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.
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 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’s 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.