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.)
It’s time! I’m republishing Back Home on 27 November.
What’s it all about?
Back Home completes the trilogy of books narrated by John Williamson. In The White Rajah he leaves his home in Devon and takes up life as a sailor, eventually ending up in Borneo with the eponymous White Rajah, James Brooke. At the end of that book, unable to live with what he has seen in Brooke’s war on pirates, he leaves, travelling on to India. The next book finds him in the town of Cawnpore as the Indian Mutiny breaks out. With his working class roots and his homosexuality, Williamson is never at ease with the English rulers of the Empire and when Cawnpore is the centre of a bloody conflict between Indians and Europeans, Williamson finds his loyalties torn. Faced with the death of friends on both sides of the conflict, Williamson eventually breaks down and has to return to England.
Back Home is the end of his travels, back in Devon, where it all began. He is to have one final adventure, though. Travelling to London to find an old friend who has vanished into the city, Williamson is caught up in a world of poverty and crime. It’s a time of growing tension between Britain and France and there are those who believe that a criminal conspiracy in the London slums is organised from Paris. Williamson becomes a pawn in a deadly game being played by the British security services.
The battles of colonial rule are, in the end, the conflict between the powerful and the powerless and those battles can be as deadly on the streets of London as in the jungles of Borneo or on the plains of India. Back Home in England, Williamson faces his most dangerous enemy yet.
A 99p/99c offer on Cawnpore
All of the books in the John Williamson Papers stand alone, but if you want to see how Williamson changes as a result of his experiences, you might enjoy reading the trilogy in order. Each one leads directly into the next, so Cawnporeends with him landing back in Devon and Back Home starts with his journey from the port to the farm where he was born. If you want to read Cawnpore before you read Back Home, I’m offering it for just 99p for one week from Monday (15 November).
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.
With Edge of the World now available on DVD (covid having robbed it of a cinema release) there is growing interest in the life of James Brooke, the character portrayed by Jonathan Rhys Myers.
Last year I wrote three blog posts about him and, though that’s not so long ago, I thought it might be worth posting them again. I did ask people on Twitter and the mood of the (admittedly small) meeting was to re-post, so here we are again.
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.
Adventures in the South China Seas
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 buy The White Rajahin paperback for £6.99 or download it on Kindle for only £3.99.
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.)