{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/international-collections.php' }

Founding Singapore: The Story of William Farquhar

(The following is a post by Hong Ta-Moore, Reference Librarian, Southeast Asia Collection, Asian Division)

Those knowledgeable of Singaporean affairs are aware that August is a significant month for the history of this island nation-state. On August 31, 1963 and August 9, 1965, Singapore achieved independence from Britain and the Federation of Malaysia respectively. We may use this opportune time to highlight two figures from the country’s incipient years, one of whom has been forgotten.


Modern map of Singapore. Washington, DC: CIA, 2005.

Widely recognized as the founder of the port city of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ (1781-1826) path to Singapore wasn’t effortless as one might imagine; and the recounting of his contribution would not be accurate without mentioning the other founder – William Farquhar (1774-1839), a native born Scotsman. The latter played an important role in Raffles’ successful career. Farquhar enabled Raffles’ success by making necessary changes to Raffles’ plans to meet the urgent needs of building the new city.

In the early nineteenth century, the trading prowess of the Dutch began to wane as France augmented its commercial presence in Southeast Asia. By capitalizing on the decline of the Dutch, Raffles advocated that Britain expand its economic control in that region. Through his incisive economic and political wherewithal, Raffles ascended the ranks of the East India Company and ultimately served as an effective administrator in Penang, the Malay states and Calcutta. During Governor-General of India Lord Minto’s (Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 1st Earl of Minto) administration, he recommended several strategic and military actions, including the controversial invasion of Java, a former Dutch colony later under French rule. Though astute in political and commercial matters, the uppermost echelon of officials governing the East India Company were not always receptive to his ideas. Tensions emerged and ultimately led to Raffles’ decision to return to London in 1816. The following year, he resumed his service as lieutenant governor in Bencoolen (Bengkulu on the west coast of Sumatra).

Shortly after his installation as lieutenant governor, Raffles recommended to the Governor-General of India, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, first marquess of Hastings, the creation of a new trading station in the south as a preventative measure to block the return of the Dutch. Farquhar was tasked to assist him on this expedition. In 1819 Raffles and Farquhar arrived in Temasek or Singapura (“lion city”). Raffles’ engagements on the tiny island delineated a new chapter in its history and he was later revered for transforming Singapore from a minor outpost into a major trading center in Southeast Asia.

Thus ends a brief narrative of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffle’s activities and contributions to the development of Singapore. As we shall see, Farquhar did not enjoy the same level of recognition and his descent into notoriety was catalyzed by Raffles himself.

This is the agreement signed on January 30th, 1819 by His Highness the Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah granting the British the right to establish a trading port in Singapore. “One Hundred Years of Singapore, Being Some Account of the Capital of the Straits Settlements from Its Foundation by Sir Stamford Raffles on the 6th February 1819 to the 6th February 1919. Makepeace, Water. London, J. Murray, 1921.

This is the agreement signed on January 30th, 1819 by His Highness the Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah granting the British the right to establish a trading port in Singapore. “One Hundred Years of Singapore, being some account of the capital of the Straits Settlements from its foundation by Sir Stamford Raffles on the 6th February 1819 to the 6th February 1919.” Water Makepeace, London, J. Murray, 1921.

In 1791, Farquhar joined the Madras Military Establishment in British India as a cadet at the age of 17. His intelligence, bravery, and mastery of diplomacy helped him ascend quickly through the bureaucratic ranks, culminating in his selection as the first governor and commandant of Singapore on February 6, 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, the agent to the Governor General of the Malay States. Farquhar’s promotion was granted the day after he successfully arranged the signing of the treaty with His Highness the Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah, and the tĕmĕnggong (chief of security), which granted the British the right to establish a trading port in Singapore. Each was paid the annual rent of 5,000 and 3,000 Spanish dollars ($25,000 and $15,000 USD today), respectively.

Governing a new colony like Singapore, as Raffles referred to it, comprised dealing with a unique set of obstacles. These included issues such as slavery, piracy, and frictions among immigrant groups. Some of Raffles’ more lofty goals were to implement urban planning, enforce law and order, and promote education. Raffles entrusted Farquhar with leading the new city under a tight budget so that the East India Company — for which Raffles was working — would not perceive Singapore as a financial liability. Raffles also furnished a model of his own version of Singapore; he gave Farquhar specific directions regarding the construction of the city, instructions which subsequently proved to be extremely difficult to implement because of a lack of funds.

After having secured the approval via the proper authorities to establish a trading post in Singapore, Raffles announced to all merchant ships that Singapore was now a free port — so as to usurp the Dutch stranglehold on maritime trade in the region. All ships were welcome to dock at the port to conduct business free of taxes, fees, or duties. In Farquhar’s view, this policy was a recipe for disaster, as it undermined his ability to raise sufficient funds to construct and run the city according to Raffles’ model. The situation was further complicated by the dismal postal service in the region, which rendered any communication virtually impossible with Raffles, who was stationed in Bencoolen. The honeymoon period of Farquhar’s new appointment was short-lived. He was confronted with a Gordian knot: to work within the financial and architectural parameters set forth by Raffles, and fail to accomplish Raffles’ vision of Singapore because of lack of funds, or to modify his superior’s instructions and build a Singapore using whatever means necessary to achieve Raffles’ goals. He opted for the latter to appease his superior.

Farquhar contributed much to Singapore, including having paid one shilling ($8 USD today) per rat killed to prevent a cholera epidemic in this small colony, widening roads to lessen traffic jams, clearing vegetation for farming; and using timber to build houses to accommodate the fast expanding population. Unfortunately, he also introduced numerous changes to Raffles’ plans and instructions in order to generate much-needed revenue for the seamless operation of Singapore. This eventually led to his downfall. He allowed the establishment of gambling dens, as well as the sale of arrack (a type of alcoholic drink) and opium. He also permitted cock-fighting and the building of homes on land reserved for British administrative buildings. Raffles perceived these new developments as vices and was opposed to the privileges the sultan and the tĕmĕnggong enjoyed, in addition to their receiving large proceeds from the opium and arrack trade and the gambling dens. The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred when Farquhar sanctioned a return to slavery in the new colony; a decision that rendered all attempts at appeasing Raffles wholly ineffective.

In April 1823, prior to his final departure from Singapore, Raffles removed Farquhar from his post as Resident-Commandant of Singapore, effectively ending the illustrious career of a man who had a proud past, thereby bestowing upon him an uncertain future. Towards the close of 1823, Farquhar left his Malaccan-French wife, Antoinette Clement, and their six children to return to Scotland. In 1824, he unsuccessfully filed a complaint to the East India Company about his dismissal. In 1828, Farquhar remarried and fathered six more children. (It is interesting to note that through his first wife, Farquhar became a great-great-great-great-great grandfather of current Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.) After trying in vain to sue Raffles to obtain the title of “the founder of Singapore,” Farquhar ultimately died bitter and misunderstood in 1839 in Scotland at the age of 65.

Farquhar letter 2

A letter of friendship from raja (ruler) of Trengganu to William Farquhar, dated 1818. Written in Jawi script. Farquhar Correspondence Collection. Asian Division.

Above is an item from the Farquhar Correspondence collection in the Southeast Asia Collection. Comprising 46 letters in Jawi (the Malay language written in a modified Arabic script), this collection represents correspondences between rulers of the Malacca, Penang, Selangor, and Trengganu states and the First British Resident-Commandant of Singapore, Major-General William Farquhar in the early 19th century Singapore Settlement. Though one might expect these letters to only be concerned with diplomacy and economic relations; other topics such as friendship abound (i.e. the rulers and Farquhar had cultivated an amicable relationship between 1819-1823 when Farquhar assisted in the transformation of Singapore from a small fishing village to the wealthiest trading post in all of Southeast Asia).

Farquhar’s contributions to the successful development of Singapore, his rise to the highest position in British Singapore, and his unfortunate swift downfall have been subjects of debate for more than a century among Southeast Asian historians. The local populace held him in high esteem during his tenure as governor for his astute business acumen which he acquired and honed during the 30 years living in Southeast Asia. He also earned the respect of the rulers of the nearby states of Malacca, Penang, Selangor, and Trengganu for his superior administrative talents, as indicated in the letters to him during his time as Governor. The Farquhar Collection is essential for researchers who are interested in learning more about the life and accomplishments of the First Resident-Commandant of Singapore.

Here is a list of additional resources regarding Farquhar:

A history of modern Singapore, 1819-2005,” by C.M. Turnbull. Singapore: NUS Press, c2009.
Insider’s Singapore.” David Brazil. Singapore: Times Books International, c1999.
One hundred years of Singapore, being some account of the capital of the Straits Settlements from its foundation by Sir Stamford Raffles on the 6th February 1819 to the 6th February 1919.” By Walter Makepeace. London: J. Murray, 1921.
Singapore: a country study.” Library of Congress Federal Research Division. 1991.
Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826, schemer or reformer?” by Alatas, Hussein, Syed. Singapore: Angus and Robertson, 1971.