This week’s blog marks the anniversary of another massacre. Sorry about that. This one was on 31 July 1849 and, yet again, was a result of the clash of cultures when Europeans began to rule countries in the Far East. In this case, it wasn’t technically colonialism because this happened in Sarawak (in Borneo) where James Brooke ruled in his own right, having been gifted control of the territory by the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke was far from your regular colonialist. He seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to improve the lot of “his” people. Far from making money by exploiting the country, he lost money hand over fist and had to be bailed out by Angela Burdett-Coutts of the famous banking family. His motives were of the very highest. So how did he come to be associated with a massacre so bloody that, even in a time when the deaths of quite a few “natives” in distant parts of the world were regarded as just one of those things, the massacre at Beting Marau resulted in questions in the British Parliament?
The native population of Sarawak was Dyaks. The Dyaks of Sarawak were preyed upon by pirates. (That’s a pirate boat at the top of the page.) The pirates were not individual pirate captains attacking the odd coastal village, but organised tribes who penetrated far upriver and systematically looted Brooke’s subjects. (Think Vikings.) Brooke decided that he had to take firm action against the pirates and involved the British Navy. The local Naval commander was a man called Henry Keppel, who thought that a successful expedition extirpating piracy in the region would do his career no harm. (He was right – it didn’t.) It’s not at all clear that Keppel had the authority to engage in actions on behalf of Sarawak, which was not even technically British, but he pointed out that the pirates had been known to attack other shipping and that he was therefore acting within his mandate to police the South China Seas, where British trade was increasingly important.
Keppel visited Sarawak several times, destroying rebel villages and sinking their boats, but piracy continued to be a problem. In the end it was decided to mount a major attack on the main pirate base at Beting Marau. Remember that these pirates were not Long John Silver and a few renegades but entire tribes for whom piracy was a way of life. Their base was a village where the whole tribe lived – women and children as well as men of fighting age.
By now Keppel was elsewhere but the new naval commander, Sir Francis Collier, agreed (somewhat reluctantly) to go ahead with an attack on Beting Marau. The campaign that was to culminate in the destruction of the pirate stronghold was a significant effort involving British naval forces, including a steamer, and Brooke’s own Dyaks who had scores to settle with the pirates. Here is an illustration of the assembled fleet:
The fleet had to fight their way up the River, passing several smaller forts on their way to the pirates main village. Once at Beting Marau they started their attack with rocket fire and pursued the enemy with overwhelming force.
Before the attack from the water, Brooks own Dyaks had landed downstream and circled round into the jungle behind Beting Marau. As the pirates and their families fled from the naval assault they ran straight into the enemy hidden in the jungle.
The British claimed that several thousand Dyaks had engaged in battle. The British lost 29 killed and 56 wounded. Nobody knows how many Dyaks died – probably over 1000, including many non-combatants, or what we would now call collateral damage. When you fire rockets into buildings made of wood and thatched with leaves you tend to get a lot of that. When news of the massacre reached England there were protests in Parliament.
There was eventually an enquiry, which established that large-scale piracy was a real danger to both British and native shipping in the area and the Royal Navy therefore acted properly in moving against the pirates to prevent this danger. The Dyaks at Beting Marau were armed and resisting the Navy, so the massacre was, by the standards of the day, a justified military action. Even so, there will have been many who agreed with Richard Cobden, the Radical leader, that this was “a slaughter unparalleled in its character since the massacre of the feeble Mexicans by the Spaniards in the 16th century”.
The White Rajah
How did somebody with such good intentions, who had brought peace and a measure of prosperity to Sarawak, end up responsible (because he really was responsible) for a massacre which, if not on the genocidal scale of the Conquistadores, was certainly quite shocking? That’s the question I set out to answer in The White Rajah. In my book, Brooke is clear about the moral justifiability of the attack. The Dyaks of Sarawak are able to live in peace with the systematic looting of the pirates finally put an end to. His lover, though, is appalled by the massacre and leaves Brooke, unable to live with what they have seen. Neither of them is clearly right, or clearly wrong. Real life (even as reflected in novels) turns out to have no right answers.
The White Rajah is available on Amazon in paperback or as an e-book.
Tales of Empire is free on Kindle next week (12 – 16 September). Here’s why you should grab a copy.
Tales of Empire is a book of short stories. There are only four, which is why even when you have to pay for it, it costs only 99p. The four showcase the work of four very different but uniformly excellent historical fiction writers. (Well, three excellent writers plus me.)
The authors were asked to submit a story set anywhere from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the end of the century. Although they all write conventional historical fiction with no revisionist agenda, all four stories ended up challenging some of the more traditional approaches to Empire.
These are the authors and what they write about.
Antoine Vanner is the author of the Dawlish Chronicles, a series of novels (and the odd short story) about the adventures of Nicholas Dawlish who joins the Royal Navy in the second-half of the 19th century as the Navy is moving from wooden sailing vessels to the modern world of ironclad steamers. The stories show Dawlish developing from a very young man to a seasoned mariner, his own progress mirrored in the development of the ships that he sails in. Vanner is fascinated by the technology of naval warfare and his stories are full of solidly researched detail, but they are adventure stories too with Dawlish caught up in espionage and fighting alongside regular army forces as well as engaging in the sea battles that you would expect of a naval series.
Antoine’s contribution to this collection is a story about the Royal Navy’s attempt to suppress the slave trade and how difficult this could turn out to be in practice.
Jacqueline Reiter is a professional historian whose biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, The Late Lord, is the definitive work on his life. The Late Lord is a joy to read and Reiter’s affection for, and understanding of, her subject shines through. A fictional account of a real episode in Pitt’s life is her contribution to this collection.
Penny Hampson writes mysteries set during the Regency. A Gentleman’s Promise is the first book in her Regency Gentlemen Series. She also enjoys writing contemporary mysteries with a hint of the paranormal, because where do ghosts come from but the past?
Her story looks at how social and technological change during the Regency led us from the world of the 18th century to the country we live in today.
Tom Williams (that’s me) writes the James Burke stories about a James Bond figure during the wars with France. The Burke stories have an enthusiastic following but the books he is most proud off are the John Williamson Papers which deal with more serious issues at the height of the Age of Empire. The first, The White Rajah is about the real-life James Brooke who became the absolute ruler of a chunk of Borneo in the mid-19th century. The novel looks at how his idealistic approach to government collided with the realities of the day. The short story is about a fictional tiger hunt that shows the kind of person he was and the effect his style of rule had on those around him. It was written after The White Rajah but it could well have been a chapter in that book. I hope it will encourage you to read the novel.
So there you go: four writers showcasing their talents in the hope that you might read more of their work. And free. I do hope you pick up a copy. Here’s a link: mybook.to/TalesofEmpire
When we went to Gothenburg earlier this year, we passed an 18th century ship moored up at one of the wharfs (as you do).
It wasn’t an actual 18th century ship but an reconstruction of a vessel that had sunk just outside Gothenburg in 1745. The wreck was excavated from 1986 to 1992 and the details discovered made it possible to build an exact replica (albeit one equipped with an auxiliary engine and the latest navigational aids). The ship, we learned, was open to the public, but only at weekends and we weren’t going to be staying long enough to see it. So when we learned that it was turning up in London on a stop on its voyage to Asia, we went along to have a look. (Why Asia? The original ship was owned by the Swedish East Indies Company and traded between Sweden and China.)
The vessel was parked up (OK, moored) in Canary Wharf, its 18th century lines a start contrast with the buildings around it.
Although new technology has been fitted to make the ship safe (much of it a legal requirement these days) the vessel still relies for the essentials on 18th century engineering. So steering is through a steering wheel connected to the rudder by rope. There is no hydraulics or mechanical assistance and in heavy weather several crew members will be holding the wheel to keep the boat on course. I was interested to see that, unlike in every film I’ve ever watched, the steering wheel was not on the poop deck but down below and the helmsman had no actual sight of the direction the ship was headed, relying entirely on a compass. Interestingly, a replica compass is alongside the wheel and above it there is a modern electronic indication of the ships bearing. There wasn’t a lot of difference between the two but, given that a lot of the navigation was by dead reckoning the couple of points that the magnetic compass was off must have meant that the ship was often not exactly where it thought it was. No wonder that shipwrecks were so common.
The ship was armed with an assortment of cannon. You can visit the gun deck with its reproduction weapons. All of those on board these days are six-pounders. They are regularly used for saluting as the ship enters port, although they are triggered electrically rather than by lighting the powder with a flame. We were assured that the Canon would always have been principally used for signalling rather than defence . Having written (in The White Rajah) about piracy in the South China seas , I must admit I thought this was a rather sanitised view of the historical reality. Perhaps Gothenburg just got lucky – or perhaps pirates took one look at the gun ports and decided to attack someone else.
The crew used to eat on the gun deck, and they still do. You can see the tables and benches either side of the guns. When the guns are being used the benches and tables swing up and are secured against the hull out of the way.
We couldn’t see the crew’s cabins (below the gun deck, where the cargo used to be carried). I suspect these are not accurate replicas of the way that the crew used to live back in the 18th century. There was the odd hammock on the gun deck, which is where the crew would have slept originally.
You can admire the navigation and listen to the stories about how the crew would have shared their accommodation with a cow but I imagine that for most people the most impressive thing about a ship like this is the rigging. When we were there we watched people having their first experience of going aloft. (The Gothenburg takes on new crew at every port.) There’s no modern technology to help with hoisting and lowering sail, although there are safety lines and the crew wear a harness. Even with a harness, you’re not going to get me up there in a hurry (or ever). It was impressive, though, to watch people start up visibly nervous and by the time they were making their way along the spar, most of them looked surprisingly relaxed.
Fascinating as our glimpse of life on board was, the most striking thing about the ship, to a 21st century eye, is just how beautiful she is.
The White Rajah
My book about a British merchant adventurer’s travels to the East Indies is set around a hundred year’s after the working life of the Gothenburg but the vessels then would have been very similar. There were pirates preying on the ships and James Brooke (my real-life hero) was involved in efforts to reduce the danger they posed to shipping. His six-pounder cannon proved useful on land too, as he got caught up in local politics and found himself taking sides in civil war. This (mostly) true story is a must-read for anyone interested in the reality of the early days of trade with the East Indies. It’s available on Kindle, in paperback and even in hardback.
There’s a reason for that. The White Rajah is based (quite closely) on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo. It’s an amazing tale. A friend said it must have been an easy book to write because Brooke’s biography read like a novel. Unsurprisingly, James Brooke has appeared in a lot of fiction.
The latest imaginative retelling his life was a film which came out this summer: Edge of the World. Given that it’s a Hollywood movie, it’s much more historically accurate than I would have expected.
Edge of the World says that it is “the true story that inspired The Man Who Would Be King,” a novel by Rudyard Kipling. Although the European characters in the novel make a couple of references to Brooke, I wouldn’t say that they are based on him other than that they become monarchs of a small Far Eastern kingdom. The novel that is usually quoted as being strongly influenced by Brooke’s life is Lord Jim by Conrad. In that book, the hero becomes the leader of a local tribe on an island in the South China Seas. He is atoning for failures in his earlier life and devotes himself to the people there, who call him Tuan Jim – “Lord Jim”. It’s not a subtle reference to Tuan Brooke, as James Brooke was often called.
More recently Brooke features in McDonald Fraser’s Flashman’s Lady. As with many of McDonald Fraser’s books, the character is lightly sketched, but he’s recognisably the James Brooke I know and the history is sound.
Before I wrote The White Rajah, Nicholas Monsarrat wrote a well-known novel with the same title. I did try to come up with an alternative, but it’s difficult to think of anything that tells people what they are getting better than ‘The White Rajah’. I did think of ‘Sons of Thunder’ but I suspect most people will miss the reference. (A free e-copy of The White Rajah to the first person to spot it.)
C. S. Godshalk called his version Kalimantaan. That’s a reference to Kalimantan, which is the Indonesian part of Borneo (which, obviously, does not include Sarawak). You see what I mean about it being difficult to come up with a clear title that doesn’t mention White Rajahs.
There are others, including Warren Blake’s A Long Way from Home, which is classified as “adult” although the synopsis looks like quite a serious take on the Brooke story.
James Brooke’s life provides enough drama for a dozen novels. Several of them have already been written, but I’m sure there’s room for more.
Edge of the World has Brooke’s party landing rather randomly in Borneo and promptly being captured by a party of native Dyaks.
In fact, Brooke arrived in Kuching, the capital of the province of Sarawak, where (as we learned last week) he knew he would find the de facto ruler of Borneo, Muda Hassim.
Hassim was in Sarawak, rather than his capital, because of a long-running uprising there.
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.
Brooke had taken on additional crew in Singapore (including an interpreter called John Williamson, whose name I stole for the narrator in The White Rajah). Brooke now had a crew of 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.
At first, Brooke refused to get drawn in. In the end, though, the temptation was irresistible. Here was a chance for excitement and adventure which could be economically justified as improving his trade prospects and which also appealed to his patriotism as it would strengthen the British presence in the region and put one in the eye to the Dutch. 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, that 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 provided advice and encouragement to Hassim and finally, when things seemed likely to drag on even with his urging Hassim to attack more vigorously, he sent for two of his six-pounder guns and some of his men to be despatched from the Royalist to the front-line (for want of a better word) at a place called Balidah, just upriver from Kuching. Within days of their arrival, the rebel defences were breached, but Hassim’s army refused to storm the breach. Brooke, despairing of any end to the fighting, made plans to return to Singapore.
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 he did decide to stay and support Hassim’s efforts in the war, where the men of the Royalist soon proved decisive.
With the war over, Hassim vacillated on his promise to make Brooke ruler, but ultimately he seems to have felt that the benefits of retaining Brooke’s support were worth the cost of allowing him to govern a province which Hassim regarded as not that important and which probably, because of the insurrection, seemed more trouble than it was worth. He may also have considered that having the province under the control of an Englishman would offer some sort of protection against Dutch expansionism. He will certainly have considered that it might bolster his own position in the intrigues between himself and other powerful Malay factions.
Negotiations dragged on for almost a year with Brooke often threatening to sail away and leave Hassim to his own devices. Eventually, though,Hassim drew up and signed a document giving Brooke the government of Sarawak and on 24 November 1841 he was ceremoniously declared Rajah.
The White Rajah
The White Rajah is a fictionalised account of the true story I’ve outlined above. It tells how Brooke came to rule Sarawak and something of what happened afterwards.
British colonialism (though Brooke’s personal kingdom was never technically a colony) was neither the unmitigated good that it was presented as up until the late 20th century, nor the straightforwardly exploitationist affair that we are often told it was nowadays. The White Rajah tries to tell a good tale while exploring some of the moral nuances of the Age of Empire.
The White Rajah is available in hardback for £14.99. You can also buy it in paperback for £6.99 or, if you prefer Kindle, just £3.99.
If you read the Daily Mirror on Saturday (26 June), you will have seen an interesting article about James Brooke. Although they were kind enough to mention me and The White Rajah, its focus is on the film, Edge of the World, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.
The film starts dramatically with James Brooke arriving in Sarawak. The White Rajah starts rather earlier with Brooke’s first expedition to the South China Seas, in 1834, five years before Edge of the World begins.
I can see why Brooke’s first voyage didn’t fit with the excitement of the film. Brooke’s first voyage was supposed to combine adventure and exploration with commercial success promising both pleasure and profit. In fact, it was a disaster. The whole enterprise was ill-conceived.
The narrator of The White Rajah is a seaman, recruited to the crew of Brooke’s Findlay, a 290 ton brig. As an experienced sailor (which Brooke was not) he could see immediately what the first of Brooke’s mistakes was. As he describes it in the book:
The Findlay was to be no gentleman’s pleasure yacht but a working ship, paying her way on the short but busy passages between the islands of the Indies. With all her pretty paint, her toil would be much the same as that of the colliers I had sailed for ever to and fro between Newcastle and London. Such work could well be handled by a schooner, but the Findlay was a brig. The square rigging took a full crew to handle. There were 32 seamen and a full complement of officers and officers’ servants, making the Findlay an expensive ship to run.
As it became increasingly obvious that the Findlay expedition was never going to be profitable, rows between Brooke and the Master – a professional seaman – became more and more vicious, until eventually Brooke decided to give up the enterprise and return to England, leaving the Findlay in the East.
That should have been that. Brooke should have learned the lesson of his youthful escapades and settled down to responsible employment. But Brooke 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.
He had originally intended to buy a schooner and he was now in a position to do so. In March 1836 he offered £2500 for a 142 ton ship, the Royalist. The illustration below is not the Royalist, but a schooner rigged vessel very like her. You can see how much less rigging there is.
It was, Brooke wrote:
… as trim a craft as you could wish, ideally suited to trading in these waters. As if to demonstrate she was no mere merchant, though, she mounted six six-pounders and a number of swivel guns. Most important, her mainmast carried the White Ensign, for though she was a private vessel, the Royalist belonged to the Royal Yacht Squadron and, in foreign ports, she had all the privileges of a man-of-war.
Because a schooner has so much less rigging, it is much easier to handle and Brooke needed a crew of just 19.
After a proving trip in the Mediterranean he set off again in December 1838. He had announced that he was to sail to the South China Seas where the Royalist would ostensibly work as a trading vessel. Trade, though, was never his primary goal. For him the emphasis was on adventure. At the time Britain and the Netherlands were disputing for advantage in what was then called – tellingly – the Dutch East Indies. Brooke 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. He would sail to Singapore, which Raffles had recently developed as the centre of British influence in the region, and using that as his base, he would explore into Borneo.
Luckily for him, he arrived in Singapore at the ideal time to build links with Borneo The political buzz there was all about Muda Hassim. Raja Muda Hassim was the Bendahara of Brunei. The Bendahara is an administrative position within classical Malay kingdoms comparable to a vizier. Essentially he 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.
Anyway, 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.
This is how my narrator viewed the situation in The White Rajah:
In part of the world where piracy was still widespread and where a lost sailor was an easy victim for all manner of thieves and rascals, this was more than a common politeness. It reinforced suggestions that the Sultan was tired of the way the Dutch were lording it over the China Seas as if they had a divine right to colonise the place. If he were cooling toward the Hollanders and turning toward Britain as the rumour said, then Borneo offered wonderful opportunities for trade … opportunities the merchants of Singapore would be anxious to exploit.
As you have probably already realised, Brooke was not a man to set out a plan and stick carefully 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.
Back to The White Rajah.
[Brooke] came up with the idea that [Hassim] should be thanked in a formal letter, beautifully penned by one of the Governor’s clerks on the finest parchment available – which in Singapore, in those days, was probably not saying much.
The letter was produced and ceremonially signed by the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and half the nabobs of the European community. Mr Brooke undertook to deliver it personally and, on the strength of the goodwill generated, persuaded the Governor to produce an official introduction for him which, taken together with the White Ensign fluttering proudly from the Royalist’s mast, was likely to suggest his expedition had more authority than an impartial judge might understand to be the case.
On Saturday, 27th July 1839, the Royalist slipped quietly away from Singapore and headed East to Borneo.
Brooke had taken the first step on the road to running his own country – and the story in my novel had finally caught up with the start of the film.
You can read what happened next in next week’s blog post. Or you can read the whole story in The White Rajah, available in hardback, paperback and on Kindle.
If you want to watch Edge of the World, you can buy it here: