William Farquhar was born in 1774 at Newhall near Aberdeen. Like quite a few other young Scots, he looked abroad for opportunities, joining the military service of the British East India Company aged only 17. He thus made his way to Asia, first arriving in Madras in 1791. He was soon promoted to a low-rank commissioned officer of the Madras Engineers, being made a Lieutenant in the summer of 1793. [For more on the Scots in India, click here]
It was not, however, in Madras, but in Malacca where Farquhar first made his name: he was Chief Engineer in the expeditionary force that seized Malacca from the Dutch in the summer of 1795. It was there that Farquhar spent the next years of his life, acting as Resident of Malacca from 1803 until the Dutch reclaimed it, albeit only for a few years, in 1818. During his time in Malacca Farqhuar supported other British colonial enterprises in the region, including the British invasion of Java that was led by Governor-General Lord Minto and Sir Stamford Raffles.
Given his long experience in what was then Malaya, Farquhar was given the task to help Raffles establish a settlement on Singapore island. Farquhar thus helped to negotiate with the local chieftain Temenggong Abdul Rahman of Johore, and also for the Singapore Treaty (6 February 1819), which gave the British the right to set up a trading post. Farquhar was subsequently appointed the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore, with Raffles off to Bencoolen in Sumatra.
Hence, for the next few years, Farquhar essentially ruled Singapore on his own – and did not always follow the instructions Raffles had left for him. This explains why the two fell out after Raffles return to Singapore. As a result, Raffles dismissed Farquhar – though he initially refused to leave and even sued Raffles for his autocratic behaviour. But to no avail: at the end of May 1823, John Crawfurd – another Scots – was appointed as second British resident.
Despite his prominent role in establishing and maintaining early links between Britain and Singapore, Farquhar is largely forgotten. In part, perhaps, this is a result of falling out with Raffles. Still it is peculiar, as Farquhar left another important legacy by commissioning Chinese artists to draw plants and animals of Malacca and Singapore. Click here for a preview from Google Books of his Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection : Malay Peninsula, 1803-1818.
Farquhar eventually returned to Scotland – another commonality he shared with many a Scot who went to Asia – and died in Perth in 1839. He is buried in Greyfriars Burial Ground and his gravestone inscription reads:
Sacred to the Memory of Major General William Farquhar of the H.E.I.C.Service and Madras Engineer Corps who served in the East Indies upwards of 33 years. During 20 years of his valuable life he was appointed to offices of high responsibility under the civil government of India having in addition to his military duties served as Resident in Malacca and afterwards at Singapore which later settlement he founded. In all the stations which he filled he acquired honour to himself and rendered service to his country. He departed this life at Early Bank, Perth, on the 11th of May 1839, highly respected and deeply regretted by all who had the happiness of his acquaintance.