This started off as a duty read, not a book I would be naturally drawn to. It was our chosen book for 12 November so I felt compelled to get on with it and now I am glad I did.
It’s worth the effort for the introduction alone. Glendinning’s incisive take on the context to Raffles’s life is very informative. Apart from a shaky one-year peace in 1803, Britain was at war with France on land and at sea from the time Raffles was twelve until he was in his mid thirties (xiii)
Clearly she is a formidable researcher and she does give us every last detail of his life. Not only do we have the entrepreneurial employee of the East India Company with his liberal views on land tenure, his facility with languages and his deep interest in natural history but the author gives us a very rounded sense of him as a son and brother and then husband (to two wives) and a parent. There are several richly drawn instances of professional rivalry especially that between Farquhar (his co-conspirator in the Singapore project) and Raffles which was full of intrigue and nepotism.
So many parallels with our own era. The author compares The East India Company’s arcane practices and cronyism with dysfunctional global organisations today (xii). And Raffles is brought low by a financial crash in 1825 in which “The Bank of England was chiefly to blame….!” (P. 287)
So what’s not to like ? – I could have done with an abridged version of Raffles’s early time in the East Indies. Thank goodness for the excellent maps as you’ll certainly know your Java from your Sumatra when you’ve finished. But in fairness to the author I suspect she wants to emphasise the way he operated (largely autonomously it would seem) and that he was a very experienced and senior company employee by the time the Singapore opportunity came up, so she can be forgiven on insisting in fleshing out his back story.
Verdict : A hefty tome on a swashbuckling, adventurous life