Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Representative men: The knight-adventurer - Rajah Brooke

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II (1859-1860)
Representative men.
The knight-adventurer. Rajah Brooke
by Harriet Martineau (as Ingleby Scott)

Biographical article about James Brooke (1803–1868).

The Knight-Adventurer.
rajah brooke.

Half a century ago it was taken for granted that the Knight-Adventurer was a lost type of character in the civilised world. It seemed to be adapted to those ages in which men were becoming acquainted with the globe we live on—preparing to learn that it was a globe, in the first place. It seemed to fit into the history of our race in an age when soldiers were led to the coast of Portugal as to the bounds of creation, and told with awe to awe-struck listeners, on their return, how they had seen where the ocean poured over into hell, and had with their own eyes beheld the flames shooting up from the fiery gulf which surrounds our world. When a gorgeous sunset thus impressed the imagination of men on their travels, the age was sure to be one of exploration and wild adventure; and there could not but be a succession of adventurers till the rovers had at least sailed round the globe, and ascertained its great continents and main seas. The old mystery being cleared up to this point, the character of mere adventure would merge by degrees in that of travel and speculation for some definite purpose, till it assumed a thoroughly business-like aspect. So the matter seemed to be settled half a century ago. There were Christian missionaries in many wild regions of all continents, and all the world honoured them. There were men devoted to geographical discovery, and an enthusiastic sympathy attended them, whether struggling with the Ice-king in his Polar strongholds or with the fiery demons of the Desert, dealing sunstrokes and launching the simoom among tropical sands. Then more and more scientific objects arose; and more and more men went forth to accomplish them. Art also bethought itself of roving for subjects; and, where Burckhardt could make no notes but under cover of his burnouse, and knew that to show a scrap of paper would be destruction to his aims, if not to himself, artists now sit to sketch, even in the heart of Edom, and have only to choose their model figures out of the crowd that is admiring them. One painter is in despair at the colouring of the desert at Tadmor or the Great Oasis: and another suffers under the same chagrin among the Altaï mountains, and on the steppes of Tartary. But the artists, and the savans, and the missionaries, all go on business: and we had given up the idea of any man roving in unknown and perilous places for pleasure, or without any reason at all. In our century, however, an adventurer of the mediæval type has appeared—in a way very puzzling to some good people, very painful to a few others, and inexpressibly delightful to the genuine heart of Old England, which still enjoys sending forth St. Georges to fight dragons. Our Knight-Adventurer has been abundantly maligned in his time, as a singular specimen of any type of character always is. He was an “Ugly Duck” (as Andersen has it) to the last to some very literal-minded men who are now gone; and there are some left who cannot help being convinced that a man who goes among barbaric tribes, and becomes a ruler over some, and makes war upon others, must be a mammon-seeker or a man-hunter—a buccaneer who should not be countenanced by respectable society; but, on the whole, the hero has met with recognition. The Sovereign has honoured him; Parliament has repeatedly rebuked his accusers by rejecting their charges; and he has the noble following which attends upon all Representative Men.

It is possible that Sir James Brooke’s cast of mind may have been more or less determined by his being born on the other side of the world, and near the tropics, though his parents were English. His father was in the Civil Service of the East India Company; and a very business-like Englishman he seems to have been, having no notion of young men wandering about the world without knowing exactly what they aim at. The mother sympathised with her son, as the mothers of heroes usually do. When he did not see his way to the enterprise he had set his mind upon, he was wont to open his mind to his mother as they paced the garden-walk at South Broom, or sauntered by the brook among the wild flowers, which he remembered under the palms in Borneo. His “loved mother” was his nearest and dearest friend as long as she lived—a fact, by the way, which ought to have had some weight with the most prosaic of his critics. A man can hardly be devoured with the thirst for money and blood who has a “loved mother” for his bosom friend.

From these parents he was early separated for a time, as the children of the Company’s servants necessarily were fifty years ago. He went from school to school in England, not gaining much learning, it appears, nor probably much praise from the masters. Putting together the grammar of his compositions before he had cultivated his literary tastes by study, and the short time he was at certain schools, and his known roving propensities, and his peculiar laugh when his old school-mates claim the honour of intercourse with him at Norwich and other schools, one has an impression that he was perhaps a naughty boy,—fond of running away, and more given to Robinson Crusoe than the Latin grammar. His domestic and friendly correspondence in after life is perfectly charming,—in expression as well as in sense and sentiment; but all task-work with the pen, all formal statement to meet official eyes, or be read by the public, betrays the secret of the failure of the grammar-school part of his education. What appearance he made in his parents’ eyes when they renewed acquaintance with him on their return to England, we do not know. He was then fourteen; and we can easily imagine that he might be the pride and joy of his mother’s heart. His frank, healthful, eager, thoughtful face; his activity of frame; his guileless speech; his tenderness of heart;—all these things won everybody who came near him; and his father, we must hope, among the rest. The doubt was about his steadiness. It is a pity his father could not know that he would live to manifest a pertinacity like that of Columbus in pursuit of his enterprises—a pertinacity in action, I mean; for he has been wont to say, in letters to his intimates, that he would throw up all his objects, and fix himself for life beside some lake, or in some mountain in Italy or Switzerland, or in some retreat in England, and leave the struggle of life to other men. If Columbus had written as many letters as James Brooke, we might have found this sort of dream among the rest,—a dream of seclusion and repose haunting the harassed and disappointed man, who cannot make other men see the ground of his confidence. And if we had not seen Brooke’s letters, we should have supposed him to be, through every hour of his life, as unremittingly bent on his object as Columbus himself. The pertinacity was the practical state of his mind as long as it retained its full vigour: and yet his father was not unreasonable in distrusting his steadiness, before it became manifest that this was a man who must have his own way.

Rajah Brooke (OAW).png

From the Bust by T. Woolner, in the possession of T. Fairbairn, Esq.

At sixteen he went to India as a cadet. Here he showed himself a born-soldier, as people say. He so distinguished himself in the first Burmese war as to receive the thanks of Government. He was severely wounded—shot in the lungs—and thereby transferred from the beaten way of Indian soldiership to his own wild path of life. He was ordered home to be nursed; recovered, travelled over a great part of Europe; embarked for India; was wrecked in the Channel, and so delayed by the accident as to reach India after his leave of absence had expired. No doubt he might easily have got his appointment renewed; but he preferred letting it go: and for the next eight years he seemed to lead an idle roving life. It was a somewhat different case from this. It was during those years, between l830 and 1838, that he formed and matured the conception of his enterprise, and strove earnestly, but in vain, to embark in it. He thought, he studied, he waited, he worked with tongue and pen, to bring about a relation between himself and some of the Malay tribes whom he perceived to have been depressed and corrupted by Dutch misgovernment, and by our desertion of them in the surrender of Java to Holland. In passing among the islands of the Eastern archipelago, his poet’s soul was first touched with the beauty of the scenes in which men were living; and next, his generous heart was moved by the evidences that those men were not what they had been. Traces of a higher ancient civilisation met him in all directions; and the cruelty and vileness of Dutch rule abundantly accounted for the deterioration of the people. It is well that Brooke ultimately wrote an account of his observations and his views; and that a portion of his statement was published early, and the whole at a later time; for it enables us to understand his projects, and secures him from the charge of mere thoughtless roving, out of which a scheme of action might or might not grow. He went out at last, not to do business in science, art, commerce, or gold-digging; nor yet as the sport of accident. He had a general notion of establishing an understanding with some Malays, in Borneo or Celebes, or wherever the chance seemed most favourable; and the object of the understanding was to improve the people, so as to render them wiser and happier in themselves, and better allies for Europeans. He had far-reaching convictions of the political and commercial benefits which England might derive from the elevation of the native character; and he had his own convictions as to how that elevation might best be achieved: but he went forth as free to follow the lead of events as any knight-errant who ever laid the rein on his steed’s neck in an unknown land, and merely watched to see whither he was carried.

His two main convictions as to what should be done with the Malays make the difference between his project and those of many predecessors. In this age of commerce, we propose a commercial establishment in new countries, and trading relations with their peoples. Brooke showed cause for his belief that a territorial establishment of some sort—wherever it might be, and however small—was indispensable to any actual union with the nations. Trading would be mere trading to the end of the chapter, if the foreigners had no participation in the more intimate interests of the people. Together with this must be taken the other point of doctrine, that the improvement of the natives must proceed from and advance in themselves, and not by means of colonisation by a superior race. Such colonisation depresses a native population: or, if it partially improves them, it is by altering their character, and making them imitators of the teachers who have intruded themselves. Brooke’s idea was of going to work in the opposite way—by strengthening and elevating the characteristics of the people; by encouraging their original powers and fundamental thoughts and distinctive feelings, under the operation of new knowledge. It is not to be wondered at if his father thought such notions very unpractical, and a poor reason for spending money on a vessel and crew, and precious time in paying visits to Malay tribes.

In 1838, the father was dead, and the son had laid out a portion of his inherited property in the purchase of the renowned Royalist—the yacht which bore through the Eastern seas the flags and colours which she had the privilege of carrying, like a man-of-war. Brooke’s first voyage in her was an experimental one, to prove the vessel and crew. As for himself, he was seen to be a born sailor as well as soldier. On the 7th of December, 1838, he sailed for Singapore, where he might learn what point to select for the opening of his enterprise.

His letters during this six months’ voyage show what was the activity of his mind—observing and recording phenomena in natural history, speculating in theology, learning the grammar of Eastern tongues, and proving his administrative powers in the management of his ship’s company. Hitherto his existence had been the poet’s dream—henceforth it was the poet’s life. For nearly twenty years we can follow its course, from his night-watching in the wilds of the ocean for the Southern Cross, and his passing visits to every shore where he might gain light for his great purposes, to his return home, a prince over a devoted people, and a conqueror in every conflict with calumny and persecution, but too much worn out for further action. It may be doubted whether a more beneficent, disinterested, and soul-stirring career was ever run by any great captain in the warfare of human life.

From Singapore we see him entering the Sarāwak river, on his way to Borneo Proper. It is amusing to think now that he had to explain to his own relations and friends where Sarāwak was—viz., “thirty-five miles in the interior of Borneo.” Here we first see the Santobong peak, with its crest of cliffs and straggling trees; and the wooded hills, and white beaches, fringed with casuarinas; and the wild hogs and grey pigeons; and the paddy-fields; and the cottages raised on piles and canopied with palms; and the mild and easy-going people, capable of reverence, and love, and thought, and discussion, but not very fond of work. “My people are gentlemen,” Brooke is fond of saying; and he found this out early, and experienced the advantage of it in leading them up to a higher social elevation.

We see him introducing himself to the rulers of these people, and soon attaching himself to them by his ever ready affections. We see him preparing for the first great step,—extinguishing the piracy which precluded any advance in civilisation, by destroying the fruits of industry, breaking up security and order, and encouraging bad passions. Here the born-soldier came out again,—as on several occasions since. We see the humane and thoughtful friend of depressed races pursuing war like a pastime,—chasing the pirates to their landing places, hunting them to their retreats, shooting and drowning men, sinking and burning boats,—in short, making a thorough clearance in each expedition; and yet we see that this is the same man, only doing a different part of his work. He is removing obstructions to his great object; and, in his spirit of fidelity, he makes the removal as complete as possible. Home-staying men, of a narrow and prosaic cast of mind, and a suspicious habit of temper, have not been able to conceive that one man could present two such different aspects: and, as the energy of his war-making was indisputable, they have assumed that this was the real thing in him, and the civilising object a sham. Taking for granted, all the while, that the usual recompense of enterprise, as they understand it, must be in his mind’s eye, they denounced him as pursuing the pirates for the sake of the head-money up to that time allowed by Government to the destroyers of pirates. To the satisfaction of all men, this barbarous practice of Government grants of head-money is done away; but Brooke’s name and fame could never be implicated with it, while it was notoriously true that he had spent his patrimony in the service of his Dyaks, and that he could at any time have enriched himself by permitting the Chinese, with their advantage of industry, to take their own way with the natives. By merely abstaining from interference, he might have levied great wealth in a short time. It is his sufficient defence from charges of mercenary ambition, that he steadily encouraged the Dyaks, and repressed the Chinese, while promoting industry on every hand. The crowning proof of the distinctness and steadiness of this policy was seen in the fidelity of the Dyaks when they rallied round him and his settlement, and brought both off safe from the attack of the Chinese in 1857, when they burned his dwelling, massacred some of his household, and hunted him for his life. One of his most inveterate enemies at home exclaimed, on reading the news, “We have clearly mistaken the man. The devotedness of the Dyaks at such a time, when his fate was in their hands, speaks trumpet-tongued in favour of his government.”

What was that government? Brooke at once showed himself the born-administrator, no less than soldier and sailor. His government was a perfect success throughout its whole term. It was not the military despotism which was the natural resort of the adventurers of the Middle Ages, who ruled with the strong hand what they had gained by the strong hand, and portioned off their dominion among their followers, made ministers without any qualities of statesmanship. Brooke went alone among the Dyaks, not as a conqueror, but to live among them, in order to be at their service. His opinions as to their welfare were at their call; and his time, and his faculties, and his experience; but he desired them to govern themselves, so far as to agree on the objects and principles of government. They were ruled through their own reason, enlightened by his, and not by his will. I doubt whether anything like this was ever seen before, since Europeans began to go among barbaric tribes.

One instance will suffice to illustrate his principle and method. Hitherto it had been a matter of course for the European ruler to stimulate and command the industry of the natives, whether to enrich themselves or to improve the condition and aspect of the territory. The people were made to work, and generally on task-work appointed by the Government. Nothing of the sort took place under Brooke’s administration. He did everything possible for the protection and encouragement of industry; and there he stopped. He did not want the people to enrich him; and he left them free to choose whether to enrich themselves. He chastised their piratical enemies, and made the rivers safe, and promoted trading; but, as the Dyaks are not fond of labour, he acquiesced in their tastes, and countenanced the native arrangement by which the Chinese immigrants did the hard work, and the Dyaks enjoyed their ease and dignity. “My Dyaks are gentlemen,” was in his mind amidst the provisions of his government, as well as in conversation with Europeans. In like manner he encouraged these gentlemen clients of his to discuss the rules and methods of justice, law, and executive government. They decided on the institution of courts of justice; they held counsel on new laws; and they distributed the offices of government, under his sanction. His advice and information were always at their disposal; but they had to ask for the one and the other. In the coolness of the morning, he was always to be found on a public walk by the river side, where he could be consulted by all comers: and many a time did midnight overtake some group of which Brooke was the centre, gravely discussing the affairs of the commonwealth, or speculating on the great questions which interest men of all races in all ages, or narrating the facts of European or Eastern life.

Certain hours of the day were his own; and in them he became perfectly acquainted with the contents of every book in his library; that library destined to be burnt in the revolt of the Chinese, and to be replaced in time by the honourable sympathy of our universities. While he was perplexed by pecuniary needs, and resolved not to tax the people as long as a shred of his own property remained; while he was in a perpetual doubt about the intentions of the Court of Borneo, and in constant expectation of piratical assaults, his people were advancing from day to day in comfort, security, enlightenment and social discipline. His one measure of severity—the making the national custom of taking heads punishable with death—was becoming intelligible to the people, whose instinct of head-taking was yet too strong to be at once extirpated, and all else was promising, when the clouds gathered which were to keep the sunshine from him for the rest of his life.

It is not my business to discuss the policy of England in regard to the Eastern Archipelago. If the advice of Sir Stamford Raffles did not avail to prevent our consigning that important region of the globe to perdition and the Dutch, it might be hardly reasonable to hope that Brooke’s information and counsel would avail to use the remaining opportunity. It is enough to refer here to the one thing which determined the fate of Brooke and his enterprise; the vacillation of the English government. The British flag once protected Sarāwak; and great was the benefit to the community, native and European, and to their friends and their enemies. We had once a settlement at Labuan, and Brooke was the Governor; and then again, the government drew back. At one time there was every reason to hope that British protection would give us the benefit of the harbours of Borneo for refuge and for trade; and of the coal which abounds there, exactly in the best place for our steamers; and of the best telegraphic centre that could be desired, for the sake of Australia, China, and India, all extending on different sides: and the anxious hopes of Brooke rose high; and then again they were dashed by some apathy or some mysterious reluctance on the part of government; or overthrown by a mere change of administration. Through all this he carried on his rule as if the fate of his people depended on himself. He came triumphantly out of an inquiry into his character as Rajah of Sarāwak, which could never have been countenanced by any government which understood the man. The result confirmed his influence in his dominions; and the revolt of the Chinese, as I have said, was the occasion of proving what the relation between himself and his people really was. Long before this, the wife of the Missionary Bishop McDougall had written an anecdote of the obeisance of a Dyak before the portrait of his “great Rajah,” and had borne witness “how deep in the hearts of the natives lie love and reverence for Sir James Brooke:” and now the love and reverence came out in action, so as to move and convince the hardest and most sceptical of the objectors to greatness when manifested in its own ways and not in theirs.

Rajah Brooke is in retirement in England now,—incapacitated by the break-down of his health from returning to his real home in the East. His plans and method of rule are carried on, in a spirit of devout fidelity to him, by relatives and friends; and we may hope that his services will never be lost among the Dyaks, as assuredly the tradition of them will never be.

As for his place in his own country and its history, he is in himself a marking incident in his century. We have in him one more representative of an order of men who had seemed to have passed away, while yet there is no retrograde character about him and his work. We have in the American Filibuster not only a retrograde but a corrupted specimen of the adventurer of the Middle Ages. Walker, in Nicaragua or in Mexico, is a base imitation of the old buccaneer. He not only oppresses and pillages, as the old buccaneers did, and seizes towns and territories like colonising sea-rovers of old; but he does these things under a guise of cant, by means of followers whom he has swindled into the enterprise, and for the sake of extending the area of negro-slavery. Rajah Brooke bears no relation to such a specimen of depraved buccaneering. He gave himself to Sarāwak, instead of seizing Sarāwak for himself. He did not grasp at the reins of government, but put them into the hands of the natives, and showed them how to guide their course. He sacrificed his fortune for them, instead of extorting one from them. It has been the world’s wonder what sort of Christians Cortez and his comrades supposed themselves to be: and the world now sees what sort of a Christian a Knight-Adventurer may be. For the sake of this spectacle we may rejoice that that antique class has had one more Representative Man.

Ingleby Scott.