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William Farquhar’s Pragmatism: Another Perspective on Raffles Vision for Singapore

By Kevin Khoo, Assistant Archivist

Portrait of William Farquhar, c.1820s.
(Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore)

Between 1822 and 1823, a bitter quarrel broke out between Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar, the first Resident of Singapore, which led to Farquhar’s dismissal in May 1823. The two men had known each other since 1807, when Raffles was a young Assistant Secretary to the British Governor of Penang and Farquhar a Lieutenant Colonel with the Army. But by 1823 they were no longer on speaking terms.

The breach began in 1822 after Raffles’ return to Singapore from Bencoolen, three years after he entrusted Farquhar with the infant colony of Singapore, which he founded in 1819. Raffles was shocked to find the colony at deep variance to his original plans.1 Instead of closely following his instructions, Farquhar had allowed the erection of houses and godowns on the Padang and on the nearby banks of the Singapore River, and also permitted a flourishing trade in slaves and vices. Raffles was outraged.2

{Jackson’s 1828 Map of Singapore. This map outlines Raffles’ vision of the Singapore town – orderly, elegant, rational. Farquhar’s deviation from this plan and its ideals led to breach with Raffles, practical necessity notwithstanding.
Source: National Archives of Singapore}

Farquhar explained that his actions were born of necessity – the tremendous difficulties facing the new colony, he said, gave him no choice but to improvise on the orders Raffles had laid down, particularly with regard to land allocation. In a letter to Raffles’ secretary, William Hull, dated February 1823, Farquhar wrote:

"I must in justice to myself beg the indulgence of the Lieutenant Governor [Raffles] whilst I endeavor to remove the heavy responsibility which he has been pleased to lay at my door consequent of certain deviations I was induced to make from the instructions forwarded by him for my government…It will, I trust, be admitted that the rise and progress of the Establishment of Singapore and its commencement until the present day...exceeds perhaps anything of similar kind on record, and that during the above time the new settlers had to encounter such formidable difficulties that had not it been for the extraordinary energy and enterprise manifest by them individually, the settlement never would have attained to its present unrivalled state…In place of reserving for the eventual and exclusive purpose of government the whole of the available and suitable ground… [I] permitted individuals at their own personal risk and responsibility to erect such houses as they might deem best calculated for the immediate protection of their valuable property, under a full and specific understanding that the ground they might occupy is claimable by Government whenever circumstances might render it expedient to do so…If blame is therefore to be thrown on the Chief Local Authority [Farquhar] for having under existing circumstances afforded such facilities to the various classes of inhabitants as the place at the time was best calculated to afford…I must candidly confess that the weight of responsibility which may have fallen on me for such a deviation from the Lieutenant Governor's instructions said above, is not of a nature to induce me to regret in the highest degree that I have incurred it." 3

Farquhar regarded himself justified in adapting Raffles’ orders to pressing circumstances, as he understood his principle duty as resting in ensuring the survival of the newly established trading port. If this meant accommodating the needs of the native merchant community to keep their business, and closing an eye to the vice trade so as to generate the necessary revenue needed to pay for the colony’s administration and the improvement of its infrastructure, then these were risks he was willing to take. Farquhar further observed that,

“the Colony still…is but in an Infant State and in case a general damp and dissatisfaction should unhappily take place in the minds of the settlers, the evil consequences would in my opinion be most severely felt, and therefore I conceive that too much caution and circumspection cannot be used particularly at this critical period when our rivals the Dutch have, with a view of striking…at the very root of our Commerce in this quarter, lately removed nearly the whole of their former Port Duties and other restrictions on trade, and are using every possible endeavor to entice every native trader to their own Ports where they will be received with open arms.” 4

Raffles, however, did not see things the same way. He accused Farquhar of insubordination, incompetence and corruption, and had him replaced by John Crawfurd in 1823. Raffles’ paramount concern was to secure his vision of Singapore, and Farquhar was an impediment to it that had to be sidelined. This much is suggested by Raffles in a remark he made in a 1823 letter he wrote to the botanist Nathaniel Wallich, his confidant:

“Heaven knows I have had but one object in view, the Interest of Singapore, and if a Brother had been opposed to them I must have acted as I did towards Farquhar…..I upheld him as long as I could and many were the sacrifices I made to prevent a rupture - but when it did take place I found it necessary to prosecute my Cause with vigor and effect." 5

Regardless of what Raffles thought of him, Farquhar won the affection and respect of the people of Singapore in the four years he administered the colony as Resident (1819-1823). Although he had been stripped of his rank, Farquhar was given a grand sendoff the day he left Singapore. He was accompanied to the beach by most of the settlement’s European inhabitants and by Asian people of every race and class. Soldiers formed a guard-of-honor from his house to the landing place, and when Farquhar embarked on his transport ship, he was given a sad farewell salute. Many local boats then escorted him to his main ship, the "Alexander", and as it sailed away, some Siamese vessels fired their guns in his honour. It was a rare moment in recorded Singapore history of a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment for an individual. 6

Do you know?

Farquhar Street which was once located in the Kampong Glam area between Beach Road and North Bridge Road was named after William Farquhar. The road was expunged in 1994 due to street realignment and site development work.


1Raffles Original Instructions to William Farquhar on the Plan of Singapore Town, 25 June 1819, Straits Settlements Records, L10, Microfilm No: NL 57

2Regulation I of 1823 Regulation for the Registry of Land in Singapore L17, Microfilm No: NL 58, Regulation V of 1823 Preventing Slave Trade in Singapore, Straits Settlements Records, L17, Microfilm No: NL 58, and Regulation IV of 1823 Prohibiting Gaming Houses and Cockpits, Straits Settlements Records, L17, Microfilm No: NL 58

3Farquhar to Hull, Singapore 13 November 1822, Straits Settlements Records, L9, Microfilm No: NL 57

4Farquhar to Hull, Singapore 13 November 1822, Straits Settlements Records, L9, Microfilm No: NL 57

5Raffles to Wallich, Bencoolen, 1 November 1823, in "Letters from Raffles to Nathaniel Wallich" ed. John Bastin, JMBRAS, Vol.54, Part 2, 1981, Microfilm: NA 3105

6Home Public, Cons 12 Feb 1824 No. 39, National Archives of India (see NAS’s PRISM database), and CM Turnbull, A History of Singapore 1819 – 1988, Oxford University Press, 1989, p.19