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Friday, April 13, 2012


Sarawak - the land of rivers, hornbills and diverse ethnicity. It used to be the land of smoked heads and lanuns. Who tamed Sarawak from these age old traditions? The autocratic  and benevolent Brookes did, three of them westerners.

The orientals warring among themselves, were in no position to stem out such dangerous habits of the Dyaks, Kayans and Kenyahs and Malay islanders. The latter were mainly lanuns and not into headhunting. For the former, warriors were marked by the number of heads lopped, smoked and hung under the roof. To be initiated into a truly male adult the young must show proof of a head.

James Brooke (1803-1868) an adventurer behaved like a romantic hero.

In all history only one man succeeded in coming from the West and making himself king of an Eastern race.

'Fear nothing for me; the decision is in higher Hands, and I am willing to die as live in the present undertaking, if my death can benefit the poor people' he wrote three years after he set sail to the East in the Royalist from Davenport late 1838.

In the morning of August 15, 1839 the Royalist anchored in mid-stream at Kuching. Sarawak was a suzerain of Brunei ruled Raja Muda Hashim, brother of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin of Brunei. He was heir to the throne of Brunei.

Kuching as Brooke first saw it in August 1839.

Sarawak resources included antimony, timber, Malacca cane, rattan, beeswax, bird's nests, pipe-clay, rice, sago, vegetable tallow, gold ... but quite unaccessible to trade for there was no peace.

Raja Mahkota (L) of Sarawak plotted notoriously against James Brooke’s dealings.

Raja Muda Hashim's rule was weak because of palace intrigues, Dyak uprisings in the interior made worse by the head-hunting and piracy. Against a subtle gunboat diplomacy, Raja Muda Hashim quite unwillingly abdicated on September 24, 1841 to be compensated with 1000 Spanish dollars to transfer his rule to James Brooke who was 38 years old then.

In a letter James confided his mother in England "... by dedicating myself to the task, I am able to introduce better customs and settle laws, and to raise the feeling of the people, so that their rights can never in future be wantonly infringed, I shall indeed be content and happy."

Of the Chinaman "... must have his tea, tobacco, opium and samsu, and when he has ready money he must gamble ... an excellent subject to tax. The Dyaks and Malays ... work little and require little," wrote Helms.

In 1857 the Chinese miners of Bau dared to rebel, burnt Kuching and killed several Europeans. Later, they were overcame by fire power from Sir James Brooke steamer. They fled en masse through thick jungle to the Indonesian border into Sambas. They were pursued by the Dayaks and Malays. About 1000 of them lost their heads and 2,500 survived to reach the border.

James Brooke was still at the helm of of Sarawak during his old age at Burrator, England but was troubled whom to be his successor "... the young hope more than they fear, and that the old fear more than they hope ..." On June 11, 1868 he died after a series of strokes at the age of 65.

"Sarawak belongs to the Malays' Sea Dyaks, Land Dyaks, Kayans, Kenyahs, Milanos, Muruts, Kadayans, Bisayahs, and other tribes, and not to us. It is for them we labour, not for ourselves" - James Brooke.

Charles Brooke (1829-1917) was the second Rajah of Sarwak and Vyner Brooke the last.

Source: Roberet Payne. 1986. The White Rajahs of Sarawak. Oxford Univ. Press, Singapore

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