Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning - review

by Listener Archive / 17 January, 2013
Victoria Glendinning’s biography is a huge, gripping story, deftly told.
Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria GlendinningTom (Sir Stamford) Raffles’s empiresized achievements are still reasonably well known: an able and reform-minded administrator of Malacca, he seized Java from the Dutch during the Napoleonic wars, abolished the slave trade in his region, founded the city of Singapore, wrote a history of Java and established London Zoo.

That’s the public figure. The giddying roller coaster of his personal fortunes, however, mimic the sensational reverses of Victorian high melodrama, starring Raffles as hero, with hissable villains played by the monolithic megacorporation to which he devoted his life, the East India Company, and the British class system that confronted him with more snakes than ladders.

It’s a huge, gripping story, deftly told. Victoria Glendinning is particularly strong on Raffles’s relationships, rescuing his two doughty wives from the obscurity of previous histories. His first, Olivia, a widow 10 years his senior, formed a true close partnership with him, but was felled by hepatitis. His second, Sophia, bore him five children, with four dying from tropical afflictions. Sophia endured, becoming his widow and first biographer.

Glendinning gives an electrifying account of Sophia and Raffles’s major expedition across the mountain jungles of Sumatra, in the course of which they were shown the world’s largest flower, now known as Rafflesia. Sophia contended with leeches, tigers, horse trekking, rafting, sodden clothes and a subsistence diet of rice and claret – all the while pregnant.

Misfortune dogged Raffles’s later years. Losing everything he owned when the ship taking his household back to England burnt and sank, he was stricken when, far from offering him a pension, or reimbursement for his lost possessions, the East India Company demanded £22,000 from him for alleged overspending in the field. Plus interest. It ruined him.

A brain haemorrhage carried Raffles off in London two years later, aged only 45. His vicar, whose family fortune derived from the slave trade, refused to bury him in his church. An undeserved end for a tireless and principled battler.

Glendinning keeps up a brisk pace throughout. Her nuggety asides – describing some of Raffles’s colleagues as “Asperger’s” or “borderline psychotic” – are refreshing rather than anachronistic. The book’s website holds updated and additional biographical information, and the opportunity to talk to the author. I’m undecided whether this is a boon or annoyingly untidy.

RAFFLES AND THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY, by Victoria Glendinning (Profile, $55)

Dale Williams is a writer and editor.
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