In 2018, it will be 200 years since the European Explorer William Farquhar finished his collection of 477 natural history drawings from Malaya - british Malaysia. Mamakan is currently working on a contemporary version of this collection to be premiered sometime during 2018.
Here are snippets of the fascinating research going on behind the scenes of the upcoming exhibition.
Conversation with Dr. Nadia Wright, Author
The William Farquhar Natural History Collection: Conversation between Mamakan and Dr. Nadia Wright, Author of "William Farquhar And Singapore: Stepping out of Raffles' shadow".
Mamakan: How should we remember William Farquhar?
Nadia: He should be remembered as a keen naturalist and a conservationist.
William Farquhar was responsiblefor commissioning the finest and most extensive collection of Malaysia's fauna and flora ever compiled. Yet curiously, this collection was purchased by Singapore and not Malaysia despite the fact it was executed in Malacca, thus forming part of Malaysia's heritage rather than Singapore's.
He alsointroduced new species from the Malay Peninsula to the Western world. I do not use the word 'discovered' as these were known to local peoples, but were new for the West. These include the tapir, the binturong, the dekan ( large bamboo rat), the red giant flying squirrel, the moon rat and the banded linsang.
Malacca is now designated a UNESCO world heritage site and it was Farquhar who was responsible for saving two of Malacca's most iconic buildings which feature prominently in this: the Church and the Stadthouse. Note that although William Farquhar destroyed the rest of the fort, he had done this reluctantly after orders from above. It was the earlier Robert Farquhar who had urged the destruction while William opposed it.
Mamakan: In your opinion; what drove William Farquhar to collect and commission drawings of plants? Was it imperial botany - economic documentation - or personal passion?
Nadia: First, plants formed only part of his interest in natural history – he commissioned drawings on birds (the largest group), fruits and their seeds, animals, fish, reptiles, snakes, insects, arthropods, crabs. As to why, I can only ascribe it to curiosity – he was fascinated by the new flora and fauna he encountered in and around Malacca. There is no evidence his interest can be attributed to imperial botany or economic documentation.
Mamakan: Do you know how it happened - ei did he walk out to collect and then asked artist to come and draw the plant or how?
Nadia: Some plant specimens he collected, but he paid local people to bring him specimens. He employed at least two Chinese artists on various occasions to draw these specimens. You will find more details in ‘Natural History Drawings: the Complete William Farquhar Collection’. Most of this was tangential to my book and only mentioned when Raffles tried to steal Farquhar’s thunder.
Mamakan: Any ideas of which plants he preferred or any favourite food or smell?
Mamakan: Do you have any hunches of his relationship with Danish Botanist Nathaniel Wallich (featured in "Treasure Island by Mamakan, 2017), any letters between them?
Nadia: Farquhar and Wallich got on well and I gain the impression that Wallich was not impressed by Raffles’ bad treatment of Farquhar. I have seen no personal letters between them. Wallich named a plant after Farquhar. I do not know if he named anything after Raffles. You might like to look at J. Bastin, “The Letters of Sir Stamford Raffles to Nathaniel Wallich
1819–1824,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society December 1981: 1-73. Also see ‘William Jack’s letters to Nathaniel Wallich’, SBRAS 1916.
Mamakan: I know that the book does not go into personal lives, but I can't stop wondering why he never married Antoinette Clement or brought her and the kids to UK?
Nadia: That is an interesting question. But we are asking it thinking of the mores of 2017 and not those of 200 years ago. It was acceptable for a British officer to have a de facto wife and then leave her behind when he returned to Britain. The more considerate men left the wives financially secure; others more or less abandoned them and their families.
See Christopher Hawes, Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India, 1773-1833. Very few men took these wives back to Britain, One wonders how well Nonio Clement would have survived in cold Scotland. Besides her children and grandchildren were in Singapore – perhaps she preferred to stay there. As I noted there is no evidence that Nonio Clement’s name was Antoinette. That seems to have been later added in family ‘history’. See E. Ulrich Kratz ‘Like a fish gasping for water: the tale of a temporary spouse from Benkulu’ Indonesia and the Malay World vol. 34 no. 100 2006: 247-280
As to ‘the kids’, they were adults when Farquhar left Singapore. Four of them were married with children of their own. They were well-established in the East and had no reason to
uproot to Britain. And Farquhar did take his two eldest grandchildren living in Singapore back to Scotland with him. They were only aged about 4-5 at the time – no doubt a terrible wrench for them.
Do you know where he lived in Singapore?
Nadia: I believe his Residency complex was close to the shore near the river mouth. He also had a house in Kampong Glam probably located near the defunct Farquhar Street, which he moved into after Raffles dismissed him.
And then his name, found this online: Farquhar is a surname of Scottish origin, derived from fearchar "man" and car "beloved"?
Nadia: I’d be wary of accepting material from Wikipedia, but that definition is accurate. Farquhar certainly lived up to the meaning of ‘beloved man’.
Mamakan: From the book, it seems that he was very beloved by the community. Why? and how did people perceive Raffles in comparison?
Nadia: Farquhar was kind to all, compassionate to those in dire straits and racially tolerant. He judged men fairly, listened to all complaints and was seen as a hard worker. He was attuned
to the cultures of the local peoples and wanted to govern taking those into consideration. See the addresses in the appendix to my book and you can judge the depth of people’s feelings towards him. Raffles did not receive such addresses from local peoples.
Also see Abdullah Munshi’s The Hikayat Abdullah for his descriptions of the farewells to Raffles and to Farquhar and you will notice a vast difference in the attitudes of the local peoples towards their respective farewells. And note his comments on the personalities of both men and Farquhar’s interest in natural history. But the Hikayat is not necessarily accurate so it may be wiser to accept the tone of what is said rather than take it literally. I found little on how local peoples perceived Raffles.
The fact that Farquhar insisted on abiding by the terms of Raffles’ agreements and treaties, and took local customs into account
when making decisions involving them would have encouraged them to trust and respect him.
Farquhar’s poignant appeal to the Government not to destroy Malacca and evacuate its people clearly showed his empathy for them and a keen knowledge of their history and