Friday, 16 September 2016

James Brooke (2): Headhunters and Pirates

In last week's blog we saw how James Brooke became the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Becoming the ruler of the country, though, was just the start. Now Brooke had to decide what to do with it. 

Brooke had been very impressed with the native Dyak people of the country and he decided that his primary objective was to improve their lot. Being a Victorian gentleman, he set out to do this the only way he knew: by bringing the advantages of civilisation and trade. At least they were spared the dubious benefits of Western religion. Brooke was not an enthusiast for missionary work and managed to keep church missions out of the country for many years.

The notion of the noble savage was still a popular one in the first half of the 19th century and Brooke became sentimentally attached to the Dyaks. He thought them a noble people who lived off the land. They survived by hunting and subsistence agriculture. He saw them as victimised by the Malays and exploited by the Chinese whenever they traded with them. He was probably right in both regards, but the Dyaks were far from innocent inhabitants of a new Eden. Brooke, in fairness, recognised this. The Dyaks were headhunters. They would store the heads of their enemies hanging from the ridge poles of their homes. The heads are often dried out and appear shrunken, hanging there like macabre bunches of coconuts. I've seen them myself.

I'm sure that as a civilised gentleman of his period Brooke was uncomfortable with the idea of casual murder, but it was not the immorality of killing that was his principal concern. The practice of headhunting made it very dangerous for people to leave their own tribal territory, and this made trade between tribes almost impossible. With his early 19th-century ideas of the value and civilising influence of trade, it was the effect of headhunting on commerce that most concerned him. Over the period of his rule, Brooke managed to more or less eliminate the custom of taking heads and this was one of his most impressive achievements. It did resurface during World War II. When Borneo was occupied by the Japanese, the Allies tacitly encouraged the Dyaks to take Japanese heads. It is said that here and there you can see, hanging from ridge poles, small heads with little round spectacles. I must admit I have not seen these personally. Headhunting actually continues into the present-day when there is communal violence in the area. It is reported in the local press, but there seems a tacit agreement that this is not something that Malaysia wants discussed by the wider world.

Brooke thought that he had brought comparative peace and prosperity to his private kingdom, but the political intrigues of the Malay court were to ensnare him again. There was a perennial problem of piracy in the South China seas. Brooke realised that this was not a case of individual captains plundering here and there but a concerted effort by warlike Dyaks whose economy depended largely on piracy. These so-called Sea-Dyaks posed a threat to the peace of Sarawak. They had long-standing relationships with the original Malay rulers allowing them to move up-river and plunder the interior. Brooke decided that they had to be stopped. Unfortunately for the Sea-Dyaks their activities had also come to the notice of the Royal Navy.

The local naval commander, Captain Keppel,  met with Brooke and they agreed that the best way forward was to strike at the pirate strongholds in Borneo.

The campaign against the pirates started early in May 1843 and continued until almost the end of June. At this point Keppel was ordered to China and his duties then kept him away through the winter. Brooke continued to have trouble from pirates while he was away and, when Keppel arrived back in Singapore the following summer, the two men planned a decisive strike against them. This took place at the beginning of August 1844.

A fleet of small boats, supported by HMS Dido and the Phlegethon, a steam powered paddle ship owned by the East India Company fought their way upriver to the main pirate base at Beting Marau.

Attack on Beting Marau
Beting Marau was, by Dyak standards, a large settlement. Women and children lived there as well as men of fighting age. The British started their attack with rocket fire and pursued the enemy with overwhelming force. The British claimed that several thousand Dyaks had engaged in battle. The British lost 29 killed and 56 wounded. Nobody knows how many Dyaks died – probably over a thousand – but when news of the massacre reached England there were protests in Parliament.

A commission of enquiry into Brooke's rule was held in Singapore. Nowadays we tend to concentrate on their view of the massacre and the events that led up to it. At thetime, the enquiry was much more concerned with the legal status of Brooke rule and whether or not the Royal Navy should have concerned itself in the internal affairs of a country which, it turned out, was not actually part of the British Empire at all, the Rajah owing his loyalty to the Sultan, rather than to Queen Victoria. The question of the massacre was dealt with, though and evidence was given that large scale piracy presented a real danger to both British and native shipping in the area. The Royal Navy, it was decided, had acted properly in moving against the pirates in order to prevent this danger. There was no doubt that the pirates at Beting Marau were armed and resisting, so the massacre was, by the standards of the day, a justified military action.

Although he was exonerated, Brooke was bitter about his treatment. It was especially galling as, far from making a fortune by exploiting Sarawak’s natural resources, Brooke was losing money hand over fist. He estimated annual revenue at between £5000 and £6000 and out of this had to cover the salaries and costs of his administration, his own living expenses, and the upkeep of the two ships he maintained. By 1859 his family and friends in England were trying to put together a loan (more realistically, probably a gift) to bail him out of his financial troubles. Brooke himself wrote:

"If no more is to be had £5000 will satisfy me, as a return for my private fortune – but I should like £10,000 – I am most anxious to raise this money and so to avert the necessity of applying to a foreign power – but with the conviction forced upon us that no monetary assistance can be gained in England… France will be more just and more generous than England – more iniquitously unjust she could not be.”

His distress is obvious. In part it is explained by his state of health. Years in the Far East had left him a sick man and he was now spending much of his time in England. Relief, though, came from a friend of the family – Angela Burdett Coutts of the banking dynasty made a loan of £5000. In the years that followed Miss Coutts and James Brooke became good friends. She took a lively interest in political decisions involving Sarawak, which was by then a constant source of irritation at the Foreign Office because of its ambivalent status with in regard to Britain with. Her massive wealth also provided much-needed security as Brooke tried to negotiate with a European country – by this stage almost any European country – to help keep Sarawak financially viable and reasonably independent.

Angela Burdett-Coutts (National Portrait Gallery)

Brooke’s later years were not entirely happy. As his health deteriorated, he spent longer and longer in England and was increasingly preoccupied with the whole question of who was to inherit Sarawak on his death. He fell out with one nephew and dabbled with the idea of handing the country over to the British – or the French – or the Greeks – or practically anyone who could pay him off with enough money to restore his fortune and who would guarantee the defence of the country. The Dutch had taken to attacking Sarawak’s trading ships, so the defence of the country was quite a significant issue.

In the end, he passed the country onto another nephew, Charles. Rajah Charles proved to be everything James Brooke was not: a natural bureaucrat, organised and methodical and, truth be told, quite dull. James Brooke had taken a wild province of warring tribes, poverty, and political intrigue and turned it into a small but respectable state with peace and comparative prosperity for all. Unlike most British colonisers, his love for the native Dyaks meant that it was ruled with the consent and, indeed, approbation of the local inhabitants. The economy, though, was a mess and the country's relationship with the great powers the controlled the oceans around it was uncertain. Brooke's achievement was to create a nation, albeit a very small one. His nephew was to build on that to make a state that was to remain independent through three generations of white Rajahs, their rule only finishing with the Japanese invasion in World War II.

About 'The White Rajah'

The White Rajah is a novel quite closely based on the life of Sir James Brooke. Like the true story of his life, it raises issues about colonialism and our attitudes to what we now call Third World countries. But like his life, it also has pirates and rebellions and battles. And there's an orang-utan who, if I'm entirely honest, probably wasn't there in real life. It took, as you can imagine from this blog, quite a long time to research and write and is available on Kindle at the embarrassingly low price of £1.99/$2.99. You can use this book link to buy it, wherever you are in the world. Please do.

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