Just one week to go until the publication of The White Rajah It’s £6.99 in paperback or just £3.99 on Kindle (and if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read it for free).
So what do you get for your money?
The White Rajah is based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak in the mid-19th century. He was a fascinating man: a merchant-adventurer who bought a ship, ostensibly to trade in the South China Seas but really in the hope of extending British influence in an area dominated by the Dutch. He extended British influence even more than he had planned, involving himself so thoroughly in the politics of the local Malay rulers that he ended up ruling his own country: Sarawak in Borneo.
It’s a tale of adventure with battles and plots and midnight raids, but it’s also a more serious story about colonialism and how, even when seeking to do the best for the natives he thought of as “his people” the sudden intervention of Europeans from an alien culture had some unhappy unintended consequences.
James Brooke did an enormous amount of good in Sarawak and even today some people look back on the time of the White Rajahs as a Golden Age. But when his rule was threatened he could be utterly ruthless.
Evil white colonialist or a good man who spent most of his life (and practically all of his fortune) building a peaceful and prosperous society where there had been little but poverty and war? Or is the truth (as truth so often is) somewhere in the middle?
James Brooke’s life will soon be in the news again because a new film based on his adventures is about to be released (straight to DVD sadly, because of covid). Having seen the trailer, I’m not expecting a lot of discussion of the rights and wrongs of colonialism or the moral underpinning of his rule but, like my book, I’m sure it will have pirates and hairsbreadth escapes and heroic deeds with Jonathan Rhys Myers buckling the odd swash (or maybe firing an authentically period pistol). I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping it might generate some interest for my book, too. Other, non-fiction, books about James Brooke are also available but can honestly be quite hard work. (His diaries are brilliant, though.)
If you want to know more about what it’s like, I wrote a spin-off short story, which I seriously considered putting into this edition of the book as a new chapter. Instead it’s been published on Smashwords as The Tiger Hunt. It’s priced at 99p (the cheapest you can sell on Smashwords) but for this week it will be free. Why not download a copy and see what you think? If you enjoy it, come back at the end of the week and buy The White Rajah.
I do love the new cover for The White Rajah. It’s another by Dave Slaney, who consistently produces lovely work. This one features a kris, a traditional weapon of South East Asia. The White Rajah is set in Borneo where the native Dyaks are under the rule of Malays. The Malays traditionally carry the kris and kris do feature quite a lot in the story. I’ve blogged about them before, but perhaps it’s time to revisit the subject.
I first came across kris on holiday in Borneo. This was the holiday where I discovered James Brooke, so kris and Brooke have always been linked in my mind.
What exactly are kris? Most are really too long to be called daggers but too short for swords. In the UK they’re usually depicted (as in the cover illustration) as wavy, though they come in a variety of shapes and sizes with marked differences from one area to another. Some old kris are as small as any dagger and the largest are the size of a sword. There isn’t even any agreement about how it should be spelt. Although ‘kris’ is the usual English spelling, I have also often seen it spelt ‘keris’. Wikipedia throws up even more variants: ‘cryse’, ‘crise’, ‘criss’, ‘kriss’ and ‘creese’, although these appear obsolete terms used by European colonists. Generally, the usual spelling in the West is ‘kris’, while ‘keris’ is more popular in the East.
Despite the variety of spellings, sizes and shapes, kris are easy to recognise. What are the attributes that define them?
The first thing is that all kris have, to a greater or lesser extent, “watered” blades. I’m going to write a lot more about this in a separate post, which is likely to appeal to a more specialist audience, but for now I’ll just say that the watering here is produced by a technique called ‘pattern welding’. Although the pattern can resemble that seen in the famed damascene steel, these blades are produced by a completely different technique and are vastly inferior in quality. They are quite beautiful though.
Some legends say that this pattern, known as the “pamor”, is made by the waves of the hair of a spirit inhabiting the blade. In fact, the waves are the result of the kris being made from thin bars of iron or steel which are beaten together. I’ll be writing separately about how these and other blades are made in a post for sword/metallurgy geeks.
The top of blade is wider on one side, maintaining a sharp edge. The other side is decorated with a curl in the metal, which resembles an elephant’s trunk (the ‘belalai gajah’). A good example of this is shown in figure 2.
FIG 2. Detail of a Kris Ksay Cantrik from Jogjakarta, Java.
The widening of the blade allows it to form a guard (the ‘ganja’).
Some people suggest that the shape is derived from the shape of a stingray’s ‘sting’. The idea is that people used the sting as a weapon and then produced metal weapons based on the same shape. Unlikely as it is, the oldest kris are very small and thin and the resemblance there is more marked.
The details of the decoration at the top of blade vary considerably.
The tang (the bit of the blade that fits into the hilt) is very narrow. This is a significant weakness of the kris as a weapon. European sailors fighting natives armed with kris would typically use a belaying pin (essentially a large, heavy stick) to disarm their opponents by striking the kris blade, which would snap at the tang.
The hilts are usually made of wood, often kemuning, which some people claim has magical qualities. Weapons owned as status symbols may well have hilts of horn, ivory (elephant or walrus) or bone.
The hilts of kris are always carved into symbolic decorations, often with a religious element. Many hilts represent the garuda bird, which carries the god Vishnu in Hindu myth. Sometimes these images are elaborate, but, in many cases, they are very stylised and can appear quite plain. Examples of two extremes of decorative style are shown below.
Although the most common image is that of a more or less stylised garuda, other patterns are seen. Sometimes, the figure is that of a crouching man. The Erotic Museum in Berlin has several examples of hilts which represent people engaged in sexual acts.
A particularly interesting type of hilt istajong, known in the West as a “Kingfisher” hilt. This is characterised by a long “beak” extending from the end of the hilt. Carving these takes considerable skill, and such hilts are rare. The workmanship would have made them valued when they were originally produced, but their scarcity nowadays means that they are worth considerable sums to collectors.
Although Western collectors attach great significance to the hilts, it is important to remember that the culture is that produced the kris saw the true magic and value of the weapon as lying in the blade. The blade will be preserved as the furniture is changed. This is particularly the case with kris that have been traded by collectors. It is common for hilts to be removed from blades so that a particularly good hilt can be matched with a particularly good blade to make a more saleable piece.
Kris sheaths are also distinctive. Sheaths are made of wood, although they may be covered with a metal sleeve. The end of the sheath might be tipped with a chap of bone or ivory (thebuntut). They are distinguished by a wide wooden crosspiece (thesampir) which protects the guard of the weapon. This is often described as “boat shaped”. Thesampirmay be a relatively functional rectilinear shape or an elaborately carved piece of decorative work.
Scabbard with metal sleeve. Jogjakarta.
The kris as a spiritual object
Kris are valued as spiritual objects. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding their origin, it is likely that the very first kris were thekris majapahit. ‘Majapahit‘ refers to the Majapahit Empire, which was based on Java in the 14th to 15th centuries. The very first kris were made when iron was a rare and precious metal. Early kris may well have been made of meteoric iron. They were very small, and may have been intended for use in religious ceremonies, rather than combat. The symbolic carving of the hilts reflects their continuing religious links.
Traditionally, the manufacture of kris was surrounded with ceremonies reflecting the fact that the early smiths were practising an art which was viewed as as much magical as technological. Some stories say that women smiths would temper the blade by drawing the red hot metal through their vulva before throwing it into water. Another version says that every kris would be tempered by being stabbed into the body of a prisoner, so that a person would be killed for every kris that was made.
Although kris are functionally defined by their use as weapons, they have always been much more than that. Often beautifully decorated (sometimes with gold worked into the surface of the blade) and with hilts and scabbards so ornate as to make them almost useless for fighting, kris are symbols of status, and of craft and cultural values at least 700 years old. Collected enthusiastically by Europeans (especially the Dutch), they can still be found and bought at affordable prices in the markets of Malaysia and Indonesia. The huge variety of styles and the stories that go with them make these a source of continual fascination to any traveller in the region.
Draeger and Smith (1986) Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts. Kodansha America, Inc
Gardner (1936) Keris and Other Malay Weapons . Progressive Publishing Company: Singapore
Hill (1956) The Keris and Other Malay Weapons, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 29, Part 4, No. 176.
About ‘The White Rajah’
The White Rajah is the first of three books about John Williamson. Williamson is a fictional character, but his adventures take him into the lives of some very real historical figures.The White Rajahis quite closely based on the life of Sir James Brooke. Like the true story of his life, it raises issues about colonialism and our attitudes to what we now call Third World countries. But like his life, it also has pirates and rebellions and battles. And there’s an orang-utan who, if I’m entirely honest, probably wasn’t there in real life. It took quite a long time to research and write and is available for pre-order on Kindle at £3.99. You can use this book link to buy it, wherever you are in the world. Please do.
I hope you all saw last Friday’s blog post with my news of the republication of The White Rajah and the lovely new cover. Now it’s time to tell you more about what you get when you buy the book.
The White Rajah is based around the life of James Brooke of Sarawak. An English adventurer, he arrived in Borneo in 1839 and became embroiled in a civil war that was going on there. Although he had only 28 men and six small cannon on his ship, his intervention in the war proved crucial. After it was over, he was rewarded with the rule of one of the provinces there and he became the Rajah of Sarawak, starting a dynasty that lasted three generations and which was known as ‘The White Rajahs’.
James Brooke was almost the ideal Victorian hero and his exploits inspired Conrad’s Lord Jim. It’s not surprising that his adventures, with headhunters and pirates, battles in the jungle, and intrigue with Sarawak’s Malay nobility, have long been considered as the basis for a film. Errol Flynn tried to get such a movie made back in the 1930s (with him as the star, of course). Since then there have been several more attempts, but now one is finally to see the light of day. Sadly, covid means that End of the World will go straight to DVD, but it does look like a spectacular film, even though it may not be that careful of historical fact. (The posters say it is “The true story that inspired The Man Who Would Be King,” which is rather stretching a point to start off with.)
I’m hoping that interest in the film will generate more interest in my book, which sticks reasonably closely to the facts (and reasonable conjecture) about James Brooke’s life. The book may also interest readers who think that there must be more to the arguments about the British Empire than ‘The British Empire was an unmitigated Good’ vs ‘The British Empire was an unmitigated Evil’. Brooke’s rule (and especially the main incidents in my book) captures the ambiguity of British rule. As the epigram in my book (written at the time of his death) says:
‘When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones, but while those who loved him the best, could fondly and sadly wish it had been otherwise, they will ever be able to think of their leader, as the Father and Founder of a nation and as one of England’s greatest sons.’
The Monthly Packet, 14 September 1874
The White Rajah was the first book I ever wrote and, unlike the others, it has undergone significant revisions between editions. This edition, though, is identical to the one published by Endeavour/Lume Books, because I think I have finally got the book I meant to write. It will be published on 21 May, but it is already available for pre-order at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B092XZCZDC
Last year I was asked to write a short story for a collection of stories set in Victoria’s reign. I always wanted to write some short stories of Brooke rule in Sarawak, so I produced a tale about a tiger hunt. Like The White Rajah, it is told by Brooke’s (fictional) companion, John Williamson. If you want a feel for the sort of book The White Rajah is, you might like to read it. It’s just 4,200 words and it’s available on Smashwords at 99p but you can get a free copy (via a Smashwords voucher) if you sign up to my newsletter.
It’s less than a month since the publication of Burke in Ireland. I had been hoping for the chance to concentrate on writing the next book in the series, but have been rather caught up by events.
I had always intended to republish the John Williamson Papers which start with The White Rajah – the story of a mid-19th century adventurer who became the ruler of a small country in Borneo. It was the first novel I wrote and although it sold quite well when it first came out, it’s rather languished of late. My experience with James Burke has shown that self-publication gives me the opportunity to market my books more aggressively, so republication was on my list of things to do. Still, there had seemed to be no hurry; but that has changed.
Ever since Errol Flynn tried to make a film about James Brooke (the eponymous White Rajah) back in the 1930s, attempts to make a film of his life have failed so often it seemed there was a curse on the movie. The latest attempt was supposed to be released last year but covid intervened. Finally, though, a movie of Brooke’s life (or some version of it) is about to hit the screens on 21 June – except that (covid again) by ‘screens’ I mean ‘videos’.
That’s a shame because the film (now titled The Edge of the World) is a major release, starring Jonathan Rhys Myers and the trailer looks fantastic. What I can see of the trailer (and what I’ve read of the romantic sub-plot) leads me to suspect that the film is not, perhaps, as closely based on the historical record as is my book but, with luck, interest in the film may lead to more interest in the book. In any case, it does mean that my plans for the reissue of the John Williamson Papers have had to be accelerated to make sure that the book has time to establish a presence before 21 June. It will be published on 21 May, but it is already available for pre-order at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B092XZCZDC
The first stage of the re-launch is traditionally the reveal of a new cover. The cover for The White Rajah was done by Dave Slaney (who does all my covers). I think it’s rather lovely. Here it is.
Last week’s blog post ended with James Brooke, Victorian merchant-adventurer, setting off to the Far East on his ship, the Findlay. It was to be, he hoped, an expedition to bring both pleasure and profit. In fact, it was a disaster. The whole enterprise was ill-conceived.
The Findlay expedition is the starting point for my book, The White Rajah. My narrator is a seaman, hired for the voyage. As an experienced sailor (which Brooke was not) he could see immediately what the first of the mistakes is.
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 him 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.
The White Rajah
As you will have gathered from the passages quoted above, my novel The White Rajah is based quite closely on the adventures of James Brooke in Borneo. It is an exciting story but it also tells you a lot about the history of British influence in the South China Seas in the mid-19th century.
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 paperback or, in this age of lockdown, is rather more easily obtained on Kindle where it is ludicrously cheap at 99p. Click on mybook.to/TheWhite Rajah.
Last week I came across a Reddit post about James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. There were a couple of follow-up comments and I thought I’d point people towards a blog post about him and I realised I haven’t posted one, which is just mad. He is the hero of my first book, The White Rajah, after all, but although I’ve often mentioned him in blog posts, I’ve never devoted a whole post to writing about his life. Time to put that right.
James Brooke was born in Benares, India in 1803. His father was the chief of the East India Company’s provincial court. Until he was 12 he lived with his parents in India, a pampered child in a country where an Englishman could live like a Lord. When he was sent 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 a friend of his family, who was living in Bath.
Eventually his father retired from India and he, too, returned to Bath.
Brooke, though, was not a young man who was going to be happy living in Bath with his father. As soon as he was sixteen he was off back to the Far East at the beginning of a search for adventure that was to go on for decades. With his family’s connections in India it seemed natural to him to join the East India Company’s army. He was posted to the 6th Native Infantry where, with the genius for hammering square pegs firmly into round holes that marks the Army to this day, he was made a Sub-Assistant, Commissary-General. That’s essentially a logistician – an administrative post for which Brooke’s personality was almost entirely unsuited. He really wanted to be a cavalry officer.
Fortunately for him by 1825 the East India Company was at war with Burma and Brooke heard the general in command complaining that 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 scouted ahead of the main column. It was very much the sort of military role that Brooke would have relished, leading from the front with all the excitement of warfare. Unfortunately, war can never be without its casualties and early in 1825 he was wounded and invalided home.
His recovery was slow and when he finally started back to India his life continued to read like an adventure story because his ship was wrecked off the Isle of Wight and, though he survived, his health was again affected. He had to apply for more leave and then bad weather meant a slow journey back to Madras on the East Indiaman, Castle Huntly.
By now, he had been away from India for five years, the longest leave that his contract allowed him to take. Unable to rejoin his regiment in time, he resigned from the Company’s service, deciding instead to stay on with the Castle Huntly and explore the waters of the Eastern Archipelago calling at the British possessions of Penang, Malacca and Singapore before sailing on to Canton. The voyage was essentially a holiday and he spent most of his time simply having fun and getting into scrapes with the local Chinese. His experiences there, though, were to change the direction of his life.
By the time he got back to England he had decided that what he wanted to do was to buy a ship and sail in search of adventure in the Far East. Eventually he managed to persuade his father to put up money and let him buy the Findlay “a rakish slaver-brig, 290 tons burden”. In May 1834, just under three years from his return to England, he set off to sail to the East and a new life as a merchant-adventurer.
It’s at this point that we first meet Brooke in The White Rajah. Obviously you could write a whole book just on his life up to the Findlay voyage, but for me that was just background. It doesn’t feature in the novel at all. For the really exciting stuff, you’ll have to wait till next week.
The White Rajah
Of course, if you want to get ahead of the story, you can download The White Rajahfor Kindle for a frankly embarrassingly low 99p. (A paperback is also available but delivery is likely to be slow at the moment.)