Go east, young man

Ethnography byJohn Henshall

Sir Stamford Raffles must rank as one of the least likely colonialists this country has sent abroad. He hauled himself out of appalling poverty to spend only two years at school, yet he became known as the man who opened South-east Asia to the wider west by helping London supplant a balefully self-interested Dutch predominance of the region. Raffles (1781-1826) founded what became the great port city of Singapore in direct defiance of his employers, the old East India Company, that prototype multinational. The suits on the desk at home simply couldn't see the point of developing Singapore, and for them Raffles was not so much a loose cannon as a constantly rumbling gun.

Raffles was the very opposite of the hard-faced, rapacious imperialist of popular caricature. Once in South-east Asia, he swiftly developed great admiration and affection for the peoples of the region. His enthusiasm for their richly diverse arts, crafts, music, drama and ritual shines through a major exhibition, "The Golden Sword: Stamford Raffles and the East", at the British Museum. Indeed, it is easy to conclude that Raffles' underprivileged childhood and passionate belief in education, humanism and public service strongly influenced his relations with people whom, essentially, he had been sent to exploit and repress.

A little luck never goes amiss, and Raffles' youthful lobbying for a government post paid off. He was noticed, wrenched from obscurity and despatched to Penang, now a top holiday location of modern Malaysia, to start his colonial career. He became in due course lieutenant governor of Java, whose first comprehensive history he published in 1817. Raffles was a natural networker. In his late teens in London he had struck up what were to be life-long correspondences with leading scholars and social reformers of the age. The prince regent, later George IV, effectively became his patron, and Lord Minto, governor general of India in the first few years of the 19th century, became another.

Without this preferment, Raffles might well have been stopped fairly smartly from ripping up the rule book wherever he ventured across the sprawling archipelagos he came to regard as his personal patch. As the team at the British Museum researched the exhibition, Raffles' maverick tendencies became increasingly evident: they toyed with calling the show "Disobeying Orders in South-east Asia".

In the opinion of Nigel Barley, the leading ethnographer who curated this sumptuous showcase, one of Raffles' problems was that he was interested in far too many things at once. He loved people, natural history and the arts in all their forms - almost anything, in fact, but the commerce and colonialism that London and Delhi intended should be his prime concern. He was mesmerised by the regions of louche, languorous South-east Asia that became Malaysia and Indonesia, and shipped home vast quantities of masks, shadow puppets, weapons, instruments of torture, jewellery, ceramics and botanical and zoological specimens.

Visitors to the exhibition may inspect both murderous-looking kris, long knives which were symbols of manhood in the region, and finely woven batik textiles which Raffles called "the cloth of kings", in joyously clashing colours - reds and blacks and greens. The examples of batik shown were among the first to reach the west; today their stark patterns make them positive must-haves for those hip interior stylists who crave true minimalist chic. There is a huge wall display of traditional topeng masks: ceremonial, totemic and theatrical. As we gaze at them, it seems that half South-east Asia stares back. The masks are laughing and leering, tearful and terrifying. Then there are the shadow puppets - some unique and three-dimensional - meticulously fashioned in painted buffalo hide. Next to them a film loop plays showing a puppeteer using them to make magic in modern Malaysia as his forebears have done for centuries.

Raffles was also enraptured by the indigenous music of his pet island fastnesses. He acquired a complete miniature gamelan orchestra, whose carefully carved players now stand guard for ever over the drums, cymbals and xylophonic rods which created music Raffles believed made English percussion "sound like a country fair". His own mementos include a gold mourning bracelet which belonged to his wife, Lady Sophia, his exquisite writing box in wood, briar and velvet, and the golden sword from which the show takes its name, a gift from Raffles' friend, the Sultan of Aceh. Documents reveal Raffles as a pragmatist. When he married his wife he noted coolly that she had "neither fairness nor beauty" but was "devotedly attached" to him.

Barley has discovered that, for all his love of South-east Asia, Raffles had some fairly eccentric ideas about the natures of the peoples among whom he moved. He disempowered Java's traditional feudal rulers on the grounds that their people were "far too western" to deserve to put up with such atavistic dictatorship. He stamped out cannibalism among the Batak people, albeit after some convoluted horse-trading. He was feted to the point of deification by the people of Bengkulu, now part of Sumatra, because of his humanitarian rule. This was probably just as well; when he arrived they had recently slaughtered their own hereditary chieftains. Raffles even used burgeoning Singapore as a staging post to establish tentative western links with Japan. He had an elephant shipped there from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The shogun was delighted but, unaccountably, it proved impossible to get the animal off the ship. It was fed, viewed, then politely sent back.

If the number-crunchers of the East India Company found Raffles somewhat hot to handle, more pettiness awaited him in death. He died aged just 44 and was buried in Hendon in north London, but the vicar denied him a commemorative plaque on his tomb in the parish church. The cleric had a profitable interest in a West Indian plantation, whereas all his life Raffles, the incorrigible subversive, had vehemently opposed slavery.

"The Golden Sword: Stamford Raffles and the East" runs at the British Museum, London WC1 (0171-636 1555) until 18 April. A book, "Stamford Raffles and the East" by Nigel Barley (£12.99), is also available

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers