Friday, October 28, 2005

White Rajahs of Sarawak

The 19th and 20th century history of Sarawak reads like a Hollywood movie script—benevolent English adventurer and former British army officer from Bengal goes to an exotic country, suppresses a rebellion, awarded the title of White Rajah, stops headhunting and piracy, and brings order and prosperity. There is a boat chase, sea battles with warships, ships attacking river villages and pirates, and storming of a jungle stockade. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Brunei was a powerful sultanate.

By the early 19th century, Brunei's power over Sarawak was dwindling for Sarawak was in rebellion and there was piracy on the seas. In 1826, the Rajah of Sarawak, Pengiran Indera Makota, forced the Malays and Land Dayaks (now known as Bidayuh) to work in the antimony mines, collected taxes and stole from the Dayaks, and sold Dayak women and children into slavery. Previously, the Malay elite that served as local chiefs (datu) collected taxes and traded with the Dayaks. The Malay datu and Dayaks revolted in 1836.

In 1839, James Brooke (1803-1868)
sailed up the Sarawak River to Kuching on his 142-ton schooner Royalist to deliver a letter thanking Pengiran Bendahara Hassim, uncle and regent to the sultan of Brunei, for his help in rescuing some shipwrecked British sailors. Hassim was sent by the sultan to suppress the uprising. He was desperate to regain control of Sarawak and offered to grant Brooke the title of Rajah and a small part of the northwestern coast of Borneo near Kuching if he ended the rebellion. Brooke interceded and brought a peaceful settlement.

Thus began the dynasty of the White Rajahs who ruled Sarawak for hundred years. On September 24, 1841, Brooke was appointed governor of Sarawak and on August 18, 1842, he was awarded the title of Rajah. When Brooke died in 1868, Sarawak had grown three fold, headhunting and piracy were curtailed, there was only one European company in the country, and trade, mostly Chinese, was taking root. Brooke, however, was a poor administrator and financier. He initially used his personal funds and refused to exact anything more than a nominal tax.

Charles Johnson (1829-1936)
was the nephew of James Brooke. He later changed his surname to Brooke and became the second white Rajah of Sarawak in 1868 ruling the region until 1917. He was not as colorful as his uncle, but was a better administrator, financier, and politician, with firsthand knowledge of the indigenous people. Charles set up a proper government, extended the territory to its present boundaries, reduced inter-tribal warfare and headhunting in the interior, expanded trade and commerce, balanced the budget for the first time, and left many fine buildings.

These buildings include the Astana (1870), the white, thatched palace which was Charles Brooke's residence; Fort Magherita (1879) which protected Kuching from marauding pirates and named after the Rajah's wife; and the Sarawak Museum (1891) which houses the ethnographic and natural history collections of Sarawak. Sarawak became a British Protectorate on June 14, 1888. Oil was discovered during the last years of Charles' reign.

In 1917, Charles Vyner Brooke (1874-1963),
the eldest surviving son of Charles, succeeded his father. Rajah Vyner (always known as Vyner) did not interfere with local customs, but drew the line at headhunting, which was practiced by Dyak tribesmen. When a young Dyak comes of age, a girl didn't think much of him until he had two or three heads. Vyner spent many hours with these men teaching them that severing an old woman's head just to please a girl wasn't a sign of honor.

The last war expedition occurred in the early 1930s against the Iban chief Asun. The Brookes were in Sydney when Kuching fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day in 1941. Sarawak was placed under Australian Military Administration following Japanese surrender in 1945. Vyner Brooke could not afford the cost of rebuilding. He also had little confidence in his nephew and heir apparent, Anthony Brooke. On April 15, 1946, Brooke resumed his position of Rajah, but ceded Sarawak to Great Britain on July 1, 1946 in exchange for a pension. He retired to England.

Many people regard the Brooke Raj as a golden age where traditions were strong, the economy improved, and violence was under control. Under the Brookes, the rights and interests of indigenous people were protected and they were allowed to pursue their subsistence-based lifestyles. Local communities were shielded from European or Chinese influence and missionaries were largely banned until after World War II. But why did so many northwest Borneo people support the Brookes?

Like many southeast Asians, the Bidayuh believed that there are certain individuals with the capacity to manipulate the spiritual world and natural forces to human advantage. Bidayuh call this supernatural power semangat. Everything the Bidayuh saw about James Brooke indicated that he was highly potent with intense semangat—his self confidence, the armed followers and sailors, the 6-pound cannons and other armaments, the deference and courtesy by the head of the Brunei heirarchy in Sarawak, his bravery in warfare, and his ability to bend the Brunei authorities to his will. By participating in his potency, it was hoped that some of the potency would "rub off", thus, replenishing their own spiritual substance and ensuring material prosperity.

The legacy left by a hundred years of Brookes rule still stands—architecture; the administrative heritage with the District Office, where District Officers are in-charge, Residents of Divisions with Residents in-charge, and "out-stations" beyond HQ in Kuching; and an end to cannibalism, head hunting, piracy, and inter-village violence. For more information on the White Rajahs of Sarawak, take a look at James Brooke and the Bidayuh, Rajah Brooke and 19thC Sarawak, Rajahs of Sarawak, Sarawak History Message Board, The Borneo Project: The Brooke Era, and The Name of Brooke .

By Joseph


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