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.
This is 5-star reading for those enjoying military history, and readers should be aware of other works by author Tom Williams who uses Burke’s career as settings both before and after the Peninsular War when there was turmoil in Europe.
Amazon Vine Review
‘Burke in the Peninsula’ is the best selling of the Burke books, apart from the series starter, ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’. There’s little doubt that it does well in part because of Sharpe fans and others who like nothing better than a Napoleonic Wars campaign that they know well. (‘Burke at Waterloo’ does well too.)
I’m happy to get such generous praise for any of my books, but it’s another reminder of why writers write series books. There’s another Burke book on the way. ‘Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras’ is also set in the Peninsular Wars and I hope will sell well, but it would be ever so nice if people would take a look at the books I write that aren’t about Burke.
The first book I wrote was ‘The White Rajah’, based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. It’s set in mid-19th century Borneo and although it has drama and battles, it also a book about the complexities and contradictions of colonial rule. It’s not helped, commercially, by being written in the first person by a mid-19th century writer, so the language is more Dickens than Dan Brown. It’s a bloody good book though, and, commercial or not, it got positive opinions from some major publishers. Unfortunately, the consensus was that it was too “difficult” for a first novel from an unknown author and I should write something less demanding first. Hence ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’.
Since then, I have written two sequels to ‘The White Rajah’, including ‘Cawnpore’, which is the book I’m most proud of (and readers have said lovely things about it). But mainly I write about James Burke because it’s always nice to have readers and Burke is obviously what people want to read.
Lately, I’ve branched out into Urban Fantasy. I can see that many military history fans aren’t going to touch my stories featuring a vampire policeman or a werewolf MP, but people who like that sort of thing seem to enjoy them. I’ve had people who say they generally don’t like that sort of thing enjoy them too. They’re funny, for a start. They get nice comments when they come out but then they quietly vanish away. I’ve only written two novels and a novella, so mine is not a name that is much recognised in that genre. They’re huge fun to write and I want to write another one but the reality is that, if I want more readers, I have to produce more books about James Burke.
Of course, the amount that I (and most other writers) make from our books is so insignificant that it would make perfect sense to ignore sales and just write whatever I want to – which is sometimes James Burke, but often not. In the end, though, I am not one of those people who sits down at a keyboard and gets up having produced 2,000 brilliant words. I find writing quite hard work and what motivates me is knowing that people read and enjoy my books. So it looks as if I’m going to be writing about James Burke until the end of time unless, of course, some of you lovely people would like to give the other books are try and then post reviews on Amazon to let everybody know that there is more to life than the Peninsular Wars.
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.
I’ve had a couple of really lovely reviews for The White Rajah recently. The latest was last Friday. Here it is:
It’s amazing how much difference something like that makes. I saw it late in the day and I was quite choked up. Believe me: most writers who say they don’t read their reviews are liars. Reviews matter in practical terms (Amazon reviews sell books) but they can also be a source of joy to writers. Heaven knows we don’t do it for the money! A kind word makes so much difference.
There was one fly in this particular ointment. Someone recently commented that they thought The White Rajah was far and away better than the James Burke books (which he also enjoyed) and wondered why the John Williamson series was not more popular. (It’s a view I’ve heard before.)
I think I agree with him that the short answer is that this kind of writing is deeply unfashionable. In fact, The White Rajah was agented way back when and rejected by several leading publishers on the grounds that it was “too difficult”. That was probably partly a comment on the language (it’s a first person account by a Victorian writer) and partly the subject matter. In any case, they recommended I try something more commercial and James Burke was the result, which all goes to show that publishers understand the market better than many authors give them credit for.
The logic of the publishers was that once I had established myself with something more popular I could ease my readership onto the slightly more challenging John Williamson stories. It never worked. To my delight, sales of James Burke are healthy (even healthier since I took them back from the publisher and published them independently). I am so grateful to the people who read them and support me in writing new ones. But, however much I try, I can’t persuade more than a handful to try the substantially better reviewed John Williamson trilogy.
It’s frustrating but I suppose it is what it is. Serious novels take more effort. Although my wife is always telling me how wonderful War and Peace is, I have never read it. Even Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (which is a really lovely book) has seen me bogged down a third of the way through for years now. People don’t have long evenings with nothing better to do than apply themselves to a serious novel. I must just remember to be grateful to everyone who buys the Burke books (and my fantasy efforts). But if any of you would like to get your teeth into something more serious, it would be lovely if you could give The White Rajah a try. (And if you don’t want to commit to that there is a short story about John Williamson and the White Rajah in the recently published short-story collection, Tales of Empire.)