In a recent article, I published a brief account of the rise and fall of the British empire. The empire was just as much a product of private enterprise and individual initiative as it was a result of British and foreign politics. British adventurers discovered the lands and islands that eventually formed the empire, British politicans secured their ‘new ownership’, and British administrators managed the vast possessions, while the British Navy sailed round the world protecting them. James Brooke is a perfect example. Young, ambitious, ruthless, slight in build but wide in intellect, Brooke arrived in Borneo as just another administrator. He immediately set about helping one of the Brunei princes to put down a revolt, organised what ships of the fleet he could find to seek out pirates (of which there were thousands) and destroy them, and found himself rewarded with the governorship of Kuch in 1841 before he was forty.
Before very long he had established himself as an independent ruler, known as the White Rajah. He governed as a benevolent (sometimes) autocrat and extended his rule of much of Sarawak. He organised and pushed through legal reforms, continued the constant conflict with the corsairs in most of the waters of the Far East. He successfully warded off the Chinese in 1857.
There is a portrait of this extraordinary adventurer in the National Gallery in London. It catches with great accuracy his restless energy and resolution, as well as that romantic air which made him a focal point for the ladies. He was in fact an early Victorian hero, though he had a secret. In an early milkitary engagement during an Assam Campaign engagement he lost his testicles via a serious wound in the groin, though this tragedy did not seem to affect what the Spanish tastefully describe as his cojones.
At Murdu in February 1844 Brooke suffered a face wound in a mighty sea battle with Sumatran pirates. One of his lieutenants was the young Henry Keppel (1809 – 1904), who was one of the foremost fighting seamen and captains of the period. Keppel was known to the Dyaks as ‘The Red Devil’ on account of his red hair. Keppel served under Brooke in numerous raids against ports where pirates lurked. He lived for many years despite his adventures with Brooke, and survived to become Admiral of the Fleet.
Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814 – 1906) was the richest heiress in the kingdom due to being granddaughter to Thomas Coutts, the banker. She helped finance Livingstone, Stanley . . . and Brooke, with whom she fell in love. She proposed marriage to him and was politely rejected, though of course a Victorian gentleman could not tell the reason why. Nevertheless she stayed very good friends with Brooke, and greatly helped him by securing official recognition of him as ruler of Sarawak. Brooke never married.
His views on native peoples, piracy, Borneo’s future, missionaries, colonial development, religion, ethics, honours and decorations, personal ambitions and private tastes – all the philosophy of this remarkable man in fact – is to be found in his journals and letters. Charles Johnson (1829 – 1917) was Brooke’s nephew, and became the second White Rajah after his uncle’s early death in 1868. He took the same surname, and reigned for almost fifty years, during which time he extended Sarawak’s boundaries. He, like James Brooke, was essentially a fighting man, but he was also an unusually clearsighted colonialist, predicting at the beginning of the 20th century the end of empire, and the ascendency of the new Eastern Powers in the shape of Russia and China.
Back in England, W.E.Gladstone the politician showed how Liberal he was by pressing charges against Brooke for ‘cruel, illegal and excessive’ actions against the suffering Bornean and Sumatran pirates (who used to decorate the prow and gunwales of their praus with the skulls of their enemies). A writer in The Times described this in these words: ‘James Brooke’s sympathies lay with the victims of piracy, while Gladstone’s were with the pirates’.
The pirate prau were up to seventy feet long, heavily armed with small but effective cannon, and packed with young and agile fighting men who gave no quarter and expected none. They were the scourge of the East Indies until well into the 19th century. Cruising in fleets of hundreds from the famous pirate nests in the Phiippines and North Borneo, they assaulted shipping as well as the coastal towns, in search of slaves and plunder. Brooke, the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy fought them to a standstill.
Sarawak was effectively ruled by the Brooke family until the Japanese occupation of 1942 – 45. There are descendents of James Brooke’s brothers still living in Warwick and London. Coutts Bank still exists too, to a great extent as successfully as in the 19th century. They are the Queen’s bankers.