The White Rajahs of Sarawak
I was asked to do a three hour session with the First Year class. Simple stuff, such as What is Health?, Doctors and Healers and Incidence and Prevalence. The students are in their second week, young and fresh, the majority of them from Sarawak, a mix of Chinese, Malay, Iban, Bidiyuh, Indian and Melanau. I wanted to inspire and motivate them so spent some time collecting examples and illustrations. Compelling examples of traditional medicine and some home truths about the road ahead.were needed. I included the Code of Muslim Physician as well as the Hippocratic Oath and pointed out their similarities.
It's been a while since I had read the Oath through and I had forgotten how many gods and goddesses are invoked on our behalf. It doesn't feel as if they were in my corner today. The medical curriculum is problem based, which for most of the students is a big change from the rote learning of their earlier schooling. I used a short case study, questions, examples and buzz groups to try to make the learning more interactive, but it didn't feel like it really hummed. Competent and comprehensive maybe but not inspiring. Maybe partly to do with three hours in one stretch. So I am feeling depleted and will save my story about the trip to Sibu and respond now to the "Where is that place, I can't find it?" requests from some of you.
Borneo, lying in the South China Sea, is the third largest island in the world, coming after Greenland and Papua New Guinea. The island, covered with lush tropical rainforest, straddles the equator. A backbone of high mountains separates the northern and southern portions of the island and results in a number of fast flowing rivers that descend to the coast. The rivers have provided access to the interior in the past and in the present. Logging is still done selectively, but has helped to open up the interior.
The southern part of Borneo, much the larger, is called Kelamantan, and belongs to Indonesia. The northern portion of Borneo, consisting of Sarawak and Sabah was known as British Borneo before it became part of Malaysia following WWII.
The first white Rajah, James Brooke, was born in India, his father a judge for the East India Company. James set off in 1839 in a schooner from Singapore to explore what was called then the East Indies. He was asked by some Singapore traders to deliver a present to the heir of the Sultan of Brunei, who had assisted with a group of ship-wrecked British soldiers. At that time, Brunei, a tiny sultanate lying between Sabah and Sarawak, was having trouble controlling and taxing the coastal regions of Borneo due to an increase in marauding groups Sea Dayak pirates and disaffected Malay chiefs. The warlike Sea Dayaks were said to be content with collecting heads, leaving the plunder to the Malays.
On meeting James Brooke, the Sultan’s heir, Rajah Muda Hasim, offered to make him a Governor of the area around Kuching, in return for assistance in quelling the revolt. James set about the task with vigor and managed to crush much of the revolt. Two years later the Sultan of Brunei confirmed the original offer “in perpetuity” in return for an annual tribute. From the original, tiny toehold around Kuching that James acquired in 1839, the land holdings of what came to be called the White Rajahs, were increased every ten years or so until it encompassed most of what is now Sarawak.
When James Brooke arrived in Borneo, a number of the groups of Sea Dayaks such as the Iban and the Land Dayaks, which include Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan and others, were head hunters. The White Rajahs ruled for about 100 years. James was followed by his nephew, Charles who ruled for 49 years before his son Vyner took over. This Boy’s Own dynasty of white potentates ended when Charles’s son Vyner fled to Sydney on the arrival of the Japanese in WWII. Following the war, Sarawak along with Sabah became part of Malaysia.
On and off throughout their rule, the White Rajahs attempted to convince Britian to accept Sarawak as a colony. The biographies of the Ranees, as the wives of the Rajahs called themselves, document their concern with their precarious position at court.
The methods used by the White Rajahs to control and govern the territory were quite violent and the battles many. When they arrived many of the groups of Sea and Land Dayaks were headhunting hunters and foragers. By the end of their reign the original people of Borneo were poised for the 20th century with much of their culture and pride intact. How much of this was due to their influence is debatable.
While Sarawak is now part of Malaysia, there remains a spirit of independence about the place. On entering Sarawak from mainland Malaysia one is still required to show a passport and obtain a visa, as separate immigration is maintained. Even the past history of head hunting is not shrouded in secrecy or guilt. Some older longhouses continue to have a display of skulls suspended from the rafters from the days when it was part of warfare and a way of honouring your foe.
I am having trouble putting captions on photos. I have placed a drawing of skulls, a not very clear photo of same, maps of South China Sea and Sarawak, drawings of James Brooke, a Penan and Iban warrior as well as a photo of a Penan male. The drawings are from tourist brochures.