Thursday, March 17, 2011

The last of Sarawak's White Rajahs

The extraordinary story of the Victorian adventurer who subjugated a vast swathe of Borneo

Few things frightened the Dayak warriors of Borneo, who were infamous for the gruesome custom of head-hunting. But on a December day in 1912, a series of thunderous booms reverberated across the island’s misty swamps and sent them racing towards the shelter of their huts.

Many feared they were about to endure the wrath of the gods or at least a severe storm. But it was in fact a man-made cacophony, a 21-gun salute to announce the birth of a male heir to the throne of Sarawak, the small jungle kingdom on Borneo’s western coast.

The baby whose arrival was so celebrated that day was not, as might have been expected, one of the Dayaks, Malays or Chinese who made up Sarawak’s population of half a million.

Indeed, Anthony Brooke could hardly have been more British. Born thousands of miles away in England, he would later be educated at Eton and Oxford. Yet as far as the people of Sarawak were concerned, he was royalty.

Since 1841, his father’s family had taken it upon themselves to rule this remote region as their private empire. The White Rajahs, as they became known, had the power of life and death over their subjects, not to mention their own constabulary, flag and postage stamps.

Anthony, too, would go on to govern Sarawak. In fact, this bizarre and extraordinary dynasty — known as much for its eccentricity as for its benevolent rule — only came to an end this month when he died at the age of 98.

The family had come to power thanks to Anthony’s great-great-uncle James Brooke — a man so swashbucklingly adventurous that Errol Flynn once proposed to play him in a film about his life.

Born in Benares in 1803, he was the son of an English judge who worked for the East India Company.

As a young man he joined the Bengal Army, waging war against Burma as the British Empire sought to expand, but his dreams of glory ended abruptly when in 1825 he was shot in the most intimate part of the male anatomy.

During an understandably long convalescence, aided in true Empire fashion by daily cold baths, he began reading books about the Far East.

This later inspired him to lead the crew of a vast 142-ton sailing ship on a voyage to challenge Dutch control of southern Borneo.

His arrival in Sarawak in 1839 was timely. The region was controlled by the Sultan of neighbouring Brunei who was then facing a rag-tag uprising by local Malays.

He offered Brooke sovereignty over Sarawak if he could lead the Sultan’s army to victory against the rebels and the Englishman with a taste for lunatic danger quickly obliged.

As the newly-appointed Rajah, Brooke took charge of what amounted to 3,000 square miles of swamp, jungle and river, much of it populated by the Dayaks.

They marked important events in their lives by taking the heads of other people in the community. If a Dayak husband failed to present a human skull to his wife after the birth of a child then it was feared that the newborn would meet with illness or even death.

Likewise, no young Dayak warrior ever went courting without first donning an animal mask and skins and ambushing a fellow Dayak, often a woman or child from his own community.

He then made his intended a present of his victim’s skull.

Such acts were outlawed under the many new laws which James Brooke introduced to civilise Sarawak.

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