A good colonialist? The White Rajah of Sarawak’s case (Column: Bookends)
Colonialism, even in its heyday, had its detractors as well as defenders, but the view now is of unbridled and universal disparagement, with what were deemed to be its benefits being questioned. This approach’s validity may be debatable, but what it definitely does is to obscure some remarkable historical contributions. Like of this prodigious British adventurer who founded a kingdom in Southeast Asia that lasted over a century and saved scores of peaceful people from piracy and decapitation.
Even by standards of his extraordinary times, Sir James Brooke (1803-1868), the White Rajah of Sarawak, had an exceptional and unprecedented career, which was being retold right from his own lifetime, and is still of interest.
A particular favourite in boys literature (at least till empire-building was regarded positively), due to his own boyish looks and staggering achievements, he also inspired Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Nicholas “The Cruel Sea” Monsarrat, and “Sandokan” creator Emilio Salgari (who however made him an antagonist), while actor Errol Flynn wanted to make a film on his swashbuckling life.
Born near Calcutta to a judge and raised in Benares, Brooke was sent to Britain to study but ran away from school. Later returning to India, he joined the army and distinguished himself during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). He was however grievously wounded in action in 1825 and needed five years’ convalescence. Returning too late to rejoin his unit, he had to resign his commission.
With his formal military service cut short, he spent his inheritance to buy a schooner, came to Southeast Asia in 1838 and happened to help the Sultan of Brunei quell an insurgency. Made governor of Sarawak (on Borneo — the largest island in Asia), he was recognised as an independent ruler in 1841.
Ruling a kingdom which eventually grew to the size of England, he fought successfully against pirates “although virtually without resources and with only a handful of adventurers and reformed head-hunters to help him”, and provided better administration and justice. He allowed his subjects to retain most of their customs, save slavery and head-hunting, and successfully opposed both missionary activity and commercial exploitation.
But Brooke didn’t have an easy time. Accused by some British MPs of excessive force against natives under the guise of anti-piracy operations, he faced a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore. Its proceedings swiftly degenerated into farce — one questioner, who asked if the head-hunting Dyaks kept any account of the number of heads taken from each other and sought to balance numbers, was told they were “very bad accountants”. Though the Commission acquitted him, the experience embittered him.
Added to his bad health and issues over the succession, (Brooke remained unmarried, was suspected to be homosexual, and there was confusion over his Burma injury with some accounts saying he was hit in the lungs, and other saying the genitals which made him impotent), his last years were far from peaceful. He died at home in Britain.
But his younger nephew (the elder nephew was disinherited amid acrimony) and grand-nephew would continue to rule Sarawak, till the latter ceded it to the British crown after World War II. It eventually became part of Malaysia but the legacy of the White Rajahs is still recognised and honoured in their former domain.
Brooke has been well served by biographers. The earliest were by Gertrude L. Jacob “The Raja of Sarawak: An Account of Sir James Brook”, 1876) and Sir Spenser St. John “The life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak”, 1879). Both are based on Brooke’s own papers and correspondence, but St John, who was his longtime aide, added his own perspective too. Then there is Emily Hahn’s 1953 biography, Nicholas Tarling’s in 1982, and Nigel Barley’s “White Raja” in 2002.
But one of the best depictions is in George Macdonald Fraser’s “Flashman’s Lady” (1977), the sixth in the series but third by plot chronology. Though the lecherous arch-cad is liable to view all through a jaundiced and uncharitable eye, Flashman is impressed, despite himself, by Brooke who not only saves him from a murder attempt but mounts a major expedition for freeing his kidnapped wife from pirates.
Though Flashman provides a vivid description of Brooke and his eccentricities (playing leapfrog, keenness to grow English roses, read aloud Jane Austen, fondness for theological discussions and the like), but also his courage and resolve, it is Fraser who sums him up better.
Brooke, he says, “was one of the Victorians who gave empire-building a good name, whose worse faults, perhaps, were that he loved adventure for its own sake, had an unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race, and enjoyed fighting pirates. His philosophy, being typical of his class and time, may not commend itself universally today, but an honest examination of what he actually did will discover more to praise than to blame”.
With this example in mind, we may need to think if condemning a whole swathe of history is not a little too excessive?
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)