Pirates, Dyaks and Initial British Contacts
Sarawak, on the northern coast of the huge island of Borneo, had become synonymous with piracy, slavery and wild head hunters (known as Dyaks) with its critical location alongside the busy South China Sea routes. It was generally thought of an as an area to avoid. The Dutch had long since seized control of much of the valuable spice trade throughout South East Asia as a whole
, but even they gave Northern Borneo a wide berth due to the hostile tribes and easier pickings elsewhere. It should be said though that it was Dutch mercantalist and monopolist policies that contributed to the presence of much of the pirate activity in the first place. The Dutch did all in their power to prevent any rival ships in any form from carrying legitimate cargoes and so the alternative was either not to trade or turn to piracy. The English East India Company had half-heartedly attempted to establish trading bases in South-East Borneo at Soekadana and at Bandjermasin as early as 1609 but both of these projects had been abandoned by 1612 largely due to Dutch hostility and perceived opportunities elsewhere. The English were successfully out-manouevered from the region after a massacre of their traders further South in Amboina which deterred English activity in the area for most of the rest of the century. Tentative attempts to re-establish their colonies in Soekadana from 1693 to 1694 and again in Bandjermasin from 1700 - 1707 (and once more from 1737 - 1747) still highlighted Dutch primacy and hostility to rival activity in the region.
With its success in India, the East India Company was feeling strong enough to challenge the Dutch stranglehold over the spice trade once more. In 1759 William Dalrymple lobbied his company for permission to explore and make new charts around the China Seas. It was Dalrymple who was able to come to terms with the Sultan of Sulu in 1761 which would give the EIC a factory in his territory along the Northern coast of Borneo to facilitate trade between the Sultan of Sulu, the EIC and China. Concurrent with these developments, the EIC sent out a separate expedition against the Spanish colony of the nearby Phillippines at the tail end of the Seven Years War and managed to seize Manila itself in 1763. Unfortunately for the EIC, any hopes they had of seizing the Philippines as an EIC base of operations was scuppered by the ending of the war back in Europe before news of the seizure of Manila could be included in the peace negotiations. Therefore, Dalrymple's Borneo scheme returned to the fore. When it eventually emerged in 1770 the plan was to set up a factory at Balimbangan Island at the entrance of Marudu Bay on the Northern tip of Borneo. A small flotilla was sent there in 1773 under the command of John Herbert. Herbert was not a good choice and offered too generous terms of credit at first whilst siphoning off company funds for his own gain. When he tried to demand goods for payments already made, he offended Sulu traders whilst also earning the antipathy of pirates who were suspicious of a European base in the midst of their area of operations. Therefore, the Sulus and Pirates combined to attack the factory in 1775. The British officials barely escaped to the island of Labuan whilst their factory was utterly looted and destroyed. Herbert argued that Labuan itself might make a more appropriate base of operations but by this time the Company back in London had lost faith in Herbert and that they had already lost enough money in their investment. Herbert was recalled.
British interest throughout the Dutch Indies returned remarkably quickly thanks to the American War of Independence where the Dutch had sided with the French, Spanish and American Patriots. Although the war was generally disastrous for the British, in the case of Asia, the Royal Navy was able to seize Ceylon and its fine naval base at Trincomalee and was able to open Indonesian waters for trade of all nations. This effectively broke the Dutch monopoly on trade throughout the region and meant that British and East India Company ships could at least pass through Dutch waters without fear of being attacked by the Dutch, even if they still had to worry about pirates.
The EIC returned in 1803 to Balimbangan Island but once again hostile Sulus and pirates made life intolerable for them and they had abandoned it once more by 1805. The fact that the Dutch had been forced to ally with France during the Napoleonic Wars meant that Dutch possessions became fair game for the British. It helped that the British defeated local Dutch naval forces comprehensively in 1806 and 1807 and so opened the door to renewed British interest in Borneo. This was spear-headed primarily by Sir Stamford Raffles under the auspices of the Governor-General of India, Lord Minto. Raffles helped coordinate Dutch capitulation in Java in 1811 and set up a British run administration in its place. He saw an opportunity for the British to gain an influence over Borneo which he regarded as being full of commercial and strategic potential which was as yet to be realised. Raffles offered Royal Navaly protection from pirates in return for British trading and territorial rights with a number of Sultans along the coastline of Borneo. The destruction of the Dutch Navy had seen a sudden spike in pirate activity and the name of 'Sarawak' first entered English reports as the source of pirate activity. Naval expeditions were despatched to try and restore order but with naval commitments still high elsewhere, they had limited success. Nevertheless, by 1813 three Borneo Sultans had agreed to his terms and one had already accepted Alexander Hare as a British Resident. Unfortunately for Sir Stamford Raffles' schemes, Lord Minto was replaced in 1813 by a far more truculent and reserved Lord Moira. Lord Moira was alarmed at Raffles' Borneo plans and ordered him to desist and retrench to Java. An early opportunity for British intervention in Borneo was scuppered just as it was on the cusp of delivering dividends. The ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 saw most Dutch colonies in Asia returned to them. This included Java. The British held on to Benkulen in Sumatra and Sir Stamford Raffles was able to establish a foothold at the base of the Malayan Peninsular by the name of Singapore which did signal continued British interest in South-East Asia. However his Borneo plans lay in tatters, although he did spend many more years writing about its charms and potential.
The British and Dutch came to an agreement in 1824 with a Treaty signed in London which agreed that Malaya was primarily a British sphere of influence and all islands 'Sumatra and all islands south of the Straits of Singapore' were Dutch. The problem with this treaty is that it left out any mention of Borneo which was neither on the Malayan peninsular nor Sumatra nor an island south of Singapore. This meant that as far as the two European powers were concerned, its status was still undecided between them. For the meantime, the Dutch reoccupied many of its forts in South of Borneo but was still too weak and too stretched to try and assert control over the northern coastline.
Nevertheless, the accommodation between Britain and the Netherlands combined with Raffles new Singapore outpost to set the stage for a more sustained incursion by British traders throughout the region. The strings were further loosened when the British East India Company was relieved of its monopoly of British trading commerce with China in 1833 by a newly elected Whig government back in Westminster. This change in government policy ushered in a period of Free Trade and rapid British commercial expansion throughout Asia as a whole. It would also soon contribute to war with China itself when restrictions on the sale of Opium were interpreted back in London as an attack on Free Trade and helped ignite the 1839 - 1842 Opium War. This war would also see a significant and permanent transfer of Royal Navy activity to the region for the first time. All of these events would help inspire and coalesce around an unexpected but effective intervention into Sarawak and Brunei politics which would bring the North coast of Sarawak into an unusual pro-British, but not an official colonial, arrangement.
The 'White Raja'
James Brooke was to provide the catalyst and an ultimately decisive intervention into the region's politics when he set sail from England in his own private 142 ton schooner the Royalist in 1838. Inspired by the example of Sir Stamford Raffles and excited about the new commercial opportunities in the light of the East India Company losing its monopoly (he had been an EIC soldier who had fought in Burma), and conscious of the retreating power of the Dutch in the region, James Brooke headed for Sarawak to see for himself how the political/economic situation looked. He carried a letter of introduction and thanks from the Singapore Board of Trade to a local ruler who had rescued British mariners shipwrecked off the Borneo coastline and had returned them to Singapore safe and secure.
His reconnaissance voyage quickly identified that the Brunei Sultan and his Rajahs were having difficulty extending their control effectively along the Northern shoreline of the island of Borneo in the face of a four year long civil war and widespread pirate and Dyak activity. Indeed on this first voyage to Sarawak James Brooke witnessed first-hand pirate Prahus seizing vessels right next next to his own ship whilst it was at anchor. Brooke aligned himself with the Sultan's Regent and heir in Sarawak, Raja Muda Hashim. Raja Hashim quickly identified that James Brooke might have the means to break the deadlock in the war but also might provide a means to facilitate trade from the region to Singapore and China. This was particularly so when James Brooke acquired a second ship from Singapore and began bringing goods to Sarawak in return for locally produced antimony. James Brooke had to be persuaded to become involved but was ultimately swayed by Raja Hashim's sustained pressure: "He begged, he entreated me to stay, and offered me the country of Siniawan and Sarawak and its government and trade, if I would only stop, and not desert him." The unusual offer was too tempting for an adventurer like James Brooke who leapt at the opportunity. He galvanised his forces and intervened rapidly and decisively in the immediate civil war which was put to rest remarkably quickly with European intervention.
When victory seemed assured, Raja Hashim appeared to backtrack on his ability to confer a title and lands to a foreigner. James Brooke took additional umbrage at what he perceived was the duplicity of the sitting local Malay Governor Makota who did not appreciate the useruper and so subtly attempted to manoeuvre him out of his promised territories. James Brooke had thrown himself fully and actively into local politics and had sought alliances and accommodations with a broad spectrum of local rulers and tribes. He even liaised with the hitherto troublesome Dyak who he soon realised could be encouraged to live peacefully in return for assurances and economic opportunities. He was particularly aggrieved to discover that the Raja and the Governor had allowed a pirate raiding party of over 2,500 people against a tribe that he had recently been negotiating with. He saw this as a duplicitous attack designed to undermine him and so decided to take decisive action to shore up his position.
In 1841, he sailed directly into Kuching harbour and anchored his ship within sight of the Raja Hashim's palace with its guns trained on the building. Brooke requested an immediate audience to reconfirm his title, request the removal of the offending local Governor and his own immediate confirmation as Governor of all Sarawak with the fullest powers. The Raja's reaffirmation was confirmed by the Sultan in Brunei the following year upon the promise that Raja Brooke would pay an annual tribute and would respect the laws and religions of the people he ruled. In many ways, Brooke was an unusual European for his era. His attitudes towards native peoples had much in sympathy with the concept of 'Noble Savage' espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He felt that native people's culture and morals were undermined with too much contact with European rulers. The rule of the Brooke family would be characterised as non-interventionist and highly respectful of the host culture so long as law and order were maintained - which in a culture of myriad tribes and a tradition of warfare was far from assured.
His new administration sought to protect the weaker tribes and encourage Chinese merchants to the region in order to engender a trading economy into what was otherwise a largely subsistence based and raiding economy. All commerce was welcome as long as it did not interfere with the interests of the local population. The Chinese were regarded as particularly pragmatic in this regard and also had access to an impressive and long established trading network throughout the region. Brooke issued a code of law known as the Ondong-ondong which drew heavily from existing Brunei principles but with Free Trade characteristics embedded within it to promote and encourage economic activity. It also, for the first time in local history, treated all subjects equally. This included the Malays who had previously enjoyed a more privileged access to justice through cultural, familial and corrupt ties to the Sultanate of Brunei. James Brooke held court in his own house virtually every day he was in his capital. He would hear a steady stream of petitions and resolved many issues which had previously stagnated in the bureaucratic morass of the previous regime.
James Brooke publicly published his guiding principles in how he dispensed justice which would form the bedrock of the legal system for over a century:
1st. That murder, robbery, and other heinous crimes will be
punished according to the ondong-ondong: and no person committing such offences wiII escape,
if, after fair inquiry, he be proved guilty.
2nd, In order to ensure the good of the country, all men,
whether Malays, Chinese or Dyaks, are permitted to trade or
labour according to their pleasure, and to enjoy their gains.
3rd. All roads will be open, that the inhabitants at large may
seek profit both by sea or by land; and all boats coming from
others are free to enter the river and depart, without let or hindrance.
4th. Trade, in all its branches, will be free, with the exception
of antimony ore, which the governor holds in his own hands, but
which no person is forced to work, and which will be paid for at a
proper price when obtained. The people are encouraged to trade
and labour, and to enjoy the profits which are to be made by fair
and honest dealing.
5th. It is ordered, that no person going amongst the Dyaks
shall disturb them, or gain their goods under false pretences. It
must be clearly explained to the different Dyak tribes, that the
revenue will be collected by the three Datus, bearing the seal of the
governor; and (except this yearly demand from the government)
they are to give nothing to any other person; nor are they obliged
to sell their goods except as they please, and at their own prices.
6th. The governor will shortly inquire into the revenue, and
fix it at a proper rate; so that everyone may know certainly how
much he has to contribute yearly to support the government.
7th. It will be necessary, likewise, to settle the weights, measures
and money current in the country, and to introduce doits, that the
poor may purchase food cheaply.
8th. The governor issues these commands, and wiII enforce
obedience to them; and whilst he gives all protection and assistance
to the persons who act rightly, he will not fail to punish those who
seek to disturb the public peace or commit crimes; and he warns
all such persons to seek their safety, and find some other country
where they may be permitted to break the laws of God and man.
James Brooke may have been awarded the status of Raja but in reality his regime was fairly powerless to implement any policies or to protect his newly acquired lands. He had no army, no warships, no officials and not even a police force. He was literally starting his state from scratch and he had no deep pockets to draw upon. His immediate priorities were piracy and slavery. The two were inextricably linked as pirate raids regarded humans as the most valuable booty of all in their raids. The geographic dispersal of any pirate bases along the jungles and rivers of Borneo made extinguishing the practice extremely arduous. As soon as one base was closed down, another seemed to spring up to take its place. However, he appreciated that he would need help to achieve any advances against these twin blights on Sarawak. In a long letter to the Secretary of State for the colonies he set out his case for help:
I request the support of Government,
or the assistance of the commercial community... my objects are to
call into existence, the resources of one of the richest and most extensive
islands of the globe; to relieve an industrious people from oppression,
and to check, and if possible, to suppress, PIRACY and the SLAVE
TRADE, which are openly carried on within a short distance of three
European settlements, on a scale and system revolting to humanity...
I propose the following steps:
1st. To encourage the immigration of Chinese and Javanese.
2ndly. to open a friendly communication with the
different chiefs, and with the interior tribes, by visiting them either
once or twice a year.
3rdly. To return with the Rajah Muda Hassim to Borneo
Proper (Brunei), and through his means, to stop the distractions and intrigues
of the capital, and establish an English influence.
4thly. By free trade to remove the oppression practised on the
cultivator, by giving him a proper participation in the profits of
5thly. The extirpation of piracy!
London refused to recognise Brooke's territory and title as they were concerned that they might provoke the Dutch in the region who were still suspicious of his activity and still were the main power on the island of Borneo - although their interests were concentrated in the south and they had little desire to upset the Sultanate of Brunei. Meanwhile the Royal Navy had completed its punitive expedition against the Chinese in the Opium War and had established a new China Station at its recently acquired colony of Hong Kong. The priority for the British in the region was now the suppression of piracy in order to facilitate trade between India, Singapore, Hong Kong and China itself.
In 1843, James Brooke travelled to Singapore in order to lobby for increased British recognition from sympathetic officials there. Whilst in Singapore he met with Henry Keppel the commander of HMS Dido and struck up a lasting friendship and a useful contact. Since 1825, the Admiralty had instituted generous 'prize' rules pertaining to pirates. Basically, crew of RN ships which seized a pirate ship could earn a bounty based on the number of pirates aboard. This made the opportunity of campaigning against pirates in and around Borneo a potentially lucrative one and certainly a way for an ambitious captain to earn his reputation. Henry Keppel took James Brooke back to Borneo aboard his ship and was attacked en route by the very pirates James Brooke had warned him about. Henry Keppel needed no further convincing and actively began collaborating with James Brooke in suppressing piracy in the region. The Royal Navy later sent a survey vessel and then other ships to help gain a better understanding of the coastline and to continue to prosecute the anti-piracy campaign. Between 1843 and 1849 there followed a dogged campaign that sought to vanquish pirate activity once and for all. The combination of Royal Naval expertise together with local knowledge and support provided a formidable combination. It also had the effect of impressing many of the Brunei Malays of the connections and influence of James Brooke. Indeed the Sultan conferred the title of Raja in perpetuity upon James and his heirs when a sizeable Royal Naval flotilla called in to Brunei to pay their respects to the Sultan.
Whilst engaged in the prolonged actions against the pirates and Dyaks, an attempted palace coup in Brunei came close to pulling the rug from under James Brooke's title and position. An adopted son of the Sultan of Brunei by the name of Hashim Jelal convinced his father that the English were not to be trusted and that his appointed heir, Raja Hashim, had to be removed to protect the Sultanate from foreign domination. This duplicity came to light in 1846 when followers of Hashim Jelal moved to kill Raja Hashim and many of the princes during a night time massacre that shocked everyone. Indeed 12 of Brunei's 14 princes were killed and the surviving two were injured. Raja Hashim attempted to swim to safety at first only to be surrounded and so shot himself rather than be captured. Raja Hashim's younger brother, Budrudeen fought off the first wave of attackers before drawing a circle of gunpowder around his badly wounded self, his wife and his sister and igniting it to deny the pleasure of murder to his would be assassins. His final message to James read "Tell the Queen of England that I kept my word" referring to the political intrigue that had been unleashed by Hashim Jelal.
The loss of Raja Hashim, his brother and many of those with a friendly disposition towards James Brooke put his official position into serious doubt. He liaised with the Royal Navy once more who quickly agreed that supporting his claim over that of the rebel Hashim Jelal's would be more beneficial for the suppression of piracy and for peace in the region. Consequently, they despatched a substantial flotilla of ships to accompany James Brooke into Brunei Bay. Only token resistance was offered by the forces of the Sultan in the face of such overwhelming force. The Sultan and much of the population of the city fled into the interior at the sight of the Royal Navy's presence. The Sultan ultimately reappeared after being guaranteed his own personal safety but he was forced to do penance at the graves of the victims of the palace massacre. Furthermore he was required to write a letter of apology to Queen Victoria and James Brooke's title was not only re-confirmed but his requirement to pay an annual tribute was removed as an obligation. Finally, the island of Labuan was handed over to the British as a Crown Colony but with James Brooke as its Governor. It had been discovered that coal deposits were available on the island which was a perfect resource for a Royal Navy rapidly converting its old sailing ships to steamships. Additionally, its strategic position dictated which ships could enter and leave the Bay of Brunei and would provide a useful base for the Royal Navy to oversea the campaign against pirates throughout the region. Coincidentally, the United States had expressed an interest in acquiring the island and its coal deposits and had even sent a ship, the USS Constitution, to Brunei the previous year to negotiate a trade deal in return for possession of the island. The British were keen that another western power should not usurp the strategically useful island from under their noses.
James Brooke helped fight against pirates along the entire coastline of Borneo and not just those in his territory of Sarawak. He relied on the support and expertise of the Royal Navy. In 1849, James Brooke and HMS Albatross, HMS Royalsist and EIS Nemesis, with Admiral Collier at its lead, attacked pirates along the Batang Lupar. It was the most successful but also most notorious attack as the killing of 500 pirates was to be questioned back in Parliament. It was also an area that was really in Brunei and not in Sarawak. This also was to be questioned back in Parliament. His critics claimed that he was creating needless battles in order to expand his own territory and questioned whether piracy even existed in the region at all.
Initially, James Brooke was very well received when he returned to Britain garnering widespread acclaim for his methods, integrity and initiative. Soon though, his campaigns against the pirates came in for serious criticism from various liberal quarters for its perceived barbarity - notably from Richard Cobden and Joseph Hume. Much of the animus and evidence was provided from British traders who had been disappointed at what they regarded as James Brooke's over-protective nature for his subjects against commercial exploitation from outside companies. The Eastern Archipelago Company which had initially been granted permission to exploit the coal reserves in Labuan were particularly at the forefront of the accusations. They claimed that there were no pirates in the region and that James Brooke had used piracy as an excuse to expand his territories and punish his enemies and all with the aid of the Royal Navy. One notable complainant's evidence, by the name of Robert Burns, that there were no pirates to be concerned about in the region was somewhat undermined when he himself was attacked and decapitated by pirates off the Borneo coast. Even this act did not undermine the resolve of his political opponents at home who continued to call for an enquiry. James Brooke wrote privately lamented "What do they expect? Do they really imagine that piracy is to be suppressed by argument or preaching?". A Commission of Enquiry was eventually and after much political wrangling called. It was conducted by the East India Company out of Singapore. It eventually confirmed the existence of piracy in the region and cleared James Brooke of all criticisms about his anti-piracy campaign and of any assertions of inhumanity levelled at him. However, the Commission could not reconcile Brooke's unofficial position as Raja of Sarawak with his ability to call upon the help of the Royal Navy even if done for a noble reason such as putting down piracy and fighting slavery. They therefore advised that the Royal Navy distance itself from any direct action with Brooke's Sarawak government in the future. From this point on, he would have to rely on his own resources from within Sarawak as the territory reverted to its almost feudal dimension with little official backing from Britain despite it having a British ruler. James Brooke, partly in disappointment, decided to resign his official posts of Governor of Labuan and Consul-General of Borneo.
Whilst still embrolied in the Commission of Enquiry debacle the remnants of those pirates defeated in 1849 raised their heads again in 1853 during a period James Brooke was out of Borneo and otherwise distracted. The action took place along the River Skrang and saw friendly tribes attacked by pirates seeking a new base of operations along the River. James Brooke happened to be en route back to Borneo but when he arrived in Kuching in May and heard firsthand of the disaster he came down with smallpox. This disease totally devastated his health and came close to claiming his life. Either way, it delayed his response to the pirate threat. On his recovery he headed to Brunei in August to meet what was then the new Sultan of Borneo, Pangiran Munim. At this meeting James Brooke asked for a transfer of the Skrang and Saribas districts into his Sarawak territory in return for an annual tribute. The Sultan was only too glad to be rid of so troublesome and financially burdensome districts and gladly handed them over. James Brooke subsequently, and without the aid of the Royal Navy, set about using his own forces entirely to crush the rebellion along the River Skrang although not before a virulent epidemic of dysentery ravaged through his forces and supporters. Sarawak was growing in size.
Despite the apparent backtracking of official British recognition, James Brooke was gratified that the United States sent an envoy, Mr Joseph Balestier, to both Sarawak and Brunei to organise treates of amity and commerce in the early 1850s. Unfortunately, this was in a period when James Brooke was back in Britain and so he could not sign any treaties per se. However, they were able to touch bases with one another again in 1859 to obtain what was actually the first international country to recognise his state of Sarawak. James Brooke had always been impressed with Americans in general as he felt an affinity for their almost merchant-trading attitude to commerce. He was therefore most gratified when the United States granted recognition of Sarawak.
James Brooke ensured that The Eastern Archipelago Company was stripped of its mining concessions on the grounds that it had never provided the promised for investment nor any modern mining facilities to exploit the natural resources of Labuan and Sarawak. Indeed, many of the investors and disgruntled employees of this company had lined up to give evidence against James Brooke in the Commission of Enquiry. This was mostly discounted as lacking credibility and being motivated by greed. It did not help that the lead protagonist and head of operations of the EAC on Labuan, James Motley, had been found to be a bigamist, small time thief and former brothel owner who was on the run from crimes in Australia. He also would be killed, along with his entire family, a few years later by the very pirates that he claimed did not exist and had been invented by James Brooke to enrich himself.
Meanwhile a new company was established in London in 1856 by the name of The Borneo Company with a market capitalisation of some 60,000 pounds. Several supporters and sympathisers of James Brooke had been instrumental in setting up this replacement company. It was given the concession to mine throughout the Raja's lands. This well capitalised company that traded principally out of Singapore would eventually provide a steady income for James Brooke's Sarawak government as licences and royalties slowly but surely increased over time as the company expanded its operations. The company was also somewhat able to provide ships and personnel that could provide some of the defensive capabilities removed by the British government withdrawing its Royal Naval support. The Borneo Company used large steamships with modern artillery in order to move its precious cargoes to and from Asia. It also had extensive security around its mining sites. Although not a military force per se, its considerable paramilitary resources helped provide an element of security and a regular show of force for James Brooke's government. Indeed within a year, Borneo Company resources would be crucial in preserving the regime from an unexpected enemy.
Although keen to promote trade, the people of Sarawak were largely content to live their lives as largely self-sufficient cultivators living from a combination of hunting, gathering and growing crops. One disruptive ancient tradition was that of head-hunting. It had long been used within Dyak and Iban culture to prove one tribe's superiority over other tribes and to allow young men to prove their warrior status within their community and especially in impressing members of the opposite sex. The instinct to ban such a barbaric practice did run counter to James Brooke's ideas on respecting local tribal customs and practices. However, he also realised that head-hunting destabilised the economy of the region as it poisoned relations between neighbouring tribes and discouraged traders from visiting remote outposts and finding potential markets. Reluctantly, the Brooke administration attempted to outlaw head-hunting through exacting punishments and fines. However, it did provide for a safety valve of sorts for the custom by allowing for the practice to be continued during expeditions sanctioned by the Brooke government. This gave the Sarawak government a powerful reason for tribes to join with the government in order to demonstrate their tribal prowess but it also allowed for the intimidation of any potential enemies who might therefore become victims to these practices. Despite the government stance, the practice of head-hunting continued unofficially in the deep jungles and remote villages of Sarawak for many more years yet and lasted well into the Twentieth Century.
James Brooke was a self-educated man with a particular interest in natural history. Interestingly, he encouraged the work of Alfred Russel Wallace who was working on ideas of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin. Indeed, James even encouraged Wallace to use one of his houses at Santubong in order to write his famous 1855 paper on evolution. James Brooke showed little interest in religion himself but he did encourage trusted missionaries with expertise to come to Sarawak although with the intention that they also provide basic social services such as the colony's first hospital and school. He was reluctant to allow them to proselytise openly but realised that their presence played well in influential circles back in Britain. He did make it clear that missionaries were not to attempt to convert muslims in particular whose religion he personally felt very favourable and well disposed towards. Missionaries were permitted to seek converts in amongst non-Muslims, but the missionaries - at least at first - tended to concentrate on gaining converts from the Chinese trading community in and around Kuching. It would not be until the rule of his successor that any missions outside of the capital were constructed. Even then, he made it clear that local religious beliefs and customs had to be respected, but the regime appreciated the educational, social and medical care that these missionaries invariably provided.
James Brooke's policy of encouraging Chinese migration into Sarawak was paying some dividends but when attempts were made to increase taxes on these incomers, the consequences were nearly fatal to the regime. James Brooke had introduced a tobacco tax with the express purpose of purchasing a gunboat now that the Royal Navy had made it clear that they no longer could underwrite his territory's security. Unfortunately for James Brooke the tax did not raise enough money to buy a modern steamer for defence purposes. The lack of a modern gunboat also meant that political opponents to his regime took heart from knowing that the Royal Navy would almost certainly not turn up to thwart any insurrections on their part. It should be said that the tax which rankled the most with the Chinese community, largely made up of traders and miners, was when they imposed a monopoly on the trade in opium and imposed correspondingly higher taxes on its importation. Initially, there was a spike in smuggling by the Chinese community keen to avoid paying the customs duty. The Chinese mining community in particular was nearly 4,000 strong and was located upstream of the capital at Kuching. They had long lived an almost totally self-sufficient existence in a country of nearly a quarter of a million Malays and Dyaks. There had also been growing discontent against the British back in Canton in China where one of the Emperor's Commissioners had offered a bounty for anyone who brought in an Englishman's head. There was also a dispute in China over the ship the 'Arrow' which would provide the pretext for a second Opium War - so antagonism between Chinese and Europeans was running particularly high at this point in time. Some Chinese in Singapore had already instigated a small uprising of their own for very similar reasons to that of Sarawak. It did not help that the Chinese in Sarawak tended to be heavily armed due to their concern at being attacked by pirates or head-hunters. Nevertheless when the Chinese did rise up in February 1857 it still caught James Brooke's authorities unawares. Indeed, they had felt so secure in their homes of Kuching no sentries or guards of any kind were posted. A small flotilla of Chinese travelled along the river to attack the primary settlement with almost total surprise. Several Europeans were killed in the attack although the Chinese had ordered that only government officials be harmed as they did not want to give the Royal Navy an excuse to intervene if British subjects unconnected to the regime were killed. Notwithstanding these instructions, women and children were included in the final casualty list. James Brooke himself only just managed to escape with his life climbing through his water closet and escaping out of his otherwise surrounded house which was soon to be torched. Fortunately for James Brooke, the local Malays and Dyaks stayed totally loyal to him and helped furnish him with volunteers and equipment to strike back at the Chinese. The real turning point in suppressing the insurrection came with the arrival of an armed Borneo Company steamship, suitably named the Sir James Brooke which arrived unexpectedly and just in the nick of time. Armed with modern artillery, it helped retake captured forts along the river and dispersed any lingering Chinese defenders. Help also came from James' nephew Charles Brooke who had been living amongst a particularly warlike tribe of Dyaks who were delighted to have the opportunity to fight and gather heads on behalf of the Raja. The Malays, Dyaks, the Borneo Company and James Brooke's authorities all combined to defeat the Chinese who had ultimately tried to flee back to Siniwan and Bau. The Dutch had also despatched their own steamer and soldiers to help quell the rebellion but these arrived after the insurrection was fully put down. The Royal Navy did despatch HMS Spartan from Singapore when news of the uprising reached there. However, it had strict orders only to protect British business interests and expressly not any interests of the Government of Sarawak. Its late arrival meant that it contributed little, but the lack of official British support was still palpably made obvious to James Brooke.
The sacking of many government buildings in Kuching, including his own house and its extensive library meant that James Brooke was forced to build a new government house on the Sarawak River. Additionally, much of the Malay quarter had been destroyed by the Chinese and this also had to be reconstructed from scratch. The limited resources available to James Brooke meant that any reconstruction would be slow and the issue of security had still to be resolved. However, the victory did see that the financial contribution made by the Chinese community would only rise as those who had fled or been killed were keen to show their loyalty to the regime. Smuggling and tax avoidance fell significantly and even though the Chinese population fell by some 4,000 as a result of the uprising, their tax receipts actually rose after the rising.
Whenever James Brooke returned to Britain he had generally left his elder nephew, Brooke Brooke, in charge of Sarawak. However, in 1858 both James Brooke and Brooke Brooke were both back in England tussling with the government, and between themselves, over the legal status of Sarawak and lobbying for increased protection in the light of the disturbances from the Chinese insurrection and the even more shocking slaughter of the Indian Mutiny which was foremost in many people's minds at the time. Sensing the weakness of the regime's position whilst its leaders were absent, some local Malay chiefs moved against the administration around the important Sago producing port of Muka. The Sultan of Brunei had little control over local administrators and leaders in this region but after the murder of two Sarawak officials in nearby Kanowit in 1858, there had been sustained difficulties along the Brunei-Sarawak border as rebels sought to evade Sarawak justice and seek refuge in Brunei territories. Charles Brooke had been attempting to reassert control with some but limited success. The awkardness of the situation was exacerbated by an untimely intervention from the British Governor of Labuan, G.W. Edwardes. It just so happened that the Consul General for Brunei, St John, had accompanied James Brooke back to Britain leaving the Labuan Governor to temporarily take over his duties in Brunei. Governor Edwardes was far less enamoured of the Sarawak regime than St John was. When the ruler, and prime instigator of the rebellions around Muka and the border region, Masahor visited Brunei claiming to be the victim of Brooke expansionism and imperialism, he received a sympathetic hearing. This was unbeknownst to the Sultan who sent messages to the Brookes that he had ordered Muka to be reopened for trade with Sarawak without let or hindrance. Charles and Brooke Brooke decided to test this for themselves with a small flotilla following Sarawak trade vessels to the port. As Charles approached, he was fired upon from the fort in Muka. The Brookes sent for reinforcements from Kuching to try to reopen the port and river by force but as they arrived they were intercepted by Governor Edwardes on board the East India Steamer - the Victoria. He berated the brothers for interfering in internal Brunei affairs and ordered them to withdraw. This seriously undermined the Sarawak regimes prestige throughout Borneo and convinced many, including the Sultan, that they had lost the confidence of the British government. However, when news of the intervention got back to London, St John immediately lobbied the Foreign Secretary to reverse his subordinate's decision. He then rushed back to Asia with James Brooke to deal with the affair. An apologetic British government rebuked Edwardes and Prime Minister Palmerston afforded James Brooke the use of the Royal Navy and any other help required to remedy the situation. St. John and James Brooke headed straight for Brunei to negotiate afresh and to go over the head of the local leader causing so much tension between the two territories. Some of the Brunei court had hoped that Brooke's regime was on the way out and had been pleased by Edwardes intervention. However, the Sultan himself was much more amenable to the two Englishmen and quickly came to an arrangement whereby the land around Muka would be ceded to Sarawak in return for an immediate cash payment and an ongoing pension. James Brooke headed off to Muka to claim his new territory on board HMS Charybdis and with 200 Royal Marines at his beck and call. The local leader, Musahor, soon capitulated and was sent into exile to Singapore with a pension paid for by Sarawak on condition he did not attempt to return. As this was a territory that the Sultan had little control over in the first place, it was regarded as no great loss and had instead become a source of income instead of expense to the Sultanate. In fact, the land transferred was substantial as it stretched all way up to Kadurong Point. It was the largest single transfer of land between the two territories throughout their history together. Brunei had become substantially smaller but easier to manage and with more income. Sarawak's territory had been defended, peace had been restored with Brunei and James Brooke had demonstrated once more his strength as a ruler. Prime Minister Palmerston even went so far as to promise speedier British help in the case of any turmoil in the future. A dangerous situation had ended up satisfactorily for the regime.
The Indian Mutiny, the Chinese War, the increasing interest of the French in the region all contributed to James Brooke's concerns to the security of Sarawak. He was also conscious that he did not have deep pockets of his own to invest into the Sarawak economy nor to its defence. He had, however, made a lasting friendship with someone who did have deep pockets; Miss Burdett Coutts - one of the wealthiest women in Britain at the time. She was smitten with James Brooke's plans and provided him with loans, advice and even bought the longed for steam gunship with which to patrol the waters around Sarawak with. But even these kind gestures did not convince James Brooke that his people had a secure future in an uncertain world. As successive British governments, of a variety of political persuasions, had been reluctant to make a lasting commitment to his territory's security, he openly sought foreign interest in taking over his land and titles. He considered the nearby Dutch who had long been interested in his claims and the French under their new leader Napoleon III who professed a desire to expand French interests around the world. James Brooke's attempts to pass on the rights to his territories to foreign entities contributed to a serious breakdown in his relationship with Brooke Brooke his designated heir. Fearful of losing his inheritance and distraught at the death of his wife and eldest child from sickness, Brooke Brooke went so far as to call for the people of Sarawak to see himself as the rightful leader and to turn its back on James Brooke who was attempting to negotiate away his responsibilities to foreign powers. He wrote a fateful letter to his uncle who was still in England:
"I hesitated not one moment, but resolved to take my own course, and assert my rights and those of the people of Sarawak. Raja, you must blame yourself. You have overstrained the bow of my patience, and it has broken at last; we must try our relative strength, and all I can say is, that if I prove the stronger I shall always bear in mind that you were the founder of Sarawak, that you are my relative, and that you were my friend. I don't write this in anger, but in calm determination."
The letter had an electrifying effect as James Brooke headed out East once more. Concerned that he might be challenged by some Malays loyal to Brooke Brooke, he decided to seek a meeting with his heir on neutral ground in Singapore. A chastened Brooke Brooke agreed to meet with him full in the knowledge that he had overstepped the mark. James relieved his nephew as his heir and appointed his other nephew, Charles, in his place. Brooke Brooke had always been more sympathetic to the Malays of Sarawak whilst Charles Brooke had bonded more closely with the Dyaks. James finally realised that Charles' no-nonsense and predictable personality was better suited to the role of successor ruler than Brooke's haughty and unpredictable manner. Charles had always been regarded as a loyal lieutenant and an efficient District Officer who understood the host culture intimately and in many ways emulated their ways. He was also a decisive military ruler who inspired devotion amongst the Dyaks on which the regime relied on most for its internal military power. Indeed Charles would soon be off with 15,000 Dyak men to suppress a revolt by Kayans on the Renjang River after his promotion. James slowly appreciated the values that Charles could bring to ruling over Sarawak after his own death. It was to prove a wise change in the long run as Brooke Brooke's mental state deteriorated back in England (and coincidentally he would also die in 1868 - the same year as James) whilst Charles would later go on to be ruler of Sarawak for another half a century again!
Meanwhile James Brooke's negotiations with foreign powers and the official debacle over the Mukah River incident had the intended effect of stampeding the British into acting for fear of putting a rival power into a strategically important sea lane at a time of expanding trade throughout Asia and a steadily growing and regionally influential Singapore and Hong Kong. The British government finally agreed to formally recognise Sarawak as an independent nation with James Brooke's right to unequivocally rule it in 1863. Although they did not yet offer a protectorate or a Crown colony, its legal status as an independent nation gave it a measure of legitimacy, security and would provide a casus belli in the case of any third party attempting to seize it. The independent status would also allow the Sarawak government to begin to borrow money more easily and acquire credit. It was an important official step and one that brought an element of peace of mind to James.
James Brooke semi-retired to his estate of Burrator in Devon leaving daily control to his heir Charles Brooke. However a steady stream of advisers and officials passed back and forth between Burrator and Kuching for many years until the Raja's death in 1868. It should be noted that James Brooke never exploited his status as a ruler to enrich himself. Indeed, if anything he used what little wealth he had available in the service of the lands he ruled. After his death his estate was valued at a paltry 1,000 pounds sterling. James Brooke had demonstrated remarkable integrity, selflessness and an uncommon empathy with the people he had ruled over for a quarter of a century.
The Second White Raja: Charles Brooke
Charles Brooke had been Regent of Sarawak for several years before receiving the news of James Brooke's death back in England. In many ways, Charles was a more austere and less flexible ruler than James had been, but he did not shirk from any of his responsibilities and in many ways was far more conscious of the costs of administration paying much closer inspection to the profit and loss accounts of the colony than James had ever undertaken.
He continued to use James' template for rule; small forts scattered throughout the territories, regular court and petition hearings and conducting decisive military expeditions when required to do so. He also continued James' tradition of naming the forts after family and friends to further personalise the regime. He was a natural military leader and although he never inspired the same devotion as his uncle had managed, he certainly earned the respect of the people he governed.
In his early days as Rajah, there were only 20 officers scattered throughout a territory that would eventually become the size of England and Scotland combined. It was divided into three divisions in the 1860s based primarily on River Basins: The first was Sarawak proper which included the Sarawak, Sadong and Lundu River basins, the Second Division consisted of the Batang Lupar basin, the Third Division consisted of the Regang basin and coastline up to the border with Brunei. The only way to administer this territory with so few personnel was to devolve the power to a very low level, to respect the existing traditions and cultures and to rely on self-governance and self-interest to keep the peace. The only exception to these rules was in the subjugation of head-hunting. Like his uncle, he was concerned at the destabilising effects that head-hunting inspired. He ended up issuing large fines for offenders and confiscated any heads that had been seized. All the forts soon filled up with macabre collections of decaying heads with clear labels giving the date of capture, the tribe afflicted and who the head had been confiscated from:
"This was steady and unflinching work of years; and before many months were over my stock of heads became numerous, and the fines considerable. Some refused to pay or follow the directions of the Government, these were declared enemies, and had their houses burnt down forthwith, and the people who followed me to do the work would be the Dyaks of some other branch tribe on the same river.
My feeling was from the first an intense interest in the people, and I could not very severely blame them for head-hunting. It was an old-established custom of their forefathers, and they considered it their duty to maintain it. Nevertheless my business was to prevent it to the utmost, and the only way of doing this effectively was by a strong hand and steady perseverance. Besides, if these head-hunting parties had not been prohibited, they would have much increased, and our Dyaks, having protection from the Government fort and arms, would have been able to obtain heads with impunity."
Whilst still heir apparent in 1865, Charles had created the Council Negri. This was a General Council designed to bring the chieftans from the various tribes in the scattered districts together with the European and Malay officials in Kuching. It was designed to meet at least once every three years and was supposed to endorse any major political decision or constitutional development and to discuss plans for the future. Its membership was elastic so that any new settled tribes brought into Sarawak could be added and those who rebelled or reverted to conflict with their neighbours could be excluded. The three divisions also had their own Divisional Councils with their own tribal leaders invited by the Resident of each of the Divisions. There was also a Supreme Council in Kuching where the Raja was joined by the Resident of the First Division and leading Malays. These met far more frequently than the Council Negri and tended to meet monthly to discuss day to day issues of government and to resolve disputes.
The new Raja returned to England in 1869 to find a wife who would of course take on the title of 'Ranee'. He married Margaret de Windt who accompanied him back to Sarawak and an unconventional life thereafter. In his absence he had accelerated the construction of a new home which would become the seat of government for the rest of his life; the 'Astana'. The name meant 'palace' and helped confirm the semi-royal situation that they found themselves in. The Astana became a notable landmark for any ships calling in to Kuching for years to come and is still a lasting monument to the Brookes' regime.
Personnel tragedy was to afflict the Raja and Ranee when Margaret travelled home to England in 1873 and lost all three of her children en route to sickness. She was to have more children and the Raja's title would evetnually be passed on to the surviving eldest son.
Although few Europeans made it to Sarawak, one of the more notable visitors was the artist and natural scientist Marianne North. Margaret and Marianne were well suited to one another's temperament and both impressed each other with their respective manner and skills. Whilst in Sarawak, Marianne North discovered the largest known carnivorous pitcher plant which became the first of five plants that were to be named in her honour. Marianne North painted many of the plants and landscapes of this isolated outpost and exhibited her results back in England, notably in Kew Gardens.
Charles did try to diversify Sarawak's economy largely through finding new cash crops and improving the infrastructure of the territory. Attempts to grow tobacco, sugar-cane, tea and coffee were all made but had to be abandoned as they struggled with the vibrant local wildlife and tropical diseases prevalent. There was more success with pineapples, Gutta-percha (latex) and sago. Mineral extraction in the form of gold, diamonds and coal never quite seemed to deliver the hoped for quantities, only antimony continued to offer reasonable returns. Cinnabar production produced a high quality product but only a tiny scale. It did not help that Charles refused permission for any absentee landlords to set up in Sarawak and was also hostile to large plantations being run by remote companies. Consequently few outside European firms were willing to invest in such an isolated territory - only the Borneo Company continued to trade for much of Charles' reign and that company did not maken an operating profit on its Sarawak activities until the close of the century - although it had begun making profits in Malaya and Siam earlier. Charles still continued to give permission for Chinese to settle in the territory as a compromise and appreciated their industriousness and their impressive regional ties both between the Chinese diaspora and to their homeland. They also sustained two of the more unusual exports from Sarawak in the form of birds' nests and turtles. Charles understood that infrastructure and links would have to be improved to encourage the right sort of investment into his territory. Waterways still provided the major arteries of communication and trade and so port facilities and berthing were given immediate priority. Some roads were carved out but these were generally confined within individual settlements and towns. As far as European trade was concerned, in the early years of Charles Brooke's rule only a single ship sailed between Kuching and Singapore once a fortnight taking precious exports and importing manufactured goods from the west. It was a precarious economy but at least it was running a budget surplus these days.
Although reluctant to disturb local customs, Charles did make another exception when it came to stamping out slavery. He moved cautiously but introduced a series of reforms that encouraged manumission of slaves and gave increased abilities for slaves to claim their freedom through purchasing their own freedom or the owners failing to register or transfer their slaves illegally. Slaves were permitted to bring cases to the courts if they were treated badly. Slavery was already dying out as a consequence but the process was sped up in 1883 when the Raja declared a Bill that all slaves would receive manumission within 5 years of that date. This was done so comprehensively that by 1886 he withdrew his Bill as being no longer necessary. Persuasion and carrot had allowed him to stamp out a long ingrained practice with very little dissent.
Charles Brooke was also able to expand his territory - largely at the cost of the Sultan of Brunei who he distrusted implicitly. The old Sultan Omar Ali had died and been replaced by the weaker and aged Sultan Abdul Mumin. Charles Brooke was concerned that the new Sultan would alleviate his own financial position by leasing off more territories to rival and potentially more powerful European adventurers. This seemed to be confirmed when the Sultan leased lands in North Borneo to an American by the name of Charles Moses who then sold on his lease to another American Joseph Torrey who subsequently called himself Raja of Ambong and Marudu. There seemed to be little development in the region despite these transactions until 1875 when Joseph Torrey sold on his lease and titles to the far more connected Baron Gustavus von Overbeck. Overbeck was the Austro-Hungarian consul for Hong Kong. He was also very rich and had the ear of his Emperor. He paid the Sultan of Brunei an impressive annual tribute and referred to himself as the Maharaja of Saba and Raja of Gaya and Sandakan. Charles Brooke tried to raise money from the Borneo Company, who still held the license to trade and mine in Sarawak, in order to outbid Baron Overbeck and lease the lands for himself. This particular transaction came to nothing. As it turned out, a rival British company established in 1881 by the name of the British North Borneo Chartered Company (unconnected to the Borneo Company) took over Overbeck's lease and promptly set up their own administration. Charles was initially suspicious of this acquisition and regarded the commercial venture with apprehension. However, the British North Borneo Chartered Company emulated much of the Raja's own methodology and instituted a similar regime which placed the welfare of the local population above that of their commercial interests. The creation of the British North Borneo Chartered Company also unblocked British apprehension at Sarawak's expansion into Brunei's territory and permission to take control of Baram was quickly granted in 1882 and for Trusan in 1884. The Sultan of Brunei was content to hand over unprofitable parcels of land that cost him more than he profitted in return for cash payments and annual tribute. This process was repeated again in 1890 in Limbang when the local population made it clear that they preferred the relative law and order of Sarawak to the capricious and unpredictable rule of Brunei local leaders.
The British government was keen to protect the integrity of all three territories of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo in an era that began to see increased interest from Germans in colonisation as their acquisition of German New Guinea and various Pacific Islands testified. In 1888 the British government finally agreed to take over the external affairs and defence of all three territories in the form of Protectorates. This also had the advantage of protecting the three from possible incursions from the Dutch East Indies to the South of Borneo. It also finally relieved the poor colony of Sarawak of the substantial costs of defending itself.
The 1890s was a period of considerable economic turmoil around the world. This turmoil came close to ruining the financial prospects of the British North Borneo Chartered Company especially after 1893 when the USA introduced harsh tariffs against tobacco products which had become the company's largest export. The British North Borneo Chartered Company was in such dire straits that they actually considered selling their concerns throughout Borneo to Sarawak. In the end, Shareholders vetoed the proposal but it had been a real possibility. Fortunately for the company, the world economy did pick up and it did return to profitability by the time of the new century.
Charles did request further territory from the Sultan of Brunei who was interested in the transfer in return for further payments. However, the colonial office in London was increasingly concerned at how the transactions were appearing to the outside world and that Brunei might not become a viable state if it shrunk to too small a size. Had the proposals succeeded Brunei would have become little more than a city state. As it was, Charles had to content himself in 1905 to the last transfer of territory to Sarawak although this was not from Brunei but from the British North Borneo Chartered Company. It was the territory along the River Lawas which the company had bought the rights to just two years earlier. However, the local leaders made it clear that they would only yield their lands to the Raja of Sarawak and none other. In the end, the company generously traded their rights to Charles in return for various mining rights the Raja held throughout Brunei. The British government was more than happy to transfer land from one of its protectees to the other. This represented the physical limits of Sarawak's territory from here on. There were to be no more transfers.
Chinese discontent reared its head again in the early years of the twentieth century and on the back of Boxer Rebellion in nearby China. Secret societies had long been a feature of the Chinese diaspora throughout Asia. The 'Orchid Society' was to prove to be a destabilising society in Sarawak. In many ways, these societies were more like crime cartels as they demanded tribute and decided on contracts with the threat of violence for those who resisted their requests even within their own ethnic community. They were also well connected to other branches in Singapore, San Francisco and China itself - indeed the Orchid Society was largely responsible for the ultimate overthrow of the Chinese Imperial system in 1912. In the meantime, the tiny Sarawak police force rounded up ringleaders and collected incriminating documentation and slowly unpicked the organisation and sent its leaders into exile before they could encourage another uprising in Sarawak like the 1857 one which still haunted the memories of the authorities.
The new century did bring advances in the economy and technology of the territory. Petroleum-gas powered street lighting was introduced to the capital Kuching for the first time in 1906. An American company (Goebilt) was given permission to start a 200 acre Jelutong (rubber) estate near the mouth of the River Sarawak. Goebilt was backed by the Goelets and Vanderbilts, two rich American families of the day. Indeed, with the successful introduction of the car in the west, the demand for rubber leapt and as Malaya found that rubber could grow profitably there, it did not take long to appreciate that Sarawak would also be a suitable location for its widespread cultivation. The 'car' also saw a surge in the value of another commodity that Sarawak found itself in possession of; petroleum. Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company was given permission to ascertain whether the suspected oil reserves in Miri province were worth extracting in 1909. Within a year, the company was already producing significant quantities of petroluem. The value of oil increased even more to the British Empire when Churchill came to the Admiralty in 1912 and declared that the Royal Navy would switch away from coal fired to oil powered ships. The hunt was on for strategically safe and friendly sources of oil in which category Sarawak fell nicely. The discovery of oil resulted in a much needed and sustained boost to the territory's income. The money which was raised was used to help with infrastructure projects like roads and a 10 mile railway that operated in and out of Kuching. There was almost no revenue raised from direct taxation, it was raised through licenses, royalties and indirect taxes. Charles Brooke had always been reluctant to allow foreign interests to take control of large sections of the economy as he feared they might exploit his people. However, his concerns over balancing the books and improving the welfare of the people meant that his reticence steadily weakened in his nearly 50 year long period of rule.
Just like his uncle, Charles Brooke fretted over who might take over from him after his death. He had two sons, Vyner and Bertram who were the logical choices but he was concerned that they were too westernised and would not connect to the people and protect them as he had done so throughout his reign. He considered the prospect of joint rule between the two brothers so that both would have to agree to important decisions and either could wield a veto over actions that might harm the populace. Charles Brooke also established the Sarawak State Trust on the eve of the First World War. It was set up to try and professionalise the state's revenues, collections and expenditure. It basically had the power to receive, check and supervise revenue reports from the Sarawak Treasury and ensure that its income was secure and its expenditure was appropriate. In many ways it was the first secession of absolute power by either of the White Rajas to date.
By the outbreak of World War One in 1914, Sarawak had made strides in its economic development. There was no public debt whatsoever. Furthermore two large hospitals, a dry dock, a museum, a barracks, and public houses had all been built out of the public revenues and fully paid for. Sarawak also owned six steamships with which to patrol the rivers and coastline with and to administer large sections of the country from. It also had a an official newspaper: The Sarawak Gazette in which official proclamations, appointments and important news was transmitted.
The First World War itself did have a significant impact on Sarawak despite it being so far removed from the fighting and warzones themselves. Almost immediately, people stockpiled rice in anticipation of wartime shortages thereby creating shortages themselves. Furthermore, as the vast majority of the tiny administration were British, many of them felt obliged to hand in their notices and volunteer to fight on Britain's behalf in one of the armed services. In the early stages of the war, Britain had yet to implement conscription and so relied on individuals volunteering to fight. Charles Brooke made it known that his small government could not withstand such an outflow of personnel and made it clear than any who did resign would not be welcome to return after the war. This tactic succeeded for a while, but when conscription was instituted in 1916, it became a legal requirement for all British citizens to register for service. Charles Brooke had to lobby the government for special dispensation for his Sarawak administration - including his own two sons Vyner and Bertram - to be exempted from military service in order to maintain law and order in his territory.
Charles died in Britain in 1917 during the First World War at the age of 88. Although he had expressed a preference to be buried in Sarawak, the difficulties of sea transport in time of war meant that he ended up being buried with his uncle in St. Leonard's Church in Sheepstor in Devon.
The Third White Raja: Charles Vyner Brooke
Charles Brooke had finally decided that his eldest son Charles 'Vyner' Brooke was to be his successor but with the help and support of his other son Bertram. Vyner also had the confidence of the Dyaks who knew him well. He made himself accessible to his people's concerns and toured his territory far more widely than either of this predecessors had been able to do. Vyner was more open to the opportunities of the modern world than his father had been and oversaw the construction of roads for the first automobiles (his was the first in the territory) and the construction of radio communication systems transformed the abilities of the administrators to report the goings on in their vast areas of responsibility. Wireless stations were expanded so that within a decade of his accession there were eighteen of them covering large sections of the country and certainly all the major towns. The urban centres also had telephone exchanges and Kuching even had a cinema for the first time. Hospital and dispensary services were slowly improved with a new leper colony also be established. A state dentist was even employed from 1925.
Not everyone was enamoured of Vyner Brooke's regime. In 1921, two Labour Party MPs, Mr Thomas Griffiths and Mr Grundy, visited Kuching and wrote a critical report on their time there. They were particularly concerned about the judicial system and that no appeal could be made byond the Rajah's Court. They also wondered if the profits from the colony were being used to enrich the Brooke family rather than benefit the local population. With regards to the judicial criticisms, Vyner Brooke instituted legal reforms including incorporating the Indian Penal Code into a newly issued Sarawak Penal Code in 1924. He also reduced his own role in the legal system by introducing a Judicial Commissioner who became Chief Justice in 1930. With regards to criticism of the Brooke family enriching itself, it must be said that Vyner's period seemed to coincide with more liberal attitudes and gaity than had existed under his austere father's period of rule. It should also be noted that the two MPs never left Kuching and its relative wealth and development (and comfort of its growing European population) could give a false impression about the state of the majority of the country. Elsewhere, Sarawak government officials did indeed work tirelessly in development projects and maintaining law and order in often inhospitable territory. The Sarawak government personnel would themselves be professionalised in the 1930s when, following the lead of British Colonial Officers, introduced competitive examinations for entrance to the service.
The period immediately after the war was actually a period of positive economic performance for Sarawak as the two products of oil and rubber continued to expand in production and in market price as westerners took to driving their cars in ever greater numbers. By 1922, Miri oilfield was producing 400,000 barrels of oil a year which double again within a decade and brought in significant income to the territory. Electricity was provided in the main centres and there was even talk of bringing electrification to isolated villages along the main rivers.
Air services were considered during the 1920s and 1930s although seaplanes were more likely to visit than regular planes due to the expense and difficulty of finding flat landing zones that were not covered in dense jungle. Notwithstanding these difficulties, an aerial survey of the colony was attempted for the first time in an attempt to improve the standard of mapping and accurate recording of the geography of the territory.
The 1929 Wall Street crash changed the economic dynamics of the world economy and hit primary producers particularly hard. Exports from Sarawak fell from $63 million dollars in 1929 to just $13.5 million in 1932. Relatively speaking though, Sarawak weathered the storm better than most colonies as its diverse range of products meant that the highs and lows of the prices of commodities were spread out more evenly. By the 1930s, Sarawak was producing reasonable quantities of oil, pepper, rubber, coffee, tea, tapioca and timber. Furthermore Sarawak's gold exports became far more profitable as speculators turned to this safe haven of this precious metal in times of economic turmoil. This is not to say that in the early 1930s there were not disturbances from tribes who blamed the fall on their incomes to the Sarawak regime. Several military expeditions were launched and blockhouses were built in and around areas that were proving difficult to police. However, by the mid-1930s and the recovery in incomes the internal situation improved greatly.
Of even more concern to the welfare of the colony was the rising spectre of a Second World War but with this time the regional power of Japan being on the opposite side of the alliance with Britain. War in Europe in 1939 brought familiar concerns about the desire of administrators to volunteer to return to Britain to fight against Germany. This time though, the strategic importance of oil and rubber was better appreciated as a diversity of production was thought to be useful to the British war cause. Consequently, special dispensation was given to Sarawak administrators and oil producers in particular. British goodwill towards the territory was helped by the fact that Sarawak made regular contributions to the British war treasury that totalled some two and a half million dollars by mid 1941. The argument was that although Britain was her protecting power, she required help funding the war in Europe at a time of grave peril for the home country. However, the rising tension with the Japanese who were already in open warfare in nearby China was what really concerned Vyner and the Sarawak authorities. They also fretted over whether a Britain at war in Europe would be able to make good on its promises of defence through its Protectorate obligations.
By a matter of coincidence, September 24, 1941 was the 100th anniversary of his grand uncle being made Raja of Sarawak. Unnverved by the regional tensions, Vyner decided to use this occasion to end his authoritarian rule and grant Sarawak a new constitution. In effect, he was turning himself from an undisputed autocrat into a constitutional monarch. The new Constitution advocated the creation of both a Supreme Council and a separate State Council of at least 25 including 11 representatives to represent the various races inhabiting Sarawak principally the Dyaks, Malays and the Chinese. These representatives were not elected but chosen by the Raja to represent the native population for the first time in their history. Furthermore, the Raja could no longer spend money without the State Council's approval and any Orders of State by the State Council were to be legally binding on the Raja. The Raja could no longer initiate laws but he did retain the power to veto them. A British adviser was also now permanently attached to the executive in order to articulate Britain's foreign policy concerns. One criticism of the constitution was that it made the Raja more removed from the people and less responsive to their petitions. This access had already been weakened by various judicial reforms during Vyner's period of rule, but now bureaucratic layers had been placed between the ruler and those he ruled. As it was, the new constitution had little time to be savoured before the territory undewent a terrible upheaval.
Just six weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaya. At first, Sarawak was not a priority for the Japanese as they sought to press home their advantages in other strategically more important theatres. The British had sent just a single battalion (the 2nd) of the 15th Punjab Regiment to guard the entire territory. Vyner happened to be in Australia at the time hostilities broke out but the remaining professional Sarawak administration was horrified at the ease of Japanese advances elsewhere in the region. By further coincidence all members of the Brooke family happened to be out of Sarawak when the Japanese started rampaging through South-East Asia. December 19th saw Japanese planes launch a bombing attack on the capital of Kuching for the first time. These planes were the vanguard of some 10,000 Japanese soldiers heading down the coast on armour-plated barges. They were spotted for the first time on December 23rd off the coast of Miri and headed towards Kuching. They were particularly eager to take control of the oilfields but were to be disappointed when they were comprehensively destroyed by the Sarawak Oilfields Company personnel. Unlike in Crown colonies, many of the personnel for the administration and those who worked in Sarawak felt a much closer bond to the population they served, lived and worked amongst. When ships were made available by the allies to evacuate key personnel, many of the administrators and managers refused to abandon their charges. In the case of the General Manager of Sarawak Oilfields Company, he point blank refused to be evacuated if his Asiatic workforce could not be evacuated at the same time. The Chief Secretary on the island, Le Gros Clark, who effectively ran the territory in the absence of Raja Vyner, elected to stay and share the plight of the local population. He was taken to an internment camp where he was later murdered by the Japanese. The Punjabi force put up a sustained fighting retreat all the way down into Dutch East Indies but it was clearly a hopelessly inadequate force to defend so much territory from such a well motivated and resourced enemy with air and naval superiority. Elements of the force fought on until April of 1942 long after the British had surrendered in Singapore and when the Japanese were making advances beyond them into Java and New Guinea.
The Japanese took out their frustration at losing the oilfields principally on the European population. There was a particularly disturbing incident when some 50 European women and children were escaping through the jungle into Dutch Borneo in the hope of escaping the clutches of the Japanese. They got to Long Nawang only to be discovered by a small Japanese contingent who instructed the children to climb into the trees before shooting all the women. Then, the Japanese soldiers amused themselves by shooting the children out of the trees. Only two escaped this atrocity.
Whilst all this was unfolding, Vyner had requested that he be allowed to return to Sarawak to share his people's fate and got as far as Batavia before the Dutch authorities made it clear that there was no transportation available to take him any further and that they would be evacuating their own colony soon. He returned to Melbourne in Australia and his brother Bertram took over the provisional government responsibilities back in London.
The local population of Sarawak tried to stay out of the fighting. This reluctance to engage the Japanese may have stemmed from the fact that no members of the Brooke family were in Sarawak at the point of invasion, but probably reflects the total surprise at the utter collapse of the Sarawak regime and the inability of Britain to have protected her from the Japanese. Most Sarawak native officials quietly abandoned their posts and melted back into the general population although later on, many would go to considerable lengths to help the European prisoners of war who were being kept in appalling conditions in and around Kuching. Attitudes towards the Japanese did deteriorate remarkably quickly as their harsh regime resulted in rising prices, food shortages and increasing barbarity. Most Japanese soldiers kept to the main settlements and the coastal region and any who ventured into the interior were keen to remain in groups lest the head-hunters return to their old habits - which some were indeed tempted back into. As the war continued the conditions only worsened for the local population as Japanese policies extracted ever more resources in ever more brutal ways and with little regard to the welfare of the people they ruled over.
As the tide of war shifted, the British government asked what the Sarawak authorities would do in terms of administration upon cessation of hostilities. The Raja replied caustically:
"Sarawak was a sovereign state under the protection of Great Britain, now under alien rule owing to the unavoidable inability of the Protecting Power to preserve it from invasion."
Sarawak had to wait until June 1945 before being fully liberated by Australian forces landing first at nearby Labuan and then heading towards Kuching. Japanese soldiers had already fled into the interior in expectation of reprisals only for many of them to end up having their heads removed by Dyaks loyal to the Raja who believed that their old habits would be quietly ignored this one time! Some Japanese remained in the jungles of Sarawak for another two years before being rounded up or becoming a gruesome decoration on a Longhouse somewhere in the interior.
Despite the Raja's annoyance at the British for their lack of protection, upon his return he was horrified at the extent of wilful destruction caused by the departing and vengeful Japanese. This also included his own home of Astana whose contents, including many precious papers and diaries of his predecessors, had been destroyed. Bridges, roads, railways had all been destroyed as had any plant of consequence in the few businesses and plantations of the territory. The oilfields were still in their state of utter disrepair. It was clear that Sarawak's reconstruction capital costs were going to be far higher than anything Raja Vyner had at his disposal. He decided, without consultation with anyone else to issue a proclamation whilst in London with far reaching consequences:
"We believe that there lies, in the future, hope for my people in the prospect of an era of widening enlightenment and of stability and social progress, such as they have never had before. We regard the acceptance of of the cession of the consummation of the hope of the first Rajah of Sarawak
It is constitutional that all authority derives from the Rajah. The people select the Rajah, and what the Rajah advises for the people is the will of the people. I am spokesman of the people's will. No other than myself has the right to speak on your behalf. Not one of you will question whatever I do in his high interests. No power nor perosnal interest shall subvert my people's happiness and fortune. There shall be no Rajah in Sarawak after me. My people will become the subjects of the King.
It is now drawing near the time when I will come to you. Expect me soon. This for your good: my royal command."
The Sarawak administration along with his brother Bertram and his nephew Anthony Brooke (heir presumptive), were all equally horrified at the unexpected announcement that signalled the end of over a century of personal rule for Sarawak. Bertram argued that their father had insisted that all important decisions required the agreement of both brothers. When it came to the Council of State, 13 members of the non-European members voted against Vyner's cession proposal with only 12 voting for it. The Instrument of Cession only passed thanks to the votes of the European members on the Council. It would require a decree from Vyner himself on July 1st 1946 to formally end Sarawak's unique form of government. Only a few Chinese and Malays were in attendance. Dyaks refused to be present.
Vyner had convinced himself that only the British government could provide the funds and expertise to rebuild Sarawak and bring serious development projects to fruition. He realised that the World War had stretched the tiny territory's economic abilities beyond stretching point and that it would take decades to recover the ground lost by the Japanese occupation. Although he appreciated that it was an unpopular decision, he also felt that it was the best one for the people whose welfare he had promised to promote above all others, including his own and his family's. Sarawak had become a Crown Colony.
The Crown Colony
The transfer of control to Britain did not go without a hitch though. There occurred one of the more unusual resistance groups to British control in the form of anti-cessionists who wanted a return to rule by the Brookes family in general and the young Anthony Brooke in particular. There were numerous anti-cession protests and demonstrations in even the remotest of villages with curious calls to see a return to White Rajah rule. Anthony Brooke had long understood that he would be the successor to his uncle Vyner but was as surprised as anyone when Vyner had made his unexpected call to turn over the territory to the British Empire.
Constitutionally, there was little change except that a Governor-in-Council replaced the Rajah-in-Council introduced in the 1941 Constitution. For many Sarawakians though, it was a matter of principle that their choice of who ruled over them had been altered with almost no consultation and primarly through the votes of European members of the Council. The British authorities, mindful of the fragile political situation, took steps to try and reinforce their position. They barred Anthony Brooke from physically returning to Sarawak lest he provide a focal point for opposition. They then issued Circular Number 9 to the Sarawak Civil Service which read:
"categorically demanded absolute loyalty from the civil servants and forbade any member of the Government service to indulge in any activity that might be perpetrated to revive the cession controversy".
Although this was supposed to separate the Civil Service from political agitation it had the effect of galvanising opposition from within the government itself and resulted in the mass resignation of 338 officials (most of them Malay) as they felt that they could not comply with the principles of the circular. Indeed, Circular Number 9 became a rallying call to the movement and provided an important focal point.
However, the anti-cessionist movement lost credibility and respect in December 1949 when two extremists decided to turn to violence to achieve their aims. Two Malays raised the stakes considerably when they murdered the newly installed Governor Duncan George Stewart on his first tour of his new territory. Although Anthony Brooke appears to have had no knowledge nor ever offered any encouragement to the murderers, the finger of suspicion fell upon his stated desires to return to Sarawak. He felt it necessary to formally renounce his claim to be Raja of Sarawak and encouraged anti-cessionists to accept the new political situation. He thus definitively broke the century long Brooke family links to Sarawak once and for all. Additionally, the British authorities and Special Branch in particular monitored and clamped down on any remaining anti-cessionists. Fortunately, the new governor Anthony Foster Abell had the wisdom to implement an informal style of rule. Furthermore, he criss-crossed the colony so extensively and so amiably that he reminded many of the local population of the Rajahs of old. By the mid-1950s pretty much all political opposition had been dissipated.
As Vyner had predicted, Britain provided money and expertise on a level that the Rajahs had never been able to achieve. Schools, roads, air-strips, hospitals and many other modern conveniences were built. A broadcasting service with a public service outlook was instigated. Students were sent to Britain to study technical and agricultural courses. Agricultural experts arrived from Britain to advise on how to best maximise yields whilst protecting the environment. The Colonial Office sent District Officers to help develop even the remotest of locations. Although it should be noted that many of the Raja's old European officials stayed on even after cession in order to provide continuity and share their knowledge with the incoming colonial officers. Sarawak was indeed developing at a level that it had never known before.
Nearby China became Communist in 1949 which inspired Communists throughout the region. Fortunately, Sarawak avoided the worst of the turmoil of the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. The main reason for this was that the Chinese community was much smaller in Sarawak than it was in nearby Malaya where the Chinese provided the bulk of their activists. This is not to say that there were not Communist sympathisers in Sarawak's Chinese community. An assault by Chinese Communists on the Batu Kitang bazaar in August 1952 saw the British authorities ramp up security forces and legislation rapidly to contain any further outbreaks. The scale was simply more manageable and the Chinese were more condensed in Sarawak.
One of the important reasons for success in the Malayan Emergency had been the promise of independence in the form of The Malaysian Federation. This was put in place in 1957 and initially did not include the two Crown Colonies of Sarawak and North Borneo. It had been envisaged that the two Crown Colonies would indeed join the Federation but at a later, as yet, unspecified date. Malaya's rulers and states had retained far more power and control over their affairs than either Sarawak or North Borneo had as Crown Colonies. Therefore it was felt that a core of a Malaysian Federation should be created first and the other Crown Colonies should be invited into that Federation at a later date. This is not to say that the British did not undertake reforms in preparation for a transference in the near future. 1957 also saw the British introduce a new constitution which included an elected legislature for the first time.
At the back of Britain's minds though was the danger of the spread of Communism. Asia had seen a number of Communist insurgencies as European colonisers abandoned their holdings. Vietnam, Malaya, Indonesia in addition to the Chinese and Korean Wars illustrated the dangers for the authorities. It did not help that nearby Indonesia under its leader Sukarno was advocating an expanded nation encompassing all of Indonesia, Borneo and the Philippines in a gigantic socialist state. This ran directly contrary to Britain's goals of joining Sarawak and North Borneo to the Federation of Malaysia. The British set up the Cobbold Commission in 1962 to try and ascertain the feelings of the local population of Sarawak towards their future. After touring the colony and discussing with leaders and local people, the commission came to the conclusion that:
About one-third of the population strongly favours early realisation of Malaysia without too much concern about terms and conditions. Another third, many of them favourable to the Malaysia project, ask, with varying degrees of emphasis, for conditions and safeguards varying in nature and extent: the warmth of support among this category would be markedly influenced by a firm expression of opinion by Governments that the detailed arrangements eventually agreed upon are in the best interests of the territories. The remaining third is divided between those who insist on independence before Malaysia is considered and those who would strongly prefer to see British rule continue for some years to come. If the conditions and reservations which they have put forward could be substantially met, the second category referred to above would generally support the proposals. Moreover once a firm decision was taken quite a number of the third category would be likely to abandon their opposition and decide to make the best of a doubtful job. There will remain a hard core, vocal and politically active, which will oppose Malaysia on any terms unless it is preceded by independence and self-government: this hard core might amount to near 20 per cent of the population of Sarawak.
In the early 1960s, Indonesian Communists with backing from the state of Indonesia began to increase their activity throughout all of Northern Borneo. This manifested itself in 1962 with an Indonesian backed rebellion in neighbouring Brunei aimed at seizing oil installations and government offices in the hope of provoking a widespread rebellion against the rulers. The British responded decisively with Gurkhas being landed at the airfield and Royal Marines arriving by Landing Craft. The decisive response averted a possible Indonesian coup, although the plotters were disappointed at the lack of local support which they had anticipated would join them. However, this Indonesian meddling in Northern Borneo affairs would lead to the all but undeclared Konfrontasi as the Indonesians sought to undermine attempts by Sarawak and North Borneo to join the Federation of Malaysia.
Even after Sarawak did fomrally join the Malaysian Federation in 1963, Indonesian insurgents and soldiers crossed over the long, ill defined mountainous, jungle border between the two states. Britain had pledged to continue to offer military support to the new Commonwealth nation of Malaysia. All branches of the British forces participated in a jungle campaign that lasted until 1966. It soon realised the importance of winning hearts and minds and made innovative use of helicopters, aerial resupply, marine craft and special forces to lay ambushes and move military assets in otherwise hostile and difficult terrain. The military effort took on added theatre significance as nearby South Vietnam descended into armed conflict involving the Americans. Commonwealth forces from New Zealand and Australia soon joined the British and Malaysian forces in patrolling the nearly 1,000 mile long border with Indonesia and repelling repeated incursions. In the end the lack of Indonesian military success on the ground combined with their inability to attract significant sympathisers to their cause throughout Northern Borneo and then an unexpected military anti-Communist coup back in Indonesia eventually all combined to bring the Konfrontasi to an end.
Sarawak was now part of the Federation of Malaysia. It had been a most unusual territory with a unique system of governance that inspired remarkable loyalty for a remarkable length of time. There was undoubted difficulties in transferring this form of personal rule into the British Empire, but the well oiled British colonial machine soon swung into action and helped develop and prepare this most unusual territory for inclusion within Malaysia and then went to the extraordinary lengths of guarding and defending this arrangement from external threat well after its formal obligations had been completed. Sarawak had been a most unusual colony.