Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and her World.
The name of the iron steamship, Nemesis, is familiar to students of southeast Asian history and, particularly, to those of us interested in the career and character of James Brooke in Sarawak and Labuan. Adrian Marshall has provided us with a detailed and well researched "biography" of Nemesis, one value of which is the extent to which it reminds us of the wide-ranging imperial context and milieu within which Brooke, his supporters and his detractors operated, and of the scientific and military developments that, increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, underpinned European military predominance over under-armed natives.
One of six iron ships commissioned by the HEIC from 1839, Nemesis commenced her maiden voyage in March 1840. Her career saw her deployed in the pursuit of imperial interests from the Indian subcontinent to Hong Kong and China. As Marshall remarks, his book "is the story of the world's first iron warship," epitomizing, as it does, the nature of the Industrial Revolution whose technological innovations rendered her construction possible, and deploying "iron, coal and steam in the service of mankind, particularly in the service of transportation and... of empire" (xiii).
Marshall concedes that his history "is essentially anglo-centric" noting, in justification, "but then the Nemesis served a government who viewed the world anglo-centrically and virtually all we know of her derives from that imperial world" (xiv). Well, perhaps. But is a very long time indeed since John Smail exhorted us to try to see events from the perspective of the shore-folk. (1)
Marshall is alert, however, to the moral ambiguity of his subject's 'career', observing that "Nemesis served British imperialism and the British, like others before them, came to Asia primarily to take what they desired," justifying their actions by claiming "a high moral purpose: to bring security, religion, education, health, and, through free trade, wealth." "Some communities," in Marshall's estimation, however, "did indeed come to recognise these as benefits, for example, in Rajah Brooke's Sarawak; to others, such as the Chinese, contact with the British bought little but misery" (xiv).
For the readers of the BRB, Nemesis (the book) is of interest for its treatment of how Nemesis (the ship) contributed to Sarawak's history and to James Brooke's career. This is detailed in chapters 20 to 26. which constitute one quarter of the book's narrative. Notwithstanding an extensive bibliography which includes major studies of Sarawak history (although Pringle's unfathomable absence is telling), Marshall maintains a disturbingly sanguine view of James Brooke's actions and attitudes, both misunderstanding the nature of Brooke rule and, at the same time, accepting Brooke's own assessments of his actions and those of his adversaries.
Echoing Otto Doering's characterization of Sarawak as "the private domain of a dynasty of Englishmen," (2) Marshall mischaracterizes the state as "in many ways more reminiscent of an Englishman's private estate than of a British colony" (167), whereas it was, in fact, neither. For Marshall, James Brooke's character and motivation remain beyond debate. Conceding, for example, that Brooke expanded Sarawak "by force of arms," Marshall claimed that "these arms, destroying piracy, slavery and head-hunting, brought security and the rule of law and it was this peace that the majority of all groups clearly desired" (171). James Brooke, it should be noted, did nothing to abolish slavery in the areas under his rule, deployed head-hunters to kill his enemies and ruled by fiat, rather than law.
Marshall accepts without question the well-established imperialist trope of epidemic levels of piracy in the straits around Singapore and along the northwest coast of Borneo, identifying the guilty as the "Illanun" and "Balanini" (from Sulu), Malay and Orang Laut, Chinese and "the Ibans or the Sea Dayaks of Borneo," the last of whom he characterizes as displaying captured heads in "the head-house--or the 'skullery' as Keppell nicely called it." (In this, Marshall confuses Sea Dayaks or Iban, with Land Dayaks or Bidayuh, who did, indeed, store their captured heads in the village baruk or panggah, which is often characterized as a head-house, but who did not engage in coastal raiding.)
More egregiously, however, Marshall accepts without demur or, even, discussion, Brooke's claims that the Iban were engaged in piracy, within the terms of Britain's Navigation Act. In view of Nemesis s role in Brooke's attacks on the Saribas in 1843 and his slaughter of them in 1849 at Beting Marau, which Brooke justified solely on the basis that the Saribas and Skrang Iban were piratical, the absence of any serious debate about the nature of Iban raiding is an extraordinary omission. Indeed, Marshall seems to regret the importance which many of Brooke's contemporaries attributed to determining whether or not the Saribas and Skrang Iban were, in fact, pirates, remarking of the battle at Beting Marau, that "unfortunately the engagement became caught up in parliamentary politics in London" (213). Marshall here refers to the fact that, by the early 1850s, Brooke's attacks on Iban communities in the company of vessels such as Nemesis and her sister vessel, Phlegethon, had become subjected to detailed Parliamentary scrutiny and, even, to a Commission of Inquiry which sat at Singapore in 1854 and which did not, as Marshall claims, "entirely" exonerate the Rajah (215).
The essential and morally charged issue of whether Iban coastal raiding constituted piracy is dismissed by Marshall with the observation: "The matter is complex and not immediately relevant to this story--and it has been exhaustively covered elsewhere." The footnote at the end of this sentence directs the reader to Henry Keppel's diary! (3) Marshall's refusal to engage with the central issue concerning Nemesis's deployments to Borneo contrasts with his more nuanced consideration of other imperialistic undertakings. His treatment of the Opium Wars, for example, while conceding too much to the British position, recognizes the justice of Chinese concerns (Chapter 10).
Although it might be true, as Marshall claims of Nemesis, that "it is difficult to get any true picture of how the indigenous people of places she visited, rulers or ruled, viewed her or her role," it is not hard to imagine how the families of the 1000 or so Iban men who were killed by Brooke's forces, including Nemesis, at Beting Marau, or who died of their wounds soon after, regarded the steamer's intrusion into their world. And, in fact, we do have some idea of how indigenous people viewed steam vessels like Nemesis. Spenser St. John recorded that the Kayan chieftain, Tamawan, considered a steamer to be a "wonderful vessel that came with oars of fire," (4) while, according to Captain Mundy, the population of Kanowit responded to the arrival of the steamer, Phlegethon, at their town in 1846 with "horror and consternation." (5) Finally, Spenser St. John, not normally regarded as a critic of the first Rajah, told Brooke Brooke that the Government's attacks on Iban longhouses (such as those supported by Nemesis or Phlegethon) "disgust the whole industrious population of the country." (6)
Marshall's writing is engaging, elegant and accessible. His book handsomely illustrated. It is all the more to be regretted, therefore, that he did not seek to engage more critically with the complex and contested role that his subject played on the northwest coast of Borneo during the 1840s.
(JH Walker, Honorary Visiting Fellow, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia
(1) John R. W. Smail, "On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia," Journal of Southeast Asian History. 2: 2. 1961. pp. 72-102.
(2) Otto C. Doering, "Government in Sarawak under Charles Brooke,'" JMBRAS, 39:2. 1966. pp. 95-107 at p. 95.
(3) For an analysis of the complex claims and counter-claims concerning James Brooke and Sea Dayak "piracy" (which was published subsequently to Nemesis,) see Gareth Knapman and Martin Muller, "Protector of Aborigines or War Criminal: Two Opposing Liberal Views of James Brooke", in Gareth Knapman et. al (eds.), Liberalism and the British Empire in Southeast Asia: Empires in Perspective. Oxford: Routledge, 2018. pp. 175-199. An electronic version can be viewed at https://works.beprcss.com/gareth knapman/.
(4) S. St. John to C. Grant. 30 June 1851. Basil Brooke Papers, vol. 15, f. 34.
(5) Rodney Mundy. Narrative of events in Borneo and Celebes, down to the Occupation of Labuan: From the Journals of James Brooke, Esq. Rajah of Sarawak, and Governor of Labuan. Together with a narrative of the operations of HMS Iris. London: John Murray. 1848. vol. II, see pp. 117-122.
(6) S. St. John to B. Brooke. 8 November, 1858, Basil Brooke Papers, vol. 15, f. 211.
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|Publication:||Borneo Research Bulletin|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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