Here we have planted the British flag among the ruins of the ancient capital of Singapura, the City of the Lion! Here we will advance the interests of the East India Company and raise the Malay people to their former glory.
Sir Stamford Raffles is the man most often associated with Singapore’s colonization, and John D Greenwood attributes these words to him in this new novel.
Forbidden Hill is an imagined but historically faithful account of Singapore’s transition from sleepy fishing village to major trading center in the years between 1812 and 1836. While invented characters and purely imaginary events are woven in, the core of the story actually occurred and a great many of its cast were real personalities.
Raffles himself is a complex character: visionary but impractical, idealistic to the point of sanctimony and dogged by nepotism. There are a host of ‘ills” Raffles disapproves of, and for good reason: opium-peddling, slave-trading and cock-fighting, to name but three. He rants about all three and eventually bans cock-fighting. But in a time with few diversions, cock-fighting is a popular form of entertainment for the Asian population, so commonplace that it’s unclear how such a ban can be enforced, especially since there is no police force on the island (an expenditure Raffles deems unnecessary).
It isn’t Raffles, however, who must contend with the day-to-day headaches of administration. His official position is as Governor-General of Bencoolen (a city in modern Sumatra), where he spends the bulk of his time. It is his second-in-command, Major William Farquhar, who must get Singapore up and running. Farquhar has no budget to speak of, yet manages to attract new traders to the settlement and appease the many new arrivals. He also keeps the local ruler—the Sultan—and the Sultan’s right-hand man, sufficiently content. Taken together, these achievements are no mean feat.
At the time, not only is Singapore covered by jungle and infested with rats and crocodiles, it is also under constant threat of attack from the Dutch, who hold sway in neighboring Java. However far-fetched Raffles’s dream of Singapore as an “emporium of the east” might seem, he has the foresight to ordain that it be a free port—in contrast to the Dutch ports which charge arbitrary fees and discriminate against Asian trading ships. Lured by the prospect of free trade, ships begin arriving in droves. Under Farquhar’s oversight Singapore’s tonnage soon surpasses that of Malacca and Penang combined. As trade grows, so does the town, thanks again to private enterprise. Singapore’s ethos as a mercantile center was set early on.
In such a free-wheeling environment, competing interests are inevitable, and tensions soon come to the fore. Greenwood’s account of the intrigues among the early European settlers is absorbing. Raffles himself, on his return to Singapore after a three-year absence, wants Farquhar sacked.
But Forbidden Hill is not simply a colonial story. In addition to the band of real Scotsmen and Scotswomen, the leading Asian traders of the day are explicitly included: Arabs, Bugis, Sumatran, Indian, Malay and Chinese. Of course, there are thousands of others whose names we don’t know—the coolies and indentured labourers who clear the jungle, lay the roads and build the houses—and Greenwood imagines a few of them too. The result is that there are a very large number of personalities to keep track of.
Greenwood throws two fictional Europeans into this melting pot a Scottish merchant by the name of Ronnie Simpson and the Englishwoman Sarah Hemmings. Along the pathways of a hill where the wives of the erstwhile rulers of Singapore once walked, Ronnie and Sarah find love.
But the waters around Singapore are treacherous. The pirates who ply the waters are the bane of the merchants’ lives. Thereal pirate Si Rahman makes an appearance, though readers may be unaware that he lived and was much feared in his day. This literally colorful character is far from being the only villain. When Ronnie and Sarah lead a hunt for Si Rahman and his fellow pirates, the book takes a different turn. Greenwood’s chases and battles are gripping, with abundant details of weaponry and scenes so vividly bloody that some readers may be unsettled.
By the end of the book Raffles is dead and Farquhar has left Singapore. The island, however, is firmly British and thriving, with a well-settled community optimistic about the future.
Forbidden Hill is clearly the fruit of hours of labor in archives, a premise underscored by 65 footnotes at the bottoms of pages to explain unfamiliar terms. There are also 29 longer endnotes at the back of the book. Some of the footnoted terms could have been easily explained in the text itself, and the sheer number of footnotes lends the book a scholarly air. It is thus regrettable that the text is littered with errors, from simple typos to problems with homonyms, mistakes in punctuation, missing words and page numbers. “Thought” often appears as “though”, and the surname of Alexander Johnston (a real person) veers between Johnston and Johnson from one page to another and sometimes, even between paragraphs of the same page.
Greenwood claims Edward Rutherfurd’s London as his inspiration. His pre-occupation seems to be history and rendering facts with accuracy; indeed, in the first half of the book, as characters are introduced, Forbidden Hill reads more like a work of non-fiction, which might please readers with a predilection for history over fiction. Forbidden Hill is the first installment in the Singapore Saga with at least one sequel promised.
A final word here for Sir Stamford, during a memorable moment in his house. Notwithstanding his aversion to cock-fighting, Raffles rears an orang-utan and a bear cub. The orang-utan eats with the family, dressed up in a dinner jacket and top hat. One night, after the orang-utan has gone off to say goodnight to the children, he slopes back to the table and, to everyone’s amazement, takes a swig of brandy and a cigar.
Raffles also leaned back in his chair, and reflected once again on his own contentment.
If Sir Stamford could see his island project today, one imagines he would be content indeed.