A Brief History of Sarawak ;  The Adventure, The Story

– Named after the Sarawak River as it was here where Sarawak began.

The Man and his Personal Warship

Once upon a time in a far away land, lived an English adventurer, James Brooke. Growing up between England and India, he later served in the Bengal Army and was severely wounded in action. Invalided back to England, he returned as merchant mariner sailing the China Seas but the whole enterprise was a failure. With the passing of his father, a British East India Company judge, young Brooke used his sizeable inheritance to purchase a former Royal Yacht Squadron vessel. The 142-ton heavily armed and well-crewed schooner, The Royalist was effectively a private warship. Then, he embarked on a voyage to the Far East sailing under the White Ensign / St. George Flag of The Royal Yacht Club that commanded respect in the naval and colonial circles. He stopped over in Singapore where he was well received. He wanted to see for himself the island, part of The Straits Settlements, founded in 1819 by the man he idolized, Sir Stamford Raffles.

The Brunei-S’wak Episode

In 1839, Brooke sailed up the Sarawak River with a letter from the Governor of the Straits Settlement, expressing gratitude to the Sultan for rescuing some shipwrecked sailors earlier. Mistaken for a British emissary at a time of unrest and upon a conditional request by the Sultan’s Regent, who had been sent from Brunei to end the uprising, Brooke helped subdue the tribal rebellions against the cruel District Governor – Pengiran Mahkota / Prince of Brunei, using diplomacy and the might of his cannons. The Regent promised to make him Rajah (or Raja) of Sarawak in return for his help.  Waiting impatiently two years later, with his cannons aiming at the Sultan’s palace in Brunei and with an alliance of Dayaks behind him, Brooke made the Sultan honour the Regent’s pledge.  He was reluctantly made  Rajah of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei.  At the time, the small disputed territories included present day Kuching and its surroundings. Sarawak had been part of the Sultanate of Brunei since 1476, the centre of Islamic culture and civilisation in the region.  Little did anyone know that an epic saga would begin!

Brunei Sultanate peaked between 14th – 16th century, controlled Borneo and Sulu Archipelago

The Dynasty, The Kingdom

Rajah Sir James Brooke was a commoner, who would be King in a distant, exotic  paradise in the Orient. His adventure was a romantic epic meant for a novel. His reign was preoccupied with battles to quell more rebels while eradicating head-hunting, slavery and piracy. Practicing the old doctrine ‘Divide and rule’, he made alliance with some tribes to fight another. There are 27 different ethnic groups here in Sarawak but these are stories for another day. At the expense of Brunei, the 2nd Rajah, Sir Charles Brooke continued to expand the territories to its present size, which is almost as large as England. He even attempted to gobble up by then, the dwarfed Brunei but failed. Lastly, the 3rd Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke had to face the  Japanese Occupation after the Brooke’s Centennial ceremony in 1941. For three generations over 100 years, the Brooke Dynasty had ruled this Kingdom of Sarawak. A period of romanticism. All  three Rajahs were knighted by the Queens and Kings of  Britain for their roles in the British Empire expansionism.

WAGs of The Rajahs

The Changing of Guards; 4 different Flags under ¼ of a century

WWII ended in September, 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Australian Forces, caretaker government until April, 1946. Returning from exile in Sydney, the 3rd, also the Last Rajah ruled for another 75 days. Due to the devastation of the war and the heavy cost of reconstructions, he ceded Sarawak to the Crown for a hefty pension as he had no son. Henceforth, a British Crown Colony but this cessation resulted in a long struggle and the assassination of British Governor, Sir Duncan Steward by Malay youth, Rosli Doby. Eventually in 1963, despite Indonesia’s campaign of Confrontation, Sarawak gained Independence to form Malaysia together with Malaya, Sabah and Singapore (which left the Federation in 1965).

Orang Utan vs Man, 10x vs 1x where size remains equal                (x = strength)

To reminisce on the bygone era of The White Rajahs, steeped in romance, tradition, adventure and conquest where warfares were fought up rivers, we welcome you to our rich maritime heritage. It is the offshoots of the many waterways that flow through this land and the long coastlines. When road and airplane were non-existent, rivers were the only highway into the interior virgin rainforest. To navigate the treacherous rivers, every tribe had perfected their very own boat making skills, each unique and aesthetic. Today, you do not need to travel far as you can enjoy all these here in the city proper of Kuching  if time is a constraint.

The Malay Sampan

Kuching (formerly known as Sarawak, was renamed in 1872 as the state’s territories expanded) became the administrative centre. Having built his palace on the opposite side of  the river, Rajahs and their officers would use the Malay Sampan that had plied the river long before their arrival, to traverse between town centre. Now, you can still enjoy sight-seeing cruise in  the traditional way, in our local ‘Gondola’ along the Sarawak River where the adventure, the modern history herewith began. Along the way, old and new had intertwined. The Sampan is like a floating home, those who come from faraway villages will cook and sleep  in the boat while the river is their giant bath tub.

The Iban War Boat

How about being a Pirate or a Warrior cruising in our Iban War Boat? The Iban had fought many battles with the Rajahs’ regiments and were famed for their fearsome head hunting expeditions and riverine raids. Their leader, Rentap was one worthy opponent of the Rajah and a respected Hero and Freedom Fighter. You’ll have different perspectives of Kuching from the cruise. Either Pirates or Warriors is your choice; depending on which sides you’re on. The Iban fought for their way of life but in the eyes of the Rajahs, they were pirates and vice versa. Take a leisure ride and see for yourself where you stand!

The Orang Ulu ‘Flying’ Boat

Or try our Orang Ulu ‘Flying’ Boat with the Hornbill bow. Legend has it that during the tribal warring periods, the fire to avenge the death of their tribesmen would burn so strong in their warriors’ chests that it would fuel the boat to virtually ‘fly’ by sheer Paddle Power. The bow is carved with the Hornbill motif because the bird is highly revered in their culture, seen as a vessel for the spirits to communicate with their people. During the days of the Rajahs, they would paddle all the way from Bakun to Kuching and back to pay taxes. Just imagine the long and labourious journey. Thats easily 1,000 kms by “Row, Row, Row your Boat……..” continue ***.

Our Conclusion is but the beginning of your own Adventure

With the passage of time, Adventure became Story, Story became History, History became Legend and Legend became Myth. Come experience the tropical adventure, so you will have your own CAN-DO (Culture, Adventure, Nature) stories to tell  when you get back home. Now, let’s take a traditional boat ride down ‘Memory River’! As for the Boatmen who live on the river, they cruise happily ever after. Continue from***……..”Gently down the river, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”   The End!   Click ‘Songs’ for lyrics.