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About the Raffles Family Collection

The Raffles Family Collection contains over 150 natural history and topographical drawings from Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as family papers – including 184 autograph letters from Raffles and correspondence with such luminaries as the abolitionist William Wilberforce, the scholar William Marsden, and the Duke and Duchess of Somerset – and an important collection of diplomatic letters in Malay.  

The Collection was acquired by the British Library in 2007 with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and other benefactors.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles 

Sir Stamford Raffles

Sir Stamford Raffles
Raffles MSS Eur D.742.14.6.8
Copyright © The British Library Board

Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) is remembered for two main achievements: the establishment of Singapore in 1819, and, in 1826, founding the Zoological Society of London (from which came London Zoo). An employee of the British East India Company, his whole career was spent in Southeast Asia, in what are now the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. He started out in Penang, and from 1811 to 1816 was Lieutenant-Governor of Java. His last posting, from 1817 to 1824, was to Bengkulu on the west coast of Sumatra.

One of Raffles’ greatest passions, throughout his eastern career, was the study of natural history. This involved the keeping of pet animals, the collecting of specimens, and the extensive commissioning of drawings from mainly Chinese artists.

Sir Stamford and Lady Raffles lost four of their five children to disease in Sumatra, and when they decided to return home, they were beset by a final tragedy. His vast collections from Sumatra and Singapore, including about 2500 natural history drawings, priceless Malay manuscripts and animals specially trained for the voyage, were loaded aboard the ship Fame forming ‘a veritable Noah’s Ark’. On the night they sailed, 2 February 1824, an accident involving a careless sailor, a brandy cask and a naked flame resulted in catastrophe. The passengers were all saved, but the collections entirely lost.

Find out more about the loss of the Fame

It was a mark of Raffles’ indomitable spirit that the day after the lifeboat limped back to Bengkulu, he started immediately to rebuild his collections. By the time he finally sailed for England 10 weeks later, he had managed to amass 100 new drawings of birds, plants and animals. Together with an earlier collection from Penang, these drawings are fully described and illustrated in a recent catalogue:

Raffles Ark Redrawn

Copyright © The British Library Board

H.J. Noltie, Raffles’ Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.  London: the British Library and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in association with Bernard Quaritch, 2009.

The Spice Trail

Many of the fruits, herbs and spices depicted in the drawings in the Raffles Family Collection are central to the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Some of the plants are multi-functional: as well as a source of food they are appreciated for their medicinal properties or their fragrance, while their leaves and fibres might be used as fuel, building materials or for handicrafts. Some traditional practices – like the use of crushed pineapple as a soap substitute at Malay wedding feasts – are finally dying out, but new ways of using plants are constantly being introduced, and many of these Asian plants are nowadays as easily found in London as in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. 

So as well as curries and rice dishes flavoured with turmeric and ginger, today it is possible to buy durian-flavoured chocolates, clove cigarettes and pandan-flavoured body lotions.

With the guidance of Zaharah Othman, a Malaysian writer based in London, Nur Hannah Wan and her brother Taufiq Wan set out on a spice trail across London, collecting memories, recipes and folk wisdom of how plants were used in the Malay world. In supermarkets and restaurants they snapped fruits, vegetables and spices, showing how foods and flavours originally from Southeast Asia have been localised across the globe, and commissioned their cousin Izham Khalid in Malaysia to take photographs of the plants growing in their native tropics. 

You can read three Malaysian recipes here. Why not try them out?

Nur Hannah and Taufiq Wan

Nur Hannah and Taufiq Wan
Photo by Zaharah Othman

Nur Hannah (24), who recently graduated in graphic design from the University of the Arts London, was particularly interested in how plants have been used for handicrafts. “This Spice Trail has put me on a journey discovering new things which I had taken for granted. It has really been very interesting”.  Taufiq (20), who is studying history at Queen Mary, University of London, was drawn to the long history of spices:  “I have been working in the kitchen at a Malaysian restaurant on a part-time basis and I thought I knew the spices well, but this project has certainly been an eye opener” .

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