves, flowers, fungi, worms, grasshoppers, cicadas, to coral, molluscs, fish, birds and wild animals. He even employed a Chinese artist from Macau who drew life-like pictures of the flowers and fruits he and his team collected and kept a large book with very thick pages in which he used to press leaves and flowers.

 

HIS FAMILY OF ANIMALS

Asian Tapir (Tapirus indicus Desmarest) Due to hunting and deforestation, this species is now isolated populations in forests of Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra. Raffles tried to describe this creature before his rival William Farquhar in 1821, but both were beaten by a French publication. Illustrated by J Briois © British Library Board/NHD47.48
Asian Tapir (Tapirus indicus Desmarest) Due to hunting and deforestation, this species is now isolated populations in forests of Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra. Raffles tried to describe this creature before his rival William Farquhar in 1821, but both were beaten by a French publication.
Illustrated by J Briois © British Library Board/NHD47.48

While Raffles’ favourite study was botany, which he described as “that beautiful Science”, his love for animals was “perhaps unequalled” according his wife, Lady Sophia Raffles.

He personally named, studied and described several of the wildlife species he discovered, particularly the Sumatran mammals and birds. Among them, Crab-eating Macaque (Macaca fascicularis), Moonrat (Echinosorex gymnurus), Siamang (Hylobates syndactylus), Sun Bear (Ursus malayanus), Malayan Night Heron (Gorsachius melanolophus), Raffles’ Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus chlorophaeus), Barred Eagle Owl (Bubo sumatranus), White-crowned Hornbill (Berenicornis comatus), and Mangrove Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis rufigastra).

During his stay in Pinang and Melaka (1805-1811), Raffles also kept some animals as pets in cages in his house including a siamang, two orang utan, a tiger, a bear and other animals, some of which were given to him by other Malay, Javanese and Sumatran rulers.

He did have a favourite among his pets. While he was a Governor-General of Bencoolen (Bengkulu), Raffles owned and adored a Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus Raffles). The bear was brought up in the nursery with his children and permitted to sit at the table with him regularly. Accordingly to records, this Sun Bear even developed a taste for champagne!

 

THE INDEFATIGABLE NATURALIST

The Moonrat (Echinosorex gymnura), a large Southeast Asian insectivore that is essentially a tropical hedgehog with a long tail and fur instead of spines. Despite their name, moonrats are not rodents, although they have a slim body, small unpigmented ears, small eyes, and a tapered muzzle with long whiskers. The moonrat is found on the Malayan Peninsula, the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and the island of Labuan, where it inhabits lowland rainforests and mangrove forests. © British Library Board/NHD47.46
The Moonrat (Echinosorex gymnura), a large Southeast Asian insectivore that is essentially a tropical hedgehog with a long tail and fur instead of spines. Despite their name, moonrats are not rodents, although they have a slim body, small unpigmented ears, small eyes, and a tapered muzzle with long whiskers. The moonrat is found on the Malayan Peninsula, the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and the island of Labuan, where it inhabits lowland rainforests and mangrove forests. © British Library Board/NHD47.46

In her Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1830), Lady Sophia, wrote that Raffles ‘as a schoolboy, his garden was a delight: to this was added a love of animals’. Victoria Glendining’s biography, Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, gives us a further glimpse into the environment which had sown the seeds of this young boy’s later passion for natural history.

Young Raffles and his family lived in Walworth, a Surrey village south of the City of London across the River Thames. There, the author of The Florist’s Directory or Treaties on the Culture of Flowers, James Maddock had a famous plant nursery and so did Samuel Curtis, owner of Botanical Magazine. Raffles’ neighbours, Richard and Henry Cuming (father and son), who lived across the street had a strange collection that would stir any young lad’s curiosity: a jumble of old bones, teeth, coins, ornaments, textiles, animal skulls and skeletons, fossils, artefacts and weapons from all over the world. And across the river was Edward Cross’ menagerie where this wandering boy could have seen wild animals from faraway countries: a tiger, a hyena and other beasts.

So when Raffles ventured to the East, ‘the variety and diversity of natural history specimens in the tropics certainly fanned the embers of his interest into a blazing flame’ noted Dr Tan.

His interest in natural history was greatly evidenced by references he made to plants and animals in most of his letters as well as the circle of friends he kept. Among them were influential people like Sir Joseph Banks (naturalist, botanist and the President of Royal Society), Dr Thomas Horsfield (surgeon and naturalist whom Raffles hired to collect plants and animals on his behalf), Nathaniel Wallich (superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden) and Dr William Jack (surgeon and botanist).

“Not only did he make friends with the bigwigs of the natural history world, he surrounded himself with these natural history guys. He had two French naturalists that followed him to Java and Bencoolen. They all contributed to his collection which he hoped to bring back to England with him,” Dr Tan said.

Unfortunately, his dream to bring back his precious collection of specimens, drawings and even live animals went up in flames when the ship Raffles chartered, called The Fame, caught fire on 2 February 1824. While no lives were lost, Raffles lost his entire body of research and a scientific collection of unmatched value.

“His cases of butterflies, birds and all sorts of specimens were lost with The Fame,” added Dr Tan.

Raffles and his family turned back to Bengkulu where he quickly began rebuilding his collection of scientific materials. According to John Bastin in his article, ‘Raffles The Naturalist’, Raffles commissioned new sets of natural history drawings and started his “superb” collection of between two and three hundred new natural history drawings which Raffles himself declared: “… having been taken from life, and with scientific accuracy, were executed in a style far superior to any thing I had seen or heard in Europe.” By the time he and his family left Bengkulu 10 weeks later, he had amassed quite a number of new drawings, which are now held in The British Library.

The Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) has a yellow-and-black plumage that has often led to it being mistakenly called the Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus), another species found in India and China. It was featured on the S$500 notes of the “Bird Series” currency notes issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore between 1976 and 1984. Records show that a large breeding population has existed in Singapore since the early 1920s. © British Library Board/NHD47.23
The Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) has a yellow-and-black plumage that has often led to it being mistakenly called the Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus), another species found in India and China. It was featured on the S$500 notes of the “Bird Series” currency notes issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore between 1976 and 1984. Records show that a large breeding population has existed in Singapore since the early 1920s. © British Library Board/NHD47.23

 

DARKER DRIVES

Raffles wanted to be recognised as a premier naturalist and had the tendency to do so at all costs. In fact, he laid claim to some of William Farquhar’s discoveries. These included the black hornbill, the dugong, the malkoha and the tapir.

“… Farquhar was associated with these discoveries and he did write about them, but because of a delay in publishing these accounts, Raffles who read about these accounts, then got to write his own accounts and got it published in London and as a result got his name associated with these animals,” Iskander Mydin, Deputy Director, National Museum of Singapore, said in Today Online in 2007.

While Raffles’ work and patronage of natural history were still commendable, few would consider him a natural historian.

“I wouldn’t speak of Raffles in the same breath as Alfred Wallace. He was not of that calibre and he didn’t spend his life doing this, short as it was. But the repercussive effect (of his keen interest), of course, became quite interesting. There’s the London Zoo. The museum here, of course, was started here long after he died,” related Dr Tan.

Upon his return to England, Raffles founded the world famous Zoological Society of London with Sir Humphry Davy in 1826. It was Sir Humphry, Cornish chemist and inventor who obtained the land for the London Zoo of which Raffles was its first president.

The world’s oldest scientific zoo opened in 1828, two years after Raffles died. Originally, it was intended to be used as a collection for scientific study but in 1847, the zoo was opened to the public. Today the London Zoo houses a collection of over 800 species of animals, with some 19,000 individuals, making it one of the largest collections in the United Kingdom.

Twisted Cord Flower (Strophanthus caudatus). Long red tendrils twisting off each flower petal are the defining feature of this tropical Asian climber. The white star-shaped flowers have red striping that leads into the exotic tendrils. © British Library Board/NHD48.21
Twisted Cord Flower (Strophanthus caudatus). Long red tendrils twisting off each flower petal are the defining feature of this tropical Asian climber. The white star-shaped flowers have red striping that leads into the exotic tendrils. © British Library Board/NHD48.21

 

A SCHOOL, A LIBRARY AND A MUSEUM

Earlier on in Singapore in 1823, Raffles had mooted the idea of an institution to educate would-be leaders of the land, along with it a library and a museum to collect and preserve the treasures of the region. This was how the current National Library has its history closely tied to that of Raffles Institution and the National Museum.

“Raffles liked nature; he liked animals. His idea was that there should be a museum to show people the rich flora and fauna this region have, so that the people are aware of their natural heritage,” added Professor Peter Ng, (RI, 1978) who ran the RI Museum CCA where he and his classmates organised the annual RI Museum Exhibition day to showcase interesting animals and specimens.

Although these three institutions (Singapore Institution, Singapore Library and Singapore Museum) were first conceived in 1823, it wasn’t till 1837 that the school and library became operational. By 1844, the Singapore Library turned into a public library for the residents of Singapore.

 

SINGAPORE’S FIRST MUSEUM

Crested Jay (Platylophus galericulatus) is found in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical forests but is today threatened by habitat loss through logging. © British Library Board/NHD47.29
Crested Jay (Platylophus galericulatus) is found in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical forests but is today threatened by habitat loss through logging. © British Library Board/NHD47.29

In 1849, two years after the London Zoo was opened to the public, Daeng Ibrahim, Temenggong of Johor donated two ancient gold coins donated to the Singapore Library. It was then that steps were taken to establish a museum.

The museum only began collecting natural history when it received a rhinoceros as a gift from the Straits Settlements Governor, Andrew Clarke, in 1875. The collection grew as more colonial officials explored Malaya and Borneo and returned with skeletons or carcasses of animals they had encountered. The most famous of these specimens was a 13-metre blue whale that washed ashore near Melaka in 1892. It was shipped to Singapore and finally exhibited in the Raffles Museum in 1907.

The Raffles Museum displayed an incredible diversity of animals that British scientists and collectors have gathered from the British territories in Southeast Asia. Well-known figures in the natural history world like Karl Richard Hanitsch (Curator and later Director of the Raffles Museum from 1895 to 1918), Cecil Boden Kloss and Frederick Nutter Chasen, continued to collect fauna from throughout the Malay Peninsular and the wider region. The animals collected were usually from Singapore, Malaya and nearby islands.

“Everyone was just donating stuff, including the local guys. They had big game hunters at that time. One of the items donated was this famous 15.5 feet crocodile shot by G.P. Owen. It was one of the largest crocodiles ever shot in Singapore. Owen was the Indiana Jones of Singapore. He was the first fire chief and a big-time adventurer,” Dr Tan related.

Over time, the museum within the library soon ran out of space. Around the same time, several significant events like the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, the setting up of the Natural History Museum in London as well as the discovery of more dinosaurs gave a push for a real museum to be established here. So, in 1874, the government took over the Singapore Library and Museum and renamed it the Raffles Library and Museum. By this time, it had moved out of the Raffles Institution and was housed in the Town Hall (which now houses the Victoria Theatre).

 

WILDLIFE IN A WARZONE

The Raffles Museum was well known for its zoological and ethnographic collections of Southeast Asia especially Malaya and British Borneo before World War II. It played an important role in research that reflected colonial desires and pursuit. During the Japanese Occupation, the Raffles Museum was left intact by the Japanese army due to the reputation of its Raffles collection, research integrity and the foresight of some senior Japanese scientists. Through EJH Corner, the place was protected from looters, a renowned botanist and Assistant Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (1929 – 1945).

The museum eventually split from the library, which became the National Library in 1960. After Singapore’s independence in 1965, the Raffles Museum was renamed the National Museum and a decision was made to shift its focus to the arts and nation building. While the Botanic Gardens inherited the botanical collection, the fate of the zoological collection was, at that moment, in a limbo. No one wanted the collection. It was not deemed as culturally valuable.

 

THE MUSEUM IN THE WILDERNESS

Javanese Turmeric (Curcuma Xanthorrhiza), also known as kunyit in Indonesia and temu lawak in Malaysia, has a wide range of culinary uses, and is a key component of curry powder. Turmeric has been used as a substitute for saffron and was even known as Indian Saffron. © British Library Board/NHD48.08
Javanese Turmeric (Curcuma Xanthorrhiza), also known as kunyit in Indonesia and temu lawak in Malaysia, has a wide range of culinary uses, and is a key component of curry powder. Turmeric has been used as a substitute for saffron and was even known as Indian Saffron. © British Library Board/NHD48.08

However, in 1971 a note was sent to the Natural History Museum in London explaining that plans to convert the National Museum of Singapore into a “cultural museum” would entail removing “the natural history section with no clear idea what is to become of it”. It sent the London Museum speculating on what was to become of the specimens and how they might be able to obtain the entire collection, or at least some of it.

But as fate might have it, the zoological collections remained in Singapore and eventually found its new home in the biology department of NUS.

“From 1970 to 1998, we were holding on to the zoological collection for purely research purposes. In 1998, NUS realised that this collection has a lot of value, and we should share some of them with the public,” recounted Professor Peter Ng, former director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

Part of its value lies in the fact that Raffles himself named several of the species. “The best example is the Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel. It’s a massive squirrel but it’s extinct now. Raffles found the squirrels (in 1822) jumping around in all the orchards. It was apparently very common during that time. I remember the squirrel because I am one of the very few people who have actually seen it alive! It was in Bukit Timah back in the 70s when I was a RI boy,” he recalled.

Thus, a museum was set up in 1998 in NUS to do more research, education, and outreach. “We decided to bring the name back: Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. The connection to Raffles and natural history is very deep. The things that Raffles found, we have them here although the things that Raffles caught himself are all in London. So to keep that name despite its colonial connotation is logical,” Prof Ng said.

 

A NEW LEASE OF LIFE AND A NEW HOME

The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is an evolution of Raffles’ vision for a collection of natural history  Photo credit: Liow YC
The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is an evolution of Raffles’ vision for a collection of natural history
Photo credit: Liow YC

In 2010, Prof Ng, together with his mentor, Professor Leo Tan launched a bid to turn the Raffles Museum into the first standalone natural history museum here. They raised $60 million by January 2013 to build a seven-storey building on NUS campus and bought three near-complete dinosaur fossils from the United States to add to its already impressive collection of 500,000 specimens, which dates back to the 1800s. The museum was then renamed Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

Its existence is significant. Till today, people are still adding to the national treasure. Last year, descendants of Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay, one of Singapore’s pioneers of the 1800s, donated a rare 200-year-old sword-like narwhal tusk to the museum.

Among its impressive collection, the museum also holds some 11,000 type specimens of insects, plants, mammals, birds, representing over 1,240 species and subspecies from throughout the region. Type specimens are the original specimen which the species is described from. “Some are so historically valuable that they must be guarded jealously. The single Wallace bird specimen in the museum has “crown jewel status” – even though it is just a flycatcher and a rather scruffy example at that. But it has a legacy that underwrites its historical value. It is a Wallace specimen,” explained Prof Ng.

The museum also has specimens of many other rarities. “These types and rare specimens are used by scientists for all manner of research,” he added.

Historians like Dr Tan couldn’t agree more on its value. “We have a real treasure here. It is important for Singaporeans. We own the collection. It shows how scientifically important this region was,” Dr Tan, who has written a book to chronicle the history leading up to the setting up of Southeast Asia’s largest natural history museum, said.

Besides showcasing its impressive collection, there will also be a heritage segment in the new museum.

“This new museum also has its roots back there (Raffles Institution) because this bloodline is a continuous one. It’s just that all the organisations are evolving but the essence of that mission that Raffles had in 1849 remained the same; this Lee Kong Chian Museum is the same beast that Raffles recommended be created in 1849,” explained Prof Ng, who will be heading the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

So while Sir Stamford Raffles may not have been famously recognised as a natural historian, his interest and passion for the fauna and flora of the tropics have laid the foundation for their preservation; culminating to one of the largest and most impressive collections of natural history in Southeast Asia.

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