The British Family That Ruled in Borneo as ‘White Rajahs’
tags: Malaysia,White Rajahs,Borneo,Brooke
While Americans warn that wealthy families go “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” the White Rajas of Borneo went from combat boots to dancing shoes—and from superstar to nut-bars—in their three generations of colonial rule.
The Brooke family’s century of ruling what is today a key state of Malaysia—Sarawak—proves a key democratic and nationalist lesson: Although colonialism sometimes facilitated stability, prosperity, and harmony, the cost in the imperiousness of the rulers and the infantilization of the ruled was too high. This colonialist version of getting the trains to run on time helped produce today’s relative harmony among the Dayak, ethnic Chinese, Malays—each representing more than 20 percent of the population. Similarly, in the 1840s, the White Rajas fought piracy and outlawed horrific rituals which included courting your sweetheart and celebrating your child’s birth with your neighbors’ freshly killed skulls. Nevertheless, you cannot put a price tag of people’s national dignity to decide their own fate.
In 1838, James Brooke, a British adventurer, captained his 142-ton sailing ship, the Royalist, to wrest control of southern Borneo from another imperial power, the Dutch. The Sultan of Brunei thanked Brooke for crushing a local Iban rebellion by awarding him 3,000 square miles of the area known as Sarawak in 1841. In 1842, more military backing earned Brooke the title “Rajah of Sarawak.” While bringing in Western values that respected individual dignity, while building the economy but discouraging too much Western trade to protect his subjects for exploitation, Brooke did have the British imperial blind-spot to collective sensibilities, let alone democracy for all. The national flag Brooke created for Sarawak of a red and purple cross on a yellow ground was more suited to Brits than to Borneo...
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