In 1921, a boat carrying Somerset Maugham upriver in Borneo capsized in eight-foot waves, and for half an hour the writer clung desperately to the wreckage. ‘At last, helped by some of the crew,’ a district officer reported, ‘Maugham managed to reach the bank utterly exhausted. Dyaks took the shipwrecked party into their house, revived them with drink and provided them with sarongs.’ The officer seized his moment and suggested that Maugham script a film about James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. ‘He said no; there was no love interest in the first Rajah’s life.’
Sylvia Brooke, the wife of the third and last member of the Brooke dynasty, Rajah Vyner, pitched the idea of a film about the first Rajah to Warner Brothers, who summoned her to Hollywood to talk it over. Errol Flynn wanted to play the lead. ‘He said that he had always imagined that the first White Rajah was like him,’ Sylvia reported, ‘and I agreed that he was perfect for the part.’ But Flynn insisted on introducing a love interest, and proposed a story about a girl passing as a boy and following Brooke through the jungles of Sarawak. Sylvia objected that the Dyaks ‘would have taken her head and smoked it, and there would have been an end of your story.’ But there was an even more fundamental objection to Flynn’s plot. Was he ‘aware of the fact that James Brooke had been severely wounded in India, and deprived of his manhood’? Flynn laughed and shrugged. ‘You can’t have a motion picture without love,’ he said. ‘And you cannot have James Brooke with it,’ Sylvia replied.
The elusive love interest is the nub of Nigel Barley’s lightweight but entertaining biography, and he devotes a great deal of energy to establishing whether Sylvia was right about Brooke’s incapacity. Brooke suffered his wound in his first week of service in the army of the East India Company while leading a charge against a Burmese force. Left for dead on the battlefield, he survived and was sent back to England to recover. (Barley remarks unkindly that Brooke’s two days of military service were followed by five years of convalescence.) Many years later, Brooke recognised an illegitimate son who had been born while he was recovering at home, which suggests that the wound did not leave him unfit for love. And there is a perhaps even more decisive indication. Would Mrs Brooke have exhibited on her mantlepiece a bullet that had been removed from such a sensitive part of her son’s anatomy?
But if he was capable, why did he never marry? Brooke may have fallen in love as a young man, even becoming briefly engaged to a vicar’s daughter, and later there was a wealthy woman who became infatuated with him and lent him money. Barley concludes, however, that he was not much interested in women. On the other hand, he shows that the Rajah took enormous pleasure in the company of boys and young men, and was never happier than when cruising about in a boat with a complement of lively young sailors. In 1848, travelling back to the East with a company of cadets, his secretary recalled that Brooke’s large cabin was ‘the rendezvous of as unruly a set of young officers as it has been my fortune to meet’:
No place in the cabin was respected: six or seven would throw themselves on the bed, careless of whether Mr Brooke was there or not, and skylark over his body as if he were one of themselves. In fact, he was as full of play as any of them.
There was usually a particular young favourite, who would eventually be found a cushy posting as a cadet in Sarawak. But did he go to bed with any of them? Barley judges that Brooke sublimated his desires. ‘As he served Sarawak, he publicly tamed and civilised the dark side of himself. But his letters still read like those of a man who burned.’
While Barley delves deep into the Rajah’s minimal love life, he treats other aspects of his career strictly as farce. This is a pity, if only because Brooke’s life illustrates the Empire’s progress from a commercial enterprise of dubious respectability into a public school bureaucracy. He was born in Benares in 1803, in what was still a raffish, traders’ India. White men happily took up hookahs, flowing dresses and local lovers. His father, Thomas Brooke, a prosperous High Court judge in the service of the East India Company, had a local mistress and an illegitimate child, for whom he provided in his will, and Mrs Brooke was herself almost certainly illegitimate and may have been Eurasian.
Thomas indulged his boy: James was sent to public school in England but allowed to leave at 16 when he got fed up. When Thomas died in 1835 he left James £30,000. Yet although he was already over thirty and had been idle – or convalescing – for five years, Brooke did not become a playboy. He used a large part of his legacy to buy a 142-ton schooner, the Royalist, but this was not the usual rich man’s private yacht. ‘The Royalist belonged to the Royal Yacht Squadron,’ James wrote, ‘which in foreign ports admits her to the same privileges as a man-of-war, and enables her to carry a white ensign.’ She was also armed. For Brooke had serious business in mind. He was determined to make his way in the East, though not in the service of the Company. Nor was he interested in trade, except grandly, in the Imperial manner, as a civilising activity which others should be encouraged to undertake. His model was Stamford Raffles, who had nearly poached Java from the Dutch, and who had set up a free port at Singapore under their noses in 1819.
Brooke sailed the Royalist to Singapore. There, he heard that an opportunity was brewing in north Borneo. The Singapore traders had opened up several sea-routes to China, one of which passed close to the Sultanate of Brunei. This had stimulated local enterprises, from piracy to mining. Antimony had been discovered near the village of Kuching in the Sarawak region, a vaguely defined backwater within the Sultan’s sphere of influence, and the Sultan sent a party of courtiers to exploit it for sale to Singapore. The Sultan’s suzerainty over this part of the coast was, however, largely theoretical. Established local Malay barons challenged the Brunei men. Brooke immediately offered support to the Sultan’s party, demanding in return to be made governor or perhaps even ruler of Sarawak. Initially, the Brunei nobles played games with the young Englishman, but at some stage the Sultan came to believe that he was an officially accredited agent of the Singapore traders, and perhaps of the British Government. This was because at various crucial moments Brooke was provided with Royal Navy support. In consequence, in 1841, ‘I was declared rajah and governor of Sarawak amidst the roar of cannon, and a general display of flags and banners from the shore and river.’
The reason Brooke could call so conveniently on the Royal Navy was the War on Piracy. This was a shadowy racket, on both the pirate and the anti-pirate side. Certainly there was piracy in the South China Sea. It had started in reaction to the growing European monopoly of trade. Chinese junks were barred from the Indian Archipelago, and strategically situated Malay chiefs became freebooters. There were flourishing pirate marts at Sulu (in the Philippines) and Brunei. The usual targets were other Chinese junks, whose crews were sold into slavery, but Europeans were occasionally captured and held to ransom, and from time to time Singapore traders who risked the Palawan passage to China found themselves in difficulties.
Fortunately, there was a solution. In 1825, Parliament had passed an Act providing for bounties to be paid to Royal Navy officers who captured or killed or even drove off pirates. The intended targets were slavers along the West Coast of Africa, or Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, but by default the Act also covered actions against pirates in the Far East. And the bounties were generous: £20 for any pirate taken or killed during an attack, and £5 for any driven off. Profits could be substantial. When Sir Edward Belcher took some pirate boats in the Sarawak area in 1844, he reported 350 pirates killed and 1000 driven off, and claimed £12,000 from the Admiralty for himself and his crew. In 1849, Brooke took a certain Captain Farquhar looking for pirates, and they bagged £30,000 worth. (At the time, the entire revenue of Sarawak was between three and four thousand pounds a year.) It was another decade before the Admiralty finally put a stop to the scam, but in the meantime Naval officers did the counting, and more important still, it was up to them to say who was a pirate. In the Sarawak area, pirates quite often turned out to be local enemies of Rajah Brooke, which provoked Radicals in Parliament to ask if the pirates were not just members of local tribes that Brooke oppressed.
Despite such rumblings, Sarawak’s external relations were successfully founded on the war against pirates. Within Sarawak itself, Brooke set up a little principality on classical Malay lines. The upriver hill tribes, whom Brooke called Land Dyaks, were obliged to buy salt and rice from the Malays at exorbitant prices, and had to provide labour as required. The more martial coastal peoples, whom Brooke called Sea Dyaks, were periodically called in to cow the Land Dyaks. In exchange, they were allowed to take away women and heads. Following local custom, Brooke set up forts at strategic points along Sarawak’s major rivers. These he placed under the command of various young relatives and sons of family friends, the most talented of whom was his nephew Charles, a specialist in the recruitment of Sea Dyak irregulars. The behaviour of these allies sometimes made visiting Europeans queasy, but when it suited him the Rajah would adopt a jocular tone about headhunting. Brooke records warning one sceptical chief that he really was against the taking of heads. ‘He asked me again: “You will give me, your friend, leave to steal a few heads occasionally?” He recurred to this request several times – “just to steal one or two!” – as a schoolboy asks for apples.’
The ramshackle little state was barely solvent, and since Brooke made no distinction between the national treasury and his own bank account, he gradually impoverished himself. The solution was to bring in Chinese traders and workers. Their efforts put the treasury in the black by the early 1850s, but the Chinese baulked at rising taxes, particularly on the opium trade. In October 1856, the Chinese Commissioner of Canton had announced he would pay thirty dollars for the head of any Englishman. In January 1857, there was a small uprising of the Chinese in Singapore. A month later the Chinese of Kuching sacked the town and forced the Rajah to beat an ignominious retreat. As he fled, he instructed the Borneo Company representative to offer the country to the Dutch, on any terms. Only the timely arrival of a Borneo Company vessel saved the day. Sea Dyak warriors were then unleashed and one way and another some 1500 Chinese perished. A missionary’s wife, Harriette McDougall, found herself on a boat with a polite young man who, it turned out, had packed a Chinese head in his basket. ‘It entirely spoiled my handbag, which lay near it,’ she later recalled. ‘I had to throw it away, and everything in it which could not be washed in hot water.’
Brooke had become a hero in England for his war against pirates, but by the 1850s his enemies were representing him as a bloody oppressor and (with less justice) as a profiteer. He was summoned to answer for himself before a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore that swiftly degenerated into farce. (Q: ‘Do the Dyaks keep and adjust a sort of account of the number of heads taken from each other and take occasion to effect a balance?’ A: ‘The Dyaks are very bad accountants.’) Nevertheless, Brooke was demoralised by the Inquiry, and he was by now thoroughly worn out. He had suffered bouts of malaria and smallpox, and been badly shaken by the Chinese rising. At the end of 1857 he went back to England, leaving his elder nephew, Brooke Brooke, in charge. Sensing the weakness of the Brooke position, local Malay chiefs allied to the Sultan of Brunei now moved against Sarawak. The regime survived only because Charles Brooke was able to mobilise Sea Dyak fighters in support, and when James returned in 1859 he named Charles as his successor.
But the international situation was improving, so far as the Rajah was concerned. A new phase of imperial history was beginning. The British Government had not been prepared to grant James Brooke’s repeated appeals for some sort of protectorate, but concern was now growing about competition from other European powers. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Colonial Secretary, wrote in 1859: ‘Sarawak would not be a desirable possession, but . . . we had better hold it than allow another to hold it . . . the Dutch must not have it, to that I agree.’ As James made his final voyage back to England in 1863, news reached him that the British Government had recognised the independence of Sarawak.
He left behind a settlement of some 150,000 people that had achieved a certain maturity, symbolised by the arrival of the memsahibs. Although James rather enjoyed this novel domesticity, he was acutely sensitive to the political cost. The American writer Emily Hahn neatly summed up the pros and cons in a biography of James Brooke published in 1953, when Sarawak was briefly a Crown Colony though destined soon to become part of the Malaysian Federation. In the old days, she noted, ‘the native chiefs came in every evening after dinner and joined the assembly in the great hall, and chatted man to man with the British. Now, the gentlemen after dinner were impatient to join the ladies in the drawing-room. The chiefs soon realised they were no longer welcome, so they stopped coming.’ James Brooke’s successor, Rajah Charles, had a number of affairs with local women, and even urged English ladies to go in for a bit of miscegenation, but like all British settlements in the East, Sarawak was rapidly becoming suburban. The Empire was passing from the hands of Flashman into the care of Tom Brown.