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From Raja to Prime Minister

Stranger-Rulers and Economic Exploitation in Borneo and the Pacific in the Nineteenth Century
Entre rajah et premier ministre. Les étrangers et l’exploitation économique à Bornéo et dans le Pacifique au xixe siècle
Kees van Dijk
p. 103-135


Quelque vingt ans après que le sultan de Brunei eut accordé à l’Anglais James Brooke le titre de rajah de Sarawak, qui lui donnait d’importants pouvoirs sur une vaste région, un Américain, Joseph William Torrey, consul des Etats-Unis à Brunei, obtint le titre de rajah de Marudu et Ambong. Les efforts de Torrey, échouant à établir une affaire profitable à Sabah, constituèrent néanmoins les bases de la British North Borneo Company. Torrey fut sans doute l’un des derniers de ce type d’aventuriers. Ailleurs dans le Pacifique, des résidents et des aventuriers européens et américains, par des manœuvres économiques et politiques, consolidèrent leur contrôle sur les territoires et leurs populations, sans trop se soucier d’obtenir des titres locaux. A Hawaii et à Samoa, il leur fut plus utile d’entreprendre des réformes politiques et de se pourvoir d’un poste de ministre ou de premier ministre d’un Etat insulaire encore indépendant.

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  • 1 Brooke was sure that he also could count on the support of the local Chinese: ‘From these people, I (...)

1In the spring of 1841, the uncle and cousin of the Sultan of Brunei, Rajah Muda Hassim, who ruled Sarawak, gave the Benares-born Englishman James Brooke extensive authority over a large tract of land and its inhabitants, in gratitude for military support in suppressing a rebellion. He depended on him to maintain law and order in the future.1 Or, as Brooke explained on 18 April 1841 in a letter to his mother, the land was ‘to be held under him [Rajah Muda Hassim], and on payment of a stipulated yearly sum to the sultan, the revenues and trade to be placed in my hands’ (Templer 1853: I, 100). Another stipulation he mentioned in a letter to John C. Templer written in November was: ‘No person is to meddle or interfere with my government on any pretence, whether of politics or trade, etc., and on my part I am to preserve their laws, and not to meddle with their religion’ (Templer 1853: I, 117). Considering bringing Christianity to Sarawak as one of his ‘great objects’, it was a promise he probably did not intend to keep (Templer 1853: I, 169). In August 1842 the Sultan ratified the agreement, but stipulated that Brooke could not alienate the land without the Sultan’s consent.

  • 2 It may well be that Brooke initially used the title Rajah as a translation of Governor. In his diar (...)
  • 3 Within months Brooke changed his mind. Though never a friend of the Dutch or an admirer of the way (...)

2The agreements made James Brooke the best-known white rajah in Southeast Asia. Remembered as the White Rajah of Sarawak, behaving as such, and with everybody assuming that he indeed was, he paraded in fact with a self-assumed title. Locally he was simply known as Tuan Besar, Big Lord (Barley 2003: 58), or in Brooke’s own translation ‘great man’ (Templer 1853: I, 66). In his diary, Brooke himself describes how after having made his deal with Rajah Muda Hassim ‘the agreement was drawn out, sealed, and signed; guns fired, flags waved’ he ‘became the governor of Sarawak, with the fullest powers’ (Keppel 1991: I, 252).2 A few days later he noted down ‘I have a country.’ The next part of the sentence was less triumphant: ‘but, oh, how beset with difficulties, how ravaged by war, torn by dissension, and ruined by duplicity, weakness, and intrigue!’ (Keppel 1991: I, 252). In a letter to Templer he also did not hide his anguish: ‘This is the country I have taken upon myself to govern with small means, few men, and in short, without any of the requisites which could ensure success. I have distraction within, and intrigue abroad, and I have the weakest of the weak, a rotten staff to depend on for my authority’ (Templer 1853: I, 132). Nevertheless, he set himself clear, lofty goals: ending the exploitation of the Dayak population by Malay chiefs and putting down piracy, the slave trade and head hunting. In combating piracy, Brooke expected obstruction from the Dutch side: ‘Those idiots, the Dutch —those thick-skinned, muddle-headed canellers’—encourage this vile traffic, because it prevents the natives smuggling and because it injures the trade of Singapore’ (Templer 1853: I, 138).3 Though realistic about the immediate prospects Brooke had his daydreams. In November 1842 he wrote:

A few days ago, I was up a high mountain, and looked over the country. It is a prospect I have rarely seen equalled; and sitting there most lazily smoking a cigar, I called into existence the coffee plantations, the nutmeg plantations, the sugar plantations, and pretty white villages, and tiny steeples, and I dreamed that I heard the buzz of life, and the clang of industry amid the jungles [...]. (Templer 1853: I, 232-233.)

  • 4 One of the persons who was inspired by Brooke’s success was Erskine Murray. He started negotiations (...)

3For his income he was dependent on the taxes he imposed and especially on his opium farm, his monopoly of antimony ore and his ‘manorial right over the diamond soil’ (Templer 1853: I 275). Having acquired Sarawak he also immediately set out to govern it.4 One of the first measures he took was to set up a Court of Justice, presided over by himself, and administering what he choose to describe as ‘justice (good substantial justice, without law)’ (Templer 1853: I, 247). The court held its sittings in Brooke’s own house, depicted by him as a ‘palace fifty-four feet square with the dignity of planked floors and walls!!’ (Templer 1853: I, 110). The other members of the court were brothers of Rajah Muda Hassim, of whom Brooke assumed his personal name was Muda Hassim (Barley 2003: 37). He also re-installed the chief local dignitaries, calling them ‘my ministers’ (Keppel 1991: I 265). Brooke explains why he did so: ‘as these men are natives, and have the command of all the common people, and are, moreover, willing to serve me, I conceive it a great advance in my government’ (Keppel 1991: I, 273). He re-instated ‘the ancient laws of Borneo’ (Templer 1853: I, 100). Apparently Brooke did not want to change much: ‘But never must I appear in the light of a reformer, political or religious; for to the introduction of new customs, apparently trivial, and the institution of new forms, however beneficial, the disgust of the semi-barbarous races may be traced. People settled like myself too often try to create a Utopia, and end with a general confusion. The feeling of the native which binds him to his chief is destroyed, and no other principle is substituted in its stead; and as the human mind more easily learns ill than good, they pick up the vices of their governors without their virtues, and their own good qualities disappear, the bad of both races remaining without the good of either’ (Keppel 1991: I, 273-274). This cautious approach also emerges from a letter Brooke wrote to his mother:

I am going on slowly and surely, basing everything on their own laws, consulting all their head men at every step, reducing their laws to writing, and instilling what I think right, merely in the course of conversation—separating the abuses from the customs’. (Templer 1853: I, 228.)

4His cautious approach also defined the type of European people he wanted to help him in developing the region. Though in favour of spreading Christianity he was opposed to a ‘red-hot missionary crusade’ concentrating on proselytization, but admired what he chose to describe as the American way, given priority to the development and education of the local population (Templer 1863: I 228-30). Admiring Thomas Stamford Raffles, John Crawfurd and William Farquhar, he criticised most other European administrators and would-be administrators of his days who ‘always take their own customs, feelings, and manners, and in a way force the natives to conform to them, and never give themselves the trouble of ascertaining how far these manners are repugnant to the natives’ (Templer 1853: I, 292).

5In December 1841 Brooke was satisfied with what he had accomplished:

I am now, and have been holding the government of the country, with the Rajah Muda Hassim’s assistance, with my four Europeans and eight natives, and in the space of eight months from a state of distraction, amounting almost to a struggle, the country is peaceful and its inhabitants cultivating the ground. (Templer 1853: I, 176.)

6Piracy was also under control, partly because of ‘the terror of my name’ (Templer 1853: I, 176). There was praise from the British naval captain Henry Keppel, whose star was definitely on the rise, and about whom Brooke wrote in one of his letters home that he ‘expressed himself astonished more especially at the degree of power, which he saw me exercising daily’ (Templer 1853: I, 277). When he wrote his concluding observations to the second volume of his first edition of The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido, Keppel (1991: II, 226-227) praised James Brooke’s ‘enlightened acts’ and ‘the great advance already made by the English ruler of Sarawak, in laying broad foundations for native prosperity, whilst extending general security and commerce […]’ Soon Keppel had to change his mind. In a postscript to the second edition (published as the first edition in 1846), he let fly at the

weak and covetous Sultan of Borneo [who] has, with more than the usual fickleness of Asiatics, already forgotten the lessons we gave him and the engagements he solemnly and voluntarily contracted with us. (Keppel 1991: II, 234.)

7The Sultan had turned against Brooke—Keppel was informed about this in a letter of 5 April—and had ordered his assassination ‘by treachery or poison’ (Keppel 1991: II, 236). Brooke’s allies, including Rajah Muda Hassim and some ten of his brothers and sons—friends, as Brooke chose to call them in his correspondence—were murdered on the instruction of that ‘base treacherous forsworn murderer’, the Sultan, for their support of Brooke’s anti-piracy policy (Templer 1853: II, 133). The act had shocked Brooke, but at the same time opened a vision of greater independence. The Sultan was a traitor who should be punished. Brooke no longer considered the Sultan to have any authority over the concession, and contemplated to hand over the lease to the family of Rajah Musa Hassim, well aware that this would only increase his own power.

8Some thirty-five years later history repeated itself, when the Sultan of Brunei again ceded land to a foreigner, this time bestowing a real and impressive title on him. The transaction was the first in a chain of events from which eventually the British North Borneo Company would emerge. It all started with a concession of land, including the right to levy taxes, originally leased in August 1865 by the Sultan of Brunei and his ‘Prime Minister’, the Pangeran Tumongong, to C. Lee Moses, the local consul of the United States. Within a month and for ‘a mere song’, the lease came in the hands of the American Trading Company of Borneo, founded by two Hong Kong-based Americans: Joseph William Torrey, successor to Moses as United States Consul in Brunei, and Thomas B. Harris. Harris would die within a few months. Torrey became president of the company. Torrey, and James Brooke’s example may have inspired him, acquired a royal title shortly after the transfer of the lease, bestowed upon him as the principal holder of the concession by the Sultan. He proudly called himself Rajah of Marudu and Ambong.

  • 5 Papers 1882: I, 129-135; Extract uit rapport van de Kommandant van de Makassar betreffende zijn rei (...)
  • 6 Mortgage agreement between Baron von Overbeck and J.W.C. Torrey (Public Record Office/PRO C 874).

9Apart from the title, matters did not eventuate as Torrey had hoped. A settlement, named Ellena, was founded on the shores of the Kimanis River, about sixty miles from British held Labuan, but the trading post was not a great success. By 1866 it already had been abandoned. The Chinese coolies, who had especially been shipped over from Hong Kong to Borneo for the developments of the post, were sent home. Having invested almost all his money in the venture, money which seemed likely to be lost, Torrey, now back on Hong Kong, put the concession up for sale.5 At this moment, the Consul-General of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Hong Kong, Gustavus Count von Overbeck, appeared on the scene. Overbeck was convinced that the American-held concession in North Borneo would be a good buy at the price with excellent prospects. He entered into an agreement with Torrey, as ‘president and only surviving partner’ of the American Trading Company in Borneo, and Harris’ widow.6 The contract secured him the right to exploit the concession. Before he could plunge into his venture, Overbeck had to find financial backing. After failing to interest his own government in the project, he and Torrey continued to look for partners to finance the development of the concession. The German government was approached, which as it did not yet foster colonial possessions turned down the offer (Koschitzky 1887-1888: II, 331). Also Italy, which a few years before had contemplated establishing convict colony in Brunei, was not prepared to step in. In 1874 some progress seemed to have been achieved when Overbeck entered into a partnership with Rudolph Count de Montgelas and Algeron Bertram Mitford, but the two were unable to provide the necessary starting capital.

  • 7 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren van Kell 10-5-1878 (NAR Gezantschap Londen).
  • 8 In 1846 James Brooke had been dead set against such an endeavour and had rejected the establishment (...)
  • 9 A. Dent at a meeting in Westminster Palace Hotel (Papers 1882: I, 137-146).

10Better prospects were offered by a London- and Shanghai-based firm: Dent Brothers and Co. Overbeck knew the Dent brothers—Alfred, John, and Edward—well. In Hong Kong for years he had been associated with Dent, Palmer and Co. When this firm went bankrupt, Overbeck was among the victims and appeared to have lost a considerable amount of money.7 This did not prevent him from approaching the wealthy brothers, who had come out of the debâcle with their own firm and their reputation as respectable businessmen unblemished. In 1877 Overbeck and one of the brothers, Alfred Dent, founded a private association to take over the lease, with Dent in charge and Overbeck as its representative in Borneo.8 The other two brothers and Count de Montgelas and Mitford were also involved in the business venture. For ‘good pecuniary considerations’ the new association obtained the Torrey concession, though as late as March 1880 Torrey had yet not received any money. Torrey himself, still bearing his title of Rajah of Marudu and Ambong, moved to Bangkok where he became salaried Vice-Consul of the United States.9

  • 10 Statement and application addressed to the Marquis of Salisbury (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).
  • 11 Treacher to Derby 2-1-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 117-118).

11In the meantime, Alfred Dent resolutely set out to work. To get the new company up and running, a steamer, the America, was specially fitted out, and then sailed from Liverpool first to Manilla—as a businessman he had secured freight for the Philippines from Antwerp—and then to Singapore. In Singapore Overbeck boarded ship. He was joined by Torrey, who was to accompany Overbeck in his negotiations with the Sultan of Brunei, showing by his presence that he agreed with the transfer of the lease. In December 1877, they arrived in Labuan from where they would proceed to Brunei. Still before the end of the year, the Sultan gave the Overbeck and Dent company sovereign rights over Sabah. An agreement was drawn up in which, Alfred Dent would later write to the British Foreign Secretary, Edward Henry Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby, the ‘Sultan has nominated and appointed him [that is, Overbeck] supreme ruler of granted territory, with certain titles of a local character.’10 In getting their venture started, Overbeck and Dent had the support of the British Acting Consul-General for Borneo and Governor of Labuan, William Hood Treacher, who was well disposed towards their plans. In his report to Derby about the arrival of Overbeck and his companions, Treacher sketched a bright future for the new company. The concession they were to acquire had, he maintained in the optimistic spirit of many Europeans dreaming of business ventures in the East, the most fertile soil in the whole of Borneo. It was well suited to the production of sugar, pepper, and coffee and had the best harbours of the island. Moreover, he went on, it was rich in natural products and probably held valuable minerals. Treacher did not expect many problems. As many of his contemporaries, he was convinced that some display of British naval power would do the trick and that ‘if supported by the occasional presence of a gunboat [...] the proposed company would not have much difficulty with the natives’.11

  • 12 Treacher to Derby 22-1-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 118).

12Treacher may also have considered the venture a good opportunity to enhance the British position at the court of Sulu, a Sultanate which up to then had successfully resisted expansion of Spanish rule over the southern Muslim territories of the Philippines. In January of the following year, Overbeck entered into a similar agreement with the Sultan of Sulu. When he concluded his deal with the Sultan of Brunei, Overbeck had probably not known that a great portion of the Brunei concession—including what some Dutch persons called ‘the famous Bay of Sandakan’ on the north-east coast—was disputed territory (as it still is today, with Malaysia and the Philippines as the contestants, and the Sultan of Sulu calling himself Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo). It was claimed by Sulu, which maintained it had been granted it in the past by the Sultan of Brunei in return for support against domestic rivals. The best way to round this problem was to obtain a lease also from the Sultan of Sulu. In the ensuing negotiations, Treacher played an active role. When the Sultan of Sulu inquired of him after Overbeck, he stressed that the Baron ‘represented a bona fide British company [...] with sufficient capital, or the capacity of raising it’.12 He also accompanied Overbeck on his visit to the Sultan to get a lease contract signed. On that voyage the America, the steamer of the Dent company, was backed up by the British warship, the Fly, on which Treacher himself travelled.

  • 13 A. Dent to Salisbury 2-12-1879 (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).
  • 14 In an initial reaction the Dutch Minister of the Colonies, P.P. van Bosse, tried to downplay in Par (...)
  • 15 Charter of Incorporation to the British North Borneo Company (Papers 1882: I, 192-199).
  • 16 Statement and application addressed to the Marquis of Salisbury (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).
  • 17 Verslag van de commandant van de Atjeh 12-7-1880 (NAR Gezantschap Londen).

13After the leases had been signed, the two Sultans each sent a representative along with Overbeck. At six places along the coast they ‘assembled the Chiefs and people, and read to them a solemn Proclamation of their Sultan, announcing the grants, and exhorting and commanding them to obey the new authorities’.13 At three of these places, among them Sandakan, the ‘house flag’ of the Dent company, bearing a lion, was raised. The contracts with the Sultans had given Overbeck—now allowed to call himself Maharajah of Sabah, Rajah of Gaya, and Datu Bandahara and Rajah of Sandakan14—and his associates, as it was later phrased ‘the power of life and death over the inhabitants’ of the leased territory. They held the rights of ‘making laws, coining money, creating an army and navy, levying customs rates on home and foreign trade and shipping, and other dues and taxes on the inhabitants... together with all other powers and rights usually exercised by and belonging to sovereign Rulers’.15 To execute the rights Overbeck appointed three Residents who in their territory also administered justice. To this, Dent and Overbeck reported with some pride to the British government not much later, ‘the natives cheerfully submit’.16 Indeed, when a small Dutch squadron visited Sandakan two years later to inform the colonial administration in Batavia about its state of affairs, there was a small uniformed police force, originating from Labuan and East Africa. A small prison surrounded by a wooden stockade also had been built. It held two murderers, sentenced to imprisonment by a court of native chiefs, presided over by the local Resident.17

  • 18 Sultan Sulu to Spanish Governor of Sulu 22-7-1878; Governor of Sulu to Overbeck 22-7-1878; Sultan o (...)
  • 19 Sultan of Sulu to Governor Captain General of the Philippines 22-7-1878; Memorandum of the Spanish (...)
  • 20 Verslag van de commandant van de Atjeh 12-7-1880 (NAR Gezantschap London).

14There were two nations which were not overpleased with the exploits of Overbeck and Alfred Dent. One was Spain, the other the Netherlands. In the eyes of Spain the Sultan of Sulu was not an independent ruler who could conclude treaties with foreigners at will. He was considered a rebellious vassal who had to be called to order. Spain indeed did so. When Overbeck and Treacher visited the Sultan, he had already been compelled to evacuate his capital Jolo. Not much later, in July 1878, he was forced into submission. He was immediately forced to annul the Sabah lease. After he had formally yielded to Spain, one of the first acts of the Sultan was to write a letter to the Spanish Governor of Sulu, Don Carlos Martinez, informing him that he wanted to cancel the lease agreement, a letter forwarded at once to Overbeck by Martinez.18 The Spanish government also claimed that the Sultan of Sulu also had confided to its colonial officials in the Philippines that he had been forced into the deal by Overbeck. The latter was supposed to have given the Sultan the impression that it was only a matter of courtesy from his part that he had approached him. If the truth be told, he did not need a lease signed by the Sultan. Brunei intended to occupy Sandakan, come what may, and soon a Spanish military force would attack and destroy Sulu. Alluding to such attacks, Overbeck had even succeeded in selling arms to the Sultan. After the lease contract had been signed, a machine-gun, two cannons, and ammunition were brought ashore.19 Probably more to the point was a remark by a Dutch naval captain, of the squadron mentioned above, that the Sultan of Sulu ‘appeared to feel more affection for Mister von Overbeck, who had given him something and had promised him still more, than for the Spanish government, which took almost everything from him’.20

  • 21 Salisbury to Treacher 11-4-1879 (Papers 1882: 119).
  • 22 E. Dent to Under Secretary of State 16-5-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 120).
  • 23 Agreement between Count de Montgelas, A.B. Mitford, Baron de Overbeck and the Dent Brothers 25-3-18 (...)
  • 24 Statement and application addressed to the Marquis of Salisbury (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).

15Rumours from Madrid about a impending submission of Sulu to Spain had already reached the British government in March 1878.21 In May 1878 worried by Spain’s intentions, Edward Dent wrote to the Foreign Office. In his letter he explained that his brother—who had left for Borneo in that same month—was ‘anxious to secure the cooperation of Her Majesty’s Government as he feels confident that with their sanction and support the country in question can be developed by British subjects for the furtherance of British interests’.22 What the Dents had in mind was the transformation of their Borneo venture into a company which held a Royal Charter, a chartered company, which could exercise the local administrative functions normally exercised by representatives of the Crown.23 In December, Alfred Dent and Overbeck, vowing that the association they had founded was under British control, that is, of that of the Dent Brothers, formally petitioned the government; asking for the protection of the British Navy and the right for the three company Residents to administer justice to British subjects. The government should also declare itself willing to shield them when complications with foreign nations arose. In this respect, the petitioners referred only to problems with the subjects or citizens of such countries in the concession concerned. They did not specifically allude to a Spanish claim.24

  • 25 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren 11-2-1879 (NAR Gezantschap London).
  • 26 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren 31-5-1879 (NAR Gezantschap London).

16Government support was essential. The concession had landed Overbeck and Dent in the middle of an international dispute. Not so long before in an attempt to protect their trading interests, Germany and Great Britain had successfully contested Spanish rights in Sulu. Early in 1877 they had forced Spain to allow free trade in the Sulu Archipelago, but in their agreement with Spain had carefully avoided—though the subject had come up during the negotiations—to settle the matter of the sovereignty of Sulu. That had been left dangling. At that moment trade had been the prime concern of Germany and Great Britain, not the legal status of a remote group of islands. Spain interpreted this to mean that Sulu was still Spanish. Dent and his supporters, also to be found in the British Foreign Office, begged to differ.25 The British government even ordered Treacher to Sulu and parts of North Borneo to lodge a protest against the Spanish claims (Treacher 1889-90: 51). One of the arguments adduced by London—and also by Berlin—to refute Spanish sovereignty had been the absence of any actual effective control in Sulu by Spain. And this was what the colonial administration in Manilla was trying to establish. Spain, its Minister in London confided to his Dutch colleague in May 1879, was confident that Great Britain would not go to war to protect the interests of Overbeck and Dent in North Borneo. His country could, he intimated, make it very difficult for the concession-holders.26

  • 27 Meeting in Westminster Palace Hotel (Papers 1882: I, 137-146).
  • 28 Op. cit.

17In an effort to secure government backing the latter tried to depict the concession as a heaven on earth for a British gentleman. In March 1879, at a meeting to drum up support in the Westminster Palace Hotel in London, Overbeck waxed lyrical about the place: There is excellent sport to be had in Borneo—elephants, rhinoceros, deer, wild cattle, wild pig, fireback and other kinds of pheasants.’ Even the climate proved a selling point. It was ‘most surprising’: ‘in Sulu we were able to go for walks and shooting parties in the middle of the day; we did the same in Borneo, and every night it was necessary to have blankets whether ashore or afloat.27 To impress the government of the importance of their undertaking, the meeting stressed how strategically the concession was located—‘in the midst of the China Sea, midway between the great trading centres of Singapore and Hong Kong’, and how dangerous to the British interests it would be were another country to take possession of the region; and they did not fail to mention that Spain had indeed tried to do so.28

  • 29 Van Tets to Van Heeckeren 20-10-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).
  • 30 The Dutch government pointed to Article 12 of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of March 1824 about their resp (...)

18The new British incursion into Borneo, but above all the prospect of a chartered company backed by the British state, unleashed some strong sentiments in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people considered Brunei to fall within the Dutch sphere of influence and hence should not come under the tutelage or sovereignty of another European nation or the United States. Though the lease-holder was a commercial company, a British annexation was not to be precluded: ‘We do not want a situation, which can so easily happen,’ the Dutch envoy in London stated at the Foreign Office in September 1878, in which ‘problems with the natives’ might threaten the loss of the capital invested and leave the way open to turn the enterprise into a British settlement in the political sense.29 For some this was an emotional feeling that did not have to be substantiated by clear arguments. Others, including the cabinet ministers, thought that the Treaty concluded in London in 1824 between the Netherlands and Great Britain about their respective colonial possessions in Southeast Asia blocked, at least in theory, any advance of British interests in Brunei.30 The knowledge that, in the 1840s, the British government had already made it clear that in its opinion the treaty did not apply to Borneo did not prevent Dutch Cabinet Ministers from seeking refuge in the treaty. One of them was the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, C.T. Baron van Lijnden van Sandenburg, who, in 1850, when still a lawyer, had written an unpublished study of roughly three hundred pages about the treaty, and must have been very familiar with the British point of view. The ‘Borneo Affair’, the dispute over the Brunei concession, would give C.M.E.G. Count van Bijlandt, the Dutch ambassador in London, a great deal to do, and, a view shared by Dutch cabinet ministers, a great many reasons to complain about the peculiarities and arrogance of British diplomacy. Van Bijlandt was aware that London and the British Foreign Secretary, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, preferred not to have to deal with matters brought up by representatives of insignificant states. In November 1879 he tried to explain to Van Lijnden how the British government should be approached in order to present the Dutch standpoint as cogently as possible:

  • 31 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 17-11-1879 (NAR Gezantschap Londen).

I cannot insist enough, as the result of my practical experience, that a verbal discussion of important matters with the British Government leads nowhere and is hardly worthy of any trust. It may work for ambassadors representing great Powers, which England has to humour, but for representatives of small States, to whom Lord Salisbury himself hardly ever is in, a verbal discussion of important matters with the Department Chiefs of ‘Foreign Affairs’ is the word one can think of. Attention is paid only to written communications, because they require a written reply, which may perhaps have to be included in the ‘Bluebook’ and may become the subject of criticism and judgement by public opinion.31

19London paid scant heed to the Dutch remonstrances. In all probability the British government did not consider the Dutch position one that was worthy of serious consideration. Its statesmen made some polite noises, but went their own way; apparently giving the impression of ignoring the Dutch pleas. The Dutch government had expected something else. Or, as Van Lijnden wrote in French to Van Bijlandt on 11 November 1879, as the ambassador had to read out the letter to the British Foreign Secretary:

  • 32 Van Lijnden to Van Bijlandt 11-11-1879 (Papers 1882: II, 10).

The confidential exchange of ideas between our two governments to which we were looking forward seemed perfectly in accordance with the traditional relations which exist between the two Colonial Powers, and which, in those regions where they have to serve identical interests, obliges them constantly to follow a uniform line of conduct, to pay scrupulous attention to their respective rights, and to try always to eliminate, by a cordial understanding, everything that could give cause for raising misunderstandings or involuntary conflicts.32

  • 33 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren 10-5-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).
  • 34 Salisbury to West 20-5-1879 (Papers 1882: I, 148).

20Despite its giving the Dutch government short shrift, the British government was also not happy about Alfred Dent’s adventure in North Borneo. Its initial reaction was one of reservation. In May 1878, the British Colonial Secretary, Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, gave Van Bijlandt the impression to that he did not very much welcome the Borneo adventures of the Dent company.33 The matter, he added, was not in his hands but in those of the Foreign Secretary, who also does not seem to have been overly enthusiastic. Salisbury had more pressing matters on his mind: the advance of the Russian Army in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and Great Britain coming to the assistance of the Ottoman empire. ‘In the midst of the preoccupations occasioned by the political situation in Europe,’ Salisbury wrote in May 1879 to the British Minister in Madrid, ‘Her Majesty’s Government have been compelled to postpone, from time to time, the consideration of the important question raised by the new Treaty concluded last year between Spain and Sulu’.34 Consequently, in 1878, and this more than once, the British government had made it known to Parliament it had not taken any decision yet about what position it should take (Handelingen 1913-1914: 704).

  • 35 E. Dent to the Under Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs 16-5-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 120).
  • 36 Van Test to Van Heeckeren 20-10-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).
  • 37 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 20-10-1879, 26-11-1880 (NAR gezantschap London).

21The lukewarm reaction from the government had been a reason for Edward Dent to plead in his letter of May 1878 to wait for a visit of Overbeck to London before ‘coming to an unfavourable decision’.35 Were it not for the ‘earnest advocacy by one high official in the Foreign Office’, the Ceylon Observer wrote, Dent’s request for government support would certainly have met ‘with prompt refusal’ (Ceylon Observer, 5-6-1879). The high official in question was Sir Julian Pauncefote. He considered an undertaking as that of Overbeck and Dent to be ‘one of those commercial enterprises Her Majesty’s Government are wont to look on with favour’.36 Unfortunately for the Dutch, Van Bijlandt usually had to deal with him when he had to plead the Dutch case when the Foreign Secretary was unavailable. It was also Pauncefote who, at a later stage, had to advise his Minister on the charter.37

  • 38 Van Tets to Van Heeckeren 20-10-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).
  • 39 The Secretary of the Admiralty to Lord Tenterdon 19-4-1880 (Papers 1882: I, 183).
  • 40 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 11-1-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).
  • 41 Read to Van Bijlandt 12-7-1881; Van Lijnden to Van Bijlandt 6-4-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).

22The Dents’ lobby did not stop here. They succeeded in interesting others in their venture, all ‘influential people’, as the temporary Dutch Minister in London, A. van Tets (Van Bijlandt was on leave to take his annual cure at Aix-les-Bains), wrote to The Hague in October 1878.38 The most important of them was perhaps Sir Rutherford Alcock, Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of Bath, and a former British envoy in China and Japan. There were also other well-known Asia hands. One was Henry Keppel, by now an Admiral and former British Naval Commander on the China Station, who as a naval captain had assisted James Brooke in his efforts to suppress rebellious Dayaks in Sarawak. They were joined by Richard Biddulph Martin, a banker and Member of Parliament, and Richard Charles Mayne, a Rear-Admiral, Companion of the Most Honourable Order of Bath. Through the intervention of Keppel and Mayne, moral support from the navy could be mobilized to send favourable reports to the Foreign Office about the activities of the company in North Borneo. One of these was attached to a letter from the Admiralty to the Foreign Office in April 1880: a report from the Commander-in-Chief on the China Station about his visit to Sandakan. The commander showed himself ‘favourably impressed with the influence for good manifestedly possessed by them over the natives’ and suggested that it would ‘add to the prosperity of the people’ if the government would concur to the requests of the company.39 Mention should also be made of William H.M. Read, an Englishman, Consul-General of the Netherlands in Singapore and a close friend of Keppel and James Brooke, who forwarded some of the information about the vicissitudes of their Borneo venture to his London friends. He was also the person who, as Consul-General, had duly informed the colonial administration in Batavia about what was happening in North Borneo in February 1878. Read, one of the leading figures in the business community of Singapore, had for years, according to himself already for thirty-five to forty years, handled the banking business of the Dents in Asia.40 It was he who became the representative of Dent and Overbeck in Singapore, acting as superintendent of the concessions when Overbeck was in Europe. Briefly he would even become one of the directors of the new North Borneo Company which took shape out of the concession. He was forced to resigned after a few months in July 1881 when, during a visit to The Hague, the Dutch Foreign Minister had made it plain to him that such a function was incompatible with his position as Dutch Consul-General in Singapore.41

  • 42 Rutherford Alcock to Salisbury 9-6-1879 (Papers 1882: I, 150).

23It took a long time for the British government to react to the petition for official support submitted by Dent and Overbeck of December 1878. Polite reminders by Rutherford Alcock in June 1879 or by A. Dent in September 1879 and April 1880, this time also referring to ‘the influential friends interested with me,’ did not help. In their letters to the government, both stressed that a delay was only costing the Company money. Considerable expenses had been incurred and still more money had to be invested, while as long as the political situation remained unsettled no real start could be made with the exploitation of the concession. As long as the British government had not made up its mind with respect to the company and had not yet decided how to react to the Spanish treaty with the Sultan of Sulu, the investors, Alcock wrote, found themselves in a position which ‘caused considerable inconvenience, it having been thought undesirable to introduce any permanent system of revenue, or to attempt any development of the resources of the country, while the future remains uncertain’.42

  • 43 The majority of the shares was already in the hands of the Dent family. Alfred held 14 shares, Edwa (...)
  • 44 Agreement made in London by Count Montgelas, A.B. Mitford, Baron de Overbeck, Alfred and John Dent, (...)
  • 45 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 11-1-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).

24This was indubitably true, but it were above all Overbeck and two other partners of the first hour, Monteglas and Mitford, who were to suffer and lost their shares in the company. As shareholders, they were supposed to contribute to the financing of the concession: the salaries to be paid to the three Residents; the chartering of steamers; and the other expenditure that had to be made to keep the endeavour going. From the start, their hands had been tied, and as early as March 1878 they had pledged their shares in favour of Alfred Dent to compensate him for the extra money he had to invest. In September 1880, Alfred Dent, who at that time had already spent over £50,000, called in the debts. Overbeck, Monteglas, and Mitford had to come up with the money to pay their proportion of the investments made, or their shares were to be put up for sale. The person who would buy them, paying £100 per share, was Alfred Dent himself, which made him the majority shareholder.43 Overbeck also had to part with all the rights, titles, powers and privileges that the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu had bestowed on him.44 To make matters worse for him, he also had made some new, ill-fated investments. He was, the Dutch ambassador in London reported, totally ruined and had only been saved from bankruptcy by the money he had received from Alfred Dent for his shares.45 He faded into the background. Within a few years, he was only remembered as ‘somebody who had assisted in the transfer of certain American rights to the British Company’ (Hatton 1885: 85).

25In April 1880, fearing that a change of government after the general election and the coming into office of a Liberal Cabinet might not only cause further delay but also diminish his chances, Alfred Dent had once again pleaded with Salisbury to at least speak out in support of the Company’s right to lease the disputed area. Again asking for a charter, he spelled out to Salisbury the benevolent effects to the population of the Company’s presence in Borneo:

  • 46 A. Dent to Salisbury 12-4-1880 (Papers 1882: I, 182-183).

There is however ample proof that [...] the efforts of the Company have been successful in preserving order; that our residents and their courts have throughout been fully recognised by the native chiefs and populations; that the presence of Englishmen has been cordially welcomed; and that considerable progress has been made towards the civilisation and the development of the country since the occupation in December 1877.46

  • 47 Granville to Morier 7-1-1882 (Papers 1882: I, 202-205).

26Salisbury found it a matter for his successor to decide. At the end of 1880, Dent was informed that Granville, the new Foreign Secretary, had the matter under consideration and that the government was considering a favourable reply. In November of the following year, the Royal charter was granted at long last. In May 1882 the British North Borneo Chartered Company was founded. Alfred Dent became its managing director; Treacher, its first Governor in Sabah (Kaur 1994: 6). It appears that Dent’s reference to increasing law and order had struck a chord. In January 1882, when Granville briefed the British Minister in Madrid by letter on how to react to a Spanish protest against the granting of the charter, he not only pointed out the strategic location of North Borneo for British trade, intimating that a foreign occupation of which would be ‘a source of disquietude’, but also to Dent’s reference to the advance of civilization in Borneo.47

  • 48 Besluit Gouverneur-Generaal van Nederlandsch-Indië 5-5-1880; instructies Commandant Atjeh; Van Lijn (...)

27For London the granting or withholding of a charter was an exclusively British affair. The British government may have been prepared to inform the Dutch about what it was to decide, but it did not feel itself obliged, as The Hague suggested, to take Dutch remonstrations into consideration. It also refused to furnish the Dutch government with details about the leases concluded with the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu. That was the affair of a private business firm and it had no right to disclose contents to a third party. If the Netherlands wanted this information, it should contact Overbeck and Dent or the Sultans who had signed the leases. As it happened, no such direct confrontation was necessary. The Dutch government obtained its information in another way. The officers of the squadron that had visited Sandakan had managed to lay their hand on copies of the leases. Their ships had also called at Brunei and Sulu. These visits had not yielded much additional information. The Sultan of Brunei was too old and too deaf to enter into a meaningful conversation, and the Sultan of Sulu, now formally a vassal of Spain, too afraid to speak.48

  • 49 Stuart to Granville 17-8-1880, 14-11-1881 (Papers 1882: II, 16, 31-32).
  • 50 Van Bijlandt to Rochussen 10-11-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).
  • 51 Stuart to Granville 14-11-1881 (Papers 1882: II, 31-32).

28The Dutch had been left in the dark. Unease in The Hague had been the result. The Dutch Ministers of Foreign Affairs, first Van Lijnden and later on Jonkheer W.F Rochussen, who had to handle the case of North Borneo, were ‘somewhat hurt’ (Van Lijnden) and even ‘disappointed and depressed’ (Rochussen) by the way they were treated by London.49 Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was that Rochussen, less than a month in office, was confronted with the fact that the British government had published its decision to grant the Borneo Company a charter in the London Gazette in November 1881. ‘It had escaped my attention,’ Van Bijlandt wrote to Rochussen, ‘that The Times of yesterday, in a hidden corner, held the information that the Charter to the British North Borneo Company (Dent Co.) had been published in the Gazette of the previous evening’.50 Rochussen told the British ambassador in The Hague that the fact that the Dutch government had not been informed beforehand was all the more painful because the announcement came at a time when the Dutch States-General was discussing the national budget, a period during which cabinet ministers were more than usual subject to questions and criticism by their political opponents.51

* * * *

  • 52 Bismarck had been confronted with the inertia, in some cases the incompetence, of the British burea (...)

29In a number of ways the story of the North Borneo Company is exemplary. It provides a glimpse in the functioning of British diplomacy in the nineteenth century when commercial or colonial expansion outside Europe was involved. Except in cases of extreme urgency, reluctance to act promptly seemed to have been normal practice of the British Government when confronted with new developments or novel international complications. It was an attitude which was not always well received. From time to time, the apparent inertia of British cabinet ministers led to critical remarks in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where occasionally it was pointed out that for months the government had remained silent on a particular subject. It also caused much apprehension to those whose interests were directly involved. This concerned not only private individuals such as the Dent brothers and their associates, anxious to acquire government support to safeguard their business ventures, but, as the bitterness in The Hague shows, the Netherlands and other foreign nations could be equally ruffled. In the early 1880s, when a colonial conflict between Great Britain and Germany was brewing, the British unresponsiveness infuriated the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.52 When Berlin and London stared to quarrel about the division of the non-Dutch part of New Guinea, Bismarck again accused the British government of not giving ‘the level of attention’ to be expected ‘in view of the friendly relations between the two countries’ (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: II, 223). But there was more. As the Dutch ambassador in London, Van Bijlandt, had observed in his correspondence with The Hague, the British firmly believed in putting everything in writing. Bismarck, as he explained in the Reichstag in March 1885, preferred verbal diplomacy. In his opinion, face to face talks between statesmen or between statesmen and ambassadors or special envoys were more practical. The British penchant for written communication annoyed him:

I may suppose it is known that the diplomatic traffic from the English side is conducted of late mainly, or exclusively, in the form of written notes, so in the form of notes which are drawn up in London, of which the text is sent over here, is signed by the English ambassador here, and depending on the form is read out, is handed over, or is given to me in transcription, depending on the content of the note. (Koschitzky 1887-1888: I, 208.)

  • 53 Almost each time a conflict over colonial claims came up between London and Berlin, the German gove (...)

30Bismarck considered this means of communication inflexible. Letters and notes were fixed and neither their content nor the impression the texts made could be changed. The ambassador was only an intermediary, and when it was all said and done, an expensive one. There was no reason why such letters could not be sent by post. This required no costly diplomatic corps. It was also time-consuming, and Bismarck complained that he had to answer all such letters and notes himself. Struck by the fact that there were so many, he had them counted. Between the summer of 1884 and March 1885, he had received 820 written notes from London, together amounting to between 700 and 800 pages. That was more than he had received from all other foreign governments together in the twenty-three years he had held public office (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: I, 209).53

31Equally exemplary is the exorbitant praise of the prospects of new colonization projects. Again a statement by Bismarck can be presented as an example. After he finally had become an advocate of an active German Colonialpolitik, Bismarck had to use all his powers of persuasion to have some of his plans accepted by the Reichstag. Many representatives still doubted the feasibility of the state protection of German firms which at that time were gaining a foothold in Africa and the Pacific, let alone to establish protectorates and colonies. One of the arguments of those opposed to such a plan was that in such parts of the world the climate did not suit the German constitution. Or, as the Allgemeine Zeitung in Munich wrote in 1882 with regard to a German annexation of New Guinea, the island did not differ from Java, West Africa and Guyana. It was a place to be dreaded and avoided as the ‘natural burial place of the White’ (Allgemeine Zeitung, 27-11-1882). The cooking-pot syndrome was conjured up from time to time to ridicule or reject efforts of the German and British businessmen to set up trading posts or settlements in Africa or still unknown regions of Asia. In Germany, it was pointed out that the earlier endeavours by German entrepreneurs ‘had for those involved mostly ended with a bankruptcy and on the roasting spit of wild cannibals’ (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: I, 159). On another occasion, it was said that, for instance in East Africa, German settlers only had two options: ‘an honourable grave or to be eaten by the darkies’ (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: I, 289). In Italy, the newspaper Vedetta described the inhabitants of New Guinea as cannibals, whose ‘only fault’ it was ‘that they eat each other by way of titbit’ and, when it came to the eating of foreigners, preferred Chinese to Europeans (De Locomotief, 23-4-1879, 20-5-1879). Clearly Bismarck had to present another picture to win support for an active (and aggressive) German colonization policy. He defended a German occupation of parts of New Guinea by depicting the island as consisting of ‘large, fertile, and easy to cultivate regions, which now are overgrown with steppe grass as high as a man’s head, located below the equator and as such excellently suitable for the cultivation of coffee, cotton and similar tropical products’ (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: I, 274).

32Bismarck’s rosy picture of New Guinea, James Brooke’s dream about the future of Sarawak, and Overbeck’s portrayal of North Borneo as a gentleman’s paradise can be supplemented by many more such idealized extravagances presented by people caught up in a Pacific fantasy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, admittedly made to attract investors or gain political backing. People talked (and wrote) about the prospects of opening up new land for agricultural estates, producing copra or sugar cane, and dreamed of striking it rich by discovering valuable minerals and precious metals. It was the period in which the region became the arena of competition for companies and individuals trying to carve out a niche in the international economy, and governments reluctantly or enthousiastically rushed to protect them or actively joined in to establish coaling stations for their commercial fleets and navies. Expectations tended to be exaggerated because of plans mooted to build a canal connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean and the boost this was expected to give to Pacific sea traffic and trade. In Australia, people dreamed of ‘herds grazing in the grass lands’ of New Guinea and ‘sugar mills at work on some of the rivers’ (The Argus, 11-10-1884). The Samoan Archipelago, the scene of fierce international competition between the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, was considered to be ‘one of the richest and most fertile in the Pacific, and after the opening of the Panama canal, is located in the centre of one of the biggest trade routes of the world’ (Australië’s 1886: 56). The second part of the sentence is also telling. On whatever spots of land potential colonizers set eyes, it was noted that they were strategically located as junctions of inter-Pacific sea routes. There seems to have almost been no exception to this rule. It was true of Samoa, the north-east coast of New Guinea, and of many other places, even of Sandakan, of which the roads, because of its size and location, was said to be much better than those of Sydney (De Indische Gids, 1883: 783).

  • 54 James Brooke had had the same idea. In his diary he noted: ‘And yet, if exertion can benefit our ra (...)

33The Borneo Affair also indicates that, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the word “civilization” acquired a special appeal in the political vocabulary in those states intent on expanding their colonial empires.54 In April 1880, when Alfred Dent mentioned the progress made towards the civilization in North Borneo in his letter to Salisbury, he captured the spirit of the age. Purely economic or political reasons were no longer enough to justify colonization. Noble motives had to preponderate. It was claimed—and people may sincerely have believed this—that the only the West could bring law and order and civilization to the non-Western world. Despotism, slavery and other abuses would vanish after the Western powers had established themselves in what had been up to then often virtually unknown regions of Africa and Asia, or had managed to acquire a foothold in states still clinging to their independence, such as the Ottoman Empire, China, and Korea.

34The belief in a such a European mission was nicely worded by J.F.C. Ferry, French Prime Minister in the 1880s, and a staunch proponent of French colonialism:

Can you deny, can anyone deny that there is more justice, more material and moral order, more equity, more social virtue in North Africa since France carried out its conquest? Is it possible to deny that in India, despite the unfortunate episodes that have been encountered in the history of conquest, there is today infinitely greater justice, enlightenment, order, public and private virtue since the English conquest? (Ferry, cited in Aldrich 1996: 98-99.)

35In Great Britain, speaking about Africa in a speech at the Royal Colonial Institute in 1897, Joseph Chamberlain was equally at pains to stress that bringing civilization was a ‘national mission’, contributing to ‘the happiness and prosperity of the people,’ who without British intervention would remain the subject of ‘barbarism, of slavery, of superstition’ (Eldridge 1996: 9). A decade later a British politician even used the phrase “British benevolent despotism”. In 1908 Sir Edward Grey, the then British Foreign Secretary, wrote to his envoy in Constantinople, Sir Gerard Lowther:

  • 55 Grey to Lowther 31-8-1908 (PRO FO 800 79).

Hitherto, wherever we have had Mahometan subjects, we have been able to tell them that the subjects in the countries ruled by the head of their religion were under a despotism which was not a benevolent one; while our Mahometan subjects were under a despotism that was benevolent.55

36The same opinion was expressed in the Netherlands, busy expanding its de facto control over the Archipelago to prevent the eventuality that foreigners might establish settlements in areas which at most de jure formed part of the Netherlands Indies. In the words to Parliament spoken by C. Th. van Deventer, the prime advocate of the Dutch policy to bring welfare to the Indonesian population:

[Netherlands] India on the other hand, under the native sovereigns, who had themselves mostly arrived in the country by ursupation, has been a prey to disorder and misgovernment and only under Dutch administration, whatever mistakes might have been made, have order, tranquility, population increase gradually come and the foundation laid for popular prosperity. [...] we have done better for the natives than the best native administration could have. (Handelingen 1913-1914: II, 119.)

* * * *

37Exemplary as the North Borneo case may be for what transpired in the Pacific in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the Rajahs Torrey and Overbeck were the last of their kind. Instead of trying to link up with an indigenous political systems, Westerners began to resort to Western notions of political rule, to propagate concepts that were familiar to them. There were no longer rajah-ships, and the undisputed rights over land and population which went with them, to be won among the Pacific Islands for the adventurous Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, or Americans, but such people could build up a small economic empire of there own. By mingling in the internal affairs of the native kingdoms, supporting one of the various factions contesting each other, such often ruthless entrepreneurs could wield considerable political power in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, or Hawaii, and even achieve the position of Prime Minister, probably, but this is not the only reason, finding the position of resident or advisor too lowly. In the end, if they were unlucky and the economic and political tides turned, financial ruin or banishment could face them.

  • 56 France also played a role in the South Seas, albeit a less prominent one, quarrelling with Great Br (...)

38Interfering commercial agents and traders, at times doubling as consuls, exploiting or being drawn into domestic political rivalries, had always formed part of the European territorial advance in Asia. The role of such persons again reached a crescendo during the colonial race which took place in the Pacific in the three to four decades leading up to the First World War. The rivalry that was the consequence of their activities caused, as can be surmised from Bismarck’s statements, much bitterness and commotion in Berlin and London. Although initially the two governments had been reluctant to take on new colonial adventures, Germany and Great Britain became the countries which quarrelled most over annexations and delineations of spheres of influence in the Pacific. Germany was trying to carve out its own colonial empire. The British government had to take into account a strong lobby to involve the home country in a further territorial expansion in Australia and New Zealand. There, the establishment of German settlements nearby that could be used as a base of operation for the German navy was considered a security threat and, even more importantly, a threat to the expansion, if not survival, of Britain’s own Pacific business networks. The prospects, for instance, of an occupation of the non-Dutch part of New Guinea by Germany gave rise to much greater emotions in Australia than in the Netherlands Indies or in Holland. At times, the United States joined in as a player.56 The Pacific Islanders, the victims of the Western appetite for agricultural land and cheap labour, could not withstand the onslaught their societies and political systems had to endure.

39Already before the Western nations tried to carve up the Pacific, the region had attracted a variety of adventurers and fortune-hunters. Some of them tried to make their fortune by setting up companies to lure settlers to New Guinea and the Pacific or to attract investors. To accomplish this they printed brochures conjuring up visions of goldfields and rich mines or profitable agricultural endeavours. Others went to the islands as prospectors, merchants, or agents specialized in the recruitment of labour. Whalers, fishermen out to gather, for instance, bêche-de-mer, mother-of-pearl, or pearls, sea-captains and sailors, crews of warships and shopkeepers also settled there. People on the run from justice or creditors, escaped convicts and owners of hotels, bars and billiard parlours completed the European communities which began to form on the Pacific islands. And, notwithstanding the missionaries, who went there too, it was unruly communities of Europeans, Americans, and Australians which were the result. The way these immigrants conducted themselves often could not pass the high moral standards adopted by outsiders who visited the islands. As early as 1856, it was reported about one of such settlement, Apia in Samoa, that it was ‘composed of a heterogeneous mass of the most immoral and dissolute Foreigners that ever disgraced humanity’ (Gilson 1970: 179-180). The city was ‘the Hell of the Pacific’ (Masterman 1934: 173). A similar remark can be made about Levuka, the principle foreign settlement in the Fiji Islands. In the early 1870s, half of its houses were hotels and bars. ‘Swilling gin and brawling,’ a contemporary wrote, ‘are the principal amusements’ (Gravelle 1983: 120).

40Sowing confusion as it had done in Southern Africa, emerging German overseas trade added a new element to the Western presence in the Pacific. The companies involved which commenced operations in the Southern Pacific in the late 1850s probably hovered in the fringe of the established German business community. As late as January 1885, one of the members of the Reichstag asked Bismarck where those Hamburg ‘trade lords’ had suddenly come from, who were active in the Pacific but of whom he had never heard before (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: I, 197). Such a derogatory remark fell wide of the mark. The companies might have been relatively unknown, but they had acquired a strong position in the Southern Pacific, in some regions even dominating trade. In 1877, German firms controlled 87 per cent of the export from Samoa and Tonga (Graichen & Gründer 2005: 69). The first German traders to settle there, acting independently or as agents of firms in their fatherland, profited from a booming world demand for copra, and in the early years, also for cotton. Recently novel promising application for copra had been found. Since the 1840s, the coconut oil extracted from it had been used in soaps, while in the next decade it became an ingredient for the manufacture of candles. An increasing demand for these products in Europe made copra, which could be easily produced by drying coconuts, a much sought-after commodity (Masterman 1934: 57-58). In the 1860s, cotton trade also held out alluring prospects. In the United States, the Civil War (1861-1865) had caused production to drop sharply.

  • 57 In the late 1870s, the company became the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft der Südsee-I (...)
  • 58 Powell to Salisbury 25-2-1887 (PRO FO 534 35).

41A pioneering role in the advantage of German commercial interest in the Pacific was played by the Hamburg trading-house J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn and its agents. Initially the company prospered. Starting business in the Pacific in 1856, this company became the ‘biggest of the early Pacific firms’ (Scarr 1990: 150).57 The position it gained in the Pacific trade was such that contemporary Britons referred to Johann Cesar Godeffroy as the ‘South Sea King’ (Townsend 1930: 73). Much of the success was owed to one of Godeffroy’s agents, Theodor Weber. He set up a branch in Apia in Samoa to engage in the trade in cotton, copra and other tropical products. Soon the company was buying up land in Samoa for its own plantations and began to expand its activities to other Pacific islands. Weber carved himself out a key role in local Samoan politics in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. He used political as well as economic means to advance his own interests, those of the company he represented, and those of his fatherland. In 1887 the British consul in Samoa, Wilfred Powell, concluded that many of the American merchants in the islands were ‘entirely in the hands of M. Weber’. He was the only one who accepted their debased coins, giving bills of exchange in return, making them promise that they would ‘continue the circulation of the coin in question amongst the natives’.58 Politically, Weber also exerted considerable influence in Samoa, especially after 1874, when he could count on naval support from Germany. Gently he did not proceed. To escape annexation by Germany, Samoan chiefs offered their islands to Washington and London; anything they considered better than coming under German rule.

  • 59 Minute on the land question in the colony of Fiji to advance the claim of F. and W. Hennings 1-7-18 (...)
  • 60 Sahl to Bismarck 18-5-1882 (PRO FO 534 22).

42In Fiji it was the German brothers Frederic and William Hennings who acquired prominence. Fred Hennings was the first of the siblings to have come to the islands. He settled there in 1858, at a time when, as a minute presented by the German ambassador in London, G.H. Count von Münster, pleading the cause of the German community in Fiji with the British government in July 1882, chose to phrase this, ‘the Fijians were yet in their most savage state.’ His success earned him the nickname ‘the Father of Fijian Commerce,’ and, as the minute also said, he and his brothers, who soon joined him, were always prepared to extend a helping hand to new settlers: ‘Neither personal assistance by either of the brothers, nor pecuniary aid by the firm, was refused when needed to any worthy of help’.59 It sounded noble, but for the loan, land had to be put up as collateral security.60

43Other German companies joined in the opportunities offered. One of these was Hernsheim & Robertson, which had its headquarters on the Island of Matupi in the New Britain Archipelago (after the region had become German—rechristened Bismarck-Archipel in 1885). It acquired a trading monopoly in the Carolines (Gründer 1999: 97). Propelled by the activities of such firms, German business interests spread in the Southern Pacific from Samoa and Fiji, where the Hennings brothers became the representatives of the Godeffroy firm, to Tonga, the New Britain Archipelago, and the Caroline and Marshall Islands. In these island groups, the German companies had to compete with British counterparts, many of them involving people and capital from New Zealand and Australia, such as the Polynesia Company of Melbourne and Mc Arthur & Co from New Zealand; firms from the United States, of which the Central Polynesian Land and Commercial Company was one of the biggest; and to a lesser extent with the Société Française de l’Océanie and other French companies.

  • 61 Memorandum communicated confidentially by Baron Plessen 7-2-1887 (PRO FO 534 35).

44Competition among Western traders and settlers in the Pacific turned matters sour on a number of islands and island groups. One bone of contention was landownership. Conflicts over land, attributable to the different perceptions of ownership of land, were virtually endemic everywhere the trading companies and private individuals bought land. Diametrically opposed to the European concept of individual ownership was that of the Islanders who believed that land was communally owned. Islanders sold land to Europeans without consulting or informing others who were also entitled to it according to customary law of shared ownership. This practice generated a rash of conflicts among the Islanders themselves, contesting each other’s rights of ownership and alienation, and disputes between Europeans and Islanders, and even between Europeans, who contested each other’s titles to the land acquired. It was not uncommon that a number of different Islanders sold the same piece of ground to more than one foreigner. As a German official said in 1887 regarding Samoa, the outcome was ‘an unusually complicated state of property’.61 In 1889, the total area of Samoan land claimed by British, Germans, and Americans was ‘1,700,000 acres—some 1,000,000 acres more than the total estimated area of land on all the islands!’ (Masterman 1934: 134). In Fiji, British since 1874, the situation was equally complicated and confusing. A British investigation into the legality of land titles, which threatened to rob Germans of many of them, had been the immediate cause of Münster’s minute of July 1882.

45Another major source of conflicts between Europeans was the recruitment of Islanders to work on the estates. Labour in the Southern Pacific was a scarce commodity. On the larger island groups such as Samoa and Fiji, where foreigners had established cotton, coconut and sugar cane plantations, agricultural workers had to be brought in from the outside. The same had to be done in Australia. Especially in Queensland was the demand for labour so high that a steady influx of the Pacific Islanders was necessary to keep the sugar cane estates running. Between 1863 and 1904, around 62,000 labourers from the Pacific islands were shipped to Queensland to work its estates (Scarr 1990: 172). Control over island groups meant control over their labour forces, which could be recruited for the plantations where a constant demand for labour persisted. One of the regions on which attention focused was the New Britain Archipelago, to the north of New Guinea. As in Samoa, the German presence here was strong. In the early 1880s, its islands had become one of the major labour-recruiting regions for German estate owners. The inroads caused by other labour traders, especially those from Queensland was execrated. Occasionally, the competition over the labour traffic turned violent. One such incident involved ‘German Charley’, a copra collector employed by the Hernsheim & Robertson Company on one of the islands. When a vessel from Queensland tried to recruit labour in his territory, apart from trying to convince the Islanders that they would be roasted and eaten in Queensland, he fired shots at the Queensland crew, who replied by setting fire to his hut (The Argus, 27-10-1884).

46The cruel exploitation of Pacific labourers even provided Germany and Great Britain with an opportunity to present themselves not only as champions of civilization but also of humanity. Disputing with each other for control over parts of New Guinea and the New Britain Archipelago in the early 1880s, German and British (or in this case rather Australian) politicians presented their country’s rule as the best way to end the abuses committed by labour agents, captains of ships who sailed to the islands to recruit labour, and estate managers. Predictably it was the other who was to blame for the maltreatment of Pacific Islanders. Germans levelled the accusation that the labour agents and estate owners in Queensland were engaged in a traffic which was not much different from slave trade, and suggested that the Islanders preferred German plantations near their home islands to those in distant Queensland (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: II, 219). In Australia it was maintained that only British rule could be beneficial to the Islanders. Or, as the Premier of Victoria, James Service, chose to express the sentiment, ‘politics, religion, commerce, civilisation and humanity all suggest the desirability of placing under British control as many of the Western Pacific islands as remain unappropriated’ (The Argus, 9-6-1883).

* * * *

  • 62 Gorden to Herbert 3-6-1979 (PRO FO 534 22).
  • 63 Op. cit.
  • 64 Petitioning to Acting Consul Thurston 27-7-1868 (PRO FO 534 22).
  • 65 Op. cit.

47International competition, land hunger, personal ambitions, and domestic strife sent matters spiralling out of control in some of the Pacific island groups. Domestic unrest also posed a danger to the life and property of the foreign landowners and traders, providing the latter with an additional motive to invite foreign intervention or to take matters into their own hands to restore law and order. The first place where this was to happen was Fiji. Before the British intervened in 1874, Fiji had been the scene of rampant endemic war and disorder. Among the main contestants was Ratu Seru Apenisa Cakobau, who had converted to Christianity in 1854. After he had succeeded his father as Paramount Chief of Bau in 1852, Cakobau proclaimed himself as King of the whole of Fiji. Beyond the borders of Bau his claim was not recognized. Initially foreign settlers thought that by siding with Cakobau they could strike it rich. Afterwards, Governor A. Gordon reported to London from Fiji that, in 1866 and 1867, when King Cakobau of Fiji had expanded his territory, German and British settlers, in spite of the warnings issued by the British consul not to do so, had followed up the retreating and beaten enemies of King Cakobau, and with muskets, powder, and lead purchased the land from which they were driven’.62 When the fortunes of war turned against the King the following year, and his Bau forces had to retreat from the land they had conquered, the situation for the settlers who, Gordon stressed, ‘in many cases with their wives had unwisely ventured among a heathen and cannibal people,’ had become extremely precarious.63 As some of the settlers themselves wrote at that time, ‘the mind of the natives is such’ that they feared for their lives, and were ‘subject to all manners of threatening, thefts, violence, and annoyance’.64 Faced with that situation the settlers, British as well as German nationals, had asked the then British acting consul, John Bates Thurston, a cotton planter, for military protection and ‘to make such a demonstration on these natives as will convince them that we have a strong power to apply to for redress of the wrongs from them’.65 British troops had acted, but London remained extremely hesitant to take formal control of the Fiji Islands.

  • 66 In May 1872, Burt was succeeded by George Austin Woods, a retired British naval officer. In March 1 (...)

48Cakobau’s efforts to rule over the whole of Fiji culminated in 1871. In June of that year, he proclaimed a constitutional monarchy encompassing the whole of Fiji. Cakobau’s move was backed by Thurnston, the Hennings brothers, and had the support of part of the European community who tried to protect their interests, as they were dependent on Cakobau for their land titles and also yearned for some law and order. The cabinet and Legislative Assembly were controlled by Western settlers. Sydney Charles Burt, a Sydney businessman who had fled his Australian creditors, became the country’s first Prime Minister (Scarr 1984: 41).66 Though many white residents were not paragons of virtue, Western rule was presented as a blessing. The Fiji Times of 29 July, 1871, left no doubt about this:

[…] the power of education and civilisation must come to the front, and if the prominent figure be a native, whether in the form of a king or a president, it is only a puppet, the strings of which are pulled by a white man. (Scarr 1984: 57.)

  • 67 Gravelle (1983: 126-127) writes that its original name was Klu Klux Klan. According to Scarr (1984: (...)
  • 68 One of the firms hurt by the fall in the price of cotton was that of the Hennings brothers. It acqu (...)

49Not all non-Fijians could agree to the new government, especially to the fact that it was headed by a native. One of them was the then British consul, Edward March, ‘who could not find it in him to recognise a cannibal king’ (Scarr 1984: 55-56). He ‘told people to refuse to pay taxes, advised ship owners to ignore harbour dues, and denied the authority of courts over any British subjects’ (Gravelle 1983: 125). He and other dissatisfied foreign residents formed the British Subject’s Mutual Protection Society and Volunteer Corps.67 Cakobau’s constitutional monarchy was not a success. Many seem to have followed March’s suggestion not to pay taxes. More importantly, the cotton market collapsed, disorder ruled as before, and former rivals of Cakobau contemplated rising against him again.68 A desperate and beleaguered Cakobau finally ceded his rule to Great Britain, which formally took over in 1874.

50Western Prime Ministers also made their appearance in Samoa and Hawaii. Shortly after the problems over land titles had arisen on Fiji, the German and British empires fell out over control over Samoa, a hub of trans-Pacific trade and in those days, about three-days voyage away from Fiji. Germany, accentuating its preponderance in the island group, wanted to control Samoa, either as a colony or as a protectorate; London, in order not to disturb relations with the settlers in New Zealand and Australia, could hardly assent to this. The annexation of Fiji by Great Britain, brought into play an element of security as well: the prospect of an uncontested enemy naval base close to a British possession.

51In the 1870s Samoa was rife with internal strife and foreign settlers, their consuls in the van, tried to exploit this and the opportunities it offered to their best advantage. The aim was to secure more land with a clear title, at least with a title recognized by their local ally whom they had eased into power, and besides this, more generally, an advancement of their own commercial interests and those of their compatriots. It was not only the British and Germans—and to a lesser extent the French—who acted in this way in Samoa. Americans had actually shown the way. In 1872, a US corvette, the Narragansett, had called at the islands and its captain, Commodore R.W. Meade, by concluding a treaty with the High Chief of Pago Pago had secured its port as a coaling station for the United States. Meade, moreover, had given some of the chiefs the impression that their territory had come under American protection. His promises did not eventuate, nor did the coaling station materialize for a long time. The first arrangements for this were made only in 1892. At that time, finally the main foreign contestants in Samoa had established clear legal procedures for the purchase of land from the Islanders. The delay cost the American government dearly. When it had to buy land for the station, the United States decided to pay all the Samoans who contested each other’s ownership title of the plots in order to save time and trouble (New York Herald, 5-10-1892).

52After the visit of the Narragansett, Washington sent a special commissioner, Colonel A.B. Steinberger, to Samoa on a fact-finding mission. Steinberger, who for ‘a brief three years[...] flashed brightly across the pages of Samoan history, and then disappeared into the obscurity from which he had emerged,’ arrived in Samoa in August 1873 and was to play in crucial role in its domestic politics (Masterman 1934: 117). He was ‘a man of medium height, and with nothing to distinguish him from any ordinary well-dressed gentleman to be met with in the street,’ an Australian journalist was to describe him later, rather disappointed that a figure who shaped Samoa’s political structure did not have a more commanding posture (The Age, 3-7-1876). After having sailed back to the United States to report to his government, Steinberger returned in Samoa for a second visit in 1875. Claiming that he was still a representative of the United States, he set out to restructure Samoan politics and to transform Samoa into a constitutional monarchy along Western lines. To accomplish this, his first step was to reconcile the two main lineages in the islands, the Malietoa and Tupua, who contested each other’s right to rule the islands. The heads of the two lineages were to serve alternately as king for four years. The first to assume royal status was Malietoa Laupepa of the Malietoa lineage. Two representative councils were instituted; one, the Ta’imua, was composed of the paramount district chiefs or nobles; and the other, the Faipule, was a kind of House of Commons, for which a general election was to be held every five years. Steinberger himself assumed the post of Prime Minister.

  • 69 In 1874, Steinberger had indeed signed an agreement with the company. Among its stipulations was th (...)

53Peace was short-lived. The new political system seems to have been welcomed by the Samoans, whose well-being Steinberger was said to have at heart, but its reception among the settlers was less enthousiastic (Masterman 1934: 124-125). A constitution drawn up under Steinberger’s guidance had acknowledged the protection of land titles held by foreigners and the validity of loans contracted in the past, but this had not put an end to the conflicts among the foreign settlers and traders. Some of them suspected Steinberger of special dealings with the Godeffroy firm.69 A scant year later, a new war broke after Malietoa Laupepa, ‘harangued, cajoled and intimidated’ by Western settlers who feared that the new government would harm their business interests, had ordered the arrest and the deportation of his Prime Minister, Steinberger (Gilson 1970: 330). In reaction, the Ta’imua and Faipule dethroned the recently installed king. In the civil war that was to follow, the two bodies could initially count on American support and sympathy; the Germans and Britons tended to side with the deposed king.

54A system similar to that Steinberger had instituted was set up in 1879, when Weber, the German consul, and his British and American colleagues finally found common ground and acknowleged Malietoa Laupepa’s uncle, Malietoa Talavou, as the ruler of Samoa. In return Malietoa Talavou had to accept that much of the executive authority of his government now fell into foreign hands. Plans were worked out, according to which the Minister of Justice was to be an American, the German community was to provide the Minister of Finance, and the position of Minister of Public Works was to be filled by a Briton. All three were to be paid by the Samoan government, but selected by their respective consul. The system, worked out by the consuls, had as fleeting life, as neither Washington nor London could assent to such a deep involvement in the administration of Samoa as that with which their consuls had come up (Koschitzky 1887-1888: II, 17-18; Gilson 1970: 365-366). Nevertheless, the three foreign communities did obtain a share in the administration of city of Apia, the major foreign settlement on Samoa, which, in times of civil war, had to be recognized as neutral territory. In 1879 Apia and its hinterland came under joint British, American, and German (and Samoan) administration, the three consuls forming the municipal board.

  • 70 The Germans repeated this move after Tamasese had died and for a brief period, that is, a few days, (...)

55Even later, Germany would have its white Prime Minister in Samoa when Weber and the new German consul, Becker, threw their full force behind one of the contenders for the Samoan crown, Tupua Tamasese Titimaea. On their instruction, in January 1887, Eugen Brandeis, a former Bavarian cavalry officer and now in the employ of the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft der Südsee zu Hamburg, became Prime Minister of Tamasese’s government (Gilson 1970: 382). Among his first tasks was to root out any resistance against Tamasese which might still linger. In August, at a moment when there were no American or British war vessels moored at Apia and at the time when in Washington representatives of the three powers were discussing the future of Samoa, the Germans in Samoa acted. Using putative insults to the Kaiser as an excuse, war was declared on Malietoa Laupepa. Tamasese was supplied with guns and money by Weber. With German backing, he became the new king. Laupepa was sent into exile by the senior German naval officer present.70

  • 71 Minister of Foreign Affairs to the King 15-12-1885 (NAR FO A-dos Box 222).

56Western settlers were more successful in creating a government over which they could dominate and exercise control in Hawaii. The first Western prime minister made his appearance during the reign King David Kalakaua. Commencing his reign in 1874 as someone who was known for his pro-American sympathies, within a decade King Kalakaua begun to distance himself from the United States. In 1885 he sent his ambassador in the United States, H.A.P. Carter, on a tour through Europe, where he also visited the Foreign Office in The Hague, to plead with its governments to halt any further annexation of islands in the Pacific.71 Ostensibly, it was the other islands groups he had in mind; the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, and in particular Samoa, for which King Kalakaua nurtured his own plans. The mission addressed itself to the intentions of the European nations in the Pacific, above all those of Germany, Great Britain, and France. Simultaneously it was part of a campaign to weaken the strong position that Americans and the United States had attained in Hawaii. Using the slogan ‘Hawaii for the Hawaiians’, King Kalakaua fostered aspirations for the restoration of a kingdom in which Hawaiians were firmly in control, and where the absolute powers of the monarchy would once again be established. He also dreamed about a key-role for himself in the wider Pacific. In pursuing these ends, King Kalakaua found a close ally in ‘an American renegade,’ Walter Murray Gibson, since 1882 his Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs (Hardy & Dumke 1949: 410-411). In fact it had been Gibson, a former Mormon who had been expelled from Batavia, who had drawn the King’s attention to the grand role he could play in the Western Pacific. Gibson had been impressed by the writings of the Australian journalist Charles St. Julian, who advocated the formation of a Pacific federation made up of all groups of islands in the Pacific which were still formally independent, with the King of Hawaii as the ‘Emperor of the Pacific’ (Day 1984: 45). To realize this dream of Pacific grandeur, a warship bought from the British, the Kaimiloa, was sent to Samoa as ‘a vessel of peace and not of war,’ manned by ‘older boys from the Industrial Reformatory School’ (Allen 1988: 145).

57As could have been expected, the mission was a failure. It only reaped trouble for King Kalakaua. The Western powers contesting each other’s position in Samoa did not take kindly to the expedition of the Kaimiloa, while in Hawaii his conduct and ideals brought the King into conflict with the community of white settlers. In June 1887, when a rebellion by foreign residents threatened and a company of armed men marched on the palace, King Kalakaua had to give in. He allowed for changes in the Hawaiian constitution, which would curb his powers and increase the say of the foreign residents in the running of the kingdom even more. Apart from having to accept the new ‘Bayonet Constitution’, the King also had to agree to demands that Gibson should step down.

58After his death in January 1891, King Kalakaua was succeeded by his sister. Queen Liliuokalani was a remarkable person. Besides being a poet and composer, among her other hobbies was the writing of Hawaiian songs, including the well-known Aloha Oe. She also had a sense of humour, which may not have been easily understood in Victorian days. During a visit to Great Britain to attend the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, for instance, she told people that, thanks to the ancient Hawaiian habit of cannibalism, she, too, had English blood in her veins (Hardy & Dumke 1949: 412).

  • 72 Dutch envoy in Washington to Minister of Foreign Affairs 12-3-1893 (NAR FO A-Dos box 223).

59From the moment her reign began, Queen Liliuokalani ran into trouble with John L. Stevens, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States in Hawaii, to cite his grandiose title. Her intention to continue the Hawaii-centred policy of her late brother did not exactly run parallel with his conviction that Hawaii had to become part of the United States. She later recalled that, on her accession, Stevens, who was a person who had been ‘constantly unfriendly and quarrelsome’, had given a ‘most inconsiderable’ speech which ‘would lead me to suppose that he considered an American protectorate established on that day’. ‘Not one of the other representatives’, she stressed, ‘chose my coronation day as an occasion for threats and penalties’.72

  • 73 Op. cit.
  • 74 Op. cit.
  • 75 Paty to G. van Tienhoven 18-1-1893 (NAR A-dos box 223).

60The ‘Bayonet Constitution’ emerged as the focus of the dispute between the Queen and the settlers. Queen Liliuokalani used to stress that the Hawaiians wanted the constitution to be changed, as in it ‘the natives were deprived of their just and inalienable rights’.73 On 14 January 1893, when it became known that the Queen intended to revoke the constitution, a group of thirteen men, among them seven foreign residents—five Americans, one Briton and one German—styling themselves the Committee of Safety, decided that it was time to act. Three days later they formed a provisional government and dethroned Queen Liliuokalani.74 An executive council of four was established. It was chaired by Stanford Ballad Dole, a lawyer and at the time of the revolt a member of the Supreme Court. He also assumed the posts of President and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Dole’s coup d’État almost immediately received the unanimous support of the diplomatic and consular corps. Among those who spoke out in favour of the new government was the Dutch Consul, J.H. Paty, who wrote to The Hague that it had ‘good support from the great majority of the better class of our foreign community’.75

61Queen Liliuokalani strongly denied that there was any cause for a rebellion:

  • 76 Dutch envoy in Washington to Minister of Foreign Affairs 12-3-1893 (NAR FO A-dos box 223).

Annexation is repugnant to the feeling of every native Hawaiian, as well as many foreigners. Annexation is not necessary for the ends of policy or civilization or commerce or security. [...]Personal liberty is as secure in Honolulu as in Washington. Probably no city can show a record so free of crime of all kinds.76

  • 77 Proclamation establishing a provisional government at the Hawaiian Islands.
  • 78 Op. cit.

62The Provisional Government, according to the proclamation that was read out on the steps of Government House of Honolulu, was to continue in office ‘until terms of union with the United States of America have been negotiated and agreed upon’.77 It claimed that for a long time the Crown had been advised by ‘able, honest and conservative men whose integrity was unquestioned even by their political opponents’, but that this had changed in the closing years of Kalakaua’s reign, when the order of the past had been substituted by an abuse of power by the King who favoured ‘adventurers and persons of no character or standing in the community’.78

  • 79 Message of President Cleveland to American Senate and House of Representatives, New York Herald, 19 (...)

63The man who had made the coup d’état possible was Stevens. For almost a year, he had urged Washington to take control over Hawaii in one or another way. It was he to whom the Committee of Safety turned for support when it planned to take over the government of Hawaii. He responded immediately and still the same day, 16 January, ordered the occupation of Honolulu by marines from warship Boston, anchored in its harbour. In the afternoon, between four and five o’clock, American marines seized control of the strategic buildings in the city. No pretence was kept up that they came to protect American life and property. The troops did not bother to march to the American consulate or to the residential area where the foreigners were living. They occupied a quiet town, where there were no signs of unrest or disorder. Honolulu was, as at the end of the year the new American President, Grover Cleveland, an opponent of annexation, would note, ‘in its customary orderly and peaceful condition’.79

  • 80 Op. cit.

64Stevens and Dole almost got their way. On 19 January, a delegation of the Provisional Government left Honolulu for Washington to discuss a treaty of annexation. It was agreed upon by the American government on 14 February and transmitted to the Senate the following day. A change in government in Washington put a spoke in the wheel. In December 1893, the new President, Grover Cleveland, withdrew the draft treaty from consideration. In strong language, he condemned what had happened in Hawaii, in January. The occupation of Honolulu had been ‘wholly without justification’, and it did not appear that the provisional government had ‘the sanction of either popular revolution or suffrage’.80 Developments could not be rolled back completely. Although Cleveland toyed with the idea of restoring the monarchy in Hawaii he was unable to force the Provisional Government to resign. Becoming part of the United States now being out of the question, it proclaimed the Republic of Hawaii in July 1894. A few years later, when expansionist feelings had gained ground and with William McKinley in the White House, the Spanish-American War tipped the scales. In July 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii.

65The age of a white prime minister serving and at times controlling a Pacific king was over. Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States had divided up the region. In 1899 Samoa was partitioned. The United States received the eastern part, Germany took possession of western Samoa. Great Britain withdrew. Its reward was control over Tonga and the Solomon Islands and a tract of land along the Gold Coast in Africa. Germany’s first governor of Samoa, Wilhelm H. Solf, acting as the representative of ‘Oberhauft’ Wilhelm (Graichen & Gründer 2005: 188) was not an old war-horse, as Weber had been. He acted more in the spirit of James Brooke, being an advocate of bringing civilization to the Samoans without destroying their own culture. Missionaries should have a role in this—Kolonisieren ist Missionieren—but not those who preached the Gospel without taking part in the economic and social development of the region (Gründer 1999: 258; see also Graichen & Gründer 2005: 187-189).


66The Pacific foreign rajahs and the foreign prime ministers described above were all motivated by the desire to make money. They were lured to the region, or tried to convince others to participate in their business ventures, by exaggerated expectations and portrayals of the natural richness and the prospects of economic exploitation of the islands where they settled. Nevertheless, they represent two different types of stranger-rulers. The foreign rajahs, James Brooke, Joseph William Torrey, and Gustavus Count von Overbeck, operated inside the indigenous political system. They received their concessions, and the titles that went with them, through negotiations. They were successful in this because the other party was weak. In 1841 James Brooke was handed over control over his tract of land by the uncle of the Sultan of Brunei as a reward for helping to suppress a rebellion. It may well have been that the Sultan saw in Brooke an instrument with which to keep his Sultanate intact, a person who could prevent further uprisings from occurring. James Brooke was drawn into a divided society. Five years after the title of rajah had been bestowed on him, the Sultan turned against him and his Malay associates because Brooke’s anti-piracy policy had collided with the Sultan’s own interests. The Sabah story is not much different. Business interests provided the prime motivation for the intervention, and it is hardly likely that in 1877, when Alfred Dent and Overbeck negotiated their concession, the Sultan of Brunei was in a stronger position than he had been some thirty-five years before. A similar remark can be made about the second person whom Dent and Overbeck contacted in order to secure their concession, the Sultan of Sulu. He was fighting for the survival of his sultanate, and would soon be subdued by Spain.

67It is still possible to sketch a romantic story about the exploits of these foreign rajahs, and the many publications about James Brooke, full of admiration and adventure, testify to this. The foreign prime ministers, Walter Murray Gibson, Sydney Charles Burt, A.B. Steinberger, Theodor Weber, and John L. Stevens, are less likely candidates for such a treatment. The difference in title already suggests a different approach to indigenous culture and society. The setting is also different. Brooke and Overbeck wanted to start business ventures in regions where hardly any Europeans or Americans had yet set foot. The foreign prime ministers introduced an alien form of government in societies where a foreign, internally divided community of traders, planters and other settlers had already firmly established itself. Some may have had good intentions. A. B. Steinberger, who wanted to reconcile feuding Samoan lineages, was one of them. He was the outsider-cum-mediator, but his actions almost automatically brought him into conflict with others in the settlers’ community. In other cases, the greed and self-interest of the outsiders concerned were unconcealed. The prime ministerships of settlers who displayed such traits were the outcomes of coups d’état rather than of negotiations. As far as I know, these persons do not figure as central characters in popular and scientific literature. Perhaps the upheaval they caused is the reason for this. Another explanation may be the nature of contemporary international relations. These men were active at a time when the scramble for the Pacific was reaching its zenith, and people were beginning to fear that mounting international tension in the Pacific might well turn into open warfare. In 1900, one Dutch author even prophesied in a military journal that a Groote Oorlog, a Great War, an ‘enormous struggle, which will stir the whole world’, was probably only weeks, and certainly not more than a few months, away (Anonymous 1900: 293). This was the context in which the foreign prime ministers operated.

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Allgemeine Zeitung

Ceylon Observer

De Locomotief

New York Herald

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The Angus

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1 Brooke was sure that he also could count on the support of the local Chinese: ‘From these people, I have received the most pressing solicitations, to take up my abode at Sarawak, for they are well acquainted with the value of English counsels, and English integrity’ (Templer 1853: I, 101). It was a miscalculation. A year later he complained about the Chinese ‘who are showing dispositions which must be checked in the bud, taking upon themselves an independent authority’ (Templer 1853: I, 180).

2 It may well be that Brooke initially used the title Rajah as a translation of Governor. In his diary, he noted down the English translation of regulations he issued in Malay shortly after he had acquired the land. The proclamation starts with the sentence: ‘James Brooke, esquire, governor (rajah) of the country of Sarawak, makes known to all men the following regulations...’ (Keppel 1991: I, 267). In letters to indigenous leaders he also refers to himself as Tuan Besar (Templer 1853: II, 98-99, 128). James Brooke gives the impression that he was aware that the title rajah was reserved to people like Rajah Muda Hassim. On the other hand, in a number of his letters (to Templer in November 1839 and to his mother in August 1842), Brooke reveals his longing for a knighthood. He wanted to be ‘a Tory-knight’, not, he explained, because he was vain, but because it ‘would be very useful to me with natives and Europeans in this country’ and because ‘in Singapore as a knight, I would have no equal; and among the natives it would be important indeed, for it would proclaim me a chief, greater than the governor of Singapore, or any other on this side of Calcutta’ (Templer 1853: I, 80).

3 Within months Brooke changed his mind. Though never a friend of the Dutch or an admirer of the way they administered the Netherlands Indies –?in 1846 he gloated himself at the thought of a Belgian settlement in Borneo –?he praised the Dutch for their efforts to combat piracy in May 1844 (Templer 1853: II, 15, 126).

4 One of the persons who was inspired by Brooke’s success was Erskine Murray. He started negotiations with the Sultan of Brunei to get a concession, but was killed before he could conclude an agreement (Templer 1853: II, 17).

5 Papers 1882: I, 129-135; Extract uit rapport van de Kommandant van de Makassar betreffende zijn reis in maart 1880 (Nationaal Archief/NAR Gezantschap Londen); Kaur 1994: 5.

6 Mortgage agreement between Baron von Overbeck and J.W.C. Torrey (Public Record Office/PRO C 874).

7 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren van Kell 10-5-1878 (NAR Gezantschap Londen).

8 In 1846 James Brooke had been dead set against such an endeavour and had rejected the establishment of a ‘Borneo Company’ taking over his rights because ‘part of the project is unjust, part visionary, and part premature’ and would ‘end in failure and bloodshed, undoing all that has been done by time and patience’ (Templer 1853: II, 120). One of the reasons for him to reject it appears that the indigenous leaders did not profit from it, while with regard to himself he wrote: ‘I desire to keep myself clear of all projects which, by holding out great personal advantages, might blind me to what is right, and what is due to my own reputation’ (Templer 1853: II, 123).

9 A. Dent at a meeting in Westminster Palace Hotel (Papers 1882: I, 137-146).

10 Statement and application addressed to the Marquis of Salisbury (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).

11 Treacher to Derby 2-1-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 117-118).

12 Treacher to Derby 22-1-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 118).

13 A. Dent to Salisbury 2-12-1879 (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).

14 In an initial reaction the Dutch Minister of the Colonies, P.P. van Bosse, tried to downplay in Parliament what had happened by saying that the bestowal of certain titles upon the holders of the lease meant that they had become vassals of the Sultan of Brunei (Handelingen 1913-1914: 704).

15 Charter of Incorporation to the British North Borneo Company (Papers 1882: I, 192-199).

16 Statement and application addressed to the Marquis of Salisbury (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).

17 Verslag van de commandant van de Atjeh 12-7-1880 (NAR Gezantschap Londen).

18 Sultan Sulu to Spanish Governor of Sulu 22-7-1878; Governor of Sulu to Overbeck 22-7-1878; Sultan of Sulu to Overbeck 23-7-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 125, 176).

19 Sultan of Sulu to Governor Captain General of the Philippines 22-7-1878; Memorandum of the Spanish Government 5-11-1879 (Papers 1882: I, 170-176).

20 Verslag van de commandant van de Atjeh 12-7-1880 (NAR Gezantschap London).

21 Salisbury to Treacher 11-4-1879 (Papers 1882: 119).

22 E. Dent to Under Secretary of State 16-5-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 120).

23 Agreement between Count de Montgelas, A.B. Mitford, Baron de Overbeck and the Dent Brothers 25-3-1879 (PRO CO 874).

24 Statement and application addressed to the Marquis of Salisbury (Papers 1882: I, 129-135).

25 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren 11-2-1879 (NAR Gezantschap London).

26 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren 31-5-1879 (NAR Gezantschap London).

27 Meeting in Westminster Palace Hotel (Papers 1882: I, 137-146).

28 Op. cit.

29 Van Tets to Van Heeckeren 20-10-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).

30 The Dutch government pointed to Article 12 of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of March 1824 about their respective colonies, which stated that Great Britain would not take possession of islands in the Archipelago south of Singapore. To this London could simply reply that North Borneo was located to the north of Singapore. After being confronted with this, the Dutch evoked the spirit of the treaty, even arguing that the Treaty of 1824 had caused the Dutch government to refrain from supporting Dutch settlements in Australia outside British territory and that he expected the same attitude from Great Britain with respect to Borneo (Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 22-11-1879; Nationaal Archief Gezantschap Londen). Matters were not helped by the fact that in the past the Dutch government had recognized James Brooke’s position in Sarawak.

31 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 17-11-1879 (NAR Gezantschap Londen).

32 Van Lijnden to Van Bijlandt 11-11-1879 (Papers 1882: II, 10).

33 Van Bijlandt to Van Heeckeren 10-5-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).

34 Salisbury to West 20-5-1879 (Papers 1882: I, 148).

35 E. Dent to the Under Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs 16-5-1878 (Papers 1882: I, 120).

36 Van Test to Van Heeckeren 20-10-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).

37 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 20-10-1879, 26-11-1880 (NAR gezantschap London).

38 Van Tets to Van Heeckeren 20-10-1878 (NAR Gezantschap London).

39 The Secretary of the Admiralty to Lord Tenterdon 19-4-1880 (Papers 1882: I, 183).

40 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 11-1-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).

41 Read to Van Bijlandt 12-7-1881; Van Lijnden to Van Bijlandt 6-4-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).

42 Rutherford Alcock to Salisbury 9-6-1879 (Papers 1882: I, 150).

43 The majority of the shares was already in the hands of the Dent family. Alfred held 14 shares, Edward 13, and John 4. Overbeck as one of the founders of the company held 10 shares; Montgelas had 4, Mitford 3 shares.

44 Agreement made in London by Count Montgelas, A.B. Mitford, Baron de Overbeck, Alfred and John Dent, 1-9-1880 (PRO CO 874).

45 Van Bijlandt to Van Lijnden 11-1-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).

46 A. Dent to Salisbury 12-4-1880 (Papers 1882: I, 182-183).

47 Granville to Morier 7-1-1882 (Papers 1882: I, 202-205).

48 Besluit Gouverneur-Generaal van Nederlandsch-Indië 5-5-1880; instructies Commandant Atjeh; Van Lijnden to Van Bijlandt 21-7-1880; [verslag van de commandant van de Makassar]; verslag van de commandant van Atjeh (NAR Gezantschap London).

49 Stuart to Granville 17-8-1880, 14-11-1881 (Papers 1882: II, 16, 31-32).

50 Van Bijlandt to Rochussen 10-11-1881 (NAR Gezantschap London).

51 Stuart to Granville 14-11-1881 (Papers 1882: II, 31-32).

52 Bismarck had been confronted with the inertia, in some cases the incompetence, of the British bureaucracy right from the moment the colonial rivalry between the German and the British Empires began to simmer. In February 1883, shortly after the Bremen merchant F.A.E. Lüderitz had informed the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs of his intention to establish a trading post in South-West Africa, he approached the British government. Bismarck wanted to know whether Great Britain exercised sovereignty over the area and whether the British administration in South Africa was prepared to protect a German settlement. At the same time, Bismarck informed the British government that Germany reserved the right to protection its citizens there itself should the new settlement fell outside the sphere of influence of Great Britain. The reaction from London was evasive. Still in February, London replied to be unable to react to Bismarck’s questions, because it was not known where the new German settlement was to be located. In spite of two additional German inquiries in November and December 1883 about the British position, London hesitated to give a straightforward answer. One of the reasons for the British reluctance was that it had become clear in London that the authorities in the Cape Colony did not exactly fancy a German protectorate north of its border. In August 1884 the region (with the exception of the Whale Bay) was formally placed under the protection of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Wilhelm I. The following month, after it had been informed by Berlin of these developments, the British government ‘friendly welcomed Germany as her neighbour’ in the southern part of Africa (von Koschitzky 1887-1888: II, 87).

53 Almost each time a conflict over colonial claims came up between London and Berlin, the German government complained about not being taken seriously. The Samoa conflict was another such occasion. In May 1899, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent an angry letter to his grandmother, Queen Victoria, complaining about the way Prime Minister Lord Salisbury dealt with the matter. He noted that Salisbury’s conduct was ‘utterly at variance with the manners which regulate the relations between Great Powers according to the European rules of civility[…] and has evoked the impression that Lord Salisbury cares no more for us than for Portugal, Chile, or the Patagonians.’ These words ‘greatly astonished’ Queen Victoria who responded in kind. She doubted ‘whether any Sovereign ever wrote to another Sovereign, and that Sovereign being his own Grandmother, about their Prime Minister.’ What the Kaiser had done was an affront: ‘I never would do such a thing, and I never personally attacked or complained about Prince Bismarck, though I know well what a bitter enemy he was to England and all the harm he did.’ (Massie 1993: 258-259).

54 James Brooke had had the same idea. In his diary he noted: ‘And yet, if exertion can benefit our race, or even our own country; if the sum of human misery can be alleviated; if these suffering people can be raised in the scale of civilisation and happiness –? it is a cause in which I could suffer, it is a cause in which I have suffered and do suffer’ (Keppel 1991: I, 263).

55 Grey to Lowther 31-8-1908 (PRO FO 800 79).

56 France also played a role in the South Seas, albeit a less prominent one, quarrelling with Great Britain over the New Hebrides and New Caledonia.

57 In the late 1870s, the company became the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft der Südsee-Inseln zu Hamburg, a limited company with the J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn company as principal shareholders.

58 Powell to Salisbury 25-2-1887 (PRO FO 534 35).

59 Minute on the land question in the colony of Fiji to advance the claim of F. and W. Hennings 1-7-1882 (PRO FO 534 22).

60 Sahl to Bismarck 18-5-1882 (PRO FO 534 22).

61 Memorandum communicated confidentially by Baron Plessen 7-2-1887 (PRO FO 534 35).

62 Gorden to Herbert 3-6-1979 (PRO FO 534 22).

63 Op. cit.

64 Petitioning to Acting Consul Thurston 27-7-1868 (PRO FO 534 22).

65 Op. cit.

66 In May 1872, Burt was succeeded by George Austin Woods, a retired British naval officer. In March 1874 in the absence of Woods, Thurston became acting Prime Minister. See also Gravelle 1983: 126-127.

67 Gravelle (1983: 126-127) writes that its original name was Klu Klux Klan. According to Scarr (1984: 59) this was a nickname given by the government. In 1870, Colonel Hamilton from Arkansas and other one Westerners had already toyed with the idea of establishing a white republic (Scarr 1984: 53-55).

68 One of the firms hurt by the fall in the price of cotton was that of the Hennings brothers. It acquired the land which had served as collateral security from cotton farmers who had gone bankrupt, but still faced the prospect of financial ruin. The Hennings themselves owned a considerable sum of money to another company, Rathbone, Féez, and Co., and had pledged their landed property as security. Director and co-owner of the firm Rathbone, Féez, and Co was Karl L. Sahl, the German consul in Sydney. The position of the Hennings became even more precarious after the British takeover. The new administation launched a re-evaluation of foreign land ownership, only allowing cultivation of land of which it recognised the title. The policy caused great resentment among the German settlers. Elsewhere in the Pacific, it became an additional reason for Germans to oppose British annexations. In 1880 the Hennings were forced to transfer their provisional land tiles to Rathbone, Féez, and Co.

69 In 1874, Steinberger had indeed signed an agreement with the company. Among its stipulations was that the taxes of the Samoan government would be paid in copra, which was to be sold to J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn (Masterman 1934: 120).

70 The Germans repeated this move after Tamasese had died and for a brief period, that is, a few days, the American and British consuls agreed that Mataafa would become his successor. A provisional government was formed in which a German, Dr Raffel, the President of the Municipal Council, became the executive officer.

71 Minister of Foreign Affairs to the King 15-12-1885 (NAR FO A-dos Box 222).

72 Dutch envoy in Washington to Minister of Foreign Affairs 12-3-1893 (NAR FO A-Dos box 223).

73 Op. cit.

74 Op. cit.

75 Paty to G. van Tienhoven 18-1-1893 (NAR A-dos box 223).

76 Dutch envoy in Washington to Minister of Foreign Affairs 12-3-1893 (NAR FO A-dos box 223).

77 Proclamation establishing a provisional government at the Hawaiian Islands.

78 Op. cit.

79 Message of President Cleveland to American Senate and House of Representatives, New York Herald, 19-12-1893.

80 Op. cit.

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Référence papier

Kees van Dijk, « From Raja to Prime Minister », Moussons, 12 | 2008, 103-135.

Référence électronique

Kees van Dijk, « From Raja to Prime Minister », Moussons [En ligne], 12 | 2008, mis en ligne le 22 mars 2013, consulté le 19 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.1472

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Kees van Dijk

Kees van Dijk (born 1946) was a researcher at the KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) from 1968 to 2007, and has held the chair of Professor of the history of Islam in Indonesia at Leiden University since 1985. He studied Non-Western Sociology at Leiden University, specializing in Indonesian Studies and graduated in 1970. He obtained his PhD at Leiden University in 1981, with a thesis entitled ”Rebellion under the banner of Islam: the Darul Islam in Indonesia”, published by KITLV (1991). Among his publications are A country in despair: Indonesia between 1997 and 2000 (KITLV 2001) and The Netherlands Indies and the Great War, 1914-1918 (KITLV 2007).

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