When it first came out, I wrote a piece for this blog explaining who James Brooke was and why I thought his a tale worth telling. For those of you who missed it that time round, here it is again:
I was on holiday in Sarawak when I first heard of James Brooke. The museum in Kuching had an exhibition of Sarawak's history with a large display on 'The White Rajahs' next to a much smaller display on 'The Colonial Era'. I was confused. The White Rajahs were clearly, well, white. Why was it that while the tone of 'The Colonial Era' was rather disapproving (it mainly seems to have consisted of killing the Governor), 'The White Rajahs' display hinted at a Golden Age?
The answer seems to have been the extraordinary relationship the first White Rajah, James Brooke, had with the people of Sarawak. Sarawak then was a province of a much bigger country ruled by Muda Hassim in Brunei. Hassim gave the rule of Sarawak to James Brooke as a reward for Brooke's help suppressing a rebellion there. Brooke insisted that Sarawak was not part of the British Empire and he set out to rule as an enlightened despot. He succeeded to the point where his family was able to govern for three generations, their rule ending only with the Japanese invasion in World War II.
My book explores some of the moral ambiguities of his rule. (He did kill an awful lot of people for what he saw as the greater good.) There is no doubt in my mind, though, that he was one of the good guys. He protected the natives of Borneo from the worst of the depredations of the Malays and brought peace and comparative prosperity to an area that had known more than its share of war and hardship. It is unusual to see Third World countries celebrating a period of rule by a European but Sarawak does. This seems mainly because it was rule by a European, not European rule.
Unlike most colonial rulers, James Brooke lost money hand over fist in Sarawak, keeping himself afloat only with financial support from friends in England who believed in what he was doing. It was the sheer cost of restoring the country after the Japanese invasion that was a major factor in Brooke rule ending and the British government briefly taking control before Sarawak became independent as part of Malaysia.
I'm not blogging about his life because there's already more than enough about him on the Web. (Wikipedia is a good place to start.) Anyone wanting to get intimate with the man can read his published diaries, which I used as a research source.
This is not the first novel about Brooke. There have been many. Even Conrad's Lord Jim was based on him. This story takes a different look at the man. It starts by assuming that he was a good man but that he did terrible things and tries to understand why.
The book opens with a brief excerpt from a journal of the period and I can do no better than to repeat it here.
“When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones, but while those who loved him the best, could fondly and sadly wish it had been otherwise, they will ever be able to think of their leader, as the Father and Founder of a nation and as one of England’s greatest sons.”