Friday, 29 January 2016

Sarawak and the British Empire

The third (and final) book about John Williamson will be published in April and that has me thinking about how Williamson’s story started.

I introduced John Williamson in my first novel, The White Rajah. The story is based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Sarawak, now part of Malaysia, is a small state on the island of Borneo. It came under British protection when it was ruled by James Brooke in the mid-19th century, which has led many people to see it as part of the British Empire.

M.C.V.Egan runs a blog exploring historical "facts" that, on examination, turn out to be nothing of the sort. She asked me to write on 'the agreed upon lie' that Sarawak was part of the Empire. (The phrase ‘the agreed upon lie’ is supposed to be how Napoleon described history.) This was my response, which first appeared in her blog on 7 December 2013 and on my own blog a little later.

In the National Maritime Museum in London, there is a map of the world which shows all the countries that were once part of the British Empire. Over there, on the right, a little blob of red marks Sarawak. This reflects the widespread belief that Sarawak, ruled by an Englishman and later to become part of the British Commonwealth, was one of the myriad countries that made up the "Empire on which the sun never set".

Sarawak was never part of the British Empire. In fact, there was a formal enquiry to establish the relationship of Sarawak to the Crown, and the conclusion was that it was a not a British possession.

W.J. Turner 1881 Royal Geographical Society Map

Sarawak's peculiar status reflected the way in which it was acquired by its first European ruler, James Brooke. It is easy to present Brooke as an adventurer who seized control of the country by force. Indeed, nowadays the Brooke Rajahs are often referred to officially as "pirates". It's far from the truth, though.

Portrait of James Brooke by Francis Grant (1847)

James Brooke was, indeed, an adventurer. His principal goal when he arrived in Sarawak was to improve relations between the British and the local population, which he hoped would bring him benefits as a trader. His ship, the Royalist, carried six small cannon and he had less than thirty crewmen with him. He was in no position to take the country by force. However, he arrived in the middle of a civil war. It had been going on for a long time, with no sign of resolution. Sarawak was governed from Brunei, where a faction in the Sultan's court had whipped up a revolt in that distant province in order to advance their own political position. The politics was Byzantine and the Sultan was increasingly frustrated as faction balanced against faction and the war dragged on and on. He saw the arrival of Brooke as offering a way out of the impasse. The Royalist's guns, if brought into action against the enemy, could be decisive.

This proved to be the case. The cannon and the crew broke the deadlock and brought victory to the Sultan's forces. For his help, Brooke was offered the rule of Sarawak.

Sarawak remained a province of the Brunei Sultanate. It wasn't very important province and the Sultan hardly missed it. For him, the benefit of having James Brooke ruling there was that his enemies could not stir up trouble that could be used against him in Brunei. However, for much the same reason, it was essential that he could say that he still had control of his whole realm. So Brooke acknowledged the Sultan as his overlord and claimed that his authority came from Brunei.

Brooke was proudly British and saw his rule in Sarawak as strengthening the position of the British in the South China seas. At the time, the Dutch dominated trade in the area and this British foothold in Borneo was politically and militarily significant. Burke wanted to have strong ties with Singapore, the main British possession in the region, and he wanted to benefit from the protection of the Royal Navy. The obvious solution was for him to rule the territory as governor, but for it to be officially part of the British Empire with his loyalty pledged to the Queen. However, he felt unable to do this. He argued that his personal loyalty, as a British citizen, was to Queen Victoria, but as ruler of Sarawak, he had pledged his loyalty to the Sultan in Brunei. The British government was very uncomfortable with the situation, believing that they had been manoeuvred into a position where they were responsible for Sarawak but did not actually have any control of it. However, the practical reality of the politics of the region prevailed, and Sarawak never did become formally part of the British Empire.

Sarawak continued to be ruled by three generations of Brooke Rajahs until the Second World War, when it was invaded by the Japanese. The third Rajah, Anthony Brooke, claimed that he did not have the resources to make good the damage that had occurred before the Japanese were defeated. Controversially, he agreed to hand his country over to the British. The age of Empire was over when Sarawak finally became, briefly, a British colony. It was a British possession from 1946 until it was officially granted independence in July, 1963. Later that year, it was incorporated into Malaysia. Sarawak's days as a separate nation were over.


  1. Complete nonsense. The British Empire was always an amorphous concept. Yet there could hardly have been an argument over the proper precedence of Rajah Charles Brooke compared with, say, the Indian princes in court presentations to the Queen-Empress if Sarawak was not considered part of the Empire.

  2. Clearly not complete nonsense as it occupied the attention of the government over many years and was one of the key concerns of the Commission of Inquiry held at Singapore.