James Brooke: The First of the White Rajahs of Sarawak
There is only one example in recent centuries of a private Englishman setting himself up as the ruler of an independent nation and establishing a dynasty that would rule it for a century. This was however the remarkable achievement of James Brooke (1803-1868), the first of the “White Rajahs” of Sarawak. My interest in him was aroused, not only by his appearance in “Flashman’s Lady” by George MacDonald-Fraser, but my own visits to Sarawak, the most recent being in 2014. Sarawak, is the portion of the nation of Malaysia that lies on the north coast of Borneo. It stretches some 450 miles, roughly south-west to north-east, bordered northwards by its long coast along the South China Sea and southwards by its frontier with Kalimantan, the larger part of Borneo that belongs to Indonesia and to the north east by the independent sultanate of Brunei. With an area of some 48,000 square miles (compared with Great Britain’s 88,000) and a population of 2.4 million, Sarawak today is a highly-developed modern state with a thriving economy based on development of large gas and oil reserves and responsible use of the government revenues that accrue.
Kuching – Sarawak’s principal city today – a village in Brooke’s time
(with acknowledgement to CoolCityCat on Wikipedia)
Sarawak’s population is mixed as regards ethnicity and religion. Some 30% of the population are Ibans – a term that covers many sub-groups – who were the original inhabitants of Borneo and are today mainly Christian. At 24% The Chinese community is the next most populous group, Chinese pioneers having come here as long ago as the 6th Century AD, but their major immigration occurring in the last century and a half. Malays represent 23% of the population, their presence going back upwards of a thousand years and the large majority of whom are Muslim. The remaining 23% are made up of a huge multiplicity of indigenous ethnic groups, many of them Christian, plus Indians and Europeans. Somehow, it all works reasonably well and sets an example for so much of the rest of the world to follow as regards acceptance of diversity, mutual respect, and focus on common goals of peace and development.
But since Sarawak is in area only 17% of the vast island of Borneo – the third largest island in the world – how did it come into being as a separate state? The answer lies in the unlikely career of one of the most colourful figures of the 19th Century, James Brooke, who essentially defined its borders, governed it as an independent kingdom, and established a dynasty of “White Rajahs” who were to continue to rule until 1946.
Born in India in 1803, son of a British judge, Brooke was sent to England at the age of 12 to be educated, a process punctuated by running away from a school he disliked. He returned to India at the age of 16 and was commissioned into the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. (In this period there was no direct British rule, nor was there to be for another thirty years, and the Company had its own army). The First Burmese War broke out in 1824 and Brooke was soon in action with a body of volunteer Indian horsemen he had trained. He was to lead them in a successful charge at the Battle of Rungpore in January 1825 and two days later repeated the exploit. This time however he was shot in the lung. Thrown from his horse, he was left for dead, and only when the battlefield was cleared was he found to be still breathing. He survived, but even after his initial recovery was weak enough to be sent back to Britain to recuperate. His wound was sufficient to justify a pension of £70 per year for life. The next five years, marked by continuing ill health, were spent in England and when he returned to India in 1830 he resigned his commission. Fascinated by South East and East Asia, he sailed on to China – more illness there – and back to England.
East India House – “John Company’s” London Headquarters
Once at home again, Brooke began to read widely on the East and to consolidate the negative opinion he had formed of the East India Company (known as “John Company”) and the stranglehold it maintained on commercial activity. He did not share the prejudice of so many of his class against “trade” and he recognised significant opportunities in South East Asia. Drawing on family money, Brooke purchased a “rakish-looking slaver brig,” the 290 tons Findlay, loaded it with trade goods, hired a crew and master and took her to Macao, the Portuguese colony on the China coast. The venture was a financial disaster and Brooke returned home much chastened. He bought a small yacht and sailed it off Britain to increase his knowledge of seamanship – which he should probably have done to start with – and the death of his father in 1835 brought him an inheritance of £30,000, a vast sum at the time. Now 33, Brooke realised that it was now or never if he was to realise his dreams. He bought a 142 ton schooner, the Royalist, and set systematically about learning all he could about Borneo, which he had identified as offering the greatest opportunities. There was a Dutch presence on the south of the island, but the Malay Sultanate of Brunei, on the north coast, had been weakened by corruption and extortion and had only limited control of its territories. Oppression of the Iban tribes by the Malay rulers was extreme and there was widespread resentment. Loose control led to flourishing piracy, the most important participants being “Illanuns” from Mindinao in the Southern Philippines, as well as indigenous groups known as the “Sea Dyaks”. Borneo’s estuaries provided ideal hiding places and the pirates tended to victimise Chinese traders and to avoid European shipping. If trade was sparse then the pirates moved inland, along the rivers, to raid the tribes living there. It might be added that headhunting was a widespread and honoured tradition at this period.
Contemporary sketch of a Dyak war prahu
It was into this situation that James Brooke sailed his Royalist, arriving at Kuching in Western Sarawak in August 1838, and finding the settlement there threatened by Iban uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke took command of a combined Malay and Chinese force that had hitherto been on the defensive and, leading from the front, and supported by light guns landed from the Royalist, launched it on the enemy. The result was a rout and other successes followed. Brooke’s reputation was now established. Trading opportunities proved less than Brooke had anticipated and could only flourish is piracy was suppressed. Brooke, with local support, now launched a number of anti-piracy campaigns, which indeed were to continue for much of the rest of his life. In 1841, greatly impressed by Brooke’s successes, the Sultan of Brunei, offered him the governorship of Sarawak. The move was a wise one for many Malay nobles in Brunei, unhappy over the anti-piracy campaigns, attempted to depose the Sultan. Brooke came to the rescue and restored the Sultan to his throne. In the following year, 1842, the Sultan ceded complete sovereignty of Sarawak to Brooke, granting him the title of Rajah.
Brooke negotiating with the Sultan of Brunei
Brooke now began to consolidate his rule over Sarawak, reforming administration, codifying laws, fighting piracy and ending headhunting. Major cultural shifts were required as the traditions of ages were challenged. One chieftain, named Matari, who came to see Brooke asked if he really intended to punish piracy and headhunting. On being assured that this was the case he asked pathetically if he might have permission to steal a few heads occasionally. Brooke administered justice from the hall of his large bungalow in Kuching, supported by Malay nobles. Once it became obvious that he was prepared to bring in and enforce judgements against the rich and powerful his reputation rose further. Financial challenges proved more intractable as the country proved less productive than he had anticipated. He estimated annual revenue at between £5000 and £6000 and out of this had to cover the salaries and costs of his administration, his own living expenses, and the upkeep of the two ships he maintained. It was at best break-even and he was frequently required to dip into his own rapidly dwindling fortune.
Brooke’s and HMS Dido’s forces attacking upriver
Pirate stronghold in background (from Keppel’s book)
One of the largest anti-piracy campaigns was to be in 1843, when Brooke secured the support of a kindred spirit, James Keppel, captain of the 18-gun corvette HMS Dido. The objectives were three villages up rivers swamped by mangrove swamps where Dido’s draught did not allow her to penetrate. Brooke had had a launch called the Jolly Bachelor built locally for such work and she, with the Dido’s pinnace, two cutters and a gig, carrying 80 men between them, led the expedition. They were supplemented by numerous local craft, which carried a further 400. The first of the stockade villages was easily taken. The flotilla was ambushed as it passed over shallows to the next village, but the attackers were driven off, and this village’s defenders surrendered, promising “to reform their ways.” The third village, Rembas, put up a stiffer resistance but was stormed with little loss and burned thereafter. The defenders, who had fled into the forest, returned to negotiate a truce. Few lives were lost in the entire expedition, and not a single woman or child. In 1846 Keppel was to publish an account of these exploits, drawing heavily on Brooke’s own journal, with the result that he became widely known in Britain for the first time.
In 1847 Brooke returned temporarily to England. Now a national hero, he was awarded the Freedom of the City of London, appointed British consul-general in Borneo and knighted. He was however unsuccessful – as he continued to be thereafter – in getting the British Government to take over responsibility for Sarawak and he continued to bear a heavy financial burden. This was all the worse since he had lost heavily on investments in Britain in this period. He returned to Sarawak to find it well run by the small staff he had recruited in Britain and was warmly welcomed by the Malay and Iban communities. Brooke now provided Sarawak with a national flag – a red and purple cross on a yellow ground.
The Nemesis had previously distinguished herself in the First Opium War (1840-41)
Pirate activity was again taking off however, leading to the largest punitive expedition of all. On this occasion Brook had the support of Admiral Sir Francis Collier with HMS Albatross (16-gun brig) and the East India Company screw gunboat Nemesis. Once again a drive upriver was required – for this Albatross had too deep a draught, but she provided her longboats – and Brooke brought some sixty “praus” – local craft – carrying a large force. In the battle that followed the pirate force was isolated on a sandspit and was lashed by fire from Nemesis. The prahus cut off escape and the battle raged for five hours under a bright moon. Brooke’s local allies showed no mercy to those who had persecuted them so long. An attempt was made to board Nemesis but the attackers’ canoes were overturned and many of their occupants battered under her paddle wheels. After losing nearly a hundred boats and 500 men, the pirates’ main force, some 2000 strong, managed to escape upriver, losing 500 in the process. Brooke refrained from following and in the weeks thereafter the pirate groups surrendered.
The 1850s were years of consolidation and Brooke established a small but capable civil service. Trade grew slowly, although there were further outbreaks of violence to be suppressed, including a revolt by part of the Chinese community. Brooke was reluctant to allow European traders to operate freely as he believed that this would result in exploitation of the inhabitants. Much trouble was caused by a trader called Robert Burns, apparently a grandson of the Scottish poet and described as “disreputable”. He was accused not only of stealing women but of encouraging local tribes to kill anybody trying to enter his areas of operations. Expelled from Sarawak, Burns was to turn to arms trading off North Borneo. Here he literally lost his head after his ship was attacked by pirates. Brooke accompanied the Royal Navy commander in the area, Admiral Sir Francis Austen, on an expedition to punish those responsible. This resulted in the unlikely circumstance of the novelist Jane Austen’s brother avenging the grandson of Robert Burns.
In these years Brooke invited the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to Sarawak. This encouraged Wallace to decide on the Malay Archipelago for his next expedition, one that lasted for eight years and established him as one of the foremost Victorian intellectuals and naturalists of the time. Brooke became the centre of controversy in 1851 when accusations against him of excessive use of force, under the guise of anti-piracy operations, ultimately led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854. After investigation, the Commission dismissed the charges but the accusations continued to haunt him in his later years.
Brooke never married – there is evidence of strong male friendships, but as these were frequent in the Victorian era, without any sexual dimension, it is impossible to come to any conclusions. Brooke did however admit to an illegitimate son, whose mother’s identity was never revealed, and to whom he left money in his will. As successor as Rajah be appointed his sister’s son, Charles Johnson, who changed his surname to Brooke.
Though James Brooke was still active in fighting pirates in the early 1860s, his health was by then failing. He retired to Britain, suffered several strokes and died in 1868. Here were to be two further White Rajahs – his nephew Charles (reigned 1868-1917) and the latter’s son Vyner (reigned 1917-1946). Occupied by the Japanese in World War 2, Sarawak was finally annexed by Britain in 1946, in return for compensation paid to Rajah Vyner and his three daughters. Britain granted Sarawak independence in 1963 and it formed the federation of Malaysia with Malaya, North Borneo, and Singapore later that year. (Singapore later seceded as a separate nation).
So ended one of the most romantic – and unlikely – episodes of British history, all due to one man whose exploits were indeed stranger than fiction.
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