Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rogue Trader

I have always had a soft spot for rogues, particularly those of the charming variety. One of my particular favourites is Alexander Hare, a resident merchant in Malacca (Melaka) during the Napoleonic Wars, who just prior to the British conquest of Java from the French and their reluctant Dutch allies in 1811, was visited by a representative of the Sultan of Banjermasin in Southern Borneo.

Marshall Daendals, Napoleon's Dutchman on the spot and fervent admirer, had decided some time in 1809 that as the British had destroyed the Dutch fleet in 1806 and yet another in 1807 off Java he could no longer support a garrison in the Sultan's territory and withdrew these troops to Batavia (present day Jakarta).

This was particularly alarming to the Sultan as, although he was reluctant to enter into any permanent commercial treaty with the Dutch, he nevertheless valued their comforting presence which had raised his status in the eyes of the neighbouring sultanates and kept his own subjects in line within his domains. He therefore sought to come to similar terms with the British as he had with the Dutch, and as quickly as possible for there were already growing rumblings of discontent now the Dutch were packed and away.

His representative's visit to Malacca in early 1811 was in fact the second - the first in 1809 having met with a rather lukewarm reception - and much more timely in that now the British were planning to take over all the Dutch settlements in the archipelago and any and all allies were especially welcome.

Hare had himself visited Banjermasin in 1809 on business, but the venture came to nothing and he returned to Malacca. He had, however, made a good impression on the Sultan and his court. When the Sultan's envoy arrived, Hare was the natural choice to promote the idea with his friend, Stamford Raffles, agent to the Governor-General of the East India Company, Lord Minto. Raffles was busy planning the invasion of Java and Minto was on his way to Malacca from India with the troops.

Borneo in those days was thought to possess vast mineral wealth and enormous potential,which the Company was eager to exploit, so Raffles encouraged the Sultan, Minto gave his approval to the alliance and Hare was dispatched with a ridiculously small group of men with which he was 'incidentally' to assist in the general campaign against piracy.

Hare had made a private treaty with the Sultan which gave him the sovereign rights over about 1400 square miles of territory south of the capital. Here he was resident for the company and also an independent prince, which arrangement Raffles had agreed to as a reward for having brought Banjermasin to his notice. Hare had been supplied with a great deal of money by the Company power brokers, swept along by the general enthusiasm that the war and its potentially profitable outcome promised, which he used to build himself a large palace and fill it with women for the harem he was constructing.

Indeed this was about all he did, popping back and forth to Java and other places, snapping up local lovelies with the Company's cash, writing to the Sultans of Sambas and Pontianak, admonishing them to abide by treaty agreements concerning trade and the prevention of piracy, while at the same time politely inquiring about the chances of procuring any spare beauties they might want to dispose of at reasonable prices. He was joined by other Europeans, one of whom, a Scotsman by the name of John Clunies-Ross, he made his assistant. He seemed to be every bit as daft, ambitious and romantic as Hare, though significantly less interested in women.

Raffles was frenetically busy negotiating treaties with all the other sultans of Borneo and elsewhere in the archipelago and had no idea what Hare and his merry men were up to. In the end though, it hardly mattered. After the triumphant campaign to take Java came the dreary business of getting the colony to pay its way and try as he might Raffles, faced by the legacy of years of Dutch indifference to development of the local infrastructure or betterment of the lives of the ordinary folk, and strong opposition from the sultans to any change in the status quo, made little headway and runed his own health in the process.

Had he been given more time he might have made it work, but as soon as Minto left office to be replaced by Lord Moira, Raffles' grand design for British expansion and exploitation of the Dutch Indies fell apart and by and by Hare's slim claims to princely status and legitimacy too. Moira pointed out the costs of the enterprise to the Company and all establishments but Banjermasin were abandoned.

All this while no one appears to have looked into what Hare was up to. He spent most of his time 'holidaying' in Java according to Clunies-Ross. While there he asked Raffles for help in recruiting a labour force to work the pepper plantations he had set up - none of the local Malays were interested in coolie work - and he, as Lieutenant-Governor, responded by passing several ordinances in 1813, first inviting and later compelling ex-soldiers and free-born Javans to cross to Borneo to work. Later still Banjermasin was declared a convict settlement to which convicts, guitly of the most minor offences, could be sent. Hare's 'agents' meanwhile, were engaged in abducting women to become wives for his settlers.

About three thousand labourers, mostly convicts, were transported in the end, which did not please the Sultan, who soon complained that the excesses they committed were driving away his taxable income, i.e. his subjects, from their homes. Hare was an incompetent businessman and worse administrator. He had bright ideas and a skillful tongue, but he was bored silly by routine work, his energies being almost exclusively devoted to his 'luscious harem'. 'His greatest feature' wrote Clunies-Ross, 'was his licentiousness in regard to all bodily indulgences.'

By 1816, Hare's dominions were in utter chaos. Almost no pepper had been produced, no accounts kept, piracy had become endemic (the Dutch fleets destroyed by the British had previously kept piracy in check), and the labourers were disappearing into the interior. Poor Clunies-Ross, left in charge by the holidaying Hare, had had enough and went to settle the Cocos Islands (which he owned till 1857 and his family retained complete control over until 1886). It was left to the Dutch to sort things out when, along with Java, Banjermasin was handed back to them the same year.

Hare remained in Java until 1820, pestering the Dutch for compensation he thought was due to him and generally making himself a real pain in the arse. I have no idea what he did with all his women. Perhaps they all came to Java with him, which would no doubt have outraged the sensibilities of the rather sober Dutchmen of Batavia. Eventually Hare joined Clunies-Ross on the Cocos (or Keeling) Islands, but quarrelled with him over possession of the island and was forced to leave in 1831. Hare died in Sumatra in 1833, still up to no good I imagine and doubtless trying to convince someone, anyone to back yet another of his mad schemes for the betterment of Alexander Hare.

He was the first Englishman to become a 'White Rajah' in the Indies (there were others who didn't quite make it) and not James Brooke as is commonly supposed. It is curious and amusing to think that Englishmen were able to behave in the early 1800s in a way that would have been unthinkable in Victorian times and also to note just how different a race the English were to the Dutch, most markedly so in the East.

I knew all about Brooke's Sarawak adventures as a boy and very jolly reading they made too, but my fervid little imagination would have taken a far greater delight in the tales of Alexander Hare and his 'luscious harem', I'm sure.

What could be more interesting than a book about harems, eh? And don't say cricket.


  1. Hi Mark,

    Alexander Hare, what a scoundrel? Would you mind revealing where you read about him?

    1. One good source is The White Rajahs, Steven Runciman, another is the recently published Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, Tim Hannigan. Most of the information for the article I got by scouring the net and from half remembered bits I'd read long ago. I have long had an interest in these sorts of chaps, fun to read about but probably not that good to know. Hope this helps.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Oh great. That helps a lot. Yes, I too like to read about these gentlemen and the shenanigans they got up to all those years ago. What a time it must have been! But you're probably right them being not so nice to know. Thanks for the references, I'll try and track some of them down.



    ps; You have probably seen it, but there's a 30 minute ABC documentary on YouTube called Dynasties about the Clunies Ross family on the Cocos Keeling Islands. There's very little about Alexander Hare in it, unfortunately, but it's interesting to see that the family of his old partner is still there almost 200 years later.