The British Empire Library

The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946

by Steven Runciman

Steven Runciman, who went on to become a famous historian of the Hundred Years War, started his historical career by writing one of the finest and most all encompassing histories of the Brooke Family and their association with Sarawak. He is an eloquent writer who stitches together historical evidence with a fine narrative drive that keeps you interested and informed throughout. Like most other historians of Sarawak, he concentrates most on the first Rajah James Brooke, next on the second Rajah Charles Brooke and the least on the last Rajah Vyner Brooke. This is perhaps understandable as the life of the first Rajah is intrinsically fascinating, interesting and so unusual. And yet, you cannot help wondering that surely there is more historical evidence available for the last of the Rajahs than for the first. In my experience it has always been easier to extract information about 20th century topics than 19th century ones. As I said, I have a feeling that this is more to do with balance of interest than quantity of evidence and to tell the truth, Steven Runciman probably made the right call.

Unlike most other historians of Sarawak, Steven Runciman does give much deeper and wider coverage to the local population and certainly does not see them merely as bit players in the story of the Brooke family. He goes back to explain the complex origins of all the various ethnic groups that made up the complex and geographically challenging territory of Northern Borneo. He does not portray them as mere passive spectators to European control. Rather, he sees them as agents very much in control of their destinies and crucial in shaping the unfolding history. He charts the complex inter-relationship of Land Dyaks, Sea Dyaks, Malays, Chinese, Kelabits, Muruts, Kayans and many more peoples who called Northern Borneo home. He explains how the area had come under the domination of the Sultans of Brunei before falling prey to Dutch mercantalist policies that encouraged piracy whilst discouraging local trade. Before long, Northern Borneo had become an inhospitable and dangerous region that mariners tended to avoid if they possibly could.

It was into the Northern Borneo civil war ravaged lands and pirate infested waters that James Brooke first entered the scene. Steven Runciman builds up a powerful picture of the motivations, talents and limitations of this most unusual adventurer who seems to have been a unique leader with a powerful charisma and surprisingly modern ideas on racial harmony and attitudes to local cultures. However, it was his military skills that caught the initial attention of Brunei leaders fed up with constant warfare and inefficient administration through corrupt individuals over surly peoples along the coastlines and rivers of Borneo. Indeed, martial prowess combined with good governance and responsive leadership seems to have been the hallmark of the entire Brooke dynasty, if delivered in differing styles by the three rajahs. James was able to gain the confidence and respect of various parts of the Brunei royal court at key times although sometimes after savage events as the author relates. It helped that he was able to gain the trust and help of the Royal Navy at a critical time in the 1840s when their own priorities to suppress piracy and slavery happily coincided with his own. It was a happy conjunction of skills and expertise that allowed piracy to be largely wiped out from the region and his own lands steadily expanded. However, this territorial expansion did not sit well with all Liberal opinion back home in Britain which was often hostile and suspicious of all imperialesque adventures. Some of these Liberals could not believe that an indvidual would undertake such risks without attempting to accrue power and wealth to themselves. Criticism from this quarter was hidden behind the charge that he had used the excuse of piracy to gain the support and help of the Royal Navy in expanding his own personal territory at the expense of local rulers. A long and convoluted enquiry cleared James Brooke of any impropriety but did criticise the government for allowing its Navy to be used in such a cavalier manner by someone with no official British position. The political and legal battles are recounted lucidly and clearly by the author but without drowning in administrative minutiae and detail. The 1850s were to be difficult ones for James both back in Britain and in Sarawak itself. 1856 saw a Chinese revolt that nearly saw himself killed and much of his capital ruined. His immediate survival was thanks to the loyalty that he already inspired from much of the local population, the timely intervention of a Borneo Company modern steamship and the leadership skills of his nephews.

The long term future of the colony is also covered in some depth. His relationship with Miss Burdett-Coutts was instrumental in gaining respectability back in Britain and a measure of financial stability for his small and isolated colony. One area that Steven Runciman differs from other Sarawak historians is over how seriously James Brooke considered selling his domains to foreign governments when the costs seemed too burdensome and the dangers too present. It seems that most other historians regarded any offers to foreign powers as a bargaining position to try and preempt the British government into recognising Sarawak and giving it protection. He succeeded in the former but it was not until his successor that a Protectorate was finally recognised. His threats of selling his land and titles to foreigners were never realised and it was the potential arrival of Americans, Austrians, Spanish and Italians, all in a variety of forms, that helped to finally galvanise a reluctant Britain to extend its influence into the area.

Charles Brooke's period of rule contrasts sharply with James'. Charles was Rajah for an unexpectedly long half a century in total but his skills set was very different from his uncle's. Charles was an efficient military leader who expanded Sarawak to its full limits through a mixture of military interventions, canny negotiations with Brunei, a ruthless attention to detail and a determination to getting his territory's finances in order. He inspired genuine respect from peoples surrounding his realm of increasing peace and prosperity. These peoples were often dismayed at the corrupt practices and inefficient government of Brunei's rulers and looked to Sarawak to provide law and order whilst respecting local customs and ways of life. Many willingly opted for rule by Brooke rather than rule by Sultan. This often suited the Sultan who was happy to receive income from leased territories rather than having to pay to have the areas subdued and quelled. Sarawak good governance acted as a magnet that was only brought to a halt by Britain in 1905 when they were worried that Brunei would no longer be a sustainable state if districts kept being transferred away at the rate they were. They imposed a Resident on the Sultan with instructions to protect his lands from any further Sarawak offers. The borders of Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo were all frozen in aspic from this point forward.

Charles was austere and lacked the charisma of his uncle but he got results and slowly but surely modernised the economy and developed certain industries to help put the colony onto a more sound financial and economic footing. He still remained as approachable as James to his subjects and could be petitioned directly as the highly personal form of government continued with a small but scrupulous administration. By the time of his death in 1917, Sarawak's future was a lot more assured and predictable than it had been on the death of James.

Steven Runciman makes it clear that it all began to go wrong for the Brookes with the accession of Vyner Brooke - the third and last Rajah. Even his own father distrusted his judgement and commitment to Sarawak, and trusted Vyner's wife even less. Charles had attempted to give his second son an important role in the administration through his will and testament as he did not fully trust Vyner's judgement. Unfortunately the system of autocratic rule would find it difficult to accommodate checks and balances from across the grave. Steven Runciman portrays Vyner and his wife as much more dilettante in their attitudes towards Sarawak. They did indeed modernise many of its facilities but these rarely extended out of the capital and seemed to be more for the benefit of the European community than for the local population. Steven Runciman also hints at the growing separation of the Europeans from the local population as more and more of the former arrived bringing wives and children with them - often changing the dynamic of interaction with local peoples as a result. It did not help that Vyner's modernisation of the judicial system and introduction of a new constitution in the centenary year of 1941 actually made him more removed from the people than his predecessors. By putting judges and councils between himself and the people, Sarawak began to lose its personal, and personalised, form of direct governance. Lastly, his lack of a male heir (he had three daughters) seemed to have further estranged him from a long term commitment to the future of the colony.

The defining act for Sarawak's future though was not to come from inside Sarawak but outside. The arrival of the Japanese in 1941 changed everything. Up until this point Sarawak had weathered the Wall Street Crash and Depression better than most. But the arrival of the Japanese saw its infrastructure wiped out and many of its European administrators suffer in appalling conditions in Japanese POW camps. Local peoples suffered also as the Japanese extracted ever greater amounts of food and produce whilst providing little but brutality in return. There was genuine joy to see the return of the Brooke family at the end of the war and little hint at what future lay in store for them.

Steven Runciman explains that the tired Rajah had little respect for his likely successor (his nephew Anthony Brooke) and felt that his tiny statelet could not rebuild its economy and infrastructure ruined by World War Two with the funds available. He understood that Northern Borneo was to be taken over by the British government directly and thought that Sarawak should also become a British Crown Colony and so end over a century of Brooke rule. The ensuing battles with his brother, nephew and large swathes of the local population are explained quite rapidly by Steven Runciman. I would have preferred some more details at the complex process that saw it become a Crown Colony. It is clear that Steven Runciman thinks that the process of transfer was not handled well and seems to blame Vyner more than most. He does recognise that there were strong reasons to transfer the territory to British governance but explains that the local population were stampeded into the decision with little opportunity to explain their own concerns and desires. He does not blame Britain overly for trying to speed up the process but thinks that Vyner genuinely had had enough and felt that what he was doing was in the best interests of the local population even if they did not yet appreciate it. The fact that Vyner did not follow his father's instructions to include his brother Bertram in all matters of substance on the governance of the colony are alluded to and perhaps confirmed his father's fears. It also did not help that Anthony Brooke and Vyner Brooke seemed to fall in and out of favour with one another far too rapidly and to a destabilising effect. It seems a sad end to an otherwise fascinating story. One cannot help but wonder what future would have unfolded before Sarawak if the Japanese had not arrived in 1941 and laid it to waste so comprehensively.

Steven Runciman wrote The White Rajahs in 1960 before the long term future of Sarawak was known and whilst it was still a British Crown Colony. He did not yet know that it would pass to Malaysia and that a long war with Indonesia would be fought within a couple of years of the completion of this book. Notwithstanding how long ago the book was written, it is hard not to be impressed with the style and breadth of coverage of this book. It is highly accessible whilst still feeling authoritative. If you are only going to read one book on the history of Sarawak, I would make it this book!

British Empire Book
Steven Runciman


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