Today’s team review is from Frank. Find out more about him here https://franklparker.com/
Frank has been reading The White Rajah by Tom Williams
To anyone unfamiliar with the history of Sarawak it will come as a surprise to discover that, unlike much of the rest of the British Empire, it was ruled for 100 years, not by a Governor General or Viceroy acting on behalf of the British crown, but by a series of members of the Brooke family.
James Brooke resigned his commission in the private army of the East India Company to become a privateer, trading around the islands of the South China Sea. In 1839 he was invited by the Sultan of Borneo to help put down a rebellion in what was then a province of Borneo. With that achieved, Brooke was then given the role of ruler of the province, thus becoming the White Rajah of the title of Tom Williams’s latest book.
The overthrow of the rebels, the development of an economy based around the trade in antimony, a second rebellion from which Brooke escaped to Singapore, his return and the defeat of the pirates responsible for the rebellion and the plundering of indigenous tribal villages, together form the meat of this fascinating account.
It is told in first person by Brooke’s fictional companion and aide. In his end note Williams explains which parts of the story are true and which fiction. He does not say whether or not Brooke’s homosexuality is real or imagined (Wikipedia is ambivalent about Brooke’s sexuality and his relationships, although it also claims that he had a son). For me it certainly worked as a device to get to the heart of Brooke’s character. Only a lover can get close enough to witness his changes of mood and the inner feelings behind the public face of a man in a position of power. And only a lover can properly express an alternative view of the horrors he witnesses whilst in that man’s company.
Once again, Williams has given us a riveting account of a little known episode in the history of colonialism. Along the way he provides some superb descriptions of the flora, fauna and traditional culture of this corner of Malaysia. As a side note, Brooke’s story has been told, with the same title, by Nicholas Monsarrat, the writer best known for The Cruel Sea, and other novels based on his service in the Royal Navy during the second World War. I recall reading the first of these in my youth but have no recollection of that earlier iteration of The White Rajah, which was published in 1961. As a further note, Williams’s book was first published in 2010.
When James Brooke arrives in Borneo on the schooner ‘Royalist’, he plans to make a quick profit trading with the natives. Instead he finds himself taking sides in a civil war. And when his side wins, he ends up the ruler of his own country. As the first White Rajah of Sarawak, Brooke is determined to show how the Britain of Queen Victoria can bring civilisation to the natives. But life in Borneo proves complicated. Soon pirates are exploiting the divisions in the country and, when the old rulers stage a coup, Brooke is forced to flee into the jungle.Faced with the destruction of all he has worked for, Brooke is driven to desperate measures to reclaim his country. But is he bringing civilisation to Borneo or will his ruthless annihilation of the pirates just bring a new level of brutality to the people he meant to save?The White Rajah is about a man fighting for his life who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery.