MANY Sarawakians are familiar with the state’s recent past under the reign of the Brooke family. After all, it has only been just over 52 years since Sarawak achieved independence from the British.
While the current public debate over the rights of the state under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 has helped generate greater awareness of the state’s history beyond the few paragraphs denoted in school history textbooks, devoted mainly to its transition from British rule to independent state and finally to founding member of Malaysia, the same cannot be said about general public knowledge of the history preceding the arrival of James Brooke to Kuching in 1839.
A recent lecture, organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum and the Sarawak Museum Department (SMD), sought to shed some light on the state’s pre-Brooke history, in particular a power struggle between the kingdoms of Sambas and Brunei to exercise political control and influence over the land and how this influenced the formation of modern-day Sarawak.
Despite the lecture being held on a weekday afternoon, about 80 people turned out to hear researcher Dr John H Walker present his paper titled ‘From P’o-li To Rajah Brooke: Culture, Power And The Contest For Sarawak, From Its Remoter Past Until 1841’. Also present was SMD director Ipoi Datan.
Walker, a senior lecturer in international and political studies with the University of New South Wales in Canberra, is a regular visitor to the state and has authored a number of published articles as well as a book called ‘Power And Prowess: The Origins Of Brooke Kingship In Sarawak’ (2002).
During his presentation, Walker also recognised the SMD staff for their expertise and help in locating resources and references which were valuable during the course of his research for this paper.
Among those attending the talk were local researchers, scholars, SMD staff, non-government organisation representatives, tour guides and local history buffs.
Early Indianised state
Walker began by tracing the origins of Sarawak, starting with an early Indianised state based on Borneo’s northwest coast called P’o-li which was first mentioned in Chinese historical written sources in the sixth century.
P’o-li established trade ties with China and sent embassies to the country to pay tribute. In the late 10th century, P’o-li disappeared from Chinese written sources and another advanced state called Po-ni, based at Santubong, emerged. By the 14th Century, Po-ni had declined and Santubong was largely deserted.
Around the same time, the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit was exerting its influence over Borneo but only after the decline of Po-ni. Based on existing written records and his research, Walker thinks P’o-li and Po-ni (some scholars think they might be the same entity) was likely to be the source of the Indianisation of cultures in Sarawak rather than Majapahit.
Walker also examined the connections and incongruities within the various accounts given by the recorded oral histories of the Sarawak River Malay abang-abang who trace their descent from Datu Merpati and his subsequent arrival in Sarawak, with the written genealogical accounts or salasilah.
Following the demise of Po-ni by the 14th century, Sarawak became a tributory of Majapahit on whose behalf Datu Merpati, his son, grandson and great-grandson, collected tribute.
Datu Merpati was said to have married a princess of Sambas in West Kalimantan which, at that time, was a dependency of Majapahit. The political situation becomes even more ambiguous as Majapahit collapsed in the 15th century. Sambas seized the opportunity to assert its independence and took independent control of the five adjacent negris to its northeast — Sarawak, Samarahan, Sadong, Saribas and Kalakka.
“This assertion of power over the five negris by Sambas might have been facilitated both by the fact that the Sambas dynasty was descended from the rulers of Majapahit and by the possibility that it had previously supervised the administration of the five negris on behalf of its Majapahit overlord,” Walker explained.
He also examined the veracity behind claims that the mention of Johor in Sarawak River Malay oral histories and Selsilah Raja Raja Berunai was in reference to the Sultanate of Sambas. While he was not able to find a solution which satisfactorily explains the mention of both Johor and Sambas in the aforementioned sources, he noted that three elderly Abang, who were all well-versed in Sarawak Malay oral history, had all emphatically insisted, in conversation with him, that when Johor is mentioned in oral histories, it denotes the Sultanate of Sambas in West Kalimantan.
Sambas vs Brunei
By 1530, a Spanish report confirms that whatever its previous relationship with Sambas, Sarawak (or Cerava) was ruled as one of the four chief ports of Borneo (Brunei). In 1609, it was reported that the tribes north of Sambas living in Calca [Kalakka], Saribas and Melanoege [Melanau] had defected from the king of Borneo and united themselves with the King of Djohor (Johor-Sambas).
Walker found reason to believe Sambas’ influence could have stretched all the way north as far as the Melanau areas located to the north of the Rajang River, putting it in direct contention with Brunei whose conquest of the Melanau’s sago producing areas was key in the kingdom’s expansion across the island of Borneo.
Brunei likely only achieved a significant predominance over its neighbours after the decline of Majapahit. The mid-14th century Majapahit court text Negara-Kertagama lists out Buruneng or Brunei as among the states or negri of Northwest Borneo but does not attribute particular importance or consideration to it.
Walker noted that the Selsilah Raja Raja Berunai records that sometime following the collapse of Majapahit by the end of the 15th century, the control over the five negri of Sarawak, Samarahan, Sadong, Saribas and Kalakka had passed to Johor-Sambas.
The contest between Sambas and Brunei for at least 500 years to assert their claims over resource-rich areas of Sarawak is made all the more intriguing by the parallels between the stories of Datu Merpati and of Sultan Tengah of Brunei which is deserving of further investigation, Walker pointed out.
“Datu Merpati goes to Johor-Sambas, where he marries the ruler’s daughter. His ship is blown by a storm to Sukadana, south of Sambas. Attempting to return to Johor-Sambas, he lands at Tanjong Datu where he settles for a while before moving to Santubong. Sultan Tengah also goes to Johor-Sambas. Returning to Sarawak, his ship also is blown off course to Sukadana where he marries the ruler’s daughter before moving to Sambas-Johor, later to Matan and finally to Santubong.
“Quite apart from the fact that both Datu Merpati and Sultan Tengah either were very unlucky with the weather, or they were terrible sailors, the parallels in the narratives are striking. Both sets of narratives await further analysis to determine what these parallels might reveal, or, indeed, what they might be concealing,” Walker said.
He rejects S Baring-Gould and C A Bampfylde’s assertion in “A History of Sarawak under its Two White Rajahs, 1839-1908 (1909) that the Sarawak Malays “managed to maintain an independence more or less complete for many years” because he believes it is made so evidently in support of Brooke’s interests and claims.
“The recorded use of Datu titles such as Patinggi, Bandar and Tumonggong by successive generations of the abang-abang necessarily required their holders to have received those titles from rulers whose authority they acknowledged. The important question to be considered is whether those rulers were the Sultans of Johor-Sambas or of Brunei,” he explained, adding that this was important to ascertain because James Brooke derived the legitimacy of his rule from Brunei’s transferring its claims over Sarawak to him.
Arrival of Brooke
When James Brooke sailed into Kuching aboard the Royalist in 1839, Brunei’s appointed representative Rajah Muda Hassim was facing a revolt by the abang-abang, led by Datu Patinggi Ali, Datu Patinggi Abdul Gapur and Datu Tumanggong Mersal. The rebels had the support of the Sultanate of Sambas — a fact supported by the latter two fleeing to Sambas while Datu Patinggi Ali found refuge in Sarikei after the revolt was quelled by Brooke.
Brooke’s involvement came at the request of Rajah Muda Hassim with the offer to transfer the governorship of Sarawak to the former if he stayed to help put down the rebellion. However, when it became clear Rajah Muda Hassim had no intention of fulfilling his offer, the rebels saw their opportunity to secure their futures in their own homeland without having to accept Brunei rule, Walker said.
A secret delegation, led by Datu Tumanggong Mersal and a son of Datu Patinggi Ali, visited Brooke to request him to become their Rajah, offering to support him by force of arms.
“Emboldened, therefore, by the secret support of the Sarawak Malays, on Sept 23, 1841 Brooke turned the guns of the Royalist on the town. Arming themselves, he and his crew landed and were joined by 200 well-armed Sarawak Malays. In the face of such armed force, Hassim agreed to install Brooke as Rajah,” Walker added.
What’s also interesting to note is that Rajah Muda Hassim and later Brooke himself harboured suspicions that Sambas’s intentions over Sarawak were possibly supported by the Dutch, seeking to establish and widen their sphere of influence in the region.
The Sultan of Sambas continued to press his claims even after James Brooke was installed as Rajah by dispatching two of his sons to Sarawak, claiming that unpaid debts gave him financial rights over any antimony mined by the Chinese miners.
While Brooke was unsure whether the Sarawak Malays would support his claims against those of Sambas, he did record that the Sambas party left Kuching on Dec 30, 1841 “after exhausting every effort of intrigue, and every artifice which Malays can invent, to compass their ends,” Walker said, citing Brooke’s own writings.
“Although Brooke’s rapid consolidation (and expansion) of his rule in Sarawak precluded Sambas again attempting to regain control over it, members of the Sambas royal family continued to consider they had rights over the area.
“As late as 1862, for example, Charles Grant apprehended a Sambas prince, attempting to raise revenues from Sematan, the region of Sarawak most proximate to Sambas,” Walker noted.
Following the departure of Sambas, James Brooke also sought to extend his influence into the very same sago producing areas which the former was contesting against Brunei for.
During the lively Q&A session which followed the presentation, Walker explained most of his references came from Malay-language sources, particularly the salasilah or written genealogical records. This was because salasilah can go back for up to 30 generations or more, allowing researchers to trace timelines and make connections between historical people and events with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
“It just so happens that the sources available to me are Malay language sources. If there are Iban sources, Bidayuh sources, I would be most happy to incorporate them into my research,” he said, adding that non-Malay language written sources were not easy to come by.
While researchers have made efforts to compile and record oral histories of the Dayak, they do not go as far back as the salasilah or cover the areas in his research.
Adding to the difficulty is that oral histories are being forgotten, ironically, due partly to efforts being made to record them down as there is no need for people to remember them anymore once they have been written.
“The people who formed states in Borneo are Malay-speaking people. They may well have been previously Dayak but they were Malay speaking, so the narratives are Malay language narratives. There is an exception to this — a theory that there was a Dayak kingdom in West Kalimantan. We don’t know very much about it but it is very fascinating because that is a very rare example of a non-Indianised state formation,” Walker said, highlighting the gap in research concerning state formation amongst the Dayak.
“In order to have state formation, you need hierarchy. The Kayan and Kenyah are very hierarchical. The mid-19th century Kayan chieftain Hang Nyepa forged a huge confederation of Kayan to the extent that his rival had to go to Baram — and formed a rival confederation.
“If it wasn’t for the Brookes expanding, it would have been interesting to know what that confederation could have turned into. We may have had another non-Indianised kingdom.”
Walker attributed James Brooke’s ability to survive the political maneuverings of Brunei and Sambas and expand Sarawak to his astuteness as a politician. He disagrees with the notion that the Brookes formed Sarawak on their own.
“James Brooke said Birds have wings and Dayaks have legs. Both will fly or run to the tree that has fruit. And he was a tree which bore fruit. So they came (to him),” he said.
“I believe Sarawakians formed a coalition with James Brooke — the Bidayuh, the Sebuyau Iban from Lundu and the abang-abang. Brooke was a very brilliant man in that he managed to persuade people that his interests and their interests were the same.
“He and his collaborators expanded the territory of Sarawak for both their interests. It’s very important that people acknowledge Sarawak was created by Sarawak people who invited Brooke in. Sarawak people made him the Rajah. Sarawak people expanded the boundaries of Sarawak. Sarawak was made by Sarawak people and not by the white Rajahs.
“Which is not to deny the importance of the Brooke family. But they were supported by local people. The brilliance of James and Charles (Brooke) is that they were able to convert opponents into supporters.
“They didn’t just kill them – they killed a lot of opponents. Beting Maru was terrible — a massacre. But they were also able to convert opponents into supporters and that’s very, very important.”