Monday, 19 November 2007

An insight into Brooke's raj

New Straits Times, 31 May 1991

Henry Keppel: The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido. reprint by Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1991, of the original second edition published by Chapman and Hall, London, 1846. Two volumes in one with an introduction by R.H.W. Reece. 764 pages + maps and illustrations.

Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer.

How they could write in those days! Henry Keppel and James Brooke, the sailor and the soldier, probably never realised what good authors they were. But then, they had advantages, having left school at an early age, their minds and their prose still unspoiled. Their calling demanded they write well, and the first half of the 19th century was, as Ezra Pound would say, a time when the English language was in good working order.

It may seem bizarre of me to begin a review of a historical reprint with praise of Keppel's and Brooke's style, but writing is something I know about, and a book of striking content expressed in striking words is hard to find, especially when the authors write for political reasons.

The title page names Capt. Keppel as author, but in fact most of Expedition was written by James Brooke. The first Rajah of Sarawak met Keppel in Singapore, where Keppel was posted with a very useful 18 gun Royal Navy corvette. The two hit it off instantly, and when Keppel was recalled to England after a few exciting weeks of killing pirates together, Brooke gave him his journals to edit and publish.

Despite the title---one imagines a dowdy Dido unloading a cargo of frock-coated naturalists ready to pounce on Rafflesia and Longicorns---Keppel's and Brooke's memoir reads, probably deliberately, like a novel of grand adventure without the hype that mars the genre.

Except that everything here really happened, and real human beings, Native and British, live in this book. The first half of Expedition recounts, in Brooke's own words, his first arrival in Sarawak, his friendship with Rajah Muda Hassim, whom he helped in putting down a civil war, his surprising appointment as rajah, and his desperate struggle to stay alive and turn a nearly empty title into reality.

The second half, to which Keppel contributed largely, tells the story of the first bloody hunts against the "pirates" of the Batang Lupar and Skrang.

Of all the western explorers, adventurers, and imperialists who came out to this part of the world in the last century, James Brooke was the least typeable. Sarawak too has a strange place in the history of East and West. Though it remained for a hundred years the property of English rulers, Sarawak was technically never a colony, and defied the mode in many other ways.

Expedition remains the only written account of the beginnings of the Sarawak Raj and a mirror of the principal actor's mind and intents. It is packed with matter, a document of the highest importance.

Brooke wrote down things as they happened. We see him feeling his way---no westerner knew much about Borneo before he got therehis developing ambitions and hates, his doubts and crises.

Journals are supposed to be private, and Brooke wrote shrewdly to the convention, with one eye on publication. He needed very much to raise English support.

Some readers may dislike Brooke for the way he always presents himself in the best light. Was it all that kind of him to insinuate himself into a place where people had always been pretty much content to live and fight their own way? No one can deny that Brooke fully believed in his vision of creating a fixed society and increasing profit trade through the exploitation of Sarawak's resources, a vision shared by the present government.

History is a view from the eyes of many people. Most of us take our history from abridgements and reworkings. But I, wherever I can, prefer to get at history from the source, to make up my own mind. It is easier to deal with the biases of the actors than the prejudices of those who come at second hand to explain them.

One advantage I found in reading Expedition was that I finally got the bare facts straight. If you want to learn how Sarawak began, read here first, and then when you are familiar with the names and events, go to Robert Pringle's Rajahs and Rebels and the remaining memoirs. R.H.W. Reece's admirable introductions to Expedition and to Charles Brooke's book also guide the reader and fill in what Brooke or Keppel left out.

The story of a westerner's adventures in future Malaysia is bound to be controversial. Few of us now may see Brooke's aims as nobly as he did. Brooke is too enthusiastic, and, to his credit, too honest to conceal his hunger for glory and expansion.

The hardest reading here is the account of the slaughter wreaked on Dayak and Malay pirates by Brooke and his British navy friends. Genuine pirates, real scum, plagued Borneo, as they still do in some places, and deserved all they got. But how far did Brooke carry "suppression of piracy" as an excuse to cow his Dayak and Malay opponents? Could he distinguish between piracy and the normal, almost legitimate S.E. Asian warfare?

Did the Brunei nobles, expert politicians themselves, believe that Brooke would last as long as he did? It's my own opinion that Brooke was playing well within local rules. Guns and ships helped him, but his greatest weapon was his British conviction that politics and war were to be pursued with earnestness and to the finish.

Books still remain to be written on these questions. Brooke's arrival changed Sarawak forever, and the era of his family's rule is a time that Sarawakians and Malaysians still have to come to terms with. A true review of Expedition is the sum of Sarawak history, even to the present.

In Expedition Brooke, who was not always intriguing or fighting, gave us the first long, accurate description of Borneo and Borneo life in a western language. He had an acute eye, and knew that scientific and ethnographic details would appeal to English readers.

It's modern Sarawakians to whom this information now comes home most. I had personal proof of this. Chapter three, wow!, consists of a long description of STUNGGANG, my wife's kampong on the banks of the Batang Kayan upriver from Lundu. There Brooke first tasted Dayak hospitality, which he and every western visitor since has not failed to praise.

The daughter of the present Orang Kaya Pemancha Kalong, a direct descendant of O.K.P. Jugah, who invited Brooke to visit his longhouse, pored over the pages at my house, while the coffee grew cold in front of her. Her critical remarks were a good check on Brooke's truthfulness.

Along with the text was a drawing, looking downriver from a spot perhaps 50 m from where my in-laws' house now stands. Sure, the artist chopped off Gunung Gading halfway. But, there's where Sg. Stunggang joins the main river, there's where the ferry now crosses, and my mother-in-law points: "That's the kind of boat my grandfather used to make!"

Brooke really was there. The exotic feeling vanishes from this curious lithograph, from his language, and we again see people close to us, of an old time, but people we know.

A book that contains such history is beyond being recommended. It has passed into the realm of permanent value.
Oxford University Press has over the years steadily been reprinting, in luscious facsimile editions like this one, the books of the earliest British writers on Sarawak. Keppel's is a highly welcome, standing as it does at the starting point of Sarawak's modernity. We hope that Oxford will continue to give us reprints of the remaining documents, including the rest of Brooke's journals.

Not long ago only a western Ph.D. student could find these books in the locked section of a giant research library. Now the honourable common reader has a chance to read Sarawak history as it was made. Few Malaysian students will be able to afford the price of $120; but we hope that public libraries, especially in Sarawak, will make it a point to get it onto their shelves.