1824 - Sir Stamford Raffles: the wreck of the Fame

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826)

Remembered for establishing the British trading settlement at Singapore in 1819, Thomas Stamford Raffles began his career as a clerk for the East India Company at East India House in 1795. Superiors, impressed by his conduct, appointed him as Assistant Secretary to the government of the Company’s new Presidency at Penang. Arriving there on 19 September 1805, Raffles spent almost twenty years in South East Asia. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge drove him to learn Malay and become a passionate scholar of all aspects of the Malay world. This expertise, in addition to the European and Asian contacts he built up in acquiring such knowledge, made Raffles an indispensable authority to be consulted by the Company and academics on any subject relating to the region. Despite ups and downs in his career, Raffles tirelessly worked for the East India Company to undermine Dutch supremacy in the various Malay States. By the time he returned to England in 1824 he had succeeded in making Britain a dominant power in the region. On 5 July 1826 Raffles died at his home, shortly after his return to England.

Loss of the Fame (1824)

At the end of his career in South East Asia, Raffles hired a ship called the Fame to take him and his family back to England from Sumatra. The vessel set sail at dawn on 2 February 1824 and began its long journey back to Britain. That very night, as Raffles and his wife prepared for bed, the ship caught fire. The fire spread fast, forcing a very quick evacuation of the ship. Amazingly everyone on board was saved, and watched from the lifeboats as the Fame exploded into flames and sank. Raffles and his family lost all of their personal possessions, in addition to Raffles’ entire body of research and a scientific collection of incomparable value.

After the passengers and crew arrived safely back at Bengkulu, Raffles immediately began the work of rebuilding his collection of scientific materials. He started re-sketching his map of Sumatra and commissioned new sets of natural history drawings. By the time Raffles and his family finally departed two months later, he had amassed over 100 new drawings, which are now held in the British Library.

The Raffles Family Collection

The Raffles Family Collection contains over 150 natural history and topographical drawings from Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as family correspondence and papers, and an important collection of diplomatic letters in Malay. It was acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and other benefactors.