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The White Rajah's rule

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

IN 1839, a schooner called the Royalist appeared on Sungai Sarawak bearing an English gentleman adventurer named James Brooke. Two years later in Kuching, on Sept 24, Brooke was installed as the ''Rajah of Sarawak''. It was the beginning of a dynasty of ''White Rajahs'' that governed Sarawak for more than a century, from 1841 to 1941.Indeed, the year 1841 was a turning point for Sarawak. Henceforth the fate of the small Brunei fiefdom of Sarawak, then a territory not bigger than the island-state of Singapore, was transformed within a decade from a nonentity to an independent state recognised as far away as Washington DC. By 1905, Sarawak was only slightly smaller than Peninsular Malaysia.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the river basins of the Lundu, Sarawak, Samarahan and Sadong comprising Upper Sarawak were under the nominal suzerainty of the sultanate of Brunei. A Brunei noble was appointed ''Rajah'', or governor. Then, discoveries of valuable ores began attracting attention to the territory. In the early 1820s, Hakka Chinese gold workers from the Sambas region of south-west Borneo crossed over to Sarawak and established self-governing mining communities. When antimony was discovered shortly thereafter, Pengiran Indera Makota, then Rajah of Sarawak, undertook to mine the ore using labour from among the local Siniawan Malays and Bidayuhs (Land Dayaks). The ore was exported to the newly opened British port of Singapore (1819). Makota established a settlement at Kuching in Lower Sarawak in the early 1830s that soon attracted a growing Chinese (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese) mercantile community as well as Brunei Malays.

Apparently, the harsh treatment by Makota drove the Siniawan Malay datu (non-royal chiefs) and Bidayuh population to revolt against Brunei authority. This anti-Brunei rebellion (1836 to 1840) adversely affected the production of antimony and its trade. Consequently, Pengiran Bendahara Pengiran Hassim, uncle to the sultan and regent, was sent to suppress the uprising, but he could not resolve the situation. At this juncture, Brooke arrived at Kuching in August 1839.

Son of a British East India Company official, Brooke spent his childhood in India, though he went to school in Britain. He became a cavalry officer in the British Indian Army and saw action during the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-1826). He suffered serious injury and returned to Britain in 1825, and five years later resigned his military commission. During the 1830s Brooke made two trips to China, stopping by the Straits Settlements (comprising Penang, Malacca and Singapore) en route. Brooke staunchly supported Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles' vision of a greater role for Britain in the Malay Archipelago vis-à-vis the Dutch. Brooke penned his ideas in a prospectus in 1838 in which he argued the case for territorial possession in place of the hitherto treaty arrangements as the basis for developing commerce. The British had shied away from territorial commitments as a cost-cutting measure at that time.

With his inheritance, Brooke bought the 142-tonne schooner Royalist and embarked on a geographical and scientific expedition of discovery to Marudu Bay at the northern tip of Borneo, the Celebes (Sulawesi), and New Guinea. His maiden visit to Kuching was to convey a letter of thanks to Hassim from the mercantile community of Singapore for Hassim's kindness in giving aid to shipwrecked British seamen. On his return journey, Brooke anchored at Kuching. He found that Hassim still had made no headway in ending the rebellion. In desperation, Hassim offered Brooke the title of ''Rajah'' and the fiefdom of Sarawak in return for quelling the uprising. Brooke accepted the challenge with alacrity and soon managed to persuade the rebels to cease their struggle.

In 1841 Brooke became Rajah of Sarawak, a position confirmed in the following year at the court of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II of Brunei as a reward for services rendered to the sultanate.

Brooke laid the foundation of an enlightened paternal despotism where the Rajah ruled in consultation with the Malay datu, the former rebels, who were incorporated into his government as advisers. The principles of Brooke's rule - later referred to as the Brooke tradition - emphasised the protection of native interests and the promotion of their welfare. The indigenous peoples were to be shielded from what Brooke considered undesirable outside influences emanating from both Europeans and the Chinese. Hence, Brooke opposed the introduction of large-scale European and/or Chinese capitalist ventures. He eschewed radical changes; changes, if deemed necessary, were to be introduced in gradual, osmosis fashion.

Brooke faced several challenges to his ''rajahship''. In 1843 and 1844, with the assistance of the Royal Navy, he succeeded in reducing the piratical activities of the Saribas and Skrang Ibans that plagued the north-western Bornean coast, seriously disrupting trade. The piratical menace was dealt a serious blow at the Battle of Batang Maru in 1849. The Royal Navy and Brooke's levies (Malays and Iban allies) killed more than 500 pirates. This incident sparked an outcry in the British Parliament where Liberal politicians attacked Brooke. The business community in Singapore, bitter over not being allowed to establish businesses in Sarawak, joined in criticising Brooke. Although a commission of inquiry held in Singapore in 1854 vindicated Brooke, his reputation and prestige had been irreparably damaged.

But Brooke found some consolation a year before the inquiry when the new ruler of Brunei, Sultan Abdul Mumin, ceded the river valleys of the Saribas, Skrang and Lupar to Sarawak's government.

Brooke faced opposition to his rule from upriver Ibans of Sungai Skrang and Sungai Saribas led by Libau, better known as Rentap (literally, ''earth tremor''). Punitive expeditions against Rentap were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, in February 1857, the Hakka Chinese gold miners launched an attack on Kuching during which Brooke barely escaped with his life. The Hakka miners had never acknowledged Brooke's authority; furthermore, they viewed Kuching's mercantile community of Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese as an economic threat to their community in Bau. With Malay support and Iban levies led by Brooke's younger nephew, Charles Johnson (later Brooke), the Hakka miners were defeated, though a few managed to retreat across the border to Sambas. In the later part of 1857, Rentap was finally defeated at his upland stronghold of Sadok. Rentap and some of his followers fled further into the interior.

More trouble came from Brunei. Certain parties in the Brunei court resented Brooke's appointment. In a palace coup, Hassim and his family, perceived as pro-Brooke, were killed in 1846 with the sultan's connivance. Brooke exploited the situation and, with the Royal Navy, descended on Brunei to pressure the sultan. The sultan granted Brooke and his successors tenure of Sarawak in perpetuity, the cession of the island of Labuan to Britain, and he signed a treaty with Britain agreeing not to cede any further territory without British approval. Labuan was declared a British Crown Colony in 1847 and Brooke its first governor.

From 1857 to 1860, anti-Brooke factions in Brunei again plotted against Brooke. The conspiracy culminated in a standoff in 1860 at Mukah, the centre of the Melanau sago industry. The Brunei faction backed off when Brooke arrived with, once again, the Royal Navy in tow. Brunei ceded to Sarawak the sago-rich coastal districts from Sungai Rejang to Sungai Bintulu in 1861.

Brooke was neither an able administrator nor a prudent financier. Refusing to exact nothing more than nominal tax, Sarawak was initially financed by Brooke's personal funds and, in later years, through loans from his admirer and chief creditor, Angela Burdett-Coutts. Despite efforts by Brooke to gain recognition and protectorate status for Sarawak from Britain and other European powers, no government acceded. The United States in 1850 recognised Sarawak as an independent state. Britain only accorded this recognition in 1863.

When Brooke died in Britain in 1868, Sarawak had grown to more than three times its original area. Extremes of lawlessness, like headhunting and piracy, were generally curbed throughout the country and the rudiments of trade, largely in the hands of the Chinese, were beginning to take root. The Borneo Company Limited (BCL) was the sole European enterprise allowed in the country and it confined itself to the extractive industries.

In accordance with Brooke's vision, Sarawak's multiethnic indigenous inhabitants continued with their traditional, subsistence-based livelihood, for the most part undisturbed and untouched by European or Chinese influence.

Brooke inaugurated the practice of a unique form of enlightened despotism where the rights and interests of indigenous communities were protected and promoted. He fulfilled the dream he shared with his mother in a letter he wrote on Oct 16, 1842, explaining his dissociation with commercial activities and why he chose not to enrich himself: ''... hope that thousands will be benefited when I am mouldering in dust; and that my name will be remembered, whenever it is thought of, as one whose actions showed him above the base and sordid motives which so often disgrace men in similar circumstances.''

n Dr Ooi Keat Gin, a lecturer at USM's School of Humanities, specialises in the history of Borneo. His books relating to the Brookes of Sarawak include World Beyond the Rivers: Education in Sarawak from Brooke Rule to Colonial Office Administration, 1841-1963 (Hull, 1996) and Of Free Trade and Native Interests: The Brookes and the Economic Development of Sarawak, 1841-1941 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Notes: STF -: One man's actions can shape history - if that man is anything like English adventurer James Brooke. Dr OOI KEAT GIN examines the consequences of Brooke's arrival in Sarawak and the making of the state under the White Rajah's rule.

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