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Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was the charismatic and persuasive founder of Singapore and Governor of Java. An English adventurer, disobedient employee of the East India Company, utopian imperialist, linguist, zoologist and civil servant, he carved an extraordinary (though brief) life for himself in South East Asia. The tropical, disease-ridden settings of his story are as dramatic as his own trajectory – an obscure young man with no advantages other than talent and obsessive drive, who changed history by establishing – without authority – on the wretchedly unpromising island of Singapore, a settlement which has become a world city.
After a turbulent time in the East Indies, Raffles returned to the UK and turned to his other great interests – botany and zoology. He founded London Zoo in 1825, a year before his death.
Raffles remains a controversial figure, and in the first biography for over forty years, Victoria Glendinning charts his prodigious rise within the social and historical contexts of his world. His domestic and personal life was vivid and shot through with tragedy. His own end was sad, though his fame immortal.
Victoria Glendinning is a prizewinning biographer, the author of Elizabeth Bowen, Vita, Edith Sitwell, Trollope and Leonard Woolf. She has also written three novels, The Grown-Ups, Electricity and Flight. She is a Vice-President of English PEN and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Born in Yorkshire, she now lives in Somerset.
"At last. A truly magnificent biography of the most incorrigible of empire-builders. Victoria Glendinning has produced a judicious and utterly compelling account of the man who would change the map of South East Asia"
– John Keay
"Spirited, fluent and immaculately researched [...] Glendinning's book, with its breezy prose and brisk judgments, makes a splendid tribute to a great British character – the kind of man who gives empire a good name."
– Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times
"Magical and meticulous [...] Raffles had achieved something which would change both the economic and political geography of South-east Asia and as we learn from these exotic yet careful pages he did a great deal more besides."
– Duncan Fallowell, Daily Express
"Her gift is delivering a story that moves with the alacrity of an absorbing novel."
– Lee Randall, Scotsman
"A sparkling new life of Raffles [...] compellingly related by Glendinning [...] unputdownable [...] Glendinning has rescued Raffles from decades of neglect and post-colonial guilt. Vivid, beautifully written and a terrific read, this is a wonderful biography."
– Jane Ridley, Literary Review
"Magnificent [...] By honing in on such a great life for her first non-literary biography Ms Glendinning is in danger of giving imperialism a good name."
"Glendinning's great gift for story and fine feeling for character brightens this analysis of Raffles'still ambiguous reputation"
– Iain Finlayson, Times
"marvellously readable, personally illuminating and highly entertaining"
"a compelling rollecoaster"
– Daily Mail
– Isabel Hilton, Observer
"a pleasure to read"
– Geographical Magazine
"a must-read book"
"Engaging [...] shows Glendinning's sympathetic understanding of the human drama at the heart of this story of imperial adventure."
– Anne Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph