GUEST POST BY THE AUTHOR, TOM WILLIAMS
James Brooke ~ Portrait by Sir Francis Grant, The National Portrait Gallery.
James Brooke was a child of British colonialism. Born in Benares, India in 1803, his father was the chief of the East India Company’s provincial court. He spent his first 12 years in India, a pampered child in a country where an Englishman could live like a lord. When his parents, apparently finally noticing his lack of education, send him to school in England, it was a rude surprise. He ended up in boarding school at Norwich but ran away after two or three years and moved in with the family of Charles Keegan, a retired Indian civilian and friend of his family, who was living in Bath.
Eventually his father retired from India and he, too, returned to Bath. Reunited with his family, James eventually settled with them, but as soon as he was 16, he returned to India and commissioned into the East India Company's army. He was posted to the 6th Native Infantry and became a Sub-Assistant, Commissary-General. He was not, though, by nature a logistician. In fact he had always wanted to be a cavalry officer and when war broke out with Burma he overheard the general in command complaining they had no light cavalry to act as scouts. Lieutenant Brooke immediately offered to raise a troop and he was allowed to call for volunteers from among the infantry. He formed them into a reasonably efficient irregular cavalry, which operated ahead of the advancing column. It was typical of his character – and, indeed, normal for young officers in those days – that he led from the front and the result was that, early in the campaign, he was wounded and invalided back to Britain. His recovery was slow and it was not until 3½ years after the injury that he was able to leave England to rejoin his regiment. However, his ship was wrecked off the Isle of Wight and, though he survived, his health was again affected. He was forced to apply for six months further leave. By the time he was ready to re-embark, it was winter and bad weather delayed his departure until March 1830. The weather continued stormy or – in the days of sail just as bad – excessively calm and his voyage on the Castle Huntley was very slow. It was not until 18 July that he reach Madras. The maximum amount of leave that he could take was five years and that was up on the 30th. This gave him 12 days to get from Madras to Calcutta which was impossible. Although he looked for temporary employment in Madras so as not to break his contract, this was refused and he resigned from the Company's service.
It seems likely that Brooke was quite happy to leave the Army. Although he had proved an able soldier in action, his was not a personality well-suited to the tedium of administration when there was no actual fighting going on. It seems likely that he could have remained in the Company's service – his father was lobbying with every evidence of success for this to happen – but he probably didn't really want to. Instead, he chose to stay on with the Castle Huntly, exploring the waters of the Eastern Archipelago and calling at the British possessions of Penang, Malacca and Singapore before sailing on to Canton.
That mad-cap voyage, during which the still-young Brooke seems to have spent much of his time simply having fun and getting into scrapes with the local Chinese, proved to be a crucial influence on the way his life was to develop. Back in England he announced that it was his intention to buy a ship and to sail in search of adventure (and profit, of course) in the Far East.
Eventually he managed to persuade his father's put up money and let him buy the Findlay "a rakish slaver-brig, 290 tons burden". In May 1834, he set off to sail to the East and a new life as a merchant-adventurer.
It was a disaster. A brig needed a large crew to run and the venture could never be profitable. Eventually Brooke decided to give up the enterprise and return to England.
That should have been that. Brooke should have learned the lesson of his youthful escapades and settled down to responsible employment. But he seemed incapable of settling down to anything. His father's pension meant that there was no urgency in finding alternative employment and he remained in England doing nothing in particular. Not that long after his return, though, his father died, leaving him with enough money to relaunch his idea of voyaging in the Far East.
This time he bought a schooner, the Royalist, which was much better suited to the sort of business he had planned. After a proving voyage in the Mediterranean, he set off again in December 1838.
Brooke’s head was filled with romantic notions and trade was a secondary consideration for him. He had decided that the power of the Dutch was in decline and that now was the time to expand British influence in the area and that he was the man for the job. His goal was Borneo, which he considered ripe for improving trade with Britain. His initial plan was to start his adventures at Marudu Bay in the north of the island. When he arrived in Singapore, though, the political buzz was all about Muda Hassim, the Bendahara of Brunei. Essentially' a Bendahara runs the place, though he is nominally responsible to the Sultan. However, the legitimacy of the Sultan lies with the bendahara. If you think of Muda Hassim as the Sultan of Brunei, you will be hopelessly wrong in terms of the formalities of the Brunei court, but you’ll have a fair handle on the realities of the situation.
A few months before Brooke's arrival in Singapore a British brig called the Napoleon had been wrecked in Borneo. Muda Hassim had treated the crew with every courtesy, fed and clothed them at his own expense, and arranged for their safe return to Singapore.
Brooke was not a man to set out a plan and stick to it, but rather somebody always more than willing to take advantage of any change in his circumstances to strike out in a new direction. He decided to seize this opportunity to develop a relationship with Hassim. On 27 July 1839, the Royalist slipped quietly away from Singapore and headed to Borneo.
The politics of Borneo in the mid-19th century were Byzantine. Power was held by Malays. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – were relatively powerless. When Brooke arrived in Sarawak, Hassim was occupied in putting down a rising, of Dyaks, who were supported by a faction within the Malay community – the Siniawan Malays. In fact, they were almost certainly supported by elements within the Malay court who were trying to reduce Hassim’s power. By now the uprising had been going on for four years. Hassim had been in Sarawak for months and nothing seemed to have changed since he moved his court there.
Hassim saw Brooke’s arrival as providential. Although there were only 28 men on board the Royalist, Hassim looked at her six cannon and the White Ensign hanging at her mast and saw her as a symbol of British power. If he could get Brooke involved in the war, he thought he could finally bring things to a conclusion and return to the seat of power in Brunei.
For while, Brooke refused to be drawn in. In fact, he returned to Singapore and made various other short expeditions before coming back to Sarawak in August 1840. By now, the Dyaks had been defeated and mostly come over to Hassim. However, the Siniawan Malays were holding out. Hassim again asked Brooke for assistance. Here is Brooke’s own account of his attitude to intervening in what was, effectively, a civil war in Borneo.
I may here state my motives for being a spectator at all, or participator (as may turn out), in this scene. In the first place, I must confess that curiosity strongly prompted me; since to witness the Malays, Chinese [yes, there were Chinese too, immigrants who essentially monopolised trade], and Dayaks in warfare was so new, but the novelty alone might plead an excuse for this desire. But it was not the only motive; for my presence is a stimulus to our own party, and will probably depress the other in proportion. I look upon the cause of the Raja [Hassim] as most just and righteous; and the speedy close of the war will be rendering a service to humanity, especially if brought about by treaty.
Brooke was already clearly far from a mere spectator. He provided advice and encouragement to Hassim. He was there as Hassim’s forces pushed the rebels back to their main position at a town called Belidah. He encouraged Hassim to attack, but "my proposal to attack the adversary was immediately treated as an extreme of rashness amounting to insanity.” The Malays preferred an approach where a chain of fortified positions was constructed, moving closer and closer to Balidah without any open assault. Brooke's frustration grew he saw this "protracted" warfare as "extremely barbarous". Trade and agriculture were both disrupted and there seemed no prospect of peace. Finally, in October, he sent for two of his six-pounder guns and some of his men to be despatched from the Royalist to Balidah. By 31 October the guns were up and the rebel defences were breached. Still, though, the Malays refused to storm the place. On 3 November Brooke left them in despair. His diary tells what happened next:
I explained to [Hassim] how useless it was my remaining and intimated to him my intention of departing; but his deep regret was so visible, that even all the self-command of the native could not disguise it. He begged, he entreated me to stay, and offered me the country of Siniawan and Sarawak, and its government and trade, if I would only stop, and not desert him.
Brooke did not immediately accept this offer, but did continue to support Hassim’s efforts in the war, in which the men of the Royalist were soon to prove decisive.
With the end of the war, Brooke suggested that Hassim might like to follow through on his promise to give him the rule of Sarawak. The fighting over, though, Hassim was not so sure. On the one hand, he wanted to retain Brooke's support, possibly as offering some sort of protection against Dutch expansionism and certainly to bolster his own position in the intrigues between himself and other powerful Malay factions. On the other hand, he was concerned that he should not be seen as yielding territory that technically belonged to the Sultan, or as suggesting that traditional Malay laws could be set aside in favour of an Englishman. Negotiations extended for almost a year, during which factions in the Malay camp tried to poison Brooke. Eventually, though, Hassim agreed, drawing up and signing a document giving Brooke the government of Sarawak. On 24 November, 1841 he was ceremoniously declared Rajah.
Tom Williams has written several historical novels. The White Rajah is based on the exploits of James Brooke