Spenser St. John: The Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak. with an introduction by R.H.W. Reece. Oxford University Press, 1994. 468 pages.
review by Otto Steinmayer
James Brooke will always remain the most romantic
Englishman associated with Borneo, indeed, with all of Southeast Asia.
He caught his first sight of Borneo in August 1839, a private gentleman
in his yacht. By September of 1841 he was installed as rajah.
Suddenly, there he was, a white man, king with absolute power over a
nation of “naked savages,” as they liked to call them in those days.
Brooke’s story was the stuff of boys’ books, and sure enough, quickly appeared in boys’ books (devoured by future little empire-builders in chilly Britain), and most famously reworked by Conrad into the tale of Lord Jim. Image apart, Brooke left an extraordinary mark on the history of Sarawak.
The history of the Brooke raj has been told over so many times that it must be familiar to everybody in Malaysia. It is a strange story, and has attracted some excellent historians, including Prof. Reece, whose introduction is an excellent key and guide to the complexities of St. John’s story. Still, every aspect of it remains controversial, and in reviewing this Life I am tempted to go over the whole thing and offer my interpretation. But I must make a review, not an essay, and I will only touch upon a few points.
Among all the types of white men who came to Asia, James Brooke magnificently refused stereotyping; he was entirely atypical, and a number of things about him were mysterious, if not actually weird. Brooke was born in Varanasi in 1803, which makes him, technically anyway, an Asian. He stayed in India until the late age of 12 years, when he was sent home to a brief spell in school.
In 1819 Brooke was back in India, commissioned—at
16—an officer in the
colonial army. Six years later, in a little war with the Burmese,
Brooke was shot and seriously wounded while charging a stockade. As St.
John tells it, Brooke was shot through the lungs; rumours persist that
the bullet entered not there but in his genitals, making him impotent.
Of course, no Victorian would discuss such a thing, and this remains
unproved. If true, this wound could explain why Brooke never married,
never went farther than friendship with women.
Brooke recovered in England (his mother took the extracted bullet and kept it in a glass case on the mantelpiece) and led a life of aristocratic boredom for some years. He was determined to get back to the east, with vague ideas of exploration and trade. His deepest wish was just to do something, to adventure among exotic peoples and places with no white conventions to bother him.
With the inheritance he received from his father Brooke bought a yacht, a vessel big enough to mount six guns, and after a shakedown cruise through the Mediterranean, departed for the South China Sea. From Singapore he left for Borneo.
The beginnings of his rule seem the most
exciting, most romantic, and,
to me, most interesting period of Sarawak’s modern history. Brooke got
to be rajah with astonishing speed and largely by accident. He may have
thought that he was planning his moves carefully, but one gets the
impression that he sleepwalked to the crown.
Before 1839 Sarawak was a outpost of the Sultanate of Brunei. The Sultan chose for her governor the Pengiran Mahkota, who confided later to St. John “...I was brought up to plunder the Dyaks, and it makes me laugh to think that I have fleeced a tribe down to its very cooking-pots.” Such rapacity brought about a “rebellion”—a low-intensity conflict if ever there was one—of Malays who dug themselves in at the little pasar of Siniawan, to the ulu of Kuching on the Sarawak river.
The Sultan replaced Mahkota with Muda Hassim, who tried to resolve things diplomatically; but too many interests conflicted. Mahkota was playing all sides against the middle and the Sultan of Sambas had his iron in the fire also. The result was, as they used to say in the Old West, a “Mexican standoff.”
Then arrived Brooke with his armed yacht and his military training. Muda Hassim and Brooke got to like one another. The rebellion dragged on, and in despair, Muda Hassim begged Brooke to help, finally offering Brooke the raj if only he’d restore authority.
James accepted the deal and, taking the lead, defeated the insurgents without doing an awful lot of damage to anybody. Muda Hassim honoured his promise, and as Brooke said, “the agreement was drawn out, sealed, and signed; guns fired, flags waved; and, on the 24th September 1841, I became the Governor of Sarawak with the fullest powers.” The Sultan of Brunei not long after duly confirmed his title.
There may be ultra-nationalist historians out there to whom Brooke is nothing more than another evil imperialist. But it’s important to remember that Brooke’s accession to the raj was all perfectly in form, legal and unforced. Sarawak was a free and independent state, never a colony, and remained so until 1946, when the last rajah’s legally very dubious step of handing the country over to the British caused much resentment and anguish.
James began with building up a power base among
the Dayaks, who were
thrilled to see some order and stability in their country. With
security established Brooke concentrated on trade and development. He
carried out these aims sticking scrupulously to two principles that
became the core of “Brooke rule” ideology: always to respect local
customs, and to make changes very slowly. From the start of his reign,
Sarawak never ceased growing except during the musin Jepun.
The rest of Brooke’s story is common knowledge,
his expeditions against
the sea-borne headhunters and pirates, whose power he crushed; his
acquisition of territory that expanded Sarawak up to the Batang Lupar
area and beyond; the rebellion of the miners at Bau in 1857, who almost
destroyed the young raj.
Spenser St. John was an eyewitness to nearly
every event in Sarawak
after 1848, when the British government appointed him secretary to
Brooke in Brooke’s new office as H.M.’s Consul-General in Borneo. From
the time he stepped aboard the warship Maeander that carried
him and the Rajah back to Sarawak, St. John was in constant and
intimate contact with Brooke until Brooke’s death. In the opinion of
all the Rajah’s friends, there was no one who knew James Brooke as well
as St. John knew him. St. John speaks about Brooke with a unique
Historians have made deep use of St. John’s Life. It is a most important source. Still, St. John is not the perfect biographer. Where he felt Brooke’s case was secure, as when Brooke’s crushing of the “pirates” caused bitter controversy in England —and now again is the most debated part of Brooke’s career—he’s plentiful with fact and comment. Other parts St. John glides over, more disturbing episodes such as the annexation of the Mukah area, Brooke’s panicked loss of nerve during the Chinese rebellion, when he wanted to sell Sarawak to the Dutch, “or to anybody that would have it,” and his paranoid squabbles over the succession which ended in his disinheriting J. Brooke Brooke the Rajah Muda.
Nonetheless, though the Englishmen who wrote
about Sarawak at this time
did interpret, they did not lie. St. John does not hesitate to
criticize the Rajah. He deplores Brooke’s lack of administrative
skills, though he does not go as far as Admiral Keppel, who declared
that the Rajah “had as much idea of business as a cow has of a clean
Some modern historians have decided that James Brooke was an inscrutable man. He is opaque, an enigma, they say. Nicholas Tarling, author of a modern full length biography, confesses that after reading thousands of Brooke’s letters he cannot discover his motivations. St. John felt differently, and the portrait he presents is remarkable. I agree with St. John.
Brooke had a thirst for adventure, and I mean that he relished the occasional conflict but hated conquest and slaughter. Hardly all of life was spent in war. He passed long months playing chess and reading. He was a good and kind-hearted man and full of fun. Before ill health soured him, he charmed everyone who met him. The Dayaks admired him greatly, and regularly came to visit him at the Astana. Even the fierce headhunting chiefs of the Skrang and Saribas, once Brooke had licked them in battle, reconciled themselves cheerfully to his rule, and soon proved his most loyal supporters.
Brooke displayed his feelings and ideals to everyone. He could be sneaky, but he was clumsy at guile. What he said or wrote, he believed, and you could trust him for that. In our suspicious age, such simplicity looks suspicious, and we are reluctant to accept it as genuine.
There’s no doubt that James Brooke did a great deal of good for the peoples of Sarawak in establishing a secure and dependable government. Brooke’s name is remembered fondly by many Sarawakians even today, and to gain that reputation Brooke must certainly have possessed the reality of justice and decency.
St. John said that he did not intend to sum up
the Rajah’s character.
In his biography he strove hard to remain as clear of bias as possible
and to allow the reader to form his own estimate. Yet just from the
facts it is hard not to come away from Brooke without thinking, as was
St. John’s personal judgment, that he was indeed “one of the noblest
and best of men.”