Singapore is doubling up on the party this year, with celebrations being held not only for the country’s 54th birthday (9 August), but also for the Bicentennial, which marks two centuries since the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles on these shores in 1819. That year was a turning point for Singapore, when it began its transition from a modest port town that had developed since the 13th century, to the amazing modern metropolis we call home today.
With so many Bicentennial events going on throughout the year already, and more to follow (read on for details), we’ve had a great chance to delve into the history of Raffles’ time. Here are a few fun facts and interesting bits of trivia that we’ve unearthed.
5 little-known facts about Raffles
Most of us know something about the role Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles played in Singapore’s history, but here are a few things about the British statesman that you may not have been aware of.
- Raffles was born at sea, off the coast of Jamaica. The ship was called Ann; his mother was called Anne.
- His first post in Asia was on Prince of Wales Island in Malaya (better known today as Penang).
- All five of Raffles’ children died before the age of 20; only one of those survived beyond four years.
- Raffles co-founded the London Zoo, the world’s oldest scientific zoo.
- The Raffles name lives on, not just in hotels and schools, but in a wide variety of biological species, from the Rafflesia flower to the olive-backed woodpecker (Dinopium rafflesii).
5 other famous events of 1819
Okay, so it’s not all about Singapore. What else was happening on the planet 200 years ago?
- 2 January – “The Panic of 1819” begins; it’s considered among the five worst financial crises in American history.
- 1 July – The “Great Comet of 1819”, a brilliant comet easily visible to the naked eye, passes close to earth.
- 2 November – Bagyidaw is crowned Emperor of Burma, at the imperial capital of Inwa (close to modern-day Mandalay).
- 19 November – One of the world’s most famous art galleries, the Museo del Prado, opens its doors in Madrid, Spain.
- 14 December – Alabama is admitted as the 22nd State of America.
3 places the British considered settling instead of Singapore
History is all about the “what-if” moments. Singapore wasn’t the only candidate as a settlement to strengthen British influence in this region. The current Bicentennial celebrations could have turned out quite differently if one of these other locations had won the day…
- Penang – Though it was already a prominent centre of spice production and trade, the British ultimately felt it was too far north of where all the “action” was in the Straits of Malacca.
- Bencoolen – Like Penang, this was also an established centre of activity for the British by this time, but its location on the south coast of Sumatra (facing away from the trade routes) was strategically poor.
- Karimun Island – Today known as Karimun Besar, this island in the Riau archipelago lies around 30km southwest of Singapore, and was thought to be an initial frontrunner for Raffles’ landing.
5 famous people born in 1819
Raffles is just one prominent name to feature in the history books from 1819. The year also marked the birth of many would go on an etch their own names in the annals. Here are just a handful:
- JOHN RUSKIN, 8 February – English writer, artist and social critic. Notable quote: “Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.”
- QUEEN VICTORIA, 24 May – Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Notable quote: “An ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful.”
- WALT WHITMAN, 31 May – American poet. Notable quote: “Keep your face always toward the sunshine, and shadows will fall behind you.”
- HERMAN MELVILLE, 1 August – Author of Moby Dick. Notable quote: “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
- GEORGE ELIOT, 22 November – English novelist, born Mary Anne Evans. Notable quote: “Animals are such agreeable friends; they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.”
Ongoing till 15 September: From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience
A multimedia sensory experience that takes visitors back to witness key moments in Singapore’s transformation from as far back as 1299. (Fort Canning Centre)
31 August: Why Commemorate 1819? Reflections on Singapore Bicentennial
Open to everyone, this event will explore Raffles’ life and his place in Singapore’s story, plus the importance of British-Singapore friendship today. (Tanglin Trust School)
14 September: “In Search of Golden Fortune” Heritage Trail
Follow the fortunes of Singapore’s “Wall Street” from its earliest days as Raffles Way to the Central Business District (CBD) of today. (Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Lobby, Level 1)
5 October: Bukit Timah Guided Heritage Trail
This guided tour will look back at the history of the Bukit Timah region, taking in Masjid Al Huda Mosque, the Fong Yun Thai Association and other spots. (Blk 204 Clementi Ave 6)
Find more events at the Singapore Bicentennial website.
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