Friday 9 June 2017

James Brooke: the fact behind the fiction

It seems a lot more than two weeks since I was in Windsor talking about the life and times of James Brooke.

Me, talking about James Brooke

Brooke is the central character of my first novel, The White Rajah. The story is a work of fiction, but Brooke was a real person and the main events in the book are all true. Some of Brooke's comments are lifted verbatim from his letters, so he literally speaks to us in his own voice.

James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant (National Portrait Gallery)

Why write a book about a man who, although quite famous in the mid-19th century, is almost unknown today? There were two reasons. When I first came across James Brooke, on a visit to Kuching in Borneo, I was immediately fascinated by the man and what he had done with his life. He had set off to the Far East as a merchant adventurer with some vague notions about extending British influence. His driving motivation seemed to be simply a yearning to escape from the mundane world of the respectable British middle classes. He was, I suspect, the sort of man who would be fun at a party but you would hardly trust with a serious business venture. By a combination of pure luck (being in the right place at the right time) and a willingness to take risks to seize an opportunity he found himself the legitimate ruler of Sarawak – a small country in Borneo. Although other authors have written about him (notably Nicolas Monsarrat, whose book is also called The White Rajah) it's been a while since he has been a popular figure in British fiction. George MacDonald Fraser went some way to remedy this with a walk-on part for Brooke in Flashman's Lady, but I thought he deserved more. I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching his life and wanted to share it with as many people as I could.

The second reason was that I wanted to write a story about why good people do bad things. I imagined a fictional war on some remote island where our hero, who had become involved in the conflict out of the best of motives, ends up committing a horrible atrocity. In today's world understanding how these sorts of things happen is probably as important as it has ever been. When I tried to imagine the background for such a story, I realised I already had it. Brooke was such a man. He set off to be an enlightened, liberal ruler and, by and large, was. However, when marauding pirates from neighbouring tribes threatened "his" people he was happy to call in the Royal Navy to put an end to the problem, which they did with such enthusiasm that reports of the subsequent massacre led to questions in the House of Commons, half a world away.

The massacre at Beting Marau

It's easy to take the view that Brooke was just an evil colonialist, killing the native inhabitants whose country he had stolen from them. In fact, this is far from the truth. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – had already had their country stolen from them by the Malays and Brooke, by taking rule from the Malays, almost certainly improved the situation of the Dyaks. All the evidence is that he really cared about these people and that is part of the reason why he was so ruthless in putting down other native tribes who did not live in "his" territory.

Nowadays it is common to see the whole issue of colonialism in very black and white terms, but it really was much more complicated than that. Brooke's story therefore offers an opportunity to see how somebody with the best of intentions, wishing only to do good, could end up in a position where it is easy to denounce him as a murderous imperialist.

I'm biased: I think Brooke was a hero, albeit a flawed one. However, I have tried to be even-handed in the telling of his story. The story is told from the point of view of Brooks interpreter, a man who is caught up in the events but still sees them as, to an extent, an outsider. He is so shocked by the massacre that he leaves Brooke and Sarawak, convinced that what had happened was wrong.

I hope that you might read the book and make your own decision. It's available on Kindle for just £1.99/$2.44. Click  HERE for the Amazon site. You can also buy it in paperback.

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