Project Canterbury

Borneo: The Land of River and Palm

By Eda Green

[no place:] Borneo Mission Association, no date [c. 1909]

Chapter V. History

IN the seventh century the Emperor of China would seem to have been overlord of at least part of Borneo, for there are records of tribute paid by Phala, on the north-east of the island, to China.

Two centuries later there was a considerable Chinese colonisation, probably chiefly in Brunei, where the people still show traces of Chinese ancestry. In 1575 there was again a large immigration from China, and through the latter part of the sixteenth, and on through the seventeenth century, a flourishing trade, especially in edible birds'-nests and certain woods, was carried on between the two countries.

Yet once again in the eighteenth century China sent over colonists, and the Malay princes, who ruled a great part of Borneo, invited them into their states, but would not allow them to enter into any commerce or agriculture, nor to possess arms or gunpowder.

In Europe the sixteenth century was the age of Portugal and Spain. East and West their navigators were exploring and discovering new lands, and Borneo, hitherto known only to Eastern races, was reached either by Lorenzo da Gomez in 1518, or by Don Jorge da Menoza in 1526. Thus Portu gal through the enterprise of her sons established a footing and commenced trade relations, and later on Spain coveted a share of the riches and tried to compete; but the day of both these countries was waning, and the next century was to belong to other nations. England was beginning her era of expansion. The East India Company's Charter for a monopoly of all English trade with the East Indies dated from 1600, and before long the Company had made settlements in Borneo as well as in other islands of the Malay Archipelago. But Britain was not yet mistress of the seas. Dutch fleets were pressing into every port, and on through the eight eenthcentury they almost monopolised the trade in cinnamon, nutmegs, cloves and spice, and were paramount on the western and southern coasts of Borneo.

In the north, England had kept a few factories, and in 1756 Alexander Dalrymple obtained from the Sultan of Sulu a grant of the island of Balam bangan and all the north-east promontory of Borneo. A military post was established, but the natives destroyed it in 1775. By the end of the century the English had entirely withdrawn, and in 1809 the Dutch, too, abandoned their settlements. Their occupation, though so extensive, had not led to the establishment of any rule or order, the country be came a prey to native pirates, and trade was ruined. So serious was the condition that in 181 I the Sultan of Banjermassin sent an embassy to the English governor in Java asking him to take some steps to stop the raids. Alexander Hare was sent as Resident; he concluded a treaty with the Sultan, and received a grant of land which he colonised. Some years later this grant was cancelled and a free field left to the Dutch, who returned to the lands they had formerly held. Their policy soon reduced the country again to anarchy and confusion, and made it impossible for trade from Borneo to be carried on. Unchecked by any government, the Malay and Dyak pirates became a menace to English ships throughout the whole Archipelago.

At this time a young Englishman passed through these seas, and the spirit of adventure fired him with the wish to explore the islands, so beautiful and so full of mystery. James Brooke was born in 1803 he entered the East India Company's service, and was severely wounded in a war with Burmah. Invalided home he was granted a life pension of £70 a year, and for nearly five years was pronounced unfit to return to India. A last he sailed, but first a shipwreck and then a voyage in a very slow vessel delayed his arrival until the limit of his leave had expired. When he landed he was told that being overdue his billet had been given to another. Perhaps he was not over-anxious to plead the reasonable excuses which, with his father's interest, might have availed; the glamour of the sea and of a life of greater excitement had seized him, and taking for granted that the decision was irrevocable and that he was too late to be received back by the Company, he sailed on in the same vessel to China. He returned to England, and on his father's death inherited a fortune of £30,000 which enabled him to carry out his wish. He bought a yacht, and after proving her seaworthiness by cruises in the Mediterranean, he sailed in 1838 for Singapore. When he arrived there a tale of good treatment received from Muda Hassim, the Rajah of Sarawak, had just been brought by a shipwrecked crew, and Mr. Brooke was asked to take presents and letters of thanks in acknowledgment. So was he led, as men would say "by accident," to his life's work. A shipwreck, a native's kindness, the coincidence that the news should come as Brooke reached Singapore, were the threads by which God worked out His purpose.

All the islands were unknown lands to the Englishman, and he was as ready to go to Borneo as to any other; he set out, sailed up the Sarawak River and anchored off Kuching on 15th August, 1839. The country was nominally under the rule of the Sultan of Brunei, but his uncle, Muda Hassim, had been sent to this province to put down a rebellion, and held the position of Rajah. Brooke was kindly received and obtained permission for English trading ships to come. After staying for some time he sailed to visit other places, but came back the following year. Muda Hassim's weak policy had quite failed to restore peace; for four years war had been going on between the Malay rulers and the Dyaks; the Rajah was weary of it and offered to hand the country over to Brooke; this offer he declined unless it should be renewed at the end of a year, but he joined Bedrudeen, Muda Hassim's brother, in the hills, and their joint energy brought the war at last to a close. The next year the Rajah was still of the same mind, and on 24th September, 1841, he made over the government of Sarawak and its dependencies to James Brooke; this cession was formally confirmed in the following year by the Sultan of Brunei, the conditions being that a small annual payment should be made to the Sultan of Brunei, and that the laws and religion of the country should be respected. Thus arose one of the most picturesque incidents of history, when a Mohammedan ruler, whose race had for centuries governed a native state, voluntarily placed himself and his subjects in the hands of a young Englishman.

Seldom has a trust been accepted with higher aim or from more disinterested motives. Brooke's ambition vas not to act for himself but to show how an English gentleman was bound to act. He had studied the Malay character, had seen their innate cunning, deceit and intrigue, and he set him self to show them something better, to step in between the corrupt rulers and the oppressed tribes, with ideas of justice which they had never known, and the conception of which was entirely beyond their comprehension.

For one man, a solitary representative of Western civilisation, to attempt to introduce law and order, protection of property, and respect for human life, to give to people who for centuries had been robbed and down-trodden a sense of security, and, harder still, to restrain those who had lived and grown strong by a career of pillage and of plunder, must have seemed beyond human power. But, under taken and carried out as it was in a spirit free from all personal ambition, seeking solely the welfare of the peoples, cruel on the one hand, crushed on the other, committed to his charge, absolutely without thought of individual gain, there was surely Divine guidance vouchsafed to this young ruler, which enabled him to bring his country into peace and safety. Practical common-sense and English straight-dealing won the day. When certain tribes raided a weak one in his territory and carried off the wives and children, Brooke sent letters to their three "sheriffs," stating that he wished to be on good terms with them, but that if any Dyaks "rob people in my country" it would be necessary for him to attack the place from whence they came.

The Chinese settlements brought difficulties too. There is an amusing account of one. A kunsi or company had been granted by Muda Hassim the right of working gold on a certain part of the river. The agreement was in Malay, and a Chinese translation had been made. Rajah Brooke discovered that this translation gave the kunsi an exclusive right to work gold and antimony over the whole country. He called them up, and explained how such a perversion would, from its deceit, which he hoped had been unintentional, make their name fall very low. He told them that a new kunsi, Simbok, would settle on the other branch of the river. Against this they protested, offering to receive any number into their own kunsi. The Rajah told them that any claims they might have had had been invalidated by their deceit, and they returned to consider the position. The next night they came, prepared to agree to the Simbok coming if they might be called Sam Simbok (slaves). To Brooke's refusal they argued that their name San Ti Qu had three syllables, and it was better the others should have three syllables also. The Rajah said he would be delighted to agree to any terms denoting their equality, and as it was a pity they should not have the honour of the longer name he would agree to Sam Simbok provided they became Sam San Ti Qu. Of course they refused, so the war schooner and prahus were got ready, but the next night they came back, agreeing to accept the new company peaceably without the obnoxious 'Sam' syllable.

The Rajah formed a council, on which from the first he associated with himself the former rulers, the Malay Datus, so that they were consulted on all important steps. Eight natives were on this council, and finding it necessary to have some Europeans to help in developing the country, some young men were brought out from England, of whom four were brought into the council. In later years these numbers have been altered, and on the Supreme Council now are the Rajah, two Europeans and four Malays approved by the Rajah, and a general council of fifty members meets once in three years. In eight months the country became fairly peaceful; open courts for justice, presided over by the Rajah, were established, before which both civil and criminal cases were brought, and all exaction and extortion were stopped. The poor Hill-Dyaks, who, helpless in the hands of the Malays, had been obliged to give up to them all they possessed, even wives and children, could now, for the first time, look forward to reaping what they had sown.

So for some years the little baud of Englishmen worked on, but no civilisation has ever changed the moral nature of a people, and Rajah Brooke saw that his people needed more than he could give them.

"I am very decided on the great advantage to the commerce of the Archipelago by the development of this place, and more decided still on the vast field for Christianity. In a native state the missionary does not succeed because his efforts are counter acted by the contempt and the violence of Malay rulers, and the oppression practised on the Dyak tribes renders them averse to all instruction which flows from the Malays, or through them, and it is quite out of the power of the poor missionary to bring them relief or happiness. Here, however, this power would be his; he would be their guardian angel, he would be the local authority to encourage them. He would have every advantage, and his doctrine would be beneficially introduced by the amelioration of the temporal condition of a most unhappy race. I should expect a rapid advance in Christianity when once they were relieved from oppression." So wrote Sir James Brooke in his journal. He did his part in "relieving them from oppression"; little could he have expected that the Church at home would be deaf to the call, blind to the opening for a "rapid advance," that the work all along would be so hampered by lack of men that the waiting fields could not be occupied, and, worse still, that, as years went on, fields which had been tilled, souls which had been won for Christ, should be left a prey for the enemy, the wheat choked by tares.

Though comparative peace reigned in the country, pirates continued to raid the coasts, harassing merchant vessels, and carrying on a slave trade. Determined to put this down, Sir James Brooke obtained the assistance of some English men-of-war under Captain Keppel's command, and gave the raider of Sarebas and Skarang a severe lesson. Some years later unfair reports of this action were made in Parliament, representing that the people punished were not pirates and impeaching the Rajah's motives. The agitation dragged on, and twice, in 1850 and again in r8 Mr. Hume asked for a Royal Commission to be appointed to inquire into the circumstances; on each occasion it was refused by majorities increasing from 105 to 218, only 18 members voting for the motion in 1851. On this occasion Lord Palmerston appealed to the House to negative the motion and so proclaim to the world that Sir James Brooke "retires from the investigation with an untarnished character and with unblemished honour". And, he added, "I am persuaded that he will continue to enjoy the esteem of his countrymen as a man who, by braving difficulties, by facing dangers in distant climates and in previously unknown lands, has done much to promote the commercial interests of his country, and to diffuse the light of civilisation in regions which have been before in the darkness of barbarism".

Lord Aberdeen's ministry came in on 1st January, 1853. On 15th March Lord John Russell said in the House that they had no intention of instituting an inquiry previous to Sir James Brooke's departure from England. What then was the Rajah's surprise on the 30th March, the eve of his sailing, to receive a letter from Lord Wodehouse stating that the Government considered it expedient that an inquiry should be instituted into his position in the island and his relations with the native chiefs. Deeply pained, he had only time for one interview with Lord Clarendon. He reached Singapore on 24th May, and was soon carried across to Sarawak. Even before he landed he was seen to be ill, and as soon as he knew that he had small-pox he sent nearly every one away. His nephew, Captain Brooke, who had governed during the Rajah's absence, remained with him as well as Mr. Crook shank. Bishop McDougall was in England and no other doctor at hand; the Rajah, however, pulled through, to face a long and trying suspense before the commission, which at last issued, sat at Singapore. After still longer delay the Government report was received, entirely exonerating Sir James Brooke, and Lord Clarendon wrote that the Government were anxious that "he should be enabled to pursue the good work he had already so successfully carried on". During these years he had been quietly putting down piracy and head-hunting. He had built forts at various points, in each of which he placed a young Englishman as Resident to enforce order. At the commission one witness had said:

"The distinction between the two kinds of Dyaks is this--the inland Dyaks take heads on shore, while the Sarebas and Skerang take them both on shore and sea". In one house this witness had found fifty or sixty heads and feared his own might go as an additional ornament; he had offered seventy or eighty rupees for one head, which was refused. The natives were led to understand clearly that the fines enforced for breaking the law did not go into the Rajah's pocket, but were used for improvements in the country; they were exacted because the Rajah had said that piracy was to be abolished, and abolished it should be.

Just after the cloud of worry about the commission had lifted a new trial came. A Chinese company working gold some distance above Kuching had been allowed a considerable measure of local government; when, however, its consumption of opium dropped suspiciously by one-half, there was no doubt that extensive smuggling was going on, and the kunsi was ordered to pay for as much opium as they had formerly used; they objected, and demonstrated their objection by descending without warning on the town. On the night of 18th February, 1857, yells and shrieks were heard; the Chinese rushed to the Rajah's house, set fire to that and other houses and killed one Englishman. Another Englishman and two English children were killed, and a Government official and his wife terribly wounded. The attack was so sudden that at first Sir James Brooke, who was ill, thought all was lost, and fled to Quab, one of the out-stations. When the news spread hundreds of faithful Malays and Dyaks flocked in, and when a small steamer arrived the Rajah was able to re-take the town. The Chinese were pursued and driven out by the angry natives and peace was soon restored. Among the Dyaks who helped most in the affair were the Skerangs who, but a short time before, had been punished for their lawlessness. Thus was the wisdom of a just rule vindicated.

Two years later a Malay plot was discovered, instigated by a Datu, to whom, since none of his own relatives would be responsible for his conduct, the Rajah had been obliged to suggest an enforced absence from Sarawak after he had been convicted of treason. In this rising two Englishmen in an isolated fort were killed. Both the Rajah and his vice-gerent, Captain Brooke, were in England, but Mr. Johnson, the present Rajah, by strong measures averted greater peril at the time. The Malays, the Chinese and the Dyaks had thus impartially felt the strength of the white hand, and had learnt that the benefits of settled government and secure trade involved submission to the authority which brought them those good things. But a dark time came. The fact of the commission and the refusal of the English Government to grant any sort of protectorate had injured the Rajah's prestige, a thing so important with native races; he had spent thousands of his own money on the country, and was now in grave financial difficulties; a company, to which all the minerals except gold had been leased on payment of certain royalties, was in embarrassment, which, though fortunately it proved to be only temporary, was serious at the time; a Mohammedan impostor had raised unrest, and some of the tribes were getting out of hand. The Rajah, in failing health though he was, undertook the journey out again in order to strengthen Captain Brooke's hands, and, as he writes in a letter home, accomplished the work he went to do: (i) Peace with Brunei; (2) the bloodless conquest of Muka; (3) addition of all districts in dispute to the rule of Sarawak.

As the Sultan saw the benefits accruing to the English portion of the country he had from time to time handed over more and more territory to the Rajah's rule, to become a trust in our charge, and as we have seen commerce was extended and peace increased.

Differences of opinion between the Rajah and Captain Brooke, whom he had meant to succeed him, caused him to change his arrangements, and on his death in 1868 he was succeeded by another nephew, Sir Charles Brooke, G.C.M.G., under whom the prosperity of Sarawak has become more and more settled. In 1864 the state had been so far recognised that the English Government accredited to it a consul, but the Rajah was not permitted to see in his lifetime what he had so earnestly wished for, his beloved country received as a Protectorate of the British Crown. This took place in 1889.

The northern part of the island came to us later. An English trading company received a Royal Charter to occupy the territory of North Borneo in 1880, and in 1888 it was declared a Protectorate of Great Britain. Two years later, Labuan, which since 1847 had been a Crown Colony, was placed under the administration of this Chartered Company, and in 1898 the Sultan of Brunei transferred to them certain further districts, for which they pay a subsidy to him and his chiefs.

Practically, therefore, the whole of North Borneo (except the little wedge of Brunei) down to Cape Datu is under English influence, It has been brought to us in a wonderful way, first by the "accidental" landing of an adventurous Englishman, whose personality was just such as to win the confidence of the inhabitants, and then, owing to his wise government, other districts of the country were entrusted to him. The romantic story of the English Rajah drew attention to Borneo, and trading companies were glad to avail themselves of the security his rule afforded them. So the knowledge of the wealth of the island spread, and brought other traders in to develop this northern part.

Not without purpose in the counsels of God surely has all this been brought about, and such a land been given to us.

The story of Sarawak is unique. All through the well-being of the country has been the sole aim of its rulers; no thought of personal gain, no wish for self-aggrandisement has conflicted with what they saw was best for the people. Plunder and bloodshed have been put down, but not in order that the labour of a peaceful people might be exploited for the enrichment of the Government. By the cessation of wars and by the attraction of the Chinese and Indian labourers, the population has been vastly increased. Kuching, in 1844 a small Malay village with some forty wretched Chinese shops, is now a well-planned town of 15,000 inhabitants.

Year by year, as trade reaches further inland the country becomes more civilised, and through intercourse of Europeans with the natives their superstitions and beliefs will die out; their minds will be left as it were swept and garnished, emptied of the old ideas of worship which, though full of error, still brought them some feeling of a Power greater than themselves. In civilisation they see the white man's sense of justice, of honour, of mercy. A dim sense of something higher than they have known steals over them. Whence does the white men get these qualities? Are they for them too to learn?

A thousand years ago the ancestors of those same white men were perhaps as wild and lawless as they. What brought for him the change? It was the gift then of the East to the West; the gift of the apostolic preaching of Christ crucified reaching on through Corinth and Ephesus, and Rome, to the isles of the sea; so were the Picts and the Britons converted to Christianity and taught of the Resurrection strength in which they might conquer the powers of darkness. Now it must be the gift of the West to the East. Fifteen centuries of Christianity have at least left their mark on our nation, but the poor savage cannot win through civilisation alone. He must learn of God's love, he must feel that God wants him, he must awaken to the fact of sin, must realise his need of forgiveness and must be taught that only by the strength of the Holy Spirit in him can he come out from the bondage in which he has been born.


1. What was the earliest known connection between Borneo and China?

2. In what way did Europe first come into contact with Borneo? Relate the early dealing with English people.

3. What do you know of the history of Rajah Brooke? How did he become concerned with Sarawak?

4. When and why was the Government handed over to him, and by whom?

5. What principles always inspired Rajah Brooke in his government of Sarawak?

6. What success did he meet with, and whence came his greatest hindrances?

7. Was there any dissatisfaction at home, how was it expressed, and was it found to be substantiated?

8. Did the natives themselves appreciate the justice of his rule?

9. What is the present relationship between England and Borneo?

10. What did Rajah Brooke feel was needed besides the blessing of good and impartial government?

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