Sir Stamford Raffles.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

Raffles intro text

Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) was a British East India Company Official who collected material from Java (in present-day Indonesia) and other parts of Asia while working in the region between 1805–1824.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

There are about 2,100 objects collected by Raffles currently housed in the British Museum. The objects arrived in the British Museum in two tranches. Most of the theatrical materials and the metal and stone sculptures arrived in 1859 after the death of Lady Raffles in 1858. They were donated by Rev William Charles Raffles Flint, who was Raffles' nephew and the executor of Lady Raffles' estate.

The second group, comprising the drawings, models, textiles, and a few more theatrical items, was donated in 1939 by Mrs J H Drake, who was Raffles' great-grandniece.

The collection

Raffles' collections are dominated by two main groups: drawings of 6th–15th century Hindu-Buddhist sites and sculptures, small metal sculptures from the same time period, and Chinese coins found on Java, in contrast to Javanese theatrical materials from the 1700s and early 1800s that include three types of puppets, masks and musical instruments.

These objects were collected in large sets, in order to classify them systematically in keeping with natural history practices of the time. 

Masks and puppets were also labelled with the names and titles of the characters. However, Raffles' collections were not systematic compilations by Javanese standards, indicating his incomplete understanding of local culture. 

Java Discoveries

The objects instead show that Raffles chose items that were exotic, but which could be considered indicative of a high level of civilisation according to European standards. The criteria for civilisation included writing, national history, music, monumental architecture, commercial enterprise and a progressive form of government. Raffles associated the stone ruins and sculptures with a glorious national history, and believed that the theatre was used to present historical dramas to the courts and the general populace.

Beautifully carved and painted and embellished with gold leaf, the masks, puppets, and musical instruments were in Raffles' mind an amalgamation of high status and European standards of civilisation. He amassed these disparate objects to support his argument that the Javanese were a relatively 'advanced' civilisation by European standards and therefore should have been colonised by the British.

Java discoveries 2

There has been a popular perception that Raffles' theatrical collections were taken from the central Javanese court of Yogyakarta which was attacked by the British on Raffles' orders in 1812. Stylistic analyses show that most of the puppets and musical instruments were produced elsewhere, particularly the north coast of Java where Raffles was particularly friendly with the courts.

Further reading

  • Nigel Barley, The Golden Sword: Stamford Raffles and the East (London: British Museum, 1999)
  • Stephen Murphy, Naomi Wang and Alexandra Green, Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman (Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2019)