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Who Was Olivia Cassivelaun Fancourt and What’s Her Connection with Singapore?

By Rosie Milne, Finder Blogger: The Herstory Buff, author of Olivia & Sophia


The Finder‘s latest online contributor just published Olivia & Sophia, a historical novel about Stamford Raffles’ adventures, as seen through the eyes of his two very different wives and she tells us what they were like.

Each woman was intelligent and inquisitive, but otherwise they were very different. Olivia was a sexy and scandalous beauty; Sophia was a pious, stalwart, adoring wife and mother. Here’s an overview of Olivia’s life; next week it will be Sophia’s turn to be featured.

Olivia and Sophia cover


Olivia was a great beauty

Although there are no official pictures of Olivia, this is what she probably looks like based on historical research


Olivia’s mother was from Circassia, a region of Asia between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. In the early 19th century, Circassia was so famed for the beauty of its women that the phrase “Circassian beauty” became shorthand for any unusually attractive women – and one desirable as a mistress, or as a concubine. The reputation of Circassian women even influenced early forms of advertising: soap was sold as being used by Circassian women, with the suggestion that any woman could become beautiful, if she used it! 


Olivia was riddled with scandal

Olivia was ten years older than Raffles, who was her second husband; her first husband, Joseph Cassivelaun Fancourt, a surgeon in India, died in the Punjab.  Before she married Fancourt, she’d already had an illegitimate daughter, Harriet, by a piratical sea captain, with links to the Scottish aristocracy. Harriet died in early adulthood. Despite Olivia’s various entanglements with men, Harriet was the only child she ever had; perhaps something went wrong during the birth, leaving her unable to have any more children?


Olivia didn’t stop flirting, just because she was married

Olivia was always wildly attractive to men. After her marriage to Raffles, the Scottish scholar and poet, John Leyden, who was part of Sir Walter Scott’s circle, fell in love with her. Leyden and Raffles were best friends, so there has always been speculation about the relationships between the three of them; they formed a love triangle, of sorts, but Leyden’s adoration of Olivia was probably idealised and poetical, rather than anything raunchier – they certainly dedicated poems to each other.


Olivia was the Lady Governess of Java

Britain ruled Java from 1811 to 1815. Raffles was the Lieutenant-Governor of the island, and Olivia was the Lady Governess. She met members of the various royal families of Java’s many small courts, and she was a leader of both European, and “native” society. She disapproved of some “native” habits, for instance banning the Javanese from going shoeless in her home, from eating with their hands, and from chewing sireh (betel nut). Meanwhile, in turn, some of the European ladies disapproved of her, for her flamboyance. 


Olivia died young

Olivia Mariamne Raffles's grave

Olivia Mariamne Raffles memorial in Indonesia; photo: One-North Explorers (veiw more here)


Olivia died in 1814, aged 43. Raffles adored her, and her death left him bereft. She was killed by a liver complaint, or else by the intended cure as she was prescribed the mercury treatment; drinking salts of mercury. This caused her to drool, her breath to stink, and her bowels to seize up. Liver complaints were rife amongst the European population of Asia at the time, partly because Europeans were susceptible to parasites, and hepatitis, but also because they generally drank like fish. Water was considered unsafe to drink, so they drank alcohol, instead.

Olivia lived in Penang and Malacca, but she never visited Singapore. Nonetheless, her memory is kept alive here through the Olivia Cassivelaun Fancourt Restaurant at the Arts House in Empress Place.

Photo: Olivia Cassivelaun Fancourt Restaurant’s Facebook page


You can buy Olivia & Sophia at Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City, or at any other bookshop with a good selection of English-language books.


About Rosie Milne

Rosie Milne has recently published Olivia & Sophia, a historical novel exploring the life of Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, through the eyes of his two very different wives. She writes a weekly blog for the UK’s Telegraph about life in Singapore, and reviews fiction for Asian Review of Books. She also runs Asian Books Blog. Her earlier novels are How To Change Your Life, about an editor of self-help books who tries to follow the advice in a self-help book, and Holding The Baby, which examines different attitudes to motherhood.

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