Project Canterbury

Mr. Brooke and Borneo

From The Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal, Vol. I (No. V). (November 1847), pages 161-168.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007


SINCE we called the attention of our readers, in the first number of this journal, to the Mission about to be formed in Borneo, Mr. Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, has arrived on a visit to his native country; and the cordial reception he has met with in all quarters has shown how great an interest has been excited by his adventurous career. Many, perhaps, have not had an opportunity of reading Capt. Keppel's delightful narrative of his expedition to Borneo, and are therefore anxious for more detailed information, about that country and Mr. Brooke's proceedings there, than they can obtain from any other source. And at the last meeting of the Borneo Church Mission Committee, held in London, Mr. Brooke gave an interesting account of the present state of Sarawak, and pointed out both the advantages and difficulties under which the Mission will be established. We therefore think that, at the risk of a little repetition, some further details on a subject of such peculiar interest at the present moment may not be unacceptable to our readers.

The island of Borneo, situated on the equator, measures at its extreme length nine hundred miles, at its greatest breadth seven hundred, and in circumference six thousand. With the exception of Australia, which may, indeed, be considered a continent, it is the largest island known. Occupying a central situation in the Malayan Archipelago, in the direct track of an extensive and valuable commerce, intersected on all sides by navigable rivers, indented with safe and capacious harbours, [161/162] possessing one of the richest soils on the globe, blessed with a healthy climate, which, though warm, is always tempered by the sea-breezes, and abounding not only in all the necessaries of life, but in most important mineral treasures, it is a country eminently favoured with the choicest gifts of Providence, and well adapted for the support of a numerous and happy population. Very different, however, has its fate hitherto been. Its inhabitants are, 1st, the aborigines, who bear the general name of Dyaks, but are divided into numerous tribes, each with a particular designation; 2d, the Malays, the dominant people, who have, along the coast at least, obtained the entire authority, and reduced the Dyaks to a state of the most abject and cruel subjection; and, 3d, a few Chinese, who are the chief workmen and artizans, and especially labour in the gold, diamond, and other mines. The origin of the Dyaks is, like that of all the aborigines of this Archipelago, involved in the greatest obscurity. Their language, in its various dialects, appears to form a link in the chain of that primitive tongue entitled by Marsden the Polynesian; and which, he conceives, may be traced, with strong features of similarity, throughout the whole Archipelago, and, with a less marked resemblance, among the islands of the South Sea. Very little is yet known of it systematically; although we believe an attempt was made by the Dutch Missionaries to reduce to writing the dialects of some of the southern tribes. The Dyaks are an active, well-made people, although somewhat diminutive in stature. They live in villages, if villages they can be called, for they consist of little besides one enormous house in each for the whole population. The following is Mr. Brooke's account of Tungong, a considerable settlement of the Sibnowan Dyaks:--

"The common habitation, as rude as it is enormous, measures 594 feet in length, and the front room or street is the entire length of the building, and twenty-one feet broad. The back part is divided by mat-partitions into the private apartments of the various families, and of these there are forty-five separate doors leading from the public apartment. The widowers and young unmarried men occupy the public room, as only those with wives are entitled to the advantage of separate rooms. The floor of this edifice is raised twelve feet from the ground, and the means of ascent is by the trunk of a tree, with notches cut in it--a most difficult, steep, and awkward ladder. In front is a terrace, fifty feet broad, running partially along the front of the building, formed, like the floors, of split bamboo. Over head, about seven feet high, is a second crazy story, on which they stow their stores of food and their implements of labour and war."

[163] The most valued ornament for these houses is a string of the skulls of enemies slain in war, or surprised by craft; and it is indispensably necessary that a young man should procure a skull before he can be regarded as an eligible suitor by any Dyak fair one. This custom, however, Mr. Brooke has succeeded in checking among the tribes inhabiting the Sarawak territory. The Dyaks marry but one wife, and are remarkable for the general purity of their morals. Their religion Mr. Brooke considers to be a very debased Hindooism; but at what time that faith was introduced into the island it is impossible to determine. They have no priesthood, no temples, no distinction of caste; but they build small altars of bamboo, on which they place food as an offering to the deity. At marriages, councils, and other solemn assemblies, fowls are killed, and those present are sprinkled with the blood. Each tribe preserves with the greatest care certain mystical relics, generally consisting of round stones, which are said to change their colour according to the coming fortunes of the tribe. The widely extended superstition of omens, derived from the singing of birds, exists among them in the greatest force: if they hear a particular note on the right they go to the left, and vice versâ; so that the bird may be considered as warning them of an evil. On the whole, Mr. Brooke thus sums up the character of the Dyaks:--

"That the Dyaks are in a low condition there is no doubt; but comparatively theirs is an innocent state, and I consider them capable of being easily raised in the scale of society. The absence of all prejudice regarding diet, the simplicity of their characters, the purity of their morals, and their present ignorance of all forms of worship, and all idea of future responsibility, render them open to the conviction of truth and religious impressions."

Very different is the character of the Malays. They have for ages held all power in Borneo, and under them the Dyaks have been most tyrannically treated; their children and women carried away into slavery, the fruits of their industry seized by violence, and the numbers of their men constantly decreasing. Looking upon piracy as not only a lucrative, but also as a most honourable pursuit, the Malays have been the terror of the trader in the neighbouring seas, and have well-nigh driven away the Chinese merchants, who once carried on a large and important traffic with Borneo. In religion they are Mahometans; for the most part scantily instructed in their faith, and with little of the bigotry which distinguishes the followers of Islam in other countries. And yet even with this cruel and piratical people, there is a fairer side of the picture to be seen; in the private relations of life they are described as amiable, fond of children, courteous to [163/164] strangers, and very sensible of kindness from others. Once rouse the passions of the Malay, and he is as the tiger in his native desert; but treat him with mildness and attention, and you may obtain an influence over him that may lead to much good. The whole career of Mr. Brooke strongly exemplifies this view of the Malay character.

Such is the mixed people among whom we now find an English gentleman ruling as hereditary Rajah. We will give a sketch of the steps by which this extraordinary result has been brought about. Mr. Brooke is the only surviving son of the late Thomas Brooke, Esq., of the civil service of the East India Company. He was born in 1803; went out to India as a cadet, where he held prominent situations, and distinguished himself by his gallantry in the Burmese war. He was shot through the body in an action with the Burmese, received the thanks of Government, and returned to England for the recovery of his strength. He resumed his station, but shortly afterwards relinquished the service, and in search of health and amusement left Calcutta for China in 1830. While going up the China seas, he saw for the first time the islands of the Indian Archipelago, and became an ardent admirer of the views which Sir Stamford Raffles had put forth, as to the prominent position which those islands were destined to hold in the Eastern world, when blessed with the advantages of civilization. From that time Mr. Brooke determined to devote his life to the great object of opening these hitherto neglected lands to the intercourse of European nations, by suppressing piracy and slavery, and introducing in their stead the benefits of a safe and legitimate commerce. He returned to England; fitted out his yacht, the Royalist schooner, of 142 tons, with a crew of upwards of 20 men, and spent three years constantly cruising in the Mediterranean, in order to form his men to his purpose, and to raise in them a personal regard to himself and attachment to the vessel. Confident in his crew, he at length set sail on his adventurous voyage. On the 1st of August, 1838, the Royalist anchored off the coast of Borneo, and on the 15th came in sight of Sarawak, the place where its master was shortly to establish himself as hereditary sovereign. At this time the Rajah Muda Hassim, brother of the reigning Sultan, and heir presumptive to the throne of Borneo, happened to be at Sarawak, detained by a dangerous rebellion in the interior. Mr. Brooke soon gained the confidence of Muda Hassim, who earnestly entreated him to take an active part in putting down the insurrection, and restoring peace to the country. Partly by the display of force, but chiefly by pacific influences, Mr. Brooke succeecded in bringing the rebels to a parley, who at length consented to lay [164/165] down their arms, on condition that no one should be put to death. With much difficulty he gained this boon from Muda Hassim; who, on the restoration of peace, renewed an offer, which had been previously made and declined, that Mr. Brooke should be appointed governor of Sarawak. The arrangement was interrupted, however, by intrigues on the part of the other Malay chiefs, and some time elapsed before the matter was finally settled. But on the 24th of September, 1811, the agreement was drawn out, sealed, and signed; guns fired, flags waved, and Mr. Brooke was appointed Rajah of Sarawak with the fullest powers.

The first step of the new Governor was to improve the position of the unhappy Dyaks, hitherto oppressed without remedy by their Malay tyrants. With this object he opened a court for the administration of justice, where he himself sat as Judge, with such of Muda Hassim's brothers as were willing to assist. Here the rights of the Malay and Dyak were equally respected, and justice equitably administered to both without reference to their respective positions. As a foundation for the judgments pronounced, Mr. Brooke published a short and simple code of laws, making no violent changes in the relation of the different classes of society, but only asserting the perfect freedom of all, and the determination of the Rajah to punish any exhibition of Malay intolerance. He re-established three ancient offices among the Dyaks, which the Malays had suppressed; thus winning the confidence of the people by the restoration of their old customs, rather than startling them by innovations, which in themselves, perhaps, might be preferable. Having settled the domestic concerns of his government as well as circumstances would allow, and having made a voyage to Borneo Proper, the capital of the country, where he obtained the confirmation of his appointment from the Sultan, Mr. Brooke turned his attention to his next great object, the suppression of piracy. Captain the Hon. H. Keppel, who has rendered such excellent service by the publication of his interesting Expedition to Borneo, was his chief assistant in this important work. The sailors of the Dido, with Mr. Brooke, and a large native fleet of prahus, forced the strongholds of the pirates, situated in well-selected positions on the various rivers, and reduced them, one after another, to a heap of smoking ruins. But Mr. Brooke was aware that this, unless followed up by permanent measures, would be only a temporary check, and that it would be necessary to have the British flag established at some point on the coast for the protection of that commerce, which would naturally arise immediately the security of the seas was attained. Upon his representations, Captain Bethune was sent by Government to select [165/166] the most eligible site for a permanent British settlement; and, at the same time, to convey to Mr. Brooke the well-merited appointment of confidential agent of her Majesty in Borneo. The small island of Labuan, about 400 miles to the north of Sarawak, not far from the capital city, was selected as the best adapted for the settlement, and has since been formally ceded by the Sultan to the British Crown. It is understood that Mr. Brooke will shortly be gazetted as its first governor.

Such, then, has been the career of the man whom, on his present visit to his native country, all classes "delight to honour." And we know not what page of past history shows a more remarkable and a nobler character. Setting out in the face of dangers and difficulties, with the one determination to benefit a most ill-used and neglected portion of his kind, Mr. Brooke has pursued that object with the most unsullied integrity, the most determined courage, the most steady perseverance, and the most complete contempt for mere personal aggrandizement. We take pride in believing that England alone of all the nations of the earth, by the spirit of her people, and the influence of her institutions, is fitted to produce a Brooke; and in the long list of her heroes, he who has achieved his victories without bloodshed, and has spread around joy and comfort instead of lamentation and woe, must surely claim no undistinguished place. He found Sarawak in civil war, reduced to want and famine by the contending parties, the Dyaks miserably oppressed by the Malays, and rapidly decreasing in numbers from their tyrannical sway; in the course of six years under his beneficent rule, the change has been most remarkable. The fixed population of the town of Sarawak has increased to nearly 10,000 Malays, besides the Dyaks, who occasionally visit it, and a numerous body of Chinese. An active internal trade is springing up, and the natural wealth of the country beginning to be developed. Perfect security is established for life and property; and while native habits are as little interfered with as possible, no tyranny of one class over another is at all permitted. The Dyaks are rapidly increasing; applications are constantly made by tribes from distant parts of Borneo, to be allowed to settle in the favoured district of Sarawak, where, under the protection of their "white friend," (for such is the name they give him), they find exemption from oppression, and are allowed to enjoy the fruits of their industry in cheerfulness and peace. Their numbers already amount to many thousands, and there is every probability of a steady increase.

We have thus described the scene in which, by the good providence of God, a Mission of our Church is about to be established. There are many circumstances which, we trust, [166/167] promise for that Mission eminent success. The active interest which Mr. Brooke has from the first taken in its proceedings; the great benefit which the Missionaries will derive, not only from his advice and knowledge of the people, but also from his influence, especially among the Dyaks, must prove most favourable. And yet we ought not to under-rate the difficulties which are likely to check at first the work of the Gospel in Sarawak, and we should not allow ourselves to be too sanguine, as to any remarkable results being immediately apparent. In the first place, the Dyak language, in which the communication of the Missionaries with the greater part of the people must be held, is totally unformed, and must be reduced to a written system, before any material progress can be made; for the little that has been done by the Dutch Missionaries in systematizing the dialects of the southern parts of the island will be of no assistance at all at Sarawak. And the Malayan, complex and difficult as it is, has to be thoroughly mastered, both as the language of daily life, and as the medium of communication with the Mahometan population. And, in the second place, the greatest care must be taken not to alarm the prejudices of the natives by any ill-judged movement; one hasty step may awaken suspicions which years cannot allay; and, therefore, it is only by a course of quiet and unobtrusive conduct, calculated to win respect from all, that the Missionaries can hope to be ultimately successful. Mr. Brooke's own career affords the best example that can possibly be found of patient labouring on in hope; but, as he himself says, it has taken him seven years so far to civilize the natives as to make the introduction of Christianity a hopeful experiment; and therefore the Missionaries must not complain if they, too, have some time to wait before they can raise their hearers to any just appreciation of the blessings which they offer. Much may be done by the establishment of schools, and the quiet influence of daily example; and then Mr. Brooke does not hesitate to express his own firm belief, that the triumph of the Cross in Borneo will be as signal and as successful as in New Zealand; that the movement among the Dyaks will probably become national, and that whole tribes will together come forward to be received into the Church of Christ. And when a foundation is thus firmly laid for Christianity in this central position of the great Malayan Archipelago, can we doubt that the grain of mustard-seed will become a great tree, and overshadow with its blessings the millions of immortal souls now scattered over those vast, islands in all the horrors of the darkest heathenism? Our prayer must surely be--God speed the day!

In our first notice of this Mission we mentioned the [167/168] appointment of the Rev. F. T. M'Dougall as chief Missionary, and of the Rev. W. B. Wright as his assistant. A third Clergyman, the Rev. S. F. Montgomery, M.A., of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Incumbent of Upper Gornal, Staffordshire, has since, with the sanction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, been added to the Mission. From the very high character which Mr. Montgomery bears, and the earnestness and success with which he has laboured for some years among the population of a mining district, it is hoped he will prove a most valuable coadjutor. The Missionaries will now sail as soon as a suitable opportunity offers, as they have been able to avail themselves of that personal advice and instruction from Mr. Brooke for which alone they have been waiting. We trust they will go forth with the offering of many effectual fervent prayers on their behalf, that the word spoken by them may not be spoken in vain, but that they may be allowed, in their far distant sphere of duty, to realize in their own experience, and to witness in the success of their labours, the converting and sanctifying influences of God's Holy Spirit.

Project Canterbury