Graham Saunders: Bishops and Brookes: the anglican mission and the Brooke raj in Sarawak 1848-1941. Oxford University Press, 290 pages. $80.
review by Otto Steinmayer
This is not a book about religion. The scholarly assessment of the impact of outside religions on Borneo peoples’ own beliefs has yet to be done. Graham Saunders’ book is a perhaps necessary preparatory study. His title well describes its scope: the politics of Church and State during the Brooke Raj.
Where European power went, there went the Cross. In this, Europeans behaved no differently than other peoples in their phases of expansion.
In the mythology of imperialism, missionaries are depicted as working hand in hand with the colonising force to “civilize the simple native.” Yet as Brooke’s Sarawak was politically an odd beast, so by accident and circumstance Christian missionising turned out differently from what anyone had expected.
It could have been expected that James Brooke would play the part of English Christian gentleman bringing the light of faith, along with civilization, to benighted lands. Mission propagandists did trade on this image.
But Brooke had a restless mind and no attachment to orthodoxy. In consequence, he was, says Saunders, “tolerant of the beliefs of others. He had a sense of relativity when it came to matters of faith and morals...”
The first time Brooke mentioned missions---in the journal of his opening cruise to Sarawak---it seems the idea came to his mind principally because he did not perceive the Sebuyau to practise any religion at all, and thus the introduction of Christianity might bring the benefits of civilization without having to displace any native belief.
Brooke was undoubtedly aware that other Dayaks under his rule clung firmly to their own beliefs, as the civilized Sarawak Chinese did to theirs.
Meanwhile, Brooke, as legitimate Ruler of Sarawak and its Malay population, was bound by the terms of the gift from the Sultan of Brunei to respect and safeguard Malay customs and religion.
Nonetheless, Brooke did invite missionaries---Anglican, as was natural---into this somewhat unpromising situation. He would wait almost 10 years before any arrived.
The first two-thirds of Saunders’ book treat the
difficult years in which this mission was established, and particularly
the relations of James Brooke and the Rev Francis Thomas McDougall,
head of the mission and in 1855 the first Bishop of Sarawak.
McDougall was 30 when he arrived in Kuching. He was a robust, athletic man, educated at Oxford, and a qualified surgeon. A latecomer to the Church, he had no taste for theological argument. Rather, he had evangelical views. (Christianity in Borneo has since his time always tended to be evangelical in outlook, whatever the denomination.) McDougall appeared to fit all requirements.
His first missionising was in Kuching, then a
mainly Malay town. Its effect was to spark a Muslim revival. He and his
colleagues quickly abandoned any ideas of converting Malays, an effort
that Brooke discouraged to begin with.
Progress among the Chinese, who mainly appreciated the schools the mission set up, was hampered by the difficulty of the language. Work among the Dayaks was limited to one man each at Lundu and Lingga. There were few staff and not enough money. Health was poor. Continuity was interrupted because McDougall himself had often to go on leave.
Most pernicious of all was the hothouse closeness among the Europeans. McDougall was not an easy man to deal with and relations between him and the Rajah began to be strained as each matured his political or ecclesiastical ambitions.
Saunders argues that it was the Chinese Rebellion of 1857 that produced “misunderstanding, distrust, and a loss of mutual respect” between Brooke and McDougall that lasted until the death of the one and the resignation of the other.
McDougall felt that Brooke’s government could protect neither him nor his missionaries. He took to spreading alarming reports about Sarawak at a difficult time in Sarawak’s relations with Britain, and this Brooke resented.
McDougall further felt frustration at a Rajah who wanted missionaries sent among the Dayaks but remained “suspicious of the zeal which one would expect a man who became a missionary to have.”
In the end, it appears that McDougall did not
know how to keep his big mouth shut, and damaged his efforts with his
own remarks. For example, on a cruise up the coast, the steamer with
McDougall on board was attacked by pirates. McDougall wrote an account
of the action for the London Times, stating his own part in the
fight and praising his rifle. The spectacle of a bishop shooting
people---even pirates---caused a furore in England.
Church/State relations suffered many vicissitudes after McDougall’s departure and Charles Brooke’s accession. Charles Brooke was a completely autocratic ruler down to the last detail. He allowed no room for struggles as his uncle had done.
New denominations were admitted, each confined to its own area. The Anglican mission at times stagnated, or went into reverse.
At last, by the third Rajah Vyner Brooke’s time, things improved. Sarawak was peaceful and more prosperous. Missionaries’ lives were more comfortable and productive.
Most important, the two Bishops between the World Wars, Danson and Hudson, were practical churchmen of realistic vision. Their ambitions were to do the most with the resources they had, and to build up a self-sufficient native ministry.
Under their leadership, the Anglican mission provided important education and social services. “To this extent,” says Saunders, “it acted almost as a branch of government.” The church of Borneo enjoys great respect---not only among Christians---to the present.
Saunders’ topic---Church and Raj in Sarawak---may seem a dry or narrow one. However, I must say I read the book with with great pleasure. Bishops and Brookes in its limits, is history as it should be written. Saunders’ story moves along briskly, his language is clear and graceful. Even though his study is minutely documented and fanatically researched, the scholarship doesn’t drag down the style.
Saunders’ special talent---and here he excels
brilliantly--is to judge personalities, comprehend their complexities,
and present them in the round. He has something enlightening to say
even about the bit players, such as the unfortunate Steele and Fox,
whose murder touched off the disastrous Kayan war of 1862.
It’s an exhilarating time for students of
Sarawak, with so many wonderful books being written, or available
again. Oxford University Press has done a terrific service in
encouraging writers like Saunders and getting them into print.