What actually happened on Sept 24, 1841?
By Patricia Hului
Recently, an advocacy group Negara Sarawak has called for the commemoration of Sarawak’s 175th anniversary of its founding by James Brooke on Sept 24, 1841.
According to the group’s spokesperson Lina Soo, Sarawak was a sovereign state long before the existence of Malaya, having being recognised by the United States in 1850 and the United Kingdom in 1864.
She added that the date was significant as it was the day British adventurer Sir James Brooke was given the right to rule the territory between Tanjung Datu to the Samarahan River.
The events of Sept 24, 1841 hardly can be found in most of school history books nowadays but a trip to the public libraries might provide answers on what happened on that faithful day.
The first White Rajah first landed in Sarawak on Aug 15, 1839 when it was part of Brunei Sultanate.
Historian Chang Pat Foh wrote in Legends and History of Sarawak that the then Brunei ruler, Sultan Omar Ali was a man of weak character and had no control over his relatives who were intriguing against each other.
“Because his weak government was not stable and his power gradually declined, there was a social unrest, as it was the case in Sarawak,” Chang stated.
Sarawak was governed by Pengiran Indera Makota, who was believed to be corrupted hence stirring up anti-Brunei feeling among the locals.
Riots were happening in the country and there was a rebellion led by Datu Patinggi Ali.
The Sultan then sent his uncle Pengiran Muda Hashim to appease the situation.
Yet the riot continued even after Brooke left Sarawak and returned again on Aug 29, 1840.
Pengiran Muda Hashim then asked for Brooke for help to pacify the country and he agreed.
Brooke succeeded and was rewarded with a territory of about 18,000 km2.
Sept 24, 1841 was in fact the day the first Rajah signed Hashim’s letter of abdication.
Part of the letter was published in Robert Payne’s book ‘The White Rajahs of Sarawak’.
“By agreement made in the year of the Prophet one thousand made in the year of the Prophet one thousand two hundred and fifty seven at twelve o’clock on the thirtieth day of the month of Rejab, Pengiran Muda Hashim, son of the late Sultan Muhammad, with a pure heart and high purpose, doth hereby transfer to the well-born James Brooke power over the country of Sarawak, together with all its dependencies, and present and future revenues.”
The letter was signed and sealed together with a treaty of friendship.
However, the agreement must be ratified by the Sultan first thus some historians believed Brooke was then only the acting Rajah but with the fullest power.
Brooke nonetheless was quick to impose his set of laws to Sarawak.
At 38 years old, the acting Rajah issued eight laws covering murders, robberies, trades, labours, safety and taxes.
Months passed and Brooke was reportedly become restless as the official answer from the Sultan never came.
In mid-July 1842, Brooke visited Brunei to have an audience with the Sultan.
Sultan Omar Ali approved the transfer of power; though he did not fail to stress many things in Sarawak were his personal possessions and wanted to be paid for at the price of $10,000.
Brooke finally returned to Sarawak in his ship The Royalist with the letters transfer of power.
Payne described in his book the letters were wrapped in yellow silk, sealed with the royal seal and addressed to Pengiran Muda Hashim.
Brooke was finally installed to the throne in Kuching on Aug 18, 1842, 11 months since he signed that letter of abdication.
Payne wrote,“On the evening of Aug 18 these letters were solemnly read by a man standing on a raised platform while the Malay princes stood below. They were all armed. Pengiran Indera Makota was present.
“The last of the letters announced that James been appointed Rajah of Sarawak, with the full permission of the Sultan of Brunei.”
According to Payne, the coronation did not go down without some drama.
“At once, Pengiran Muda Hashim shouted: ‘If anyone present disowns or contest the Sultan’s appointment let him now declare!’
“And when no one spoke, the Pengiran turned to the princes shouting ‘Are there any of the princes who contest it? If anyone disobeys the Sultan’s mandate, I will separate his skull!’”
It was safe to say, there were no skulls separated on the day Brooke officially ascended his throne and he did write this in his diary about the slight commotion.
“I remained quiet and cared not, for one gets accustomed to these things.”
James Brooke as the ruler of this multi-racial state created different perceptions from the people.
Dr Bob Reece wrote a description on how he thought the public back then accepted their first white ruler in the book ‘The Name of Brooke’.
“To the Malays, the Rajah was the titular head of a political system which had its origins in their own tradition and preserved their hegemony over the other races,
“To the Land Dayaks and other peoples more or less at the mercy of the Iban raiders in pre-Brooke times, he was a saviour and protector.
“To the Ibans of the lower reaches of the Batang Lupar and the Saribas, he was their ally against the upriver Ibans and Kayans.
“To the upriver Ibans, he was an intruder who thwarted their migration into new areas and forbade the practice of headhunting which formed a vital element in their culture.
“The Chinese saw him as maintaining conditions conducive to trade and industry, although, as the Bau rebellion against James Brooke in 1857 indicated, there were clear limits to their acceptance of Brooke or any other authority.”
As for James Brooke, he was famously quoted saying “Sarawak belongs to the Malays, Sea Dyaks, Land Dyaks, Kayans, Kenyahs, Milanos, Muruts, Kadayans, Bisayahs and other tribes, and not to us. It is for them we labour, not for ourselves.”
The first white Rajah ruled Sarawak until his death in 1868.