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The Name of Brooke
The End of White Rajah Rule in Sarawak

Book Review by Mike Reed

Professor Bob Reece is widely acknowledged as the leading authority on Sarawak's recent history, and this is the book that did most to establish his formidable reputation. The subject is an unusual one, because it deals with an episode that is still not clearly understood by many people in Sarawak - even those who were close to the seat of power at the time ­ the controversial cession of the sovereign state of Sarawak to the British Crown.

A little background is essential to understand the cession debate. Sarawak had never been a colony. Since its inception as a political entity in 1839, when the Sultan of Brunei named James Brooke as the first Rajah of Sarawak, Sarawak had existed as a sovereign state. It even managed without British Protectorate status for more than half a century whilst the British foreign office tried to come to terms with the idea of treating one of Her Majesty's subjects as a sovereign in his own right. Sarawak plodded along more or less contentedly for more than a century, ruled first by James Brooke, then his nephew Charles, who pacified and expanded the territory, and finally by Charles' eldest surviving son, Charles Vyner Brooke.

It seems that the autocratic Charles had little confidence in his eldest son, who appears to have been something of a dilettante, but was unwilling to name his rebellious second son, Bertram, as his heir, instead decreeing in his political will that Vyner should rule in full consultation with Bertram.

Professor Reece's painstaking research amongst Brooke family papers and Colonial Office records, and his dozens of interviews in and outside Sarawak, have enabled him to recreate the sense of crisis that must have gripped Sarawak politics in the 1920's and 30's. He is not judgemental of the main actors in this sorry farce. Instead, he allows them to speak for themselves, and their own accounts reveal high-handedness and self-righteousness masquerading as selfless resolve.

Bertram and his son Anthony Brooke, for all their impetuosity and indecision, do at least appear to have the future of Sarawak at heart. Vyner, by comparison, seems venal and self obsessed as he spends his exile during the Japanese occupation in attempts to negotiate a financial settlement for himself and his avaricious wife and daughters.

Yet there is far more to Bob Reece's excellent account than the character flaws of the various Brookes and the muddled policies of the British Colonial Office. There are supporting players here who would do justice to the courts of Cesare Borgia or Catherine the Great. Gerard McBryan, Vyner's principal (if unofficial) adviser, is infatuated with the lovely Sa'erah and will do anything within his power to cling on to his position and influence. His bizarre behaviour conceals a subtle grasp of Malay politics and culture, and he is surely Sarawak's equivalent of Macchiavelli or even Svengali.

The Sarawak government officers do not distinguish themselves in the withering glare of Reece's analysis. Instead many of them appear to live up (or down) to the claims made about them by the British Colonial Service; that they are a bunch of misfits and ne'er-do-wells who spend most of their time bickering amongst themselves or hindering the economic and political progress of the native Sarawakians.

The Sarawakians themselves are hardly without fault, however. Amongst the Datos (hereditary Malay leaders) of Kuching, the primary concern in the cession debate is who gets to hang on to what. Substantial pensions, gratuities and stipends are at stake, as are political influence and patronage, and the leadership of the Malay community is fiercely divided over the political future of Sarawak.

Vyner's wife, the Ranee Sylvia, is probably the least sympathetic character in the entire story. A spendthrift and a social butterfly, she is bored with the obligations of being Ranee, and does her very best to squander as much of the state's dwindling treasury as possible on the indulgences of her three thoroughly spoilt and charmless daughters. The title of her "autobiography," Queen of the Headhunters, is an excellent indicator of her superficial character.

The whole cession debacle is not without its heroes, however. The Datu Patinggi, Abang Haji Abdillah, hereditary chief of Kuching's Malays, leads the anti-cession movement from his sick-bed, and his death in November 1946 deprives the movement of much of its moral authority. Other remarkable characters include Lily Eberwein, the first Malay woman to become a political leader as head of Kaum Ibu; Robert Jitam, the Iban administrator who sacrificed his career to oppose the Act of Cession; and Sharkawi bin Haji Osman, leader of the Malay National Union, the first coherent force in Sarawak's indigenous political scene.

The Cession of Sarawak, as described by Bob Reece, is a splendid example of accessible historical writing. Whilst the narrative is detailed and heavily footnoted, and the analysis is rigorous, Reece uses the journalistic skills acquired during his former career (he was previously a foreign correspondent of some distinction) to paint an illuminating portrait of pre- and post-war Sarawak. Some of his asides (footnoted of course - this is a serious historical work) are hilariously illuminating. One of the best is the disdain with which two British Labour MP's on a fact-finding mission describe the behaviour of Sarawak Government officers at a certain "cabaret," filled with women of ill-repute. Reece points out how they neglected to mention that they had in fact spent a number of evenings there as guests of the proprietor.

The Name of Brooke is not a new book. It was originally published by the Oxford University Press in 1982, and was only reissued by the Sarawak Literary Society in 1993. All the more surprising then that it should seem so fresh and, in its own way, literary. As a chronicler and analyser of events, Bob Reece can hold his own with some of the best of the modern historians, especially those whose writing is as well conceived as their research and analysis. Although it deals with a series of events that are of little consequence beyond the shores of Sarawak, it is as well researched and as beautifully crafted as the works of John Keegan and Simon Schama. In fact I haven't had so much fun reading a history book since Simon Schama's Citizens.

Bob Reece's latest book, dealing with the Japanese Occupation of Sarawak, will be reviewed here as soon as it is published, most likely in October 1998.

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