The White Rajahs of Sarawak

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For the British Empire, the Second World War was a Pyrrhic victory. Beset by debt and fears of bankruptcy, the Attlee government found that it could barely afford to feed its own citizens (rationing continued until 1954), let alone maintain the required military presence in every corner of its globe-spanning empire. The British Raj – the jewel in the imperial crown – was hastily partitioned and granted independence in 1947. The recently acquired mandate of Palestine was similarly surrendered in 1948. While Britain managed to temporarily maintain its African colonies, the idea of actively expanding its holdings in the continent was patently absurd. Yet in these twilight years, there was one part of the world that the British Empire saw its influence increase in. In 1945, London acquired a new crown colony – Sarawak, a land larger than England itself. Yet this was far from the region’s first experience of European imperialism. Indeed, for a little over a century, Sarawak played host to some of the most peculiar of colonial overlords, the White Rajahs.

In 1841, the 23rd Sultan of Brunei, Omar Ali Saifuddin II, was fighting to contain renewed uprisings in Sarawak – then an inhospitable and largely unpopulated province of the Bruneian Empire. Piracy constantly threatened the economic stability of the region, and Saifuddin’s efforts to collect taxes had raised discontent to such an extent that Sarawak was simply ungovernable. It was at this time that James Brooke (a largely unknown English officer) arrived in Kuching, the largest city of Sarawak. 

Brooke’s prior career had been distinctively undistinguished. As a young man, he had been inextricably drawn to the Far East; Brooke had grown up in the shadow of the East India Company, in which his father had served as a judge in Bareilly. As was common for English expatriates, he had returned to the mother country aged twelve to be educated, but Brooke always saw himself as a ‘man of the East’ and gained a commission to serve in the East India Army. His service in these years was largely unremarkable, though his valour during the Anglo-Burmese War was commended in dispatches. In 1825, however, he was shot in the lung and invalided home. There, he had come into a sizeable inheritance, with which he purchased the schooner Royalist. Aboard his new vessel, he had sailed to make his fortune in the court of Omar Ali Saiffudin, where he had found the browbeaten Bruneian struggling to suppress revolts in Sarawak.

A former soldier, Brooke swiftly offered his services to Saiffudin, and was so effective in eliminating piracy and restoring order to the area that he was soon made governor of Sarawak. Yet the unrest which Brooke had quelled in Sarawak swiftly spilled over into Brunei, and Malayan nobles briefly deposed the Sultan. Once again, Brooke found himself in Saifuddin’s service, and managed to stem the nascent uprising and restore the Sultan to his throne. In return for his services, Brooke had his area of governorship expanded and was awarded the hereditary title of Rajah of Sarawak. Although he was ostensibly a vassal of the Sultan, he possessed almost dictatorial powers and was able to craft his new dominion in his own image. 

For the next century, the Rajahs modernised Sarawak by transformed the region into an economic powerhouse, with flourishing exports in black pepper, antimony and rubber. Yet despite their competent stewardship, the Brookes today have a controversial reputation in Sarawak – largely due to the ruthlessness with which they cracked down on any dissent.

When James Brooke first acceded to the Sarawakian throne, he came into control of a disparate country, in which local tribes constantly competed against one another in a struggle for supremacy. The most distinctive feature of these tribes was their shared affinity for ‘headhunting’ – a practice that made the region notorious across all Europe. Native warriors would decapitate the corpses of their enemies, and take their heads as trophies. The heads of women and children were especially highly valued, since these were seen as rarer and more difficult to obtain.

Sarawak had long been known to Europeans. As early as 1507, an Italian, Ludovico de Varthema, had explored the area, and had described the local tribes and an orderly and well governed people. Additional Spanish and Portuguese expeditions had been dispatched to Sarawak during the 16th Century, but Brunei was largely considered inferior to the nearby Philippines, a region which all European powers craved control of, and was accordingly ignored during the first wave of European colonisation. During the rise of the East India Company, several agents were dispatched to establish trading forts in Borneo. All of these efforts, however, failed – largely due to an utter lack of understanding surrounding local customs and, in one case, the unique incompetence and astonishing avarice of one John Herbert, who had somehow managed to unite both the local traders and pirates (who ought to have been natural enemies) against the EIC.

As such, when James Brooke arrived at the court of Omar Ali Saifuddin II in 1841, Brunei – let alone the distant outpost of Sarawak – had scarcely been touched by Europe. Upon his accession, however, Brooke immediately sought to change that reality. Slavery, piracy and headhunting were all outlawed, and the local Dayak people forcibly pacified. Brooke began to assert greater political control over Sarawak by raising taxes and cracking down on the drug trade. Both of these measures earned Brooke the enmity of Liu Shan Bang, a Chinese miner who had emigrated to Sarawak in 1830. There, he had formed a kongsi (a gang) of Chinese immigrant workers who ran their own small economic empire in the region – largely off the back of lucrative mining operations and the opium trade. Outraged by the new Rajah, Liu mustered a force of six hundred miners and marched on the capital, Kuching, with the aim of assassinating Brooke.

The ragtag army quickly overran the city and, in the process, murdered many Westerners – including one sixteen-year-old whom they mistook for Brooke. Yet the real Rajah was able to escape and, with the assistance of local leaders, routed Liu’s army and retook the capital. Fearing reprisals, the Chinese population of Sarawak took refuge in a series of caves at Bau. Hearing of this, Brooke resolved to make an example of his opponents and ordered his soldiers to light fires at all the entries to the cave system, smoking out the cowering populace. Any that survived the smoke and made it through the fires were killed, and by the end of the day at least 2,000 people had died. Brooke’s behaviour was certainly brutal, but it ensured his reign remained largely unchallenged until his death in 1868.

He was succeeded by his nephew, Charles Brooke, who built upon his uncle’s legacy by continuing to modernise Sarawak. A parliament (albeit a hardly democratic one) was established, and drilling expeditions discovered oil under the surface of Sarawak. The petroleum industry boomed, boosting the regional economy and giving Charles the funds needed to finance construction of a railway line. Schools in the English model were constructed, as was a museum celebrating the culture of local Bruneians. Closer relations with Britain were carefully fostered, and Sarawak became an imperial protectorate. All the while, the Brookes were able to assert themselves on their neighbours and steadily expanded the lands in their domain.

The nation seemed to be thriving, yet internal divisions refused to be plastered over. All senior government posts were effectively off limits to non-Europeans, and Brooke was opposed at every turn by the local Marudi tribes. When he died, however, he left to his son (Charles Vyner Brooke) a seemingly stable state. Vyner inherited a position as the quasi-absolute ruler of an oil-rich state, and continued family control of Sarawak seemed certain. Few could have predicted the turmoil the new Rajah would preside over.

By the 1940s, however, the winds of change were blowing through the continent, and Sarawak was not immune from the clamour for self-government then sweeping across the world. As such, Vyner Brooke agreed to offer concessions in the form of the 1941 Sarawakan Constitution, which severely curtailed the Rajah’s powers. In return, Vyner received a payment of £200,000 (more than £10 million in today’s money) from the British treasury. With his new fortune, Vyner Brooke promptly left for Sydney, and so it was from Australia that he witnessed Japan invade his country in 1942. After three years of brutal occupation, Vyner Brooke, in return for a guaranteed pension, ceded Sarawak to the British government as a crown colony. The Sarawakians were outraged, and claimed this was a blatant violation of their right to self-government, but neither Britain nor Brooke paid them much heed. Colonial rule was far from a tranquil period – the Governor, Duncan George Stewart, was assassinated in 1949 – but the British presence in Sarawak continued until 1963, when the region became a part of the newly formed Malaysia. 

The legacy of the White Rajahs is undoubtedly complex. In their one hundred and five years of rule, the Brookes effectively built modern Sarawak, transforming a disparate tribal region into a modern and prosperous nation. They retained respect for many local customs, whilst also abolishing the most abhorrent – such as slavery and head-hunting. Yet their paternalism limited the rights and opportunities enjoyed by native Sarawakians; non-Europeans had little say in governance and were not even permitted to serve in the Borneo Company Limited, then the most prominent regional corporation, until the 1950s. Similarly, Vyner Brooke’s decision simply to cede Sarawak to Britain flew in the face of any notions of self-government, and revealed the White Rajahs saw their principality merely as a private possession. Although it is evident that the Brookes loved and sought to develop the region, they pursued their own agenda to the exclusion of the local populace. 

Runciman, S., 2011. The White Rajah: A History of Sarawak from 1841-1946. Cambridge University Press

Morris, J., 2012. Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat. Faber & Faber