I’m still in Argentina, where I had planned to take a holiday from social media, but that hasn’t really worked out. It’s less than two weeks now until I’m going to be in Windsor talking about James Brooke as part of the Thames Valley History Festival. I’ll be at Waterstones at 7.30 on 25 May and it would be lovely if you could make it. The need to publicise the talk, though, means that I have had to put stuff on Facebook and Twitter, so social media have inserted themselves back into my life.
I have mentioned before that I am not a natural Tweeter. I find saying anything worthwhile in 140 characters tricky. When I’m tweeting about my James Brooke talk, I tend just to say that I’m giving the talk; here’s where it is; here’s when it is; it would be nice if you could come. That’s about 140 characters.
Tammy complained that this didn’t say anything about why people might be interested in the talk, so my latest tweets tried to tweak it a bit. One said: “Just 2 weeks until my talk on James Brooke and how he won his own country.” With the location and a link, that was pretty well all there was room for. I was then taken to task for using the word ‘won’.
I stuck by ‘won’. I didn’t suggest it was won in a war (it was ceded by treaty because the Malay ruler saw advantages in having it governed by Brooke). And if you enter a situation and leave with more than you arrived with, ‘won’ seems a fair word. And, with only three letters, it is great for tweeting.
The person who complained then said that I was “glorifying history” and “stoking a toxic imperial nostalgia”. I’m not sure about glorifying history: I’m certainly trying to make it into a good story and that may well involve something that could be called ‘glorification’. But I’m hardly stoking imperial nostalgia because Sarawak, having been ceded to Brooke personally as a liege lord to the Sultan of Brunei, was never part of the Empire. (A passing pedant points out that it was briefly under British rule after World War II, but that’s hardly the point.) I am, it’s true, painting Brooke in heroic colours and his role has been critically re-examined of late, but when I first came across him around 1980, he was still seen by the people of Sarawak as overall a positive thing.
The complaint now became that “a place where people live is not a 'prize' to be won (unless you dehumanise the people already there)”. Actually, I had never described it as a ‘prize’ and Brooke’s concern for the people living there was a significant driver of his rule, but it was too late. I have lost a Twitter follower and, he says, a potential reader of my book. That’s a shame, not least because one of the themes of the book is the tension between Brooke’s desire to act for the best and the violence that resulted from his attempts to impose Western liberal ideals which did not develop naturally from the local social norms. The book ends [spoiler alert] with Williamson abandoning Brooke because he can no longer live with the horror of the military expeditions to put down opposition to liberal rule. Some people (I know) think that Brooke’s activities, as presented in the book, are absolutely justified; others agree with Williamson. I have tried to present both views credibly.
The thing is that I think that the whole issue of colonialism is complicated. For too much of the 20th century the British did, indeed, harbour a “toxic imperial nostalgia”. Colonialism was seen as a benefit to the countries we colonised. We gave the Indians railways and cricket and in Africa we shouldered “the White Man’s burden” and the natives should be forever grateful, whatever injustices they suffered and however much their countries were exploited.
Nowadays, we reject this view. However, we have swung somewhat to the opposite extreme. Nothing that the West brought to the rest of the world was of value; colonialists were all evil and colonialism was all about commercial exploitation. I’ve read accounts of how Brooke stole the native resources and made a fortune from opium, which sits uneasily with the easily established fact that he required enormous private subsidies to bear the financial losses that he made from his rule.
The truth is that the balance sheet of colonial rule is complicated. For what it’s worth, I think that interfering in the rule of other countries and imposing alien values on them seldom works out. You don’t have to go back to the 19th century to see that: the world today provides examples aplenty. But the West continues to interfere in other countries, not only to exploit their oil or other resources, but because we find it difficult to stand by while dictators wipe out their populations, women are subjugated or religious prejudices are allowed to destroy the lives of thousands of innocent people. The West still wants to interfere and intervene: it just does so less wholeheartedly than it did in the past. I’m not sure that the resulting chaos is necessarily an improvement. Ask, for example, the people of Libya.
I am not a philosopher or a historian. I write novels, some of which try, in passing, to look at serious issues and which have a solid historical base. In the end, though, they have to entertain, so a certain amount of glorification may sneak in. If you want to come along to Waterstones on 25 May and attack my imperialist nostalgia, I will do my best to defend myself, but I’m not AJP Taylor. It might make an interesting discussion. And you will at least come away knowing why Sarawak was never part of the British Empire and in a better position to decide whether or not James Brooke can be described as winning the country.