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.
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:
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.
Edge of the World becomes available in the UK on Monday, but you’ve been able to watch it in the USA since 4 June and, thanks to the nice people at Signature Entertainment, I’ve seen a copy.
Edge of the World tells the story of how James Brooke travelled to Borneo, got caught up in a civil war there, and ended up the ruler of his own country of Sarawak. He starts out wanting only to do his best for the native Dyaks of Sarawak but, when they are threatened by marauding pirates he finally takes up the sword (all too literally) to protect his rule. “And so,” Brooke says in a voice-over, “I am ruined – but free.”
The film is much closer than I expected to the story I tell of James Brooke in The White Rajah. It shows how Brooke starts out with a naïve wonder at the beauty of Sarawak and at the pleasure that he gets from being a wise and benevolent ruler and ends up leading his people in the bloody massacre of his enemies. He can no longer be the ‘civilised’ white man bringing his European values to the benighted natives: “To rule the jungle,” he eventually comes to realise, “I must love the jungle. All of it – the beauty and the blood.”
For me, this is the key to understanding the basic problem of colonialism: the European powers found themselves ruling people they did not understand. Brooke was successful because he did understand – but this meant that he committed the dreadful sin (in European eyes) of ‘going native’. The film does catch the concern of the British about this when a delegation from England visits him and is appalled by his tolerance of “your niggers” and refuses to help him in what they see as a battle between two tribes in which England has no interest.
The response of the British to Brooke’s request for naval help is typical of the way that the film treats the historical record. The relationship between Brooke and Britain was a source of irritation to the British and was ultimately the reason for the public inquiry held in Singapore. But this was after the British had intervened with a small fleet (including the steamship which is talked about in the film) and assisted Brooke in the massacre (which was much bigger than depicted in the movie). The film tells a good story and uses real incidents from Brooke’s life, but the incidents are often changed or moved around in a way that cheerfully disregards the historical record. Even so, it was much more true to the history than I ever expected.
I particularly enjoyed meeting Budrudeen and Makota, depicted (as in my book) as the good guy and the bad guy respectively. The conflict between the two drives much of the plot, though you’ll have to watch carefully because the politics is easily lost in the lavish spectacle. I liked the clear implication that Budrudeen’s feelings for Brooke went beyond affection. Sadly, even in 2021 Hollywood can’t bring itself to admit that Brooke may have reciprocated those feelings.
This brings us neatly to the biggest liberty that the film takes in introducing the love interest that Lady Sylvia Brooke vetoed back in the 1930s (see last week’s blog). This doesn’t entirely work, not only because (despite some local legends) it almost certainly didn’t happen, but because the script suddenly inserts this woman (only ever referred to as ‘Fatima’) with no clear explanation of how she turns up in Brooke’s life. Atiqah Hasholan makes a good job of bringing the character to life, but she always appears as a sort of disposable bolt-on. Indeed, at one critical moment she leaves, vanishing from the story until (at another critical moment) she reappears. Like all of the film, it’s visually brilliant and it definitely packs an emotional punch, but we have left history and emotional logic far behind.
Because it’s 2021, the film also plays up the ‘the Empire was evil’ line. Brooke’s cousin (a real person called Arthur Crookshank) is presented as one of the members of the original expedition (which he wasn’t) and he stalks through the movie wearing a red coat and waving a pistol and generally representing British imperialism at its jingoistic, ignorant worst. Imperialism was, of course, often jingoistic and ignorant (though less so in Sarawak than in most places) but Crookshank’s ghost deserves better than to see its character represented as a cartoon buffoon. The Empire was seeking to expand in the Far East, but the manoeuvring over Sarawak was an exercise of inquiries and memos and diplomatic arguments that went on for years. It did, indeed, end with Sarawak becoming yet another Crown Colony, but that was in 1946 and would make a much longer (and rather dull) film.
Enough analysis of the history: is it worth watching? Yes, it is. It has an uneven start (sticking with the historical record would have made it stronger, but the budget only extended to ‘first contact’ being with a bunch of head-hunters in the jungle). Once it gets going, though, the issues of colonialism and Brooke’s feelings about Sarawak begin to drive the plot and it picks up pace with a clearer sense of direction.
The climactic battle suffers (like most climactic battles) from budget issues. What should have been a huge attack by British Marines and Brooke’s Dyaks, covered by the new-fangled Congreve rockets, which destroyed a substantial village and killed hundreds of people, becomes a bit of a squabble on a beach. No matter: the cinematography is brilliant, the actors emote with a script that gives plenty of opportunity for them to show passion and triumph and despair, the plot (despite its confusing moments) offers excitement and intrigue enough to keep you watching.
If, when it’s over, you feel that you would like an alternative approach to the same events (still fictionalised but rather closer to the historical record) The White Rajah is an almost perfect companion piece to the film.