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Power and Prowess: The Origins of Brooke Kingship in Sarawak, J.H. Walker

Crow’s Nest (Australia): Allen and Unwin, & Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002, 300 p.
Reed L. Wadley
p. 169-171
Référence(s) :

J.H. Walker, Power and Prowess: The Origins of Brooke Kingship in Sarawak, Crow’s Nest (Australia): Allen and Unwin, & Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002, 300 p.

Texte intégral

1James Brooke’s amazing career as Rajah of Sarawak has been explored in a number of biographies and histories, during his life and well beyond it. All of them generally confirm and re-confirm a set of widely accepted facts about Brooke’s life: For Brooke’s help in putting down a rebellion against his rule, a grateful Brunei sultan gave him the governorship of Sarawak. In consolidating his power, Brooke sought to end Malay exploitation of the Bidayuh Dayak, though he sought also to govern indirectly, making use of existing Malay hierarchies. The British Royal Navy was essential to Brooke’s expansion of power against Iban and Malays who threatened British trade interests, and Brooke had to deal with three attempts to topple him, one by Chinese antimony miners in 1857 and two by jealous Malay nobles who plotted against him. The first heir to Brooke’s throne, his nephew Brooke Johnson, became mentally unstable and could not ascend to the throne; Johnson’s younger brother, Charles, stepped up and took his place, eventually becoming the second Rajah in 1868.

2In Power and Prowess, John Walker goes back to the primary sources and shows systematically that “facts” are “at best, misrepresentations” (p. xix): Brooke seized power with the help and support of those whose rebellion he had helped put down; the Bidayuh resisted Brooke’s attempts to extract taxes and corvée labor from them; Brooke held power directly, and his careful manipulation of native ritual and symbol helped secure his rule more firmly than naval expeditions alone allowed; the alleged Malay plotters were victims of local power struggles, and Brooke’s heir was not mad so much as intent on preserving Sarawak’s independence from the threat Brooke imposed through his repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to cede Sarawak to a European power.

3Walker’s dismantling of built-up myth about Brooke is a considerable contribution to Sarawak history, but treating this book as consisting of just that would itself be a serious misrepresentation. Power and Prowess is much more: Walker carefully examines the culturally specific bases of power in nineteenth-century Sarawak, how local actors perceived how power worked and whence it derived, how they perceived Brooke to be a ritual center, and how they acted on those concepts for their own locally motivated purposes. He also shows that Brooke was an astute observer of indigenous culture, manipulating ritual and symbol in his favor. In doing so, Walker moves us away from the traditional tack of Sarawak history, namely the emphasis on colonial history as European, toward colonial history as locally perceived, interpreted, and experienced.

4In Chapter One, Walker describes the three ethnic groups that confronted the ambitious Brooke in his state-building efforts—Malays, Iban, and Bidayuh (formerly known as Land Dayak). Of particular focus is the cultural and ideological bases of political power, namely the notion that political power is tied inextricably to natural and supernatural conditions. “Power” is not merely a social, political, or economic thing, but flows fundamentally from spiritual prowess and health. This prowess (Walker chooses to use the Malay term, semangat) must be protected and enhanced; it is a thing that inattention may diminish, resulting in misfortune and disaster. Thus, a leader’s success in attracting followers is seen as a result of prowess, while failures such as defeat in battle or natural disasters reflect diminished prowess. Political power, however, was contested and impermanent, with leaders emerging and disappearing, as fortunes, both economic and spiritual, waxed and waned. Walker also notes the important link between political power and trade in the region, something that aided outsiders (often Arabs or Bugis) in establishing their own bases of power.

5Chapter Two examines the roots of the conflict that led to Brooke’s ascension to the Sarawak throne, two important factors being the establishment of Singapore and the concomitant expansion of free trade throughout the region. This resulted in political fragmentation of Brunei’s power along the north coast of Borneo, and the insurgency of Sarawak nobles against a heavy-handed Brunei. Brooke’s intervention was not merely military, for he successfully exploited Malay notions of power and prowess to gain a degree of legitimacy among the Sarawak Malays that other Europeans might have been unable to achieve. Indeed, Walker discusses Brooke’s formative years in India that shaped his character and understanding of native cultures, quoting Bishop McDougall, who said that to know Brooke was to “know quite well what a Malay man of rank is” (p. 48). Of the Europeans who might have had aspirations for their own kingdoms in the colonies, Brooke was most suited to the task.

6The next two chapters show Brooke’s considerable efforts to solidify his control in the immediate vicinity of Sarawak proper among both Malays and Bidayuh, expand his power among the Iban beyond Sarawak, and acquire the economic resources he needed to stay at the center of the local universe. Wealth and one’s ability to convert it into people’s loyalty and well-being is a mark of prowess, and Brooke’s success at this brought people into his entourage and sphere of influence. Yet without his own personal fortune (and wealthy donors in England), Brooke would probably never have lasted on the throne: He had to tax subjects who often resisted paying up, and his efforts at trade ran in the red. In addition, Brooke’s extension of power over the Iban shows quite well the importance of prowess to understanding the Iban responses to the Rajah. Military superiority, demonstrated by repeated and brutal defeats of “rebellious” or “piratical” Iban, was essential to Brooke’s success, but the Iban themselves saw their defeats and Brooke himself within their own concepts of power, thereby affirming Brooke’s power. Yet they were also fundamentally changed as the Rajah’s expanding state offered new outlets for their energy through trade, wage labor, education, and religious conversion.

7Chapters Five, Six, and Seven provide detailed analysis of the challenges Brooke faced from internal Malay struggles for power and influence in Sarawak, and in the Rejang river basin as his power expanded there. Walker shows that competition and resistance were essential aspects of indigenous power, and that native peoples did not blindly jump on Brooke’s ship of state. Likewise, being a member of Brooke’s extended entourage did not preclude competition within it. From this perspective, Walker interprets the various “Malay plots” against Brooke. He also sees Bidayuh resistance to state taxes and corvée labor as local attempts to remain independent while still retaining important ritual associations with Brooke and his agents. In contrast, the revolt of 1857 by Chinese miners, who overran the capital of Kuching and forced Brooke to flee, shows that his success as a ritual center for indigenous people could not be extended to the Chinese. Instead of seeing the Rajah as a supreme man of prowess, the Chinese regarded him as “just another barbarian with too much power” (p. 143).

8Walker’s examination of the succession struggle in Chapter Eight is perhaps the most fascinating of all. For Brooke aficionados, it will possibly be the most disturbing. Brooke’s nephew, heir, and administrator of Sarawak in the Rajah’s later years, Brooke (Johnson) Brooke, challenged the Rajah when, in 1862, he discovered the Rajah’s plans to cede Sarawak to the British Crown. This precipitated a struggle for control of Sarawak and for the heirship, and it pitted the Rajah and his supporters among the European officers in Sarawak against Brooke Brooke and his supporters, both among the Malays and Europeans. The Rajah ultimately won, and Brooke Brooke’s own brother, Charles, ended up on the throne, having given his support early on to the Rajah in exchange for the heirship. What Walker spells out most clearly is that this was not merely an internal family contest for succession, but rather a conflict over Sarawak’s future. On the part of the Malays, it was an attempt to preserve the independence of Sarawak, hard won by their struggle over three decades.

9Walker acknowledges that many of his re-interpretations of James Brooke and his role in Sarawak history are contentious, and thankfully he details his documentary sources. He is also careful to avoid the trap of “culturist” interpretations of history (i.e., an overemphasis on symbolic and cultural coherence and integration) by demonstrating the importance of dissension, aims and motivations of differently placed actors, and economy. Additionally, he shows how Brooke’s presence changed native notions of power and opportunity, just as it reinforced those notions in other ways. Power and Prowess challenges us to look differently at Sarawak history, and it does so convincingly.

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Reed L. Wadley, « Power and Prowess: The Origins of Brooke Kingship in Sarawak, J.H. Walker »Moussons, 6 | 2002, 169-171.

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Reed L. Wadley, « Power and Prowess: The Origins of Brooke Kingship in Sarawak, J.H. Walker »Moussons [En ligne], 6 | 2002, mis en ligne le 19 décembre 2013, consulté le 21 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Reed L. Wadley

Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia, USA.

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