Lord Jim: The Life of Sir James Brooke, White Rajah of Sarawak
Ross Slotten



In 1839 James Brooke sailed from England to the Far East in search of adventure. Three years later, by luck and guile, he became the de facto king of northern Borneo. A book about Brooke is timely. During the last few decades, the center of gravity of the world’s economic growth has shifted eastward. By vanquishing piracy along the coast of Borneo, Brooke transformed the region, reducing the danger pirates posed to critical shipping lanes and interisland traffic. His impact on modern Southeast Asian history was as profound as that of Sir Stamford Raffles, the architect of modern Singapore.


Ref no 130301bi

Word Count 245,000 (including notes)

From the Book


FEBRUARY 17. 1849

Emerging from hideouts deep within the impenetrable rain forests of northwest Borneo, thousands of Malay and Sea Dayak men, dressed in full war regalia, amassed on the coast in preparation for attack. Their fleets consisted of one hundred and thirty to one hundred and fifty war boats, or prahus as the craft were called, each carrying no less than thirty and some up to seventy armed men. The warriors’ intended victims were farmers who inhabited the land between the Sadong River and South China Sea, having moved from well-fortified longhouses to smaller, vulnerable huts. February was the planting season, and rice paddies quilted the fertile alluvial plains that bordered the verdant but menacing tropical jungles. For several generations the predatory Sea Dayak tribes collectively known as the Saribas and Skrang, and their Malay overlords, had besieged their less bellicose neighbors. But several years had passed since the last assault because of the intervention of the English ruler, Sir James Brooke, whose iron-fisted policies had brought peace and prosperity to the region.

The Dayak battalions set out before dawn on February 17. Thousands of oars plied the waters of the open sea to the mouth of the Sadong, twenty miles east of Kuching, Brooke’s place of residence and capital of the kingdom of Sarawak. At daybreak they ascended the stream until finding a farmhouse, where a few prahus dropped anchor while the rest of the fleet pushed on. Leaping from their boats, scores of men with spears, guns, and krisses—native daggers—scrambled up the riverbank and surprised the sleeping occupants of the house. After decapitating the men and boys and seizing their heads as trophies, they raped the women and girls, stole anything valuable, and marched on to a nearby hut before gunfire halted their advance.

The shouting and reports of musketry alarmed the villagers upriver, who fled into the jungle and encountered similar groups of marauders. More heads and captives were taken. The huts abandoned by the fleeing farmers were plundered and burned to the ground. During the raid, the Saribas and Skrang headhunters acquired at least a hundred heads and several female captives, while losing only a half-dozen of their own soldiers. After returning to their villages, they were cheered by an ululating crowd of elders, women and children. One European chronicler of the early history of Sarawak, Captain Henry Keppel, later Sir Henry Keppel, Admiral of the Fleet, assured his readers that their imaginations could never conjure the reality of what he termed the “most revolting circumstances” he had witnessed when serving with James Brooke.

News of the atrocity soon reached the White Rajah, as Sir James would later be known, not the first time that pirates had violated his territories. In fact, since his arrival on the northern coast of Borneo in 1839 as an adventurer with no pretenses of becoming a king, pirates, headhunters and their supporters had engaged him in numerous battles. Yet his victories had failed to suppress piracy or headhunting. After periods of relative calm the pirates would reemerge, better armed and more defiant. Captain Keppel, who enjoyed comparing James’s exploits to those of the ancient Greeks or mythical Greek heroes, likened James’s struggle with the Saribas and Skrang to that of Hercules and the Hydra: after lopping off one head, he was confronted with even more sprouting from the wound.

The most recent incursion angered the Rajah more than any other, though the infraction was nothing extraordinary. It was a cumulative rage, built up after several years of frustrated ambitions and fruitless diplomacy. According to Spenser St. John, his private secretary at the time and future biographer, Sir James was restless and unable to sleep. Pacing the house far into the night, he ruminated over the episode and planned his response. To make a lasting impact, he knew that he had to be bold.

“Audacity at all times,” Robert Clive, the British East India Company soldier who launched Britain on its imperial trajectory one hundred years earlier, had taught his disciples. After his brilliant victories in the 1750s and 1760s in Bengal, India against French mercenaries and the local nawabs (or indigenous potentates) who had employed them, Clive advised his compatriots to choose the most daring alternative when given a tactical choice. It was a principle that inspired all future British commanders in India; it was a principle that Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and Trafalgar in 1805, followed during combat with Napoleon’s navy; and it was a principle that Sir James applied to his own experiences in Borneo.

The White Rajah’s initial attempt to punish the enemy in March failed—bad weather prevented his native war vessels from navigating the South China Sea and reaching the pirate hideouts. A second attempt was more successful and gave him breathing space until he could get further assistance from the Royal Navy. In the meantime, he supervised the training of his troops, honing their skills with a rifle, pistol or sword, weapons that he had mastered long ago. When the right moment came four months later, he would strike a blow at the Skrang and Saribas Hydra, one that would be remembered for years in Borneo, with positive results for the advancement of commerce throughout the Archipelago. But it would also nearly destroy his career and the anomalous nation he had created and assiduously nurtured.

* * * * * * * * * * *




Even by the lofty standards set by the Victorians, Sir James Brooke was an unusual man. In addition to his being a rajah, his admirers deemed him a philanthropist, or humanitarian in today’s parlance, a characterization he promoted. During his pursuit to build an empire in the Far East, he had depleted a large portion of his £30,000 inheritance, equivalent to several million dollars today, for the welfare of the people he ruled. Queen Victoria, who found nothing immoral or objectionable in his behavior or vocation, had honored him with a knighthood in 1848. It was still a heroic age, and James had shrewdly crafted his image as a modern day hero.

At first sight, however, the Rajah looked nothing like a rajah, European or otherwise. An observer who had journeyed to Borneo in the mid-1840s had imagined a tall, handsome man, half-soldier half-corsair, who resembled the dashing figure portrayed in a famous painting by Sir Francis Grant that hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery of London. Instead, he encountered a plain looking gentlemen in his early forties, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, not ill-appearing but thin, with graying hair and whiskers, and “a mild blue eye.” During that visit, the Rajah had dressed in a sailor’s jacket, white trousers and shirt, and a skullcap, and around his neck was a black silk ascot tied in a sailor’s knot (as in the painting, absent the skullcap).

When at war, he and his devoted band of Europeans adopted a more eccentric mode of dress, “whether … from any fanciful motives or as suited the requirements of the service in which they were engaged I could never ascertain,” a baffled Royal Naval surgeon recorded in his log. This outfit consisted of a dungaree shirt and pair of loose-fitting dungaree trousers held together by a silk sash; they wore shoes and stockings only when on shore. The Rajah sported a simple pale dungaree cap “like a French or Austrian cavalry soldier” with a red band around it, while the others covered their heads either with a straw hat or a cloth kerchief folded and knotted in native style.

The Rajah’s demeanor did not initially excite admiration either. What struck one person most was “a languid, négligée air.” He might walk the deck of his ship with the greatest exertion, throwing himself into a seat after two or three turns “as if overpowered”—by what or by whom the observer neglected to say. Yet such “lassitude,” as the traveler termed it, was deceptive, perhaps due as much to the Rajah’s frequent debilitating bouts of malaria and other tropical illnesses as to his flamboyant mannerisms. When pursuing pirates or capturing river stockades, all traces of effeminacy vanished. He sprang to life and showed surprising physical courage, his mind cool and active, his body as agile as that of a man half his age.

Since 1841, the village of Kuching had been the seat of the White Rajah’s power. His residence, more a modest bachelor’s cottage than an imposing presidential palace, squatted on a spit of land at a bend in the Sarawak River, commanding a view of the tumbledown two- and three-story dwellings of the industrious Chinese, whose shops lined the opposite bank for half a mile. The town, sixteen miles inland from the South China Sea, had several thousand inhabitants, the majority Islamic Malays who lived in communal compounds called kampongs, each headed by a chief. Above these chiefs were three datus, or non-hereditary local leaders, who answered directly to the Rajah himself.

In addition to the Malays and Chinese (and a small number of “Klings,” the derogatory term applied to the Indian shopkeepers) were a handful of English people, including the Anglican missionary Francis McDougall and his wife, Harriette, who had made little progress bringing Christianity to the pagan inhabitants of Sarawak’s wild interior (the Muslim Malays were off-limits, according to the Rajah) since arriving the previous year; and Captain John Brooke Johnson, the Rajah’s twenty-six year old nephew and heir-apparent, on whom the Rajah had bestowed the royal title of his own devising, Brooke Brooke (or Tuan Besar, Great Lord, in the lingua franca of the Malay states).

The Rajah had just returned to his residence from the island of Labuan, some three hundred fifty miles to the northeast, Britain’s newest colony of which he had just been named governor. He was now corresponding with Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Augustus Collier, Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the East Indies, about obtaining assistance in destroying the most egregious piratical groups plaguing northwest Borneo, not long after the assault on the communities of the Sadong River valley in February. Collier needed a fair amount of arm-twisting, but Sir James was eloquent, forceful and persuasive. Complying with Brooke’s request, he ordered Captain Arthur Farquhar, “a light-hearted merry, earnest companion, with a sound sense to guide him,” as one contemporary described him, to Sarawak. But, perhaps with these traits in mind, the admiral instructed Farquhar to take every precaution to avoid exposing his men “to needless danger either from the climate or from the enemy.”

Farquhar arrived in Kuching in early July 1849 on the 12-gun warship Albatross. Accompanying his ship were the H.M.S. Royalist, a 12-gun surveying vessel, the Honorable East India Company (H.E.I.C.) war-steamer Nemesis, and their cutters and pinnaces. The Nemesis was a new generation of battleship, a technological innovation that helped Britain maintain its supremacy as the era’s unrivaled sea power. It was 200 feet long and weighed 660 tons—not particularly large for a battleship—and with two masts it could sail at great speed in the open ocean. But what made it ideal for this expedition—in a way that no traditional battleship of the day could match—was its two 60-horsepower steam engines, which allowed it to maneuver down shallow rivers surrounded by impenetrable jungle and take on with its invincible firepower any native force that dared to challenge it. The ship had been used to great effect in the First Opium War, or First Anglo-Chinese War, of 1839-42, destroying forts with its two pivot-mounted 32-pounders and bullying Chinese merchants into accepting British products, mainly Indian-grown opium. And such gunboat diplomacy was exactly what Rajah Brooke had in mind when he sought the aid of the British Royal Navy.

The force that Admiral Collier had authorized was greater than what had arrived in Kuching, but at the appointed hour two other vessels had not appeared—the 44-gun Meander, commanded by James’s great friend, Henry Keppel, and another war-steamer, the Semiramis. Illness hobbled the crew aboard the remaining ships, thus reducing from 300 to 108, including officers, the number of marines and sailors who would embark on an expedition against a cunning adversary. Despite such a marked reduction in European manpower, Rajah Brooke and Captain Farquhar were confident they would prevail, trusting their superior arms and tactical skills. They could not afford to wait longer anyway. It was nearly the time of the monsoon, when incessant rains would halt all major military operations.

The ultimate destination of the British naval brigade was not the Saribas River, the home of the tribes that had butchered the people of the Sadong, but the Batang Rejang, the longest river in northwest Borneo. The piratical communities along this river were the greater menace, and they had assisted their Saribas allies during the earlier raid. But the Saribas chiefs would not be ignored. Several months earlier, they had challenged Brooke with an insulting message. If he was an old woman and afraid, they jeered, he would not attack them as he had threatened. Such taunts did not faze the Rajah, of course; it was only a matter of time before his expanding empire would subsume and tame even these men, among his most vicious opponents.

A flotilla of nine Royal Navy ships, including the inefficient little steamer called the Ranee, with the Nemesis in the vanguard, left early in the morning of July 24, the beats of the war tom-toms and cheers of the British seamen echoing off the banks of the Sarawak River. Dr. Salter Livesay, the chief surgeon of the Albatross, accompanied the expedition; he spent much of that time with the Rajah himself. Like almost everyone else—native or European—he had fallen under the Brooke’s spell. Yet despite his clear admiration of the man, his graphic account of the pirate war would be less rhapsodic than the accounts of other supporters of Sir James’s cause. The tone of his journal—part diary and part medical record—is disapproving and may have reflected a deeper moral outrage that eventually leaked to the press, fueling the efforts of the Rajah’s powerful English detractors to tarnish his reputation.

But that lay in the future. Livesay’s primary role at the time was to ensure the health of the marines and sailors. In anticipation of the inevitable fever (malaria) and dysentery that would afflict them, he had distributed to each boat’s crew a paper containing a quantity of bark and as many bottles filled with sulfur quinine as he could afford to take from his stock of medicines. He gave the usual directions about the dose of the “febrifuge,” as he referred to the quinine, and the timing of administration and quantity of diluted spirits to be taken with it.

The Rajah’s nephew, Captain Brooke, the Tuan Besar, was the sickest of all the European soldiers. One day earlier, he had developed symptoms of malaria, a flare-up of an illness he had acquired not long after arriving in Sarawak. But he refused to remain behind, despite the protestations of Dr. Livesay and Reverend McDougall, who was also a skilled physician. During the “cold stage of [the] quotidian ague,” Livesay noted, the Captain had to be carried on board his vessel, the Rajah Walli, in the arms of his men and placed on a rug, the only type of bed available on a native prahu. Rajah Brooke, commanding the Singh Rajah, was the last to depart Kuching, moving out in the evening with a fleet of twenty-three prahus averaging forty men each, who were well armed with pistols and muskets.

To give the latecomers time to catch up, the Nemesis meandered downriver until it passed the swamps and thickets of mangroves of present-day Bako National Park, the home of the proboscis monkey, not far from the base of the lofty peak of Santubong. Mt. Santubong, which rises 2500 feet above the sea, was a striking landmark. It reminded Spenser St. John, the Rajah’s private secretary and confidant who thirty years later published a less offensive version of the expedition in a biography of Sir James, of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. From the summit of Santubong—today, a several-hour slog on a well-marked trail—one would have had a sweeping view of the deep bay, which was bounded on the west by Tanjung or Cape Datu and on the northeast by Tanjung Sirik, a distance of coastline spanning some two hundred miles. As the English ships sailed, they would have glimpsed the “fantastic-shaped” blue-hued mountains of Sarawak’s interior, whose forested slopes were etched by innumerable streams. “But the gems of the scene are the little emerald isles that are scattered over the surface of the bay,” St. John wrote, “presenting their pretty beaches of glistening sand, or their lovely foliage, drooping to kiss the rippling waves.”

Not until nightfall did the strange armada congregate at Maura Tebas, the mouth of the Sarawak River. As prahu after prahu dropped anchor, the native crews shouted. Eventually, the makeshift harbor contained more than a thousand men, a motley crowd of Europeans, Malays and Dayaks loyal to the Rajah. Some of the prahus swung into each other, while others, struggling to maintain their positions, were carried out to sea by the strong current. By 2 A.M., the rendezvous was complete and everyone had fallen asleep .

The twenty-four year old St. John kept the first watch. Having arrived from England only a year earlier, he found his situation novel and thrilling. To serve under Sir James, one of the most charismatic and celebrated men of his era, was the stuff of a young man’s dreams. It was pitch black except for the small fires on each native boat, which resembled stars shining on the broad river, he reported. Now and then the distant but distinct call of a nocturnal bird disturbed the silence. Suddenly a strong current would sweep a prahu from its anchorage, provoking loud cries of “pull, pull” until the boat returned to its original place. Otherwise, over the next few hours a far-off gong, the low monotonous chant of the Koran, or a tinkling bell were all that prevented St. John from drifting off to sleep.

At the grey light of dawn on July 25 the flotilla set off for the mouth of the Sadong River. The native prahus skimmed past their British allies, propelled by the deft movements of forty paddlers. The heavier Malay war boats, with their double banks of oars, moved with equal speed, outpacing the more cumbersome British steamers, sloop, cutters and pinnaces. They continued further east to the Batang Lupar (Lupar River), where the Nemesis towed the Royalist upriver to protect a friendly tribe whose warriors had joined the Rajah’s entourage. On July 26, the Rajah anchored at the mouth of another river, where all took the opportunity to bathe for the first time in two days.

The next day, they headed ten to fifteen miles north to Beting Merau, a low sandy spit of land separating the Saribas and Kalakka (or Krian) Rivers, which Rajah Brooke had determined to be the best point of rendezvous for the entire native and European forces before starting for the Rejang River. The Nemesis, with the European vessels in tow, did not arrive at Beting Merau until July 28. Their plans changed when word came that only a day earlier a fleet of 107 pirate boats, containing at least 3500 men, had been detected exiting the Saribas River and proceeding north toward the Rejang River. The Rajah recognized at once that this was a rare opportunity to catch them at their most vulnerable, in the open seas, where the British would be the clear masters.

Though they often wreaked havoc along the coast, the marauding tribes lived far inland near the sources of the numerous rivers emptying into the South China Sea. Their redoubts, located on narrow, swift streams protected by elevated, heavily forested banks, were almost impregnable. From these hideaways they would launch an attack, pouncing on unsuspecting villages—like the rush of an alligator, in the poetical (according to St. John) expression of the Malays. After such a raid, they would vanish into Borneo’s vast maze of marshes and tributaries, eluding anyone in pursuit, but not before plundering and murdering the crews of every native prahu that had the misfortune to cross their path.

Farquhar and Rajah Brooke devised a stratagem to intercept the pirates on their return journey. The flotilla’s fastest spy boats were dispatched far to the northeast at Tanjung Sirik, having been instructed to bring back news of the approach of the enemy, who would have to round the cape before heading home. Sir James in the Singh Rajah, which pulled 80 oars, and his nephew Captain Brooke (now fully recovered) in the 60-oared Rajah Willi, with a well-armed squadron of 40 prahus, supported by two cutters of the Albatross and Royalist commanded by English lieutenants, would lay in ambush up the nearby Kalakka River. The Nemesis and its two cutters, the Ranee, the three remaining English cutters of the Albatross, commanded by Captain Farquhar and two other lieutenants, and another 40 native prahus were to anchor off the Saribas River. Farquhar and Rajah Brooke hoped that when the invaders saw the Nemesis they would flee up the Kalakka. The Nemesis and its native forces would then follow close behind and trap them between two formidable fleets.

For two days Brooke lay in wait. At 7:30 P.M. on July 31, while some of the crew aboard the Nemesis were engaged in a game of whist and everyone but the Rajah and Farquhar had lost hope of surprising the enemy, the spy boat Ular suddenly appeared, its men exclaiming, “The Dyaks are coming!” As predicted, hostile prahus had been spotted rounding Tanjung Sirik, but which river they would head for remained unclear. Rajah Brooke ordered his boats to blockade the entrance to the Kalakka, intuiting that he would meet at least some of the enemy there. He was right. As they approached, he fired a rocket to alert Farquhar and Captain Thomas Wallage, of the Nemesis, of his imminent engagement. When no reply came, he fired a second rocket, which provoked a faint shout, answered by loud war cries from the Rajah’s entire fleet. For a minute, there was dead silence before thousands of unfamiliar voices rallied in defiance. A few guns were fired in the Rajah’s direction, and scores of prahus made a mad dash for the Kalakka River, only to be repulsed by a constant barrage of cannon shot from the Rajah’s light-skirmishing boats and cutters. Taking its cue, the Nemesis signaled with a rocket and blue light. As Farquhar with the European force under his immediate command moved in support of the Rajah, the deep boom of guns announced that the battle of Beting Merau had begun.

The Ranee brought comprehensive details of the battle to Rajah Brooke in the early morning, more than six hours after fighting had commenced. In their flight from the Rajah, it was reported, the pirates paddled out to sea and headed south toward the Batang Lupar, but Farquhar surprised them with round shot and rockets. While preserving admirable order (in the words of an observer), the pirates divided into three forces. One force renewed its attempt to break the Rajah’s blockade of the Kalakka; another rushed toward the Saribas River, hugging the coastline as it passed through shoals that lay beyond Farquhar’s reach; and a third escaped to sea, evading Farquhar’s more heavily laden boats.

In the end, few of the prahus got away. The Rajah crushed those that had made for the Kalakka. The remainder had to deal with the Nemesis, which had anchored at the mouth of the Saribas. It must have loomed like a monster, more massive than the relatively diminutive pirate prahus, its blue lights grinning in the darkness. Captain Wallage gave chase and immediately fell in with seventeen boats that had succeeded in eluding Farquhar, raking the enemy at point-blank range with the most advanced weapons the Royal Navy had at its disposal. From 32-pounders exploded grapeshot and canisters, the former being heavy metal balls loosely packed in canvas bags that broke apart after striking their target at high velocity and the latter consisting of small iron or lead balls in a metal can that shattered after being fired, inflicting as much damage as possible on its victims. In addition, some of the cutters were fitted with Congreves, highly combustible rocket heads with an accuracy of less than a mile attached to sticks launched from firing frames built into the ships’ hulls. At one point, the Nemesis caught up with two enemy prahus that had barely avoided one of the six-pound rockets. “The scene which took place as her crew, about sixty in number, came in contact with the paddles beggars all description,” it was later reported.

During the melee, the greatest danger for the British was firing into each other and their allies. To distinguish themselves from the invaders, the natives aboard the friendly prahus had been instructed to use the code word “Rajah,” a precaution that no doubt saved their lives. Commander Farquhar, shouting orders from the Nemesis’ gig, exhorted the crews of the various English boats to be careful. It was miraculous that Farquhar’s and the Rajah’s men would suffer so few casualties: Never before, some of the older and more experienced English soldiers attested to the press a month after the battle, had they seen firing so rapid or so destructive.

St. John later reflected that nothing more picturesque could have been imagined. The hazy light from a crescent moon, which shimmered in the water and highlighted the billowing clouds in silver, and the waves crashing against the darkened shore created a romantic backdrop for war for those farthest from the horrifying fray. But even those in the heat of battle found the situation “exciting in the extreme,” for it was “evident from the first,” according to B. Urban Vigors, an Irish civilian traveling with the British convoy, “that the day was our own.” Wherever the eye turned, he said, one saw the brilliant double flash of the cannons, the bright quick flame of the muskets, the lightning streak of a Congreve rocket, or the dazzling blaze of the Nemesis’ blue lights; assaulting the ear were the concussions of the 32-pounders, the roar of guns, the wild rhythms of tom-toms, the clear startling notes of the gongs, and the fearful war whoops of the Dayaks. Surrounded, and with no chance to escape by sea, the enemy panicked. Most of the survivors ran their prahus aground and fled into the jungle, while a daring few jumped from their sinking boats into the water and swam toward the Nemesis, swords in their mouths, only to be beaten back at the last moment and killed when logs were hurled at them from the deck above.

The next morning, Brooke surveyed the carnage. As his ships cruised along the shore, he passed lacerated boats, shields, paddles, broken boards, half-sunken baskets, mats and bits of cloth and clothing. He landed near a heap of abandoned prahus, which his men stripped of any remaining stolen goods or personal property as well as spears, hatchets, swords, muskets or blunderbusses, the usual pirate weaponry. St. John counted 75 boats, some 80 feet long and 9 feet wide, weighing 8 to 10 tons and capable of holding a crew of 70—far larger than he had expected. They were built for speed and safety, and their velocity depended on their light, streamlined wooden frames and the skill of their paddlers. On the bow, center and stern were swivel guns of small caliber but long range, useful for disabling their prey. He later learned that of a fleet of more than 100 boats, carrying approximately 3500 men, only 12 had managed to slip up the Batang Lupar.

Small parties of the Rajah’s men pushed into the jungle in search of stragglers. Along the way they discovered the mutilated body of a young woman, her limbs hacked to pieces and a spear forced up her vagina. It was surmised that she had been a prisoner, destined to be a slave, but fearing her escape during the chaos of battle, her captors had made sure they took away that most valuable and portable part of her body, the head.

The Saribas and Skrang pirates, however, were not the only headhunters in Sarawak. The Rajah employed his share, who tracked down the enemy like bloodhounds, as Livesay described them, killing five men and (with a fiendish yell, said another European witness) cutting off their heads, which they brought back as proof of victory and roasted on the beach next to some wild boar chips, the stink of burning hog and human flesh mingling pleasantly (for them) in the air.

After the battle of Beting Merau, Rajah Brooke summoned the chiefs of his Malay allies to his boat for a bichara, or council meeting, to discuss their next course of action. The chiefs proposed occupying a neck of land to cut off the retreat of the pirates who were still hiding in the jungle, but the Rajah preferred to bypass them and continue up the Saribas River to deal a final blow to their leaders, who had called him a frightened old woman. After a vote in his favor, the Rajah ordered his troops to begin an 80-mile journey to the old town of Paku, a well-known pirates’ nest that had been rebuilt since its destruction in 1843 by Captain Henry Keppel in an earlier raid with the Rajah.

They set off on August 3. In a matter of hours a tremendous tide carried them inland 50 miles, where the Nemesis and the larger war prahus anchored, while the Rajah’s force, in smaller boats and more lightly-armed force, paddled up the Paku River, a tributary of the Saribas. Three thousand men jostled with each other for the lead position, shouting in unison, “back, back” or “on, on” as they collided and struggled up the winding, scenic river toward the town. Later that evening, Captain Farquhar in his gig, accompanied by one of the fastest spy boats, the Ular with its European lieutenant commander, surveyed the region for any impediments that might block their progress. Finding the river clear, they urged the Rajah to press on.

They left at sunrise the next morning, but Farquhar’s report had made them overconfident. At some point the enemy had knocked down enormous trees, which straddled the banks making river traffic all but impossible and forcing the English sailors and their Malay and Dayak allies to spend a tedious day axing and clearing the fallen trunks. Had the pirates been more enterprising, St. John wryly observed, they could have picked off the Rajah’s men one by one with their spears, muskets and sumpitans (blowguns with their poison-steeped arrows), and inflicted a heavy loss.

At last the boats came upon an insurmountable obstruction, a monstrous tree too massive to destroy; the Rajah’s men retreated a quarter of a mile and trekked overland. It was an unlikely military procession, the English marines and bluejackets marching in formation in front and in the rear the native contingent, some wearing fighting vests fashioned from the skins of wild bulls and fantastic headdresses ornamented with the feathers of rhinoceros hornbills, others clothed in nothing more than a sarong and carrying a spear, sword or sumpitan. In the lead were a few courageous Malays, flanked by armed guards, who slashed a path through the bamboo jungle.

While the Rajah was guiding his army, Captain Farquhar had landed another force nearby and occupied a strong position on top of a cleared hill. The Rajah’s orderly column was disrupted, however, by an unexpected volley of bullets from the muskets of twenty enemy combatants, who dashed out of a clump of bamboo in broad daylight and killed two sons of a Dayak chief and wounded a third before disappearing into the dense forest. As the headless and mutilated bodies of the dead were recovered, terror rippled through the ranks; men rushed toward their boats, fearing an overwhelming enemy force. During their flight, they stumbled past Rajah Brooke, who counseled them not to be afraid. Turning to those who had not yet fled, he commanded, “Let us advance.” His calm but resolute demeanor had an immediate effect: The men regained their composure and followed him up the hill to join Farquhar.

But the Rajah grasped the psychological impact of the incident on his native warriors. Headhunting was not only an act of retribution; it was also a complex ritual with obscure origins central to Dayak cosmology and affecting all aspects of their material as well as spiritual lives. Yet the custom, which the English viewed as barbarous, powered an endless cycle of murderous revenge among the various tribes of northwest Borneo, a cycle that the Rajah would find so difficult to break during his twenty-seven year reign.

A paralyzing depression now gripped the Dayaks and Malays alike. Sir James, in consultation with the Malay chiefs, decided not to move forward for at least another day, to honor the dead and allow the painful memory of their deaths to fade. In the interlude, the killers were pursued and five were captured. The procurement of their heads, which James either knew nothing about or chose to ignore, was enough to lift everyone’s spirit and motivate the war party to proceed to the next stage of its operations.

An unusually low tide now permitted the European ships to pass under the monster tree, and within a short time they landed at Paku. The Rajah sent a contingent of 1500 native soldiers to attack the town and surrounding villages. Roaming in packs of forty to fifty men, they spent two days plundering and burning down longhouses and—their confidence restored—returned with so much booty strapped to their backs that their crammed boats left little room for paddlers. “They evinced their strong desire for head taking by actually exhumating the body of a man whose thigh had been broken and cutting his head off as a trophy,” a disgusted Dr. Livesay confided to his journal. This “poor creature,” he wrote, one of the survivors of the battle of Beting Merau, had died of fatigue and hunger and was buried to save his head—a futile endeavor, as it turned out .

During the rampage, the enemy barely resisted, even abandoning a well-fortified stockade and throwing their guns into the river as they tried to escape. Once it was clear that the enemy in the vicinity of Paku had been routed, the Rajah wrote a long letter to the chiefs, admonishing them to give up piracy or face further attacks from the English. Not waiting for a reply, he and his army returned to the main river without mishap to join the Nemesis and the other larger ships.

While the Rajah was absent, the native forces that had remained behind had secured twenty-eight more heads and killed twice as many people, Livesay recorded with dismay. Only one man was taken prisoner, saved by Captain Wallage, who had offered a reward of 10 Spanish dollars to preserve his life. The prisoner, who claimed to have been forced against his will by one of the pirate chiefs to raid a village, had been aboard a boat the Nemesis had pursued. Cannon shot cut his prahu in two, but he and his companions managed to swim ashore to safety.

From the captive’s testimony, Rajah Brooke and Captain Farquhar obtained further proof of the pirates’ brutality. After promising not to harm any villager who cooperated with them, the pirates had raided salt and rice stores and stolen as much as they could transport. In those villages that resisted their demands, they killed the men and took several heads before commandeering and ransacking a large trading vessel bound for Singapore. It was an act of effrontery bound to outrage the English. For this and other offenses, the prisoner said, it did not surprise the pirates that the Rajah and the Royal Navy attacked them. But what the pirates had not anticipated was that the Islamic Sarawak Malays, who had joined Brooke on this expedition, would dare to strike during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month.

Rajah Brooke and Farquhar now decided to complete their original plan to sail up the Rejang River, their hand strengthened by the triumph at Beting Merau. No doubt news of their success had spread rapidly throughout northwest Borneo. It was later estimated that 500 Sea Dayaks died as a direct or indirect consequence of the naval campaign, a third perishing from starvation before reaching their homes—but the number was disputed and difficult to verify. Moreover, an immense quantity of guns, muskets, gongs and other valued items were lost when they were thrown overboard to increase the speed of the fleeing prahus. The only casualties on the Rajah’s side, in addition to the beheaded or mutilated Dayaks, were two dead and six wounded, none of them English. “This has been the most decisive Victory against pirates ever gained on this coast, two of the most desperate Tribes having been entirely annihilated with, comparatively, a trifling loss on our side,” it would be reported in September in the Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce. …


About the Author
Ross Slotten


My first book, "The Heretic in Darwin's Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace" (Columbia University Press: 2004), received a starred review from Booklist and underwent a second printing in paperback. An independent scholar who practices medicine in Chicago, I traveled to northern Borneo and Indonesia to research this book.

Copyright 2013, Ross Slotten.