Mad as a Dayak Rajah.
THE year was 1863 and a large force of Dayaks was racing inland in search of rebel leaders who had committed heinous crimes, as rebel leaders are wont to do. Directing the fierce fighters it was an army, no less, and they travelled in light, swift boats and on foot through the jungle into the territories of the Kayans was the Rajah of Sarawak, the indefatigable and utterly curious White Rajah, which is what he was known as from the Andaman Sea to Mindanao.
Between the exertions of chasing this group of rebels upriver this year (there was scarcely a year when that had not happened) Charles Brooke, the third rajah, would open his journals and record his splendid thoughts. "I believe a good book, even a novel, and a profuse perspiration, are indispensables in that country for health and happiness," was one such jotting, and he meant Sarawak, whose hills and wilds and above all whose mercurial Dayaks were his obsession.
A voracious reader for whom books were a substitute for European companionship, Brooke consumed everything he could get his hands on: ancient history, theology, philosophy, anthropology, natural history, poetry, and even popular fiction. He had been advised by the kindlier members of the British Raj who wandered through the archipelagos, a Raj for which Sarawak was an outpost administered by the oddest dynasty to keep in touch with European affairs.
And so Brooke indented for the English newspapers which arrived twice a month from Singapore, typhoons and pirates permitting. His habits were well known. During one of the assaults on a rebellious tribal quarter, he carried with him a pocket edition of Byron's 'Childe Harold'; he perused some of the more inspiring passages during pauses in the fighting.
Another consuming interest was opera, whose "charm had not even been destroyed in the jungles", he had noted, with an air of surprise as if he was writing not about himself, but he was a rajah and observed the requisite pronoun.
He was especially fond of Giuseppe Verdi, a fondness that arranged what must be a singularly bizarre image, one of the 'Tuan Muda' (for that was one of Brooke's titles) seated upon a rock near a waterfall, on which perch he recited from his last edition of Verdi's 'la Trovatore' as the impatient Dayaks hauled their boats up the Bakun rapids.
Of the three 'White Rajahs' of Sarawak (the dynasty continued for a while longer, but with none of the flair and manic adventure) Charles Brooke was the real empire-builder. During the late 1850s and early 1860s when his uncle, the first rajah, was making increasingly prolonged visits to Britain and his elder brother headed the government in Kuching, Brooke with his Malay and Dayak lieutenants were the front line of enforcement against those who continued to resist the fading authority of the fragile British Raj. During those years the Tuan Muda embarked on a seemingly endless series of forays from his fort at Skrang against bold opponents - the machiavellian 'sharif' and the defiant 'penghulu' who had decided that each must expel Europeans from the whole of Borneo.
But Brooke was a rajah, and on Britain's side (as long as that side lasted) and earned a place for himself in Dayak mythology as well as in the history books of imperialism in South-East Asia.
Later historians struggled in their attempts to make sense of this contrary, warmongering figure and they failed as long as they saw him as British, whereas he worked and schemed and acted just as a Dayak warrior chief would, but a particularly gifted one, and a dizzyingly eccentric one.
To the British of the nearer archipelago, and to the Europeans who called upon him in his jungle court, Brooke 'went Dayak', a view that was supported by his own scribblings in his journals, for the occasional visit to Kuching (he had said) gave him no desire for "re-naturalisation or crinoline accomplishment among 'the civilized' " and he put that last in quotes.
The rajah had lived with the Dayak constantly for years, ate the same food, used the same weapons (plus his rifle and telescope), dressed like a traditional chief but more opulently was frank about his appreciation of the physical charms and the political acumen of Dayak women, and unstinting in his admiration for the courage of the warriors.
Sarawak gave him a life's mission, one which he fulfilled plentifully (if bloodily) and the most celebrated of the white rajahs of Sarawak tramped into South-East Asia's history, his Dayaks by his side, questing as always for the next skirmish upriver.