Book Review: Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendenning

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Profile Books (1 Aug 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1846686040
ISBN-13: 978-1846686047

Appearance and Handling.
The book is good quality, with an attractive cover, showing Raffles’ portrait, over a view of Singapore surrounded by lovely drawings of plants and birds, the title is written in red Victorian letters.

One of the founders of the British Empire gets put back in the forefront in Victoria Glendenning’s new biography of Sir Stamford Raffles. For those of you who don’t know, Raffles was the founder of Singapore, but he was also a naturalist, collector, writer and governor of Java. Essentially he was one of those early Imperialists who did a bit of everything, defying simple definition. He didn’t come from anywhere special, he was the estranged son of a sea captain who was sent to work as a young man with the East India Company and from these humble beginnings he rose to do great things.
Glendenning writes about Raffles with even handed affection, she obviously feels great sympathy for him, and indeed as she says his story is shot through with tragedy, though his end is hardly as tragic as one expects it to be. Everything his gone in to very nicely, the level of detail is good allowing you to reconstruct a picture of his life, see his enemies, friends, family and even servants in living colour. The insights into the workings of the East India Company are wonderful and were some of my favourite bits in the book, and seeing how small colonial towns were run was a great addition. The book also sheds light on a overlooked part of the Napoleonic wars, that being the “Eastern theatre” where the British were not only facing the French and their agents, but the Dutch and the native people’s who supported them. It covers the little known invasion of Java and introduces many fascinating characters, connecting the dots between the Maratha Wars in India and the further British conflicts out of India against the French and Dutch. The writing style is evocative and rich, it is essentially a tale well told and takes you like any food adventure book, to places you have never seen and shows you things you have never heard of.
Sadly it is rather vague about the military operations, much like Julia Lovell in the Opium War, she has paid little attention to it, and as such the book suffers, now it’s a biography not a military history but since some incidents such as the invasion of Java (in 1811) is central to the story, it could have been a little more thorough. During the description of the invasion, for instance Glendinning mentions a fleet of 200 ships and an army of 12,000 men most of which were India, vague but not inexcusable, it is when she refers to Battleships instead of Ships of the Line, and East India Company Cruisers, which I cannot connect to any one class of ship then afloat, that I begin to start asking questions. 
Also, in this book, soldiers suffer, non more so perhaps than Colonel Rollo Gillespie, once called the bravest man in the British Army, is called a borderline psychopath by Glendenning, not knowing enough about Gillespie to comment on whether he was mentally ill, I will only say that I feel this to be a bit of a harsh and inaccurate appraisal of a talented, courageous officer who from my understanding showed no more cruelty in war than any other European did in the east. This also highlights a tendency with Glendenning to put her personal opinions forwards without necessarily telling us why. Gaps of information are also covered in that way obscure biographies do, by drawing on similar experiences of other unrelated people.

So now on to factual errors, and yes I’m afraid there are some. I have written to the publishers in the hope of alerting them to the problem, or getting them to discuss them with me, but as of yet they have not responded.
It was while describing one of Gillespie’s feats of bravery, many of which she finds far fetched, that the first factual error occurs. During the mutiny of Vellore in 1806 Glendinning explains that the sepoy’s of the garrison were stirred up by none other than Tipu Sultan of Mysore, who she says was a prisoner nearby. Unfortunately there is no doubt who she is talking about. Not to dwell too long on the subject of error, I feel it is my painful duty to inform other readers that Tipu, was not alive in 1806. The Tipu she is talking about was killed by the British during the final assault on his Capitol, Seringapatam, during the 4th Anglo Mysore War in 1799. It was Tipu’s children who were actually prisoners nearby and they are credited with stirring the pot.
Other trivial things follow, little bugbears of mine that are almost shameful to write about for fear of being hopelessly picky, and they shouldn’t put you off. Things like describing Gillespie leading the remaining officers of Vellore in a Bayonet charge, the terminology is flawed, as there was actually a small command holding out under a sergeant until help arrived. Then there is the description of British soldiers clanking around in red coats and feathered helmets with naked sabres. Unless they are Heavy Dragoons or Life Guards, who were not serving in the east, no such Soldiers with that uniform existed in the British army of the period, either way she doesn’t explain.
Had some more thorough research been done, perhaps with the help of a military historian, than these inaccuracies could have been avoided.

Essentially the author has written a good biography of Raffles, with many sideline attractions that many will enjoy. A biography that shows him as a likeable, ambitious man that can relate to many people, a man who had a hard life with many ups and downs, who made a fare share of mistakes yet whose life was unquestionably important to the generations that followed.


0 Replies to “Book Review: Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendenning”

  1. I don’t think it’s romanticising or whitewashing imperialism or the dark legacies of the British empire to say that there were some people involved in building and running the empire who were, on the whole, pretty decent. Raffles was one of them. He actually spent very little time in Singapore, but his largely sensible plans for the place did help to lay the foundations for its later prosperity and are still reflected in the layout of the modern city centre.His later career as a gentleman thief was, of course, just the icing on the cake.
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