In 1818, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, newlywed husband of Sophia, Governor-General of Bencoolen, surveyed the island of Singapore, which was made a British colony early the following year.
12 December, 1818.
Governor-General’s Residence, Bencoolen.
Last night, my love, I took the nameless book
That arrived with our mail on Thursday’s ship
And sat down to read. In that shapely dark
One by one the servants kept their hours,
Leaving the gate unlocked (as you prefer)
As they crept downhill to their inventions.
Nothing moved, but on the forest’s lip
Something glimmered with a sailor’s patience:
A slip of light, a turning in the shallows,
An unmade sea scuffing the glass surface
With its swallowed things. I thought of you,
The men in their tossing berths, the night’s
Empty heat, and beyond the shoal of islands
A breath of earth, void, then the firmament.
12 December, 1858.
Highwood House, Mill Hill, London.
This remains sharpest in my memory:
The day you went walking into the wind
From a corner of that special island
So spectral now, yet with its harbour, then
The pearl of our possessions. How we made
Our livings there, rejoicing as we found
A world so large, and of our own devising,
That you longed to know it, end to end.
As the light fell short you came back trembling,
Stood bareheaded in the dowsing rain, yelled
For a mirror. Told how even the men
Had fled when they saw you approaching, pale
Arms outstretched in a token of friendship.
I held on to your hands and let you weep.
Image credit: Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra, 1799, Aquatint, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection