Sir James Brooke, the first "White Rajah" of Sarawak, has been the subject of several biographies. Although not the most exhaustive, Nigel Barley's is certainly the most entertaining. As an anthropologist, Barley juggles confidently with the ethnic components of the Brooke raj, and as an authority on Brooke's hero, Thomas Stamford Raffles, he is suitably wary of the empire-builder's cant. He writes, as always, with intelligence and flair. The wit verges on the waggish, but his insights never fail to delight, and as a subject worthy of both, Brooke's improbable story is perfect. Historians of empire might prefer more analysis and less anecdote. A wider readership will find the most romantic of imperial careers deliciously laced with oddball detail.
On his gravestone in Devon, Brooke (1803-68) is described as "Rajah and Founder of the Settlement of Sarawak". Angela Burdett-Coutts, who bankrolled him in his later years, rightly took exception to the "Settlement" and wanted it changed to "State". She was overruled. In truth, neither term quite comprehended the anomaly that was the White Raj.
Brooke saw Sarawak as his sovereign fief and himself as a benevolent dynast. Yet to his subjects he was the most absolute of monarchs, while to the British government he was not a monarch at all, just a feudatory of the Sultanate of Brunei. Critics reckoned him no better than a free-booting confidence-trickster who had hoodwinked the Sultan into thinking he was a British emissary and the Royal Navy into undertaking his dirty work. As for his raj, it was just an ethnological safari park. Yet admirers saw in him the living embodiment of all that was noblest in the imperial mission. His concern for oppressed minorities was genuine, his rule was a model of philanthropic paternalism, and his suppression of piracy and head-hunting ranked with Colonel Sleeman's celebrated crusade against thuggee in India.
None of these verdicts was totally wrong. As a young man with a large fortune and little sense, it fell to Brooke to live out one of the empire's abiding fantasies - that of the Englishman adopted as ruler by a devoted band of natives in some peripheral, primitive and preferably tropical paradise. He was not alone. Alexander Hare had anticipated him in southern Borneo, Raffles had toyed with some such idyll in Sumatra, and John Clunies-Ross was realising it as "King of the Cocos Islands". Later, H.
Rider Haggard and G. A. Henty would implant the idea in a generation of young imperial minds, and Kipling would explore it in The Man Who Would be King .
Barley fails to make these connections, and perhaps a short popular biography is not the place for them. His Brooke, far from being an imperial archetype, is a wayward maverick whose raj was an essentially personal achievement. Corroboration comes from Brooke himself who justified his exploits in terms of his "wild habits, wild education and ardent love for an undue degree of personal freedom" - that and some vaguely utilitarian notion of adding to the sum of human happiness. The wild habits could apparently be satisfied only by acquiring a ship and, with a like-minded crew of high-spirited adventurers, sailing eastern seas. When trade failed to provide the desired return, reckless undertakings, good guns and a readiness to use them proved more rewarding. As for the loftier ideal of contributing to the sum of human happiness, that seems to have been taken as the natural outcome of the white man's rule. "Duty is in the eye of the beholder," Barley says.
Brooke's success is rightly attributed to his complete absence of self-doubt. Unburdened by erudition, intellect or exalted moral standards, he made a virtue out of doing and daring what came naturally. But such overweening confidence - less trick than trait - was the birthright of most imperialists. It need not be "the other side of a terrible guilt", least of all a sexual guilt.
Sexuality, according to Barley, is acknowledged as being "at the heart of identity". "So if James was homosexual we would wish to know it." Maybe. Barley trots out the evidence both for and against. The subject merits more page entries in the index than any other aspect of Brooke's character or career. His relations with women were certainly unconventional. Dynasts need heirs but the nearest Brooke ever got to a direct descendant was a doubtful bastard. To handsome young disciples, on the other hand, he was invariably generous, indulgent and playfully passionate. Yet, courtesy of an early wound, he may all along have been impotent. However insistently "we would wish to know", we don't. So to claim that it is "quite probable" that Brooke "to a greater or lesser extent, used his lust to fuel his higher altruism" is a mite tendentious. This book is more than the romp that such sophistry suggests.
John Keay is the author of a number of books on imperial themes, including a history of the East India Company.
White Rajah: A biography of Sir James Brooke
Author - Nigel Barley
ISBN - 0 316 852920 6
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £16.99
Pages - 240