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Botany in Raffles Vision for Singapore

By Kevin Khoo, Assistant Archivist


(Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, in front of the Victoria Memorial Hall, c.1960s.
Source: K F Wong Collection, National Archives of Singapore)

Raffles’ interest in botany and spice cultivation was connected to his vision to develop Singapore into a centre for both commerce and culture. In 1822 Raffles established an experimental Botanical Garden with the noted botanist Nathaniel Wallich at Fort Canning to explore the cultivation of cash crops on Singapore soil for commercial profit. But Wallich also saw this as an opportunity to advance scientific knowledge. In a letter to Raffles, he wrote:

"I return with pleasure from this painful digression to the magnificent and novel productions which adorn this delightful Island…..In this view alone, the proposed established [the botanical garden] would deservedly claim every attention which could be bestowed on it by a liberal government independent of the numerous other advantages which it could possess….. It will be presently seen, however, that there are considerations of an agricultural and commercial nature of such importance to this most flourishing settlement as to render an experimental garden an object of no common interest to its prosperity "1



(Portrait of Professor Nathaniel Wallich,
Source: Grosvenor Prints – Restricted Reproduction)

Raffles praised Wallich’s botanical research and his passionate commitment to the ‘cause of science’.2 He promised to give the Botanical Gardens his full support, and even made a personal donation to help get the project off the ground:

“Situated as Singapore is, in the very heart of the Malayan Archipelago….it is hardly possible to conceive a position more admirably calculated for such an establishment as your active zeal in the Cause of Science has prompted you to suggest – The advantages are obvious and I rejoice that I am enabled to avail myself of your superior genius and experience…..The Plan [for the gardens] must necessarily be limited by the means afforded for the support of such an Establishment in the present circumstances….but I cheerfully contribute the Sum of One Thousand Dollars as a donation….I shall have great satisfaction in conveying to [the Governor General in Council of India] the very high opinion which I entertain of your Botanic researches in the Eastern Archipelago and of the advantageous results which may be contemplated by the formulation of so rational and useful an Establishment under such favorable auspices” 3

It is a lesser known fact that Raffles was himself a noted botanist. Prior to his arrival at Singapore Raffles had built a reputation for himself in botanical circles through his work on Javanese plants and his researches into the natural history of Sumatra. This work won Raffles the admiration of numerous botanical experts, including the great naturalist Dr. Joseph Banks, President of the British Royal Society. Banks described Raffles’ work in Java as “praise-worthy in the extreme” and invaluable:

“The collections are interesting in the extreme, and will when published, make very valuable additions to the science of botany. Your industry, Sir, in collecting them is praise-worthy in the extreme, and the talent you have shewn in arranging them encourages a well-founded hope of much advantage to science being derived from your arrangement and observations on them." 4

Raffles' enthusiasm for botany was evident in another letter he wrote to Wallich where he described Wallich and himself as “Lovers of that Beautiful Science” of botany. It was thus Raffles great love for science, botany and learning, and his broader conviction in the natural science’s contributions to cultural and intellectual advancement as much – and possibly more – than commercial factors alone that led him to promote the study and development of botany and spice cultivation in Singapore, as well as the construction of a Botanical Garden here.

 

1Letter from Nathaniel Wallich to Raffles, 2nd November 1822, (SSR, L9, NL57)

2Letter from Raffles to Wallich, Singapore, 15th November 1822, (SSR, L9, NL57)

3Letter from Raffles to Wallich, Singapore, 15th November 1822, (SSR, L9, NL57)

4See Lady Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991, p.449 – A rare book available at the National Archives

5Raffles to Wallich, Singapore, 17th June 1819, National Archives of India, Home Public, Cons 26 Jun 1823 No. 16