Gunboat Diplomacy

[My article below was published on Brunei Times on 7th March 2011. The interesting legal question would be are the agreements signed between the two countries valid as clearly Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II was forced at gun point into signing the agreements?]


The Golden Legacy

Gunboat Diplomacy
by Rozan Yunos

Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during the Second World War said that “History is written by the Victors”; while Napoleon Bonaparte, the French General and Emperor during the 18th century cynically said that “History is a set of lies agreed upon”.

George Orwell, the author of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ wrote that “… He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future ...” From here we can see that in the study of history, managing the historical records is of crucial importance. The creation of any histories can in many ways be manipulated by the management of the historical records.

Given this background, how then can one ensure that what one reads is the truthful accounts of events? The answer to that probably is that one cannot just read from one source but have to read about an event from many other sources and compare between the various accounts, if they can be found.

In this context, this writer admittedly has often been fascinated by the Brunei history during the Rajah Brooke’s era. James Brooke came to Sarawak and enlarged Sarawak by taking over territories of Brunei until it is the size of today’s Sarawak. In the event, the Rajahs also managed to split Brunei into two by the seizure of the Limbang District in 1890. The actions of the Rajahs of the Brooke Dynasty certainly have lasting effect until today.

Yet, most Bruneians do not know about the origins of the onslaught of the Brookes on Brunei. The earlier history books of Sarawak written by British authors tended to gloss over some of the facts, no doubt reinforcing the notion that history is certainly written by the victors.

One such account is of crucial importance to understanding how the Brookes were able to control and eventual take over large territories of Brunei.

It was in 1844 that Pengiran Muda Hashim returned from Sarawak to Brunei, accompanied by James Brooke, then the Governor of Sarawak and a British naval captain, Sir Edward Blecher. While in Sarawak, Pengiran Muda Hashim had lost his high status at home due to a palace coup in Brunei. His opponent Pengiran Usop has become Bendahara in his absence.

In that visit, Brooke and the British Naval Forces were able to re-install Pengiran Muda Hashim as the new Bendahara. Pengiran Muda Hashim also secured official recognition to become the next Sultan of Brunei. This upset the chances of Pengiran Temenggong Pengiran Anak Hashim, the son of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II, who plotted to kill Pengiran Muda Hashim. James Brooke needed someone in Brunei that he can rely on and Pengiran Muda Hashim was the one. The British also managed to get Brunei to destroy the defensive forts on Pulau Cermin and along the Brunei River as well as an agreement to give Labuan to the British.

When Pengiran Muda Hashim was eventually murdered a few years later, the British came back and occupied Brunei with Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II forced to flee to Damuan. To end the occupation, Brunei had to recognize James Brooke as the Rajah of Sarawak and ruled without interference, free to appoint his own successor and he was no longer the Sultan’s representative in Sarawak. The Island of Labuan was also surrendered. From here on, the Brookes continued to seize more territories from Brunei and used various means to achieve his expansionist aim including overthrowing the Sultan’s authority and even open aggression.

Yet, if one was to read the many accounts written by the ‘official historians’ of Sarawak such as Steven Runciman’s “The White Rajahs” (1960) or S. Baring Gould and C.A. Bampfylde “History of Sarawak under its Two White Rajahs” (1909) or Spenser St. John’s “The Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak” (1879) and later “Rajah Brooke: An Englishman as a Ruler of an Eastern State” (1899); or Robert Payne’s “The White Rajahs of Sarawak” (1960) during that first meeting; one would be under the impression that Brunei was amiable to Rajah Brooke and gave in to all his demands. Yet the only people who could have written a truer account of what happened would be the people who were there.

Unfortunately, even though there were many witnesses, only a few of them wrote. Two of them were James Brooke and Edward Belcher, the British Navy Captain who accompanied him. Their writings however were written from their perspectives and most Sarawak historians followed those perspectives.

There was not one account from the Brunei’s perspectives. However history has been kind. A third eye witness in the form of young naval officer also wrote and published his accounts. Frank Maryatt writing in “Borneo and the Eastern Achipelago” published in 1848 gave a very vivid account of what actually happened during the tense moments of the negotiations between the British and Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II.

Frank Maryatt wrote that in that tense moment, the British had their guns and cannons trained at the Sultan and the crowds in the court of the Sultan. Frank Maryatt wrote “… Lieutenant Baugh (since dead) and myself, was ordered to lie to her oars abreast of the audience chamber, and to keep her 6-pounder, in which there was a fearful does of grape and canister, pointed at the sultan himself during the whole interview …”

In addition to that, “… in the main street lay the steamer, with a spring on her cable, her half ports up, and guns loaded to the muzzle, awaiting, as to by instructions, for the first discharge of the guns from the barge, to follow up the work of death. The platform admitted one of the steamer’s guns to look into the audience chamber, the muzzle was pointed direct at the sultan, a man held the lighted tow in his hand. Every European on board had his musket ready loaded …”

In other words, the British came well armed, ready to kill if they did not get what they wanted. Yet this account can only be found in Maryatt’s book and not in any other history of Sarawak books.

Graham Saunders in an entry in the Sarawak Museum Journal (Vol. XVII, Nos. 34 - 35, July - December 1969) wrote an interesting article entitled “James Brooke’s Visit to Brunei in 1844: Reappraisal”. He considered why Brooke and Belcher wrote fleetingly about the confrontation and the coercion and why Maryatt writings were not considered by other historians.

Brooke and Belcher did not want to blatantly display force and even though it was done, it should not be recorded. Belcher was not supposed to be in Brunei at all but he was there because he wanted to help Brooke. Brooke himself realised that there are “men in England ready to take up the cudgels on behalf of the victims of British expansion” which actually happened a few years later. Unfortunately, many historians used the versions of Brooke and the forceful ‘gunboat diplomacy’ was not highlighted.

This episode certainly highlighted that one must be very careful with what one reads in the historical texts.



thomas said…
Indeed history is written by the victors,interesting writeup.
Anonymous said…
The fact that the Sultan signed the agreements under threat doesn't change anything. The Nazis & Japanese signed their surrender under threat during the second world war. Does that nullify the agreement?

Ultimately, the party with the biggest stick (or gun) makes the rules.
Anonymous said…
Very good write up sir. Gun boat diplomacy did happen but everything else now is fait accompli but there is no historical record that suggests that brunei did surrender Limbang to Rajah Brooke. It was forcefully annexed by Rajah Brooke and he himself recognised this fact when he wrote to the British Government for the action to be recognised.
Anonymous said…
Sir, for a vivid account of what happened during the tumultuous operiod when Limbang was forcefully annexed in 1890, you should refer to William Hood Treacher who in 1891 published his book Sketches of Brunai, labuan, Sarawak and North Borneo. He was the first Governor of North Borneo. One could argue that he might not give an independent account of what actually happened as he himself was a colonialist much like Rajah Brooke but he did live during that period and he did write for the British Government and not for Rajah Brooke.
Anonymous said…
James Brooke never hid the fact that he did use force against Raja Muda Hashim to declare him Raja and Governor of Sarawak on 24th September 1841. You could find this in his own Journal edited by Captain Rodney Mundy which was published by John Murray in 1848.
Anonymous said…
My late Grandpa told me that the Brunei Sultanate would ask for absurdly high taxes from the native Sarawakian aka the Dayaks. That is why the Dayaks got angry. James Brooke offered to help the Sultan to pacify the Dayaks. God bless James Brooke. Good thing is, if James Brooke never came to Sarawak, the Dayaks would become stateless just like Bruneian Dayaks as they are not Muslim.
vivienateng said…
How did James Brooke threatened the then Sultan of Brunei?

Didnt Mr Brooke marry a Brunei Princess so that Sarawak could be transferred to him?

in JH Walker's book Power and Prowess. He mentioned Mr Brooke briefly married a Brunei Princess. might have a child with him too.
Anonymous said…
God bless James Brooke. Good thing is, if James Brooke never came to Sarawak, the Dayaks would become stateless just like Bruneian Dayaks as they are not Muslim.

kerana dayak (iban) tu..hanya lah alat(lembu) rejim Brooke semata-mata..kerana mereka atu bangsa yang suka berperang..(warlike people)..James Brooke umpan dengan kepala manusia pun sudah cukup..sanggup tah durang berperang sampai mati tu..durang berperang hanya kerana kepala.. James Brooke pun sakit kepala dengan bangsa ani..terpaksa tah di bawa mubaligh kristian dari England supaya durang ani inda luan liar..tapi di biarkan jadi bodoh oleh James Brooke takut nanti makan Tuan..divide and rule.. orang putih si James Brooke atu bukan Tuhan tu..
Anonymous said…
sadar2 tah..James Brooke atu bukan nya hero orang Dayak..1500 orang cina terbunuh di kucing dlm tahun 1857,apabila reinforcement dayak dari skrang di angkut oleh charles Brooke utk menyerang orang cina di kucing..puas tah durang memangal kepala orang cina tu..iatah gunanya orang Dayak kepada James Brooke tu...divide and rule.. lepas tu umpan dengan kepala.. dayak ani tah yg di angkut kesana kemari ni oleh rejim Brooke..termasuk masa menyerang Mukah..Brunei semasa peristiwa pengiran yusof dan jua selepas pembunuhan Muda Hashim..sempat lagi durang mungal kepala orang Brunei di sekitar subok atu pakah..

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