Coming of the saviour

By Dr B. A. Hussainmiya

The palace of Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam. "(The British Consuls) were mostly drunk, brusque and even discourteous to the Sultan who heartily despised them, and by extension, the British power."

Pt III - Why Brunei accepted British protection in 1906

Just when Brunei had reached its nadir of fortunes in 1904 a saviour appeared on the Brunei scene. The British government handpicked their acting consul from the nearby Labuan to report on conditions in Brunei and to make recommendations for the country's future administration. He was Malcolm Steward Hannibal McArthur (b.1872, d. 1934). In view of the fact that he - together with Sultan Hashim - gave a new lease of life to Brunei, it would be useful to focus on the personality of one who Rajah Charles Brooke regarded as a 'new kid on the block'.

McArthur was an Oxford-trained British civil servant who joined the Straits Settlements Service (later Malayan civil service) in 1895. Having held important administrative posts in Penang, Selangor and Singapore, he became an acting consul for the British Borneo territories in early 1904.

The news of his trip to Brunei sent shockwaves in the Sarawak circle. Brunei, deemed an easy picking for the Sarawak Rajah, had turned into a mirage, as his lifetime ambition to acquire the last remnants of the kingdom, was thwarted. Even before Macarthur's report was released, Brooke had anticipated the outcome. Embittered, he warned London that the new consul would not be able to prepare a reliable report in less than one or two years whereas McArthur was expected to finish the task in just three months.

Brooke's message read as follows: "I don't wish to imply that Mr.McArthur is inexperienced, nor to call into question his abilities, but the Brunei natives and the surrounding of the Sultan are such flatterers and liars that it is as well be guarded when framing a report Only a knowledge of their character over some years' experience can enable anyone to know how to deal with them."

In other words, Brooke claimed only he knew the character of the Borneans - that included Brunei - and it was he who should be allowed to deal with them. However, McArthur would prove him wrong on most counts. As a matter of fact, his superiors - the British Foreign Office and the High Commissioner/Governor Sir John Anderson in Malaya/Singapore - had strongly favoured the Sarawak option.

One must remember that all three previous British Consuls (stationed in Labuan) namely N.P. Trevenen (1890-98), A. L. Keyser (1898-1900), and G. Hewett (1900-1904) worked against Brunei's interests and promoted Rajah's claims.

During visits to Brunei on short missions, they spent very little time to empathise with the local Malays. To add insult to injury they were mostly drunk, brusque and even discourteous to the Sultan who heartily despised them, and by extension, the British power.

Compared to them the new British Consul was a jewel. Like some of his predecessors in the Malayan civil service, including Hugh Low (Resident, Perak 1877-89), McArthur tried to understand the thinking of the Malays whose etiquette he knew well, besides able to speak Malay fluently. In fact a contemporary observer mistook him for Malay because of his sallow complexion and especially when he wore the native attire.

Obviously McArthur came to Brunei with a very open mind. He acted without fear or favour, and as he himself admitted later in his report " I have been as plain spoken as I can". In Brunei he proceeded on his onerous responsibility with single-mindedness.

The day after he arrived in Brunei on 3 May 1904, MacArthur met Sultan Hashim in his palace who was very impressed by the generosity of the spirit of the young Consul. Their bonding turned out to be the biggest asset for Brunei. The endearment was so strong that after the signing of the Treaty it was Sultan Hashim who implored with the British Government to employ the acting consul as the first Resident in Brunei.

It fell upon the shoulders of the new consul to investigate many blatant allegations. In any case, the so-called 'evils' in Brunei turned out to be mere fabrications. For instance, the reports mentioned the plight of Belait and Tutong people as if there were 'great misery and want and grave discontent. Yet, during his trips to the districts, McArthur discovered no signs of great poverty: on the contrary, every house seemed well furnished; the people had ample food, and could even afford small luxuries.

In contrast, the real poverty was to be seen in the provinces ruled by the British North Borneo Company where people complained bitterly of the oppressive taxation imposed by the Chartered Company and were full of regrets, as McArthur put it "for the happy-go-lucky times of Brunei rule". TO BE CONTINUED

(The writer is an Associate Professor of History at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. He can be contacted by e-mail; hmiya@fass.ubd.edu.bn)