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By Thomas Irvine Rowell
JSBRAS No. 16 1889, pp.385-412
Meteorological Report for the Year 1885
Though conversations about the weather may expose one to accusations of being dull and unimaginative, in the words of the wag par excellence Oscar Wilde, the weather continues to fascinate and obsess most people. The current dry spell experienced by a number of Southeast Asian countries has led among other things to a persistent haze problem leading to a noticeable deterioration of air quality throughout the region. The drought meanwhile has forced local authorities to impose the rationing of water in places. The British colonial administration took a serious view of the weather and yearly reports on the subject were compiled as part of the Straits Settlements annual reports. Glancing back at the weather report for 1885, similarities with prevailing weather conditions of our day may be observed.
The meteorological report of 1885 examined seven aspects, namely atmospheric pressure; temperature of air; temperature of solar radiation; temperature of grass and nocturnal radiation; humidity; wind velocity and direction; and rainfall. Samples were obtained from returns collected from four principal stations across the Malay Peninsula: Singapore, Penang, Province Wellesley (now the mainland component of Penang known as Seberang Perai) and Malacca.
At the end of the report, several accompanying charts were attached showing the mean annual pressure, temperature, rainfall and the number of days on which it rained in Singapore for the period 1870 to 1885. The focus on Singapore was understandable as it has always been the most important colony in the entire Settlements.
Atmospheric or barometer pressure was included in the weather report as it was then a useful tool for undertaking survey work and map making. Because atmospheric pressure varies directly with altitude, it was useful for determining the heights of mountains and hills, an important part of the ongoing task to produce an accurate map of the Malay Peninsula which led to many scientific expeditions reports of which were a staple feature in many an early issue of the JSBRAS.
Solar energy provides light required for seed germination, flowering, fruiting and other physiological conditions affecting the growth of plants. Solar radiation has an important role as regulator and controller of growth and development. Solar radiation is the single most important factor affecting climate as air temperatures have their origins in the absorption of radiant energy from the Sun. It was for this reason that its temperature and variations were assiduously recorded by the colonial government which was heavily dependent on plantation and agricultural economy.
The grass minimum temperature or sometimes called the dew point temperature is an important variable which suggests how much moisture there is in the air. Higher values indicate more humidity while a lower reading points to dryness. In certain climates, it indicates the possibility of ground frost. In North India particularly in the months of December, January and February, such frost are known to be destructive to standing crops.
The part that would be most interesting to present day would perhaps be the rainfall indicator. Rowell observes that for Singapore, 1885 has been among the driest on record (presumably since 1870, the earliest year found in the rainfall chart). December had been the wettest month. Of even greater interest is that the question of how forest destruction (referred to as ‘desiccation’ using an archaic expression) affects rainfall appear to have been considered by the colonial authorities even as early as the late nineteenth century. Interestingly, Rowell acknowledges that a considerable amount of forest clearing had indeed taken place in Singapore but felt that it had no great effect on the rainfall returns for the year. What emerges from this oblique reference to rapid urbanisation in Singapore at the time was the acknowledgement of the colonial authorities that wanton forest destruction would have an adverse effect on the environment, hence the vague allusion to the steps taken to control it, though with what measure of success it is difficult to determine.
In Penang, for the first five months the rainfall was remarkably small but the next consecutive seven months saw heavy rainfall in the colony, the heaviest being recorded in July. Likewise in Province Wellesley, rainfall was heavy and the heaviest rainfall was in October. For both places, January was the driest month with the least rain. Malacca’s driest month, however, was in February and the colony received much less rain than the rest of the Settlements.
The summarising second last paragraph of the report was even more intriguing. January saw the driest and hottest month for most of the Settlements. However Rowell reported that in Singapore, the nights were cool and refreshing and supported this further by presumably anecdotal evidence of the same from Johore. Apparently this remarkable phenomenon was quite the talk of town at the time. February was also largely a dry month for most of the Straits Settlements. In March, Rowell observed that Singapore experienced a long drought, as with other parts of the Straits Settlements. Respite came only in April and May in which there was fair rainfall. June and July were wet months throughout. August was a dry month for Singapore and Malacca but Penang and Province Wellesley, on the other hand, had abundant rain. September was dry for parts of Singapore but in Province Wellesley and Malacca, rainfall was relatively heavy. October was observed to have been unusually dry in Singapore but there was abundant rain in other parts of the Settlements. November and December were wet months in the Settlements and a fairly heavy fall was recorded.
Thomas Irvine Rowell was born in 1840 at Oldmachar and educated first at Aberdeen Grammar School, and later at Aberdeen University where he obtained his M.D. and C.M. degrees respectively. Rowell also attended medical schools in Edinburgh, Paris and Vienna. Rowell first came to the Straits Settlements in 1868 as acting Colonial Surgeon. Between May 1868 and March 1876, Rowell became Health Officer for the port of Singapore, before being appointed Principal Civil Medical Officer of the Straits Settlements in July 1877 and the Registrar of Births and Deaths in 1881. In 1878, Rowell had been a member of a diplomatic mission to Siam led by Sir William Robinson, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, to invest King Chulalongkorn with the insignia of the Knight Grand Cross of St Michael and St George (G.C.M.G.) When the Tan Tock Seng Hospital was moved from the slopes of Pearl Hill to its present site at the Balestier Plain, Rowell had been responsible for the reorganisation of the hospital. It was under Rowell’s stewardship that the Tan Tock Seng Hospital became a model of infirmary and poor house combined. Rowell appeared to have pursued a keen interest in zoology. Apart from establishing the Zoological Gardens of Singapore, Rowell had been responsible for the first collection of stuffed fish with Malay and scientific names in the Raffles Museum, a collection that was lamentably superseded by one painted in natural colours. Finally Rowell was elected President of the Singapore Municipality in 1888. His retirement from service in October 1890 had been hastened by a health breakdown which obliged him to retire at the relatively early age of 50. Earlier in that year, Rowell had received his Companion of St Michael and St George (C.M.G.) in the New Year Honours. Rowell Road in Singapore was named after him as he used to own some land on which this road was later constructed. Few details concerning the private life of this admirable man are available to us but we do know that he was married in the Singapore Cathedral in 1868 to a Maria Grace Gale and that the golden wedding anniversary was celebrated on 4 August 1928 by the couple who were then residing in Cheltenham. Rowell lived to a ripe old age and died in London in July 1932, at the age of 92.