Raffles, a naturalist in a colonial time

“It is impossible to convey the idea of the pleasure of sailing through this beautiful and unparalleled archipelago, in which every attraction of nature is combined”, Lady Sophia Raffles (during her field trip with Raffles in Bengkulu forest).

To most Indonesians, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was only a lieutenant general of Java during a short period of British colonization in Indonesia (1811-1814), and later was governor general of Bengkulu (1818-1824). Having been under ages of colonization under the Dutch, his appearance had at least made some significant changes to the welfare of the Indonesian people. He abolished the slave trade and changed the forced-agricultural system of the Dutch which forced farmers to grow particular plants (coffee, tobacco) without being paid into land-tenure system.  The other side of Raffles was less known but more exciting….

Apart of his governmental job in Java, Raffles was also a keen naturalist. He enjoyed travel to different part of the country just to find a giant-parasitic flower in Sumatra in which later, named after his name as Rafflesia arnoldi. During this excursion in Bengkulu, Raffles and his companions (his wife, Lady Raffles, and Dr. Joseph Arnold) stayed in the forest under the watch of elephant herd at some distance. In “the Naturalist Library” by Jardine et al (1834), it said that Raffles described that a herd of elephants (Gaja bermakpong) was less ferocious than a single elephant (Gaja salunggal), which really fit to what I know from working in Sumatran rainforest. His contribution to natural history can be recalled from his plant and animal collections and later, several wildlife species particularly Sumatran mammals and birds were named by him and published in the Transactions of Linnaean Society. Those species were the Large treeshrew (Tupaia tana), Silvered leaf-monkey (Presbytis melalophos), Siamang (Hylobates syndactylus), Great-billed heron (Ardea sumatrana), the Giant pitta (Pitta caerulea), and the Milky stork (Mycteria cinerea). This interest on nature had him established the Royal Zoological Society of London.

Raffles was an acute observant and gifted with descriptive writing ability. Captured the Malay language quickly and preferred to stay in Buitenzorg (now Bogor Botanical Garden), Raffles made use of his time in Java to learn the culture and the people, and later wrote ‘the History of Java’, a very concise description of Java natural history and culture. Reading this book was like reading a book that just has been written recently and was far from my imagination of reading a boring history text book. Raffles was a statesman and a naturalist, a combination that is hardly found nowadays………..


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