Former Rajah Muda
recalls days in Sarawak
Today he is plain Anthony Brooke of Wanganui. But once he was Rajah Muda of Sarawak. Campaigning to stop the logging of tribal lands in Sarawak, Mr. Brooke spoke on March 14, 1989 to the Wanganui branch of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. He reflected on the history of Sarawak under three generations of Brooke rule and commented on his own role in that story.
Sarawak is the largest of the 11 federated states of Malaysia. It is today about the size of England with a population of just over 1.5 million.
Although now under Malay rule, over half the inhabitants are tribal peoples, most of whom live on the banks of numerous rivers and rivulets which make Borneo perhaps the most watered island in the world.
The diversity of race, language and culture -- 28 different tribes have been identified -- has always presented the administration with a challenging and complex problem and has made any degree of integration difficult.
It is, I think, undeniable that the Brooke rajahs came to represent a unifying point of authority which this diverse population were prepared to accept and this was a prime reason why Brooke rule was able to continue for so long with such relatively little internal strife.
And in all modesty it has to be said that the Brooke government gave no cause for charges of exploitation, as were sometimes being levelled against British rule in the colonies.
Human zooIf anything, development was all too gradual for the speed at which civilisation in the outside world was moving and there was perhaps more justification in the criticism, voice from time to time, that the Brooke rajahs were maintaining a human zoo.
If we’re to understand something of what’s happening in Sarawak today we’ll need to realise that the total land area of the state -- 12.4 million hectares with a 500-mile coastline -- 75 percent is still under forest cover.
Timber is its most precious resource and the greed to exploit it far in excess of steady conscientious and caring development dictates the quality of political and commercial life in that country today. The rule of the white rajahs, as they were called, lasted just 100 years. The country was occupied by Japanese military forces on Christmas Day, 1941.
At the end of the war the country was ceded in 1946 by the third Raja, Vyner Brooke, to the British Crown and to make doubly sure annexed by Britain as a colony. This remained its status for 17 years.
Throughout this period of British colonial rule a ban was imposed upon
my entry into the territory under the Undesirable Person’s enactment.
Nostalgic visitIn 1963, Sarawak became part of the Federation of Malaysia and in 1965 I was welcomed back by the new Sarawak Government on a somewhat nostalgic visit.
I’ll say more about this curious treatment later.
Meanwhile we’ll return to the origins of Sarawak as a territory which became a sovereign independent state under the rule of its first White Rajah, James Brooke.
James was what might be called an idealistic adventurer. Born in India in 1803, son of a judge in the East India Company, like many Englishmen of his day he was happy to see the extension of the British Empire.
He had a dream, a vision of British influence being extended into the far-off region of the Malayan archipelago.
Holland was already in possession of the greater part of the island of Borneo and of other parts of what is today known as Indonesia.
James approached the British Foreign Office with a proposal to open up avenues of friendship and trade with the rulers of the Malayan archipelago, but met with no response.
When in 1836 he inherited a small fortune from his father, he decided to put his own plan into effect.
So he bought himself a yacht, a schooner of 142 tons, armed with a few six-pounders, and with some carefully chosen friends set sail for the Far East.
AccidentalIt was certainly not with intent but due to a series of accidental happenings, that he found himself the ruler of an oriental state.
Landing in an outlying region of Borneo belonging to the Sultan of Brunei, he found a rebellion in progress which had been going on for over a year and which the Sultan was finding it difficult to quell.
Discontent had arisen over what the tribal peoples regarded as extortionate taxation and oppression.
The Malay governor of the district in question, an uncle of the Sultan, took advantage of James’ arrival to ask him for help in restoring order.
James agreed but as his sympathy lay largely with the rebels he insisted against a mountain of opposition that the lives of the rebel leaders should be spared. This no doubt enhanced his reputation among the native people.
The Sultan, relieved to see an end of the troublesome rebellion, granted James rulerships of the region in 1841 in return for annual payment of an agreed sum of money.
As time went by, neighbourhooding tribes came under the relatively more just and stable administration of James Brooke and through a series of treaties and agreements with the Sultan of Brunei the area of Sarawak was extended throughout the rule of the first two rajahs to its present size.
James at once set about establishing a government based on simple justice and native law and custom.
He acknowledged from the start that the country belonged to the people who lived in it and that it was to be viewed as a trust until such time that they were sufficiently advanced as to be able to govern it themselves.
AspirationHis stated aspiration was “to rule for the people and with the people, and to teach them the rights of free men under the restraints of government.”
In his writings at the time he was openly critical of many aspects of British colonial rule, but as a loyal British subject his hope and expectation was that Britain would take steps to protect and develop this newly acquired territory.
The British Government, however, was merely embarrassed by James’ initiative in this faraway land. Britain saw no future involving herself in what appeared to be a thoroughly unstable region of the world.
As an alternative option, the British Government was equally reluctant to create a precedent by recognising a British subject as the ruler of a foreign country.
It was, in face, the United States of America which first gave Sarawak international recognition in 1851 by sending an enjoy there with a letter from the President addressed to James as Sovereign Prince of Sarawak and expressing a desire to enter into friendly relations.
It seems that Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister of England, saw no objection to James entering into diplomatic relations as Rajah of Sarawak with the United States.
After dragging her heels, Britain 12 years later, in 1863, it must be
presumed somewhat reluctantly, recognised Sarawak as an independent sovereign
TelegramMuch later, on the death of Charles Brooke, the second Rajah, King George V confirmed the remarkable relationship to the British Crown by sending my father a telegram of condolence on the loss of one whom he uniquely described as “a loyal subject of my own and the distinguished ruler of a friendly state.”
Charles had ruled for close on 50 years and a few months before his
death in 1916 he gave this prophetic farewell address in the State Council
to the Sarawak people:
In a no less prophetic tone, Charles wrote and issued in 1907 a pamphlet
in which he expressed a fierce dislike of the type of imperialisms dominant
at the beginning of the twentieth century and be deplored the impression
that Britain governed her colonies by power, not by what he called “friendly
intercourse of feeling.”
Rajah under British fireI have said nothing about the problems faced by the first Rajah, James Brooke, and his successor in establishing and maintaining order in a country where such a complex mixture of societies and cultures existed.
James was on one occasion fiercely attacked in the British Parliament by the Liberal reformers Cobden and Hume. He was charged with using ships of the Royal Navy to help him massacre harmless and innocent natives.
The other side of the coin was that he was helping to put down piracy in the China Sea off the coast of Borneo.
The charges gave rise to a commission of inquiry which eventually came to nothing and Hume some years later paid James the compliment of describing him as being “a man in advance of the age in which he is living.”
And such an acute observer as Somerset Haughan once remarked to a Sarawak historian: “The Rajah’s character is noble, but his lack of vices make it hard for a writer to deal with him. He is more like a statue than a man.”
Actually, James was touchy, impatient and gave short shift to anyone who disagreed with him over Sarawak affairs.
He had no direct heir but two nephews, the elder of which he proclaimed Rajah Muda and from time to time left in charge of the country during his absences in England.
Towards the end of his life James and his elder nephew came into conflict with divergent views about the way to deal with Sarawak’s future.
The Rajah Muda had written his uncle a provocative letter, believing that James, who had been in ill-health had left him in charge of state affairs, had abdicated, and that is was out of order for his uncle to be acting as if he still held the reigns of power.
He went so far as to challenge his uncle to a trial of strength. This was a mistake, as there was no time in his life that James could not call upon the unqualified support of the Sarawak people.
James resolved the issue with a stroke of the pen. He wrote his hapless nephew a brief letter couched in the following words: “My nephew, I disinherit you for the crimes you have committed against the State and against myself, Your uncle, J. Brooke.”
It had been James’s strongly held conviction that in the absence of protection from some European power Sarawak would one day be in trouble, and when his repeated appeals to Britain came to nothing, France, Holland, Belgium, and even Italy were approached, but all to no avail.
However, when Charles Brooke, the younger of the two nephews, had been Rajah for 20 years, Britain did at last grant the longed-for treaty of protection, in which she undertook not to interfere in Sarawak’s domestic affairs while Sarawak, in return for external protection agreed to keeps its external relations in line with those of Britain.
As we shall see, this treaty in Sarawak’s hour of greatest need was
ineffective as a guarantee of protection; also, as it turned out, as a
safeguard against British interference in Sarawak’s internal affairs.
It was indeed inevitable that a conflict of interest would one day arise to test issues of loyalty. The ruling Brooke Rajahs naturally saw themselves as loyal subjects of the British Crown.
Likewise, the peoples of Sarawak viewed themselves as owing allegiance to the Brooke Rajahs, who stood for the independent sovereign status of their country.
There were some ominous rumblings quite early in the reign of the third Rajah, Charles Vyner, whom we will refer to as Vyner to avoid confusion with his father, Charles, who died in 1916.
Although King George V had defined Sarawak as a “friendly State”, it is clear that Britain sometimes say the Brooke Rajahs in a different light. Indeed, there were times when the threat of interference loomed large on the horizon.
A few years before World War II, for example, the Rajah, in order to preserve Sarawak’s right to its own judiciary ? guaranteed under the treaty of 1888 ? felt obliged to reject a strongly worded request to admit an English judge, appointed by the British Government, to try a civil case in which a British citizen was seeking to appeal against a ruling given against him in the Sarawak courts of justice.
Vyner’s firm stance that no special privilege should be granted to a Britisher evolved the tart response from Britain that the Rajah’s attitude was “what might be expected from an unfriendly foreign power.”
Although Sarawak was able to hold its own on that issue, the writing was clearly on the wall and the British Government was to prove more effective in getting its own way a few years later, even if the method and means employed left something to be desired.
But first I need to say a word about the differences which in
the good old Brooke tradition developed between my uncle Vyner and myself.
Civil ServiceAfter an English upbringing and education, I joined the Sarawak civil service at the age of 21, travelled throughout the country for some months, and with a view to getting an insight into British colonial administration in practice I was attached for two years to the Malayan civil service before coming back to serve in outstations in Sarawak, as well as in the capital.
Appointed to act as Head of State during the Rajah’s absence abroad from April to October, 1939, the title of Rajah Muda was duly conferred on me upon my uncle’s departure.
It was repealed within less than a year.
There had arisen differences between us regarding what, each in our different ways, we saw as matters of principle about which I need not go into detail.
A much more serious disagreement, also on questions of principle, arose between us in 1941.
In the early part of that year preparations were afoot to introduce a new constitution, designed to limit the power of the Rajah and give the people of Sarawak a greater say in government. So far so good.
While the intention was clearly admirable, the draft constitution contained defects and improprieties that were wholly unacceptable, not least by reason of a secret agreement drawn up between the Rajah and his top government officials, by which he was to be financially compensated for this “democratic” gesture out of treasury funds.
This was not in the manner any previous Brooke ruler had behaved. Moreover,
one of the provisions of the proposed constitution was that upon its coming
into force the title of Rajah Muda would be restored to me and I would
be proclaimed heir to the Raj.
IgnoredHowever attractive this might have sounded, this provision ignored the fact that my father Bertam, who was a year younger than my uncle, had been designated in effect joint ruler with him under Rajah Charles’ Political Will.
Since my father might well have outlived my uncle (as in fact he did), this was not an offer to me that could rightly be made.
Although in England at the time and not in good health, my father had never renounced his rights. When the secret agreement leaked out, as it was bound to do, I openly opposed the whole arrangement.
The ultimate outcome was inevitable. My opposition developed into something bordering a campaign and I was in the dog-house once again -- dismissed from government service and expelled from the state in mid-September, 1941, a bare two weeks before the new constitution was to become law.
In fact, it was never given practical effect. Three months later Sarawak fell to the Japanese. I was by that time in England, enrolled as a private soldier in the British armed forces.
Clearly these disagreements with my uncle assumed more than local significance when the post-war future of Sarawak came up for consideration.
They were, understandably, a decisive factor in my uncle’s decision, however unconstitutional it may have been, to cede Sarawak to the British Crown.
And my inability to be flexible on what I judged to be matters of principle plunged me once more into difficulties in my relationship with the British government.
MountbattenAfter an uneventful term service in the British Army, I found myself in 1944 on the staff of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Supreme commander of South-east Asia, in what is now called Sri Lanka. In the spring of that year the British Government had written to my uncle expressing the view that the time had come to discuss how Sarawak and Britain should, as it was euphemistically expressed, “marched together in the future.”
My uncle throughout his life had been temperamentally disinclined to become involved in high-level discussions on affairs of state and my father, upon whom he usually relied on such occasions, was at the time under doctor’s orders and generally in poor health.
For this reason it was decided that the title of Rajah Muda should be restored to me and that I should be demobilised to become head of a Provisional Government of Sarawak in London, empowered to explore precisely what His Majesty’s Government might have in mind.
It was agreed between my uncle, my father and myself that our stance
in any discussions taking place at that stage of the war should be that,
while we would be willing and agreeable to discuss all matters of common
interest, it would be morally indefensible for the Provisional Government
to prejudice the post-war relations of the Government of Sarawak by entering
into any discussion in-consistent with the existing treaty relationship
between the two governments: “that this treaty relationship should form
the basis of any discussions taking place before the people of Sarawak
had been liberated and the status quo duly restored.”
Too simplisticThis, however, proved far too simplistic an approach for the British Government.
Our first and only meeting took place in the presence of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who opened by saying that at the end of the war Britain would be held responsible for Sarawak affairs and that in order effectively to discharge her responsibilities to the international community the Government must be assured of effective control over Sarawak affairs.
He spoke in a manner and tone which clearly indicated that I and my two colleagues, both senior officials in the pre-war administration, were to be seen as having no role in these directions other than as obedient British subjects.
The real crunch had come. This was the confrontation which had been progressively brewing through the past 100 years. Through the choice I knew I had to make, I prepared myself to enter the dog-house once again.
I pointed out that I and my colleagues had, in fact, come to attend this inter-governmental discussion specifically to represent the interests of an independent sovereign state.
Any doubts about Sarawak’s status in international law would need to be clarified and resolved before a meaningful basis for further discussion could exist. With this exchange the meeting ended.
A day or two later came a half-page document which purported to set out the view of the British Government on the international status of Sarawak and placing it fairly and squarely within the British Empire.
We, in turn, sought a joint legal opinion from two distinguished lawyers, one of whom later became a judge at the Nuremburg trials.
This joint opinion unreservedly opposed the view of the British Government
and a strongly affirmed the fact that Sarawak was indeed an independent
sovereign state and that no case existed for interference in the internal
administration of that country.
Fight against ColonialismThe summer of 1945 was marked by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of Japan. These dramatic events and the prospect of Sarawak’s early liberation from Japanese occupation made the British government decide to take immediate and drastic action and to approach the Rajah personally without any further ado.
It never became clear to me precisely how this was done, but the very same day that the joint legal opinion we had commissioned arrived in the post, I simultaneously received a letter from my uncle once again abolishing the title of Rajah Muda and proclaiming the dissolution of the Provisional Government -- and of myself in so far as concerned my further participation in government affairs.
Shortly after, on February 6, 1946, a newspaper reported telephoned with the news that, according to an official statement made that day in Parliament, the Rajah had offered to cede Sarawak to the British Crown and that his offer had been accepted.
My comment on the phone was so far as I was aware no consultation of
any kind had taken place with the Sarawak people and that I “would fight
tooth and nail” to ensure that the people would be properly consulted about
whatever their future form of government was to be.
SupportersAs the result of strong representations made by individuals and groups both in England and in Sarawak, the Rajah was obliged to fly out and put his proposal to the State Council. This he did, taking with him five white Sarawak government officials willing to vote in his support that Sarawak should become a British colony.
A Bill to that effect was accordingly passed with the vote of the white officials narrowly securing the outcome by 19 votes to 16.
The vote of the indigenous people was against the transfer of power.
In case doubt might be thrown on legality of this dubious procedure, the British Government took the precaution of simultaneously passing an Act of Annexation. Sarawak duly became a British colony on July 1, 1946.
Next a flood of telegrams and letters began to reach my father and myself from Sarawak, protesting against what had occurred and urging us to come and to see for ourselves how the indigenous people really felt about the whole affair.
Two national organisations had sprung into being, the Malay National Union of Sarawak and the Sarawak Dayak Association.
One moving telegram contained the words:
UnexpectedAlthough the tribal peoples, consisting of over half the population, could have had little understanding of what the changeover was to mean, they certainly did not initiate it and the broad feeling of the Sarawak people was probably best conveyed in their following letter addressed to Sir Charles Arden Clarke on his arrival in Sarawak on October 29, 1946, for his installation as Sarawak’s first British Governor. It could scarcely have been what he expected. It was signed by the President of the Malay National Union of Sarawak on behalf of the Malay and Melanau communities and ran as follows:
CampaignThis was just the beginning of what became a five-year campaign, fought, on the insistence of my father and myself, on non-violent constitutional lines, with the aim of revoking Sarawak’s new colonial status after a war specifically fought against imperial aggrandisement, in which Sarawak had played its part in donating generously to the war effort.
My attempt to visit Sarawak in response to invitations received from representations of the Sarawak people came to nought.
The ban on entry to Sarawak imposed upon me was disputed by Winston Churchill, who asked in the House of Commons: “Why shouldn’t Anthony Brooke go to Sarawak to help the people form and express their views as to kind of government they want? We are not on the side of Russian tyranny!”
When the Government spokesman replied that His Majesty’s Government was responsible for law and order in the colony and that Anthony Brooke’s presence there “might lead to insurrection”, Churchill characteristically commented that this excuse was “word by word and phrase by phrase the very perfect declaration of tyranny.”
However, the intervention led to the ban being lifted on my entry into Singapore, previously included in the restriction, and from there a house for next four years flew the free Sarawak flag and welcomed anti-cession visitors from Sarawak.
HardshipAlthough my father and I played what part we could in highlighting the illegality, bribery, and misrepresentation in the procedure by which Sarawak had been hastily converted into a British colony, it must be acknowledged that the brunt of the burden of the anti cession campaign and its repercussions were shouldered most of all by individuals and groups within Sarawak itself, many of whom underwent great hardship and suffering on opposing colonial rule.
The mounting of a military opposition in Malaya in 1950 against communist infiltration played its part in the timing of my withdrawal from the scene in February 1951, by which time it had become clear that the British colonial regime was firmly entrenched and any further campaigning on my part would be increasingly divisive and ineffective.
By then some 14 campaigning associations throughout Sarawak had come into being.
In their understandable frustration a small breakaway group from the non-violent anti-colonial movement had secretly plotted and carried out the assassination of a newly-appointed British Governor in December, 1949.
A graciously worded telegram from the Malay National Union and the Sarawak Dayak Association accepted the decision to end my participation in the campaign but reaffirmed their own determination to continue their resistance to colonial rule.
This they did until 1963, when Sarawak attained it’s status of “independence
Mr. Brooke and wife Gita made an official visit in August/September, 1983, during the 20th anniversary celebrations of Sarawak as an independent state within the Federation of Malaysia.