James Brooke, the first White Rajah

By James A. Ritchie


Chapter 1: James Brooke—Sarawak’s first White Rajah


When Englishman James Brooke sailed into Kuching on August 15, 1839 it was a vassal State under the Brunei sultanate. The sleepy village on stilts 20 miles from the coast, comprised about 800 Brunei Malays and a handful of “Eastern foreigners” mainly Chinese shopkeepers and Indians from the Malabar coast.

To James Brooke, Kuching was a no better than a “collection of mud huts” where “there is little sign of cultivation either of rice or other grain” and where fowls and goats were the only means of subsistence.

Several years earlier, a member of the Brunei royalty Pengiran Mahkota had been sent to Sarawak as the “Viceroy” and establish his capital at the mouth of the Sungei Kuching (it is said along the riverbanks grew the Mata Kuching tree.

At that time the original people of the region, the Sarawak Malays, lived at another place called “Katupong” which was not far up the Sarawak River and at “Leda Tanah” (Lidah Tanah or tongue of the earth in Malay) under their chief Datuk Patinggi Ali.


 Unhappy Malays under Brunei Rule


But behind that peaceful fa├žade of the sleepy hollow, Brooke would learn that a rebellion had been brewing for the past three years between the Bruneians and the local Malays called “Siniawans” who were unfairly over-taxed and badly treated.


 If the locals refused to abide by the Sultan’s men, they would be duly punished. Just before Brooke arrived in Kuching the locals had suffered at the hand of the Sultanate. In the latest attack on Katupong in 1837, the Brunei rulers unleashed the wild and fierce Saribas “Sea Dayak” (Iban) headhunters on the locals who lost 120 people.


Viceroy Pengiran Mahkota had deliberately allowed the Saribas to carry out the raids on the local folk as a form of “punishment” because they had refused to be force to work for him at the antimony mines.


Immediately after the attack, the desperate Sarawak Malay chiefs sent an emissary to Batavia (Java) to plead for assistance and protection. When help was not forth-coming, the Sarawak Malays “proclaimed their independence” from Brunei and carried out a struggle against the Sultanate blaming Pengiran Makhota who had “driven the Sarawak Malays, as well as the Land Dayaks (Bidayuh), into open revolt.” (A History of Sarawak Under Its Two White Rajahs (1839-1908).


It was because of Pengiran Mahkota’s dispicable conduct that the Sultan had sent his nephew—a sophisticated, gracious and courtly member of the Royalty--the Crown Prince “Raja Muda” Hassim (also Hasim) to pacify the local population son after the sacking of Katupong.

Pengiran Mahkota.

Try as he did, Raja Muda Hassim was unable quell the rebellion. It was with this in mind that “Raja Muda” Hassim encouraged Brooke to assist him and look into reasons behind the rebellion. Hopeful that there was nothing to lose, Brooke who had heard all about the so-called “blood thirsty” Sea Dayaks, decided to take a short trip up the Sadong River in his ship the “Royalist” where he met the powerful Arab-Malay chief Sharif Sahap.


On his way back to Kuching, Brooke experienced his first skirmish with the Saribas warriors when one of the pilot boats leading the “Royalist” was attacked. The skipper of the pilot boat “Panglima Rajah” and a four of their crew were injured. Brooke waited until the injured men had recovered in Kuching, before finally leaving for Singapore.


On August 18, 1840 Brooke decided to stop in Kuching while on his way Manila and China. On meeting the Raja Muda, he was told that the Malay rebels were still defiant and despite the fact that some of the starving communities such as the “Land Dayaks” (Bidayuh) had agreed to stop fighting against the Sultanate.


A distraught Hasim appealed to Brooke for help, and Brooke reluctantly agreed to lead an expedition comprising Brunei regulars to Siniawan (further up from Lida Tanah) where the rebels had decided to make their stand at Belidah.


The journey was delayed over the nest few days because Pengrian Mahkota refused to co-operate with Brooke. Eventually, Brooke with 10 of his English crew with their ship fitted with two guns joined the Brunei force comprising a mixed group of Malays, Dayaks and Chinese on his first major expedition against the Siniawan Malays of Sarawak.


Brooke’s Peace Talks with the Siniawan Malays


Following several unsuccessful encounters and bombardment the area, one of the rebel leaders Sherip Mat Hussein arranged to peace talks with Brooke. They agreed that if Brooke was declared “Rajah” and among other things asked if he could persuade Viceroy to restrain Pengiran Mahkota’s men from oppressing the locals, they would agree to end the insurgency. A peace deal was bartered.


Brooke returned to Kuching and after some difficulty, managed to persuade Hasim to spare the lives of the rebels. However, over 100 wives and children of the principle chiefs were taken as “hostages” just in case the rebels reneged on their promise.

James Brooke’s first Kampung-style house he occupied after he became Rajah in 1841

Despite Raja Muda Hassim’s pledge to keep his promise, Pengiran Mahkota devised a plan to teach the Siniawans a lesson. He deliberately invited 2,500 Skrang Iban Dayaks to travel up the Sarawak


River to “massacre” the Malays, Land Dayaks and Chinese who were working in the antimony and gold mines in the area.


Brooke was furious when the war party arrived in Kuching and prepared to travel upriver. He suspected that Hassim could also have been involved in the plan, and immediately prepared his men in the Royalist and Swift to prevent the attack. Raja Muda Hassim denied any knowledge of the so-called plan to unleash the warriors on the local population.


“He (Hasim) threw the blame on Makota, and, yielding to Brooke’s insistence, sent a messenger upriver to recall it,--a command that could not be disobeyed, as Brooke held command of the route by which they must return. Sulkily and resentfully did the Sekerang Dayaks return, without heads and without plunder.” (A History of Sarawak Under the two white Rajahs)


After several weeks, Brooke left Kuching satisfied with his achievements and accepted the Raja Muda’s offer of “the country of Siniawan and Sarawak (as far as the Sadong River). He returned to Borneo a year later and after formal meetings with the Sultan of Brunei, Sarawak was ceded to Brooke on September 24, 1841 for the annual fee of 500 British pounds sterling.


Thus began Brooke rule and an era of battles, expeditions and wars in Sarawak. And to ensure that his keep his enemies at bay, Brooke built a series of forts--the first was at Belidah which had been established by the Malays to defend their position in 1840.


Over the next 100 years James and his two other White Rajahs established nearly 30 forts at strategic locations on the major rivers of Sarawak and its tributaries namely the Batang Lupar, Batang Rajang, Baram, Limbang and Lawas rivers.


During a visit to Singapore Brooke met Sir Henry Keppel, commander of the HMS Dido in Singapore. Impressed with Brooke’s determination to wipe out all forms of piracy and headhunting, Admiral Keppel arrived in Kuching in 1843 to assist Brooke in his first mission--to punish the troublesome Saribas with some measure of success.

The first Sarawak Flag

Sir Henry Keppel’s Expedition


A later in July 30, 1844 Keppel returned in the HMS Dido for his second major expedition against the pirates. On board was Charles Brooke, the 15-year-old “midshipman” and nephew of James Brooke.


It was the first time Charles saw action against the pirates during the battle against Sharif Sahab’s (also Sahap) forces at Patusan, a tributary of the Bating Lupar river. During a fire-fight, Charles narrowly escaped death when Captain John Ellis, standing close to him, was cut down by cannon shot while in the process of loading a cartridge in the bow-gun of the ship “Jolly Batchelor”.


HMS Dido’s three-week expedition was bloody affair. As the fleet moved upriver, another senior officer Lieutenant Charles Frederick Wade was killed by two musket shots while pursing a band of rebels across a small open space during a raid on the Undup River area


Datuk Patinggi Ali of Siniawan


On August 19 one of Brooke’s top Malay leaders Datu Patinggi Ali from Siniawan and George Stewart, a Merchant, were killed while leading an advance party along the Skrang river towards Karangan Peris.


Apparently the group had spotted the enemy and chased them around a narrow pass only to find them six large war boats called “Bangkong” with 100 warriors each and their retreat cut off by a bamboo raft which had been launched across the river.


In the ensuing battle the Saribas warriors swamped Ali’s boat decapitating him and Steward and all but one of the 17-man crew. A total of 31 Brooke soldiers were killed and 56 injured in the Battle of Karangan Peris.


Thirteen years later Patinggi Ali’s son the Datuk Bandar of Kuching in an act of great courage, led an armed force and took over a Chinese garrison at Lidah Tanah during the Chinese insurrection. As the battle progressed Captain Sir Edward Belcher arrived in the Samarang and continued to bombard the enemy encampments into surrender. Sharip Sahap fled across the border to Dutch Borneo while


Pengiran Mahkota, one of the provocaters, was captured. He was subsequently released by the Sultan of Brunei. A year later Mahkota as involved in the mass murders of Raja Muda Hasim and nearly all his brother in Brunei.


Ends/jr 20/4/18