Even by the British empire's eclectic standards, there could hardly have been a more unusual territory than Sarawak.
For over a century, from 1841 to 1946, Sarawak was practically the personal fiefdom of the Brooke family, and was ruled by just three of its members over this entire period. It then went on to become a crown colony until 1963, with the high-profile murder of a governor and its eventual inclusion into the Malaysian Federation.
Sarawak’s unusual history meant that it rarely fitted the normal patterns of official Gazette recognition.
James Brooke: the first 'white rajah' of Sarawak
James Brooke was an ex-East India Company soldier, who brought his own ship to the island of Borneo in search of fortune and adventure. While there, he became friendly with a local Brunei leader who was embroiled in a civil war and was continually battling piracy and the threat of insurgency.
In return for military help, James Brooke was offered the title of rajah of Sarawak. He soon enlisted the help of the Royal Navy in pursuing the war against pirates in the region, who were keen to win prize money (Gazette issue 20453), as well as remove threats to shipping in the region. At the time, Royal Navy ship crews were paid a bounty for each pirate they caught in the act, and they were also allowed to sell any pirate ships they captured.
The extent of the Royal Navy's involvement in Brooke’s consolidation of power is demonstrated in Gazette issue 20645, with despatches from naval captains explaining their seizure of Brunei and the capture of the sultan, after James Brooke's mentor had been cruelly assassinated, along with many other princes.
James Brooke's position had been in peril until he received firm backing from the Royal Navy, which not only kept him in place, but was also instrumental in the Brooke family being awarded the status of rajah of Sarawak in perpetuity, meaning that he could hand the title on to his descendants.
His semi-official status was recognised back in Britain in July 1847 (Gazette issue 20757), when he was appointed to be commissioner and consul general to the sultan of Borneo, in addition to his private title of rajah of Sarawak. November of that year saw him take on the additional official appointment of governor of Labuan, which had been seized by the Royal Navy in hope that its coalfields would provide a coaling station for their expanding fleet of steamships (Gazette issue 20801). James Brooke returned to England, where he was awarded the Order of the Bath (KCB) in April 1848 (Gazette issue 20850).
Semi-retired and living in Devon, he was succeeded as rajah of Sarawak on his death in 1868 by his nephew, Charles Brooke (Gazette issue 23410). All three rajahs of Sarawak are buried in the small churchyard of St Leonard's in Sheepstor on Dartmoor, where their tombs can be seen today. Charles Brooke would rule over Sarawak for the next half-century, expanding its lands at the expense of the sultan of Brunei throughout his reign.
Charles Brooke and the Sarawak Gazette
It is worth noting that Charles Brooke's attempts at making his lands into a modern state included creating a Sarawak Gazette along the lines of The London Gazette, in which his official proclamations, internal appointments and any important news were transmitted. It should be remembered that there were no other publications in the territory other than the Sarawak Gazette, so it was the only source of news and information about the wider world for the people of Sarawak.
Charles Brooke was awarded the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1888, in appreciation of this British subject's ruler status (Gazette issue 25825).
Charles was succeeded by his son Charles Vyner Brooke in 1917. In 1927, like his predecessors, Vyner was awarded a knighthood (Gazette supplement 33280).
Unfortunately for the third and final ruler of Sarawak, the arrival of the Japanese in 1941 ripped the heart out of the territory during their occupation. There was so much destruction to Sarawak's infrastructure and to key personnel that Vyner Brooke felt that he had little option but to cede the territory to Britain in 1946, by an instrument of cession (Gazette issue 37637), in the hopes that Britain would have the ability and expertise to rebuild, develop and modernise the economy far more effectively than could be done using the territory's own meagre resources alone.
However, both Vyner Brooke’s brother and his nephew (who was, under the will of the first rajah, entitled to inherit the title) felt that he had betrayed the people of Sarawak, whose representatives had voted against cession, and his own father's wishes. As a result of this disagreement, there appeared one of the more bizarre anti-colonial movements. It was actually an anti-cession movement, hostile to the British, but with the aim of seeing a return to the rule of the Brooke family.
Assassination of Governor Duncan George Stewart
There was widespread local support for this movement. Unfortunately, this anti-cession movement over-reached itself in 1949, when radical members assassinated the newly-arrived British governor Duncan George Stewart on his first public appearance (Gazette issue 38731). Discredited by this act of violence, the British were able to infiltrate and disrupt the anti-cession movement, helped by the young Anthony Brooke finally withdrawing from the movement in 1951. Fortunately, his replacement, Anthony Foster Abell (Gazette issue 38853), had the wisdom to return to an informal style of rule. Furthermore, he criss-crossed the colony so extensively, and so amiably, that he reminded many of the local population of the rajahs of old.
The British wished to pass Sarawak to the Malaysian Federation, but neighbouring Indonesia had other ideas. In a period of heightened cold war tensions throughout south-east Asia, the British defended both Sarawak and neighbouring Brunei and North Borneo from Indonesian incursions in a prolonged jungle war, which stretched across nearly 1,000 miles of inhospitable mountainous and jungle terrain. Sarawak officially joined Malaysia in 1963, but British soldiers carried on fighting in the jungle until 1966, when the Indonesian confrontation was brought to a successful conclusion, with Sarawak firmly ensconced within the Malaysian Federation.
It had been a remarkable and utterly unique political journey for the people of Sarawak, and had broken nearly all the accepted rules of etiquette and administration within the British empire.
About the author
Stephen Luscombe is author of www.britishempire.co.uk.
Image: A sketch of a feast arranged by Orang Kaya Gassing, Dayak leader of the Skrang River, for the young Charles Brooke in the 1860s. With thanks to the Brooke Trust.