About Me

My photo

I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

On This Day 6 July 1781: Stamford Raffles Born

I could almost as well have posted this yesterday, as Raffles died on 5 July 1826, a day short of his 45th birthday.

You may well be wondering however why I would be including a posting on a British administrator and empire-builder in south-east Asia and, most famously, founder of Singapore, in a natural history blog. The fact is that, while most of the readily available on-line biographies ignore it or simply mention it in passing, he was a naturalist to his core and corresponded with and was admired by luminaries such as Sir Joseph Banks and the great botanist Robert Brown. 
Bronze statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, by Thomas Woolner, formerly overlooking Singapore Harbour.
(It has since been replaced by a copy.)
Courtesy of George Landow.
It is hard to get a firm handle on the true story of Raffles - Nadia Wright for instance makes a strong case for his story and achievements having grown in stature after his death, though her article does seem to try a trifle hard to downgrade every aspect of his life. The real point seems to be however that for the most part the hagiographies were written well after his death, and obviously not by him, apparently to satisfy a Victorian desire for heroes of the Empire.

Very briefly, because it's not my primary interest today, he was sent in 1805 by the British East India Company as assistant secretary to the governor of Penang. He had already begun learning Malay, as was expected, and this and his apparent abilities led to him being appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java after the 1811 British invasion expelled the French who had temporarily supplanted the Dutch colonial rulers during the Napoleonic Wars. His use of both force and skilful manipulation of local politics to pacify Java typified his subsequent career. He returned to England to face down accusations of financial mismanagement, and there published The History of Java; overall his return was a good move, resulting in a knighthood and the governorship of Bencoolen, a colony (albeit a somewhat obscure one) on the west coast of Sumatra. Vigorous social and economic reforms followed, and he had some influence on the eventual 1824 Dutch-English treaty which divided up the region. His own and others' researches led him to the Dutch-free island we now know as Singapore and organised a series of treaties with local authorities, giving effective control to the East India Company. He established schools and churches, and a European town. In fact he spent more time in Sumatra than Singapore, but his influence was considerable. In 1824 he returned to England, already suffering from the brain tumour that was to kill him just two years later. Meantime however he co-founded, with chemist Sir Humphry Davy (of miner's safety lamp fame), London Zoo at Regent's Park, and was the first president of the London Zoological Society.

OK, that's the sketch, and if you're interested in the details there's plenty out there (though the Wikipedia article is often confusing and generally poorly written). What about Raffles the naturalist? It was his passion, and he wasn't just a dilettante - he scientifically described species, as well as compiling vast collections to send to Britain. 
Long-tailed (Crab-eating) Macaque baby Macaca fascicularis, Sabah.
Raffles named this species Simia fascicularis in 1821; it was later moved to the genus Macaca
but retains his species name.
Eastern Crimson Sunbird, Sepilok, Sabah, named Certhia (now Aethopyga)
siparaja by Raffles in 1822.
'Siparaja' apparently means an army general in Malay, applied to a related species.
[Much of what follows is based on this article, but you may have to log in to jstor to access it. It's an article by John Bastin in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1990)
Vol. 63, No. 2 (259) pp. 1-25.]

When his natural history interests are mentioned, it is often asserted that they were sparked by his relationship with the US naturalist Thomas Horsfield, who he met while he was in Java. More of Horsfield anon, but we know that Raffles was systematically employing natural history specimen collectors in Penang prior to that. He had a lifelong love of gardening and (perhaps less admirably from a modern perspective) kept an extensive menagerie and aviary in Sumatra, though many of these animals were gifts from local rulers with whom he was negotiating. In a letter in 1820 he proclaimed that natural history was (apart from religion, he felt compelled to record) "perhaps the most rational and innocent enjoyment that Mind can possess on Earth". After the founding of Singapore, when he was somewhat sidelined back in Sumatra, he proclaimed in another letter that, when not engaged in administration, his time was "principally devoted to natural history".

Thomas Horsfield was a medical doctor who came to Java while Raffles was Lieutenant-Governor there, primarily to indulge his passion for natural history, especially botany.  There is no doubt that while Horsfield didn't trigger Raffles' interests, he certainly influenced the younger man. In return Raffles gave Horsfield all the official support he needed, and Horsfield obtained for him a significant collection of plants, insects, animals and birds for the British East India Company Museum in London. This led to Sir Joseph Banks himself requesting Horsfield's assistance in obtaining botanical specimens; it was a mutually most beneficial relationship. 

Immature Horsfield's Bushlark Mirafra javanica, near Canberra.
John Gould named the species in Australia in 1848 to honour Horsfield, who had named the genus in Java,
that species being (unsurprisingly) M. javanica. The Australian birds bore the name horsfieldii
until the 20th century, when they were subsumed to a subspecies of Horsfield's Javan bird.
There is no doubt that during Raffles' time back in England in 1816-17 the Horsfield collections received by Banks and described by Robert Brown were of great benefit to Raffles' reputation too in the scientific world, though Banks praised lavishly Raffles in his own right for his knowledge.

Back in Sumatra he was joined briefly by Horsfield, who was on his way to England to work for the British East India Company Museum, but Raffles' natural history partner now was Dr Joseph Arnold, who Raffles had engaged as his personal doctor, but who was also an enthusiastic botanist. (Arnold had sailed twice to Australia as ship's surgeon, the second time as the first surgeon-superintendent of a convict ship.) Tragically he died of an unspecified fever after only four months with Raffles, but before doing so was instrumental in Raffles' greatest fame to botanical fame - the discovery (in company with Raffles and his wife) of the extraordinary genus of plants which came to be named after him.
Rafflesia keithii flower, Poring, Sabah.
There are 28 species in the genus, the only member of its family. All live in south-east Asia, Indonesia
and the Philippines. They are totally parasitic, living entirely within the stem of vines of the genus Tetrastiga,
in the grape family. Uniquely in botany, at least one species has no trace of chloroplasts, the plant cell organelles which contain chlorophyll and perform photosynthesis, thus challenging our very concept of what a plant is!
The plant comprises solely fungus-like threads within the vine, with no stems, leaves or roots.
Flowers appear sporadically, but are remarkable - this species has flowers nearly a metre across and weighing up to
10kg. The blotched reddish colour and putrid scent attract blowflies, which act as pollinators.

Raffliesia keithii bud emerging from the soil, from an underground vine stem. This species is endemic to Sabah.
Arnold didn't live to describe his discovery; that honour fell to Robert Brown, who handled it very senstitively. He called the genus Rafflesia, on the basis, which was probably correct, that it is what Arnold would have done, and gave the species the name arnoldi. Unfortunately for Arnold's memory popular history tends to give credit for its discovery to Raffles alone, though he made no such claims. The Dowager Empress of Russia was so excited to read Brown's account that she sent him a diamond and topaz ring to express her enthusiasm! Decades later, shortly before his own death, Brown sent the ring to Lady Raffles, now widowed.

In time Raffles replaced Arnold with a young Scottish surgeon, Dr William Jack, who proved a very capable botanist indeed and contributed hugely to our knowledge of the plants of the area. His publications were praised at the highest levels in Britain. Tragically he died of tuberculosis after four years with Raffles, aged just 27, and to add to the tragedy two years later most of his specimens and paperwork were destroyed by fire. 
Raffles' Pitcherplant Nepenthes rafflesiana, Sabah.
This was named for Raffles by William Jack, who collected the specimen in Singapore, though
it is also found in Sumatra, Borneo and some smaller islands.
Raffles also engaged two French zoologists, Pierre Diard and Alfred Duvaucel, but after a promising start things ended badly when the British regional government in Calcutta refused to honour Raffles' financial promises to them. It does not seem to reflect well on Raffles though that after an intense argument he expelled them, but seized their substantial zoological collections. One might wonder if their nationality was a factor, though his developing chronic headaches wouldn't have helped. His reputation certainly benefited from being able to send their collections to London, accompanied by a 'Descriptive Catalogue' under his name. It seems that he felt uncomfortable about the process however, as he devoted quite some space in the catalogue to justifying his seizure of the Frenchmens' specimens.
Raffles's Malhoa Rhinortha chlorophaea, Sepilok, Sabah.
Female above, male below.
This lovely cuckoo pair (which would not sit still for a photo!) was named (as Cuculus chlorophaeus)
by Raffles in Sumatra; in addition to there and Borneo it is found in peninsular Malaysia.
 

Things continued to go badly for him. Three of his children died, his health was suffering and he seems to have felt keenly the loss of Jack. A huge collection of his specimens from Singapore and Sumatra, up to 3,000 natural history drawings commissioned by him from Chinese artists, and many live animals, were destroyed in a shipboard fire. Stoically he replaced what he could in the 10 weeks he had before his own departure. The same resolution enabled him to spend months back in England, despite deteriorating health and increasingly ferocious headaches, unpacking and sorting 174 large cases of materials that he'd sent back over the years.

Shortly before his death he became inaugural president of the Zoological Society of London, with Thomas Horsfield as Assistant Secretary. Land was obtained at Regent's Park, and plans were well developed, but Raffles didn't live to see it open.

That's sad, but so is the fact that his considerable achievements in contributing to early understandings of south-east Asian natural history are mostly entirely overlooked now, as he is remembered simply, and simplistically, as the 'founder of Singapore'. I hope that in a small way I can contribute to rectifying that wrong.
Red-crowned Barbet Psilopogon rafflesii, Bako NP, Sarawak.
This lovely fruit-eater was named for Raffles by the French zoologist René Lesson 13 years after Raffles' death.
The Asian barbets are now placed in a separate family from both the African and South American ones.

 BACK ON THURSDAY

No comments: