Recipe for saving a 'Dying Kingdom'

By Dr. B.A. Hussainmiya

The Chinese itinerant traders selling their merchandise in boats to the Brunei Town residents in Kampong Ayer, c. 1920s. Courtesy: Brunei History Centre

The Residence/Office Quarters of the British Consuls, c. 1898. Courtesy: Brunei History Centre

(Part IV - Series on Why Brunei accepted the British Protection in 1906)

McArthur was by no means a yes-man. Himself a son of a general, he possessed the best credentials and strength of character to speak his mind out. First, he aimed his salvo at his own bosses.

"When it is remembered that these evils flourish under nominal British protection, and that it is that protection alone which keeps Brunei in existence as a separate State, it seems obligatory on His Majesty's government to take some steps to ameliorate them"

It was a verdict on the failing of his own government for not giving the real and promised protection to Brunei. He needed the recipe or a formula to reprieve 'a dying kingdom' (labelled by Hugh Clifford in the MacMillan's Magazine, 1902) instead of pushing it further to the brink of extinction as many of his colleagues loved to do.

Originally intended to last only three months, McArthur's mission was extended by a further three months' period from June to August 1904 due to a deadly outbreak of small-pox epidemic costing many lives in the capital. The old Sultan, though escaped the illness, was 'very infirm' caused by a minor accident when the timber floor of his palace caved in due to rotting nibong stumps underneath.

All the while, McArthur was expected to keep the objectives of his mission a total secret from the locals for Brunei (town) people had become highly agitated about their future. In any case, a Consul was not supposed to dabble in the internal affairs of the State. Besides, there were spies of the Rajah especially inside the palace to tip off the movements of his nemesis - McArthur. Diplomatically he brought three Malays from the peninsula, who accompanied him on his earlier mission to Kelantan the previous year, to help him in Brunei as they would be more acceptable than Europeans to gain the trust and confidence of the local people. And before long, he knew what ailed Brunei condemned in the Brooke circle 'as a blot on civilisation and a canker in the heart of Sarawak.'

Apparently, there were attempts to use the grievances of a few mistreated Chinese traders as casus belli for a Sarawak takeover of Brunei. In the past the Consuls had brought gunboats aiming at the palace to require compliance from the Sultan to return the alleged loans to the traders owed by his pengirans. It is pertinent to mention that I recently discovered an interesting document of 1846 among the East India Company Records in the New Delhi Archives urging the British to invade Brunei because the then Sultan, Omar Ali Saifuddin II, had defaulted on a payment to an Eurasian couple!

McArthur did not want to repeat a similar stunt to punish collectively the Sultan and his people. On the contrary, he urged London not take the Chinese traders' grouses too seriously, because in his view, if anybody, it was they, taking risks knowingly in an unsettled country, who stood to benefit most by earning massive profits out of the financial incompetence of the rulers and their dependence upon foreign traders. As money-lenders they obtained mortgages on the revenues of Brunei for many years ahead. The inhabitants in the capital too were in distress as these traders had been jacking up prices at their will of consumer goods - virtually all imports - as they held the monopoly and acted as middlemen.

For McArthur, Sultan Hashim was not the villain, but rather a victim accused of trumped up charges of misrule, among other things, for his inaction to compensate the losses of some Chinese traders, most of whom were registered British subjects, nearly 500 of them at the time. While admiring them for their thrift and industry, McArthur referred to them as aliens and not the real inhabitants of the country whose cupidity was "one of the main causes of the distress and poverty prevalent in Brunei." His remarks were bad enough but little did he realise that his Government would abandon their obligation later even to the genuine Chinese settlers in the sultanate.

The Consul's harshest words, however, were reserved for the recalcitrant noble class of Brunei. Like the nobility in the medieval Europe, many led an indolent life, whose alleged rapine and cruelty were attributed to the Sultan. The latter was helpless because of the country's curious traditional constitution that rendered him powerless as his status was nothing but a primus inter pares - first among the equals. It must be noted that Sultan Hashim once complained that his authority did not extend beyond the Brunei River around which his palace was situated. McArthur pointed his finger at the nobility as the most dangerous and discontented among the population, some of whom lived off the earnings of Kedayans and Bisayas, considered as industrious indigenous people. McArthur's counsel was to curtail the privileges of the pengirans while bolstering the authority of the Sultan as the supreme Ruler.

McArthur, however, was not averse to the commoner Malays. More importantly, he demolished the myth of lazy Malays often highlighted in British accounts; one which he read lampooned the case of a Brunei Malay who cut down a coconut tree to get a coconut. He questioned the ludicrous story as to how much labour this would have cost that poor Malay. He found, on the other hand, the Brunei Malays were willing to work hard given the right atmosphere as "in the face of the work which they cheerfully perform day and night shifts in the Cutch factory and in their daily avocations such as sea fishing."

Finally McArthur turned around the argument of people like Brooke, Hewett and others who persisted in saying that that Brunei would submit only to the Sarawak rule. McArthur, in fact, was flabbergasted by the intense opposition and dislike of the Rajah by people of all walks of life in Brunei. A criminal usurper of their lands, he was resented for terrorising the people through the Iban levies. Of course, if the Rajah willed and acted, going by the past examples, there was nothing Brunei could do to stop him.

In the circumstances, McArthur emphasised that the British Government had a clear obligation to act decisively, one way or another. If not this would "only postpone for a short time the final loss of Brunei independence and in the meantime to increase the sufferings of the inhabitants of the State, while encouraging the squandering of all its resources."

The alternative was not to turn Brunei over to the White Rajah, who was personally despotic, and the British North Borneo Company, a white elephant, nor to a British Consul on the spot, who would have had no means of enforcing his advice and thereby would quickly lose prestige.

The best option, therefore in McArthur's view, was to introduce a British Residency. Despite limiting the executive authority of the monarch, it was by far the 'less obnoxious' choice than for the Bruneians to lose their Sultan and their Jati Diri, the much touted Bruneian identity. Never before was a British Officer so forthright in his opinions that the British Government finally listened to help the Brunei throne. 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)

Recipe for saving a 'Dying Kingdom'

By Dr. B.A. Hussainmiya

 


The Chinese itinerant traders selling their merchandise in boats to the Brunei Town residents in Kampong Ayer, c. 1920s. Courtesy: Brunei History Centre

 


The Residence/Office Quarters of the British Consuls, c. 1898. Courtesy: Brunei History Centre

 

(Part IV - Series on Why Brunei accepted the British Protection in 1906)

McArthur was by no means a yes-man. Himself a son of a general, he possessed the best credentials and strength of character to speak his mind out. First, he aimed his salvo at his own bosses.

"When it is remembered that these evils flourish under nominal British protection, and that it is that protection alone which keeps Brunei in existence as a separate State, it seems obligatory on His Majesty's government to take some steps to ameliorate them"

It was a verdict on the failing of his own government for not giving the real and promised protection to Brunei. He needed the recipe or a formula to reprieve 'a dying kingdom' (labelled by Hugh Clifford in the MacMillan's Magazine, 1902) instead of pushing it further to the brink of extinction as many of his colleagues loved to do.

Originally intended to last only three months, McArthur's mission was extended by a further three months' period from June to August 1904 due to a deadly outbreak of small-pox epidemic costing many lives in the capital. The old Sultan, though escaped the illness, was 'very infirm' caused by a minor accident when the timber floor of his palace caved in due to rotting nibong stumps underneath.

All the while, McArthur was expected to keep the objectives of his mission a total secret from the locals for Brunei (town) people had become highly agitated about their future. In any case, a Consul was not supposed to dabble in the internal affairs of the State. Besides, there were spies of the Rajah especially inside the palace to tip off the movements of his nemesis - McArthur. Diplomatically he brought three Malays from the peninsula, who accompanied him on his earlier mission to Kelantan the previous year, to help him in Brunei as they would be more acceptable than Europeans to gain the trust and confidence of the local people. And before long, he knew what ailed Brunei condemned in the Brooke circle 'as a blot on civilisation and a canker in the heart of Sarawak.'

Apparently, there were attempts to use the grievances of a few mistreated Chinese traders as casus belli for a Sarawak takeover of Brunei. In the past the Consuls had brought gunboats aiming at the palace to require compliance from the Sultan to return the alleged loans to the traders owed by his pengirans. It is pertinent to mention that I recently discovered an interesting document of 1846 among the East India Company Records in the New Delhi Archives urging the British to invade Brunei because the then Sultan, Omar Ali Saifuddin II, had defaulted on a payment to an Eurasian couple!

McArthur did not want to repeat a similar stunt to punish collectively the Sultan and his people. On the contrary, he urged London not take the Chinese traders' grouses too seriously, because in his view, if anybody, it was they, taking risks knowingly in an unsettled country, who stood to benefit most by earning massive profits out of the financial incompetence of the rulers and their dependence upon foreign traders. As money-lenders they obtained mortgages on the revenues of Brunei for many years ahead. The inhabitants in the capital too were in distress as these traders had been jacking up prices at their will of consumer goods - virtually all imports - as they held the monopoly and acted as middlemen.

For McArthur, Sultan Hashim was not the villain, but rather a victim accused of trumped up charges of misrule, among other things, for his inaction to compensate the losses of some Chinese traders, most of whom were registered British subjects, nearly 500 of them at the time. While admiring them for their thrift and industry, McArthur referred to them as aliens and not the real inhabitants of the country whose cupidity was "one of the main causes of the distress and poverty prevalent in Brunei." His remarks were bad enough but little did he realise that his Government would abandon their obligation later even to the genuine Chinese settlers in the sultanate.

The Consul's harshest words, however, were reserved for the recalcitrant noble class of Brunei. Like the nobility in the medieval Europe, many led an indolent life, whose alleged rapine and cruelty were attributed to the Sultan. The latter was helpless because of the country's curious traditional constitution that rendered him powerless as his status was nothing but a primus inter pares - first among the equals. It must be noted that Sultan Hashim once complained that his authority did not extend beyond the Brunei River around which his palace was situated. McArthur pointed his finger at the nobility as the most dangerous and discontented among the population, some of whom lived off the earnings of Kedayans and Bisayas, considered as industrious indigenous people. McArthur's counsel was to curtail the privileges of the pengirans while bolstering the authority of the Sultan as the supreme Ruler.

McArthur, however, was not averse to the commoner Malays. More importantly, he demolished the myth of lazy Malays often highlighted in British accounts; one which he read lampooned the case of a Brunei Malay who cut down a coconut tree to get a coconut. He questioned the ludicrous story as to how much labour this would have cost that poor Malay. He found, on the other hand, the Brunei Malays were willing to work hard given the right atmosphere as "in the face of the work which they cheerfully perform day and night shifts in the Cutch factory and in their daily avocations such as sea fishing."

Finally McArthur turned around the argument of people like Brooke, Hewett and others who persisted in saying that that Brunei would submit only to the Sarawak rule. McArthur, in fact, was flabbergasted by the intense opposition and dislike of the Rajah by people of all walks of life in Brunei. A criminal usurper of their lands, he was resented for terrorising the people through the Iban levies. Of course, if the Rajah willed and acted, going by the past examples, there was nothing Brunei could do to stop him.

In the circumstances, McArthur emphasised that the British Government had a clear obligation to act decisively, one way or another. If not this would "only postpone for a short time the final loss of Brunei independence and in the meantime to increase the sufferings of the inhabitants of the State, while encouraging the squandering of all its resources."

The alternative was not to turn Brunei over to the White Rajah, who was personally despotic, and the British North Borneo Company, a white elephant, nor to a British Consul on the spot, who would have had no means of enforcing his advice and thereby would quickly lose prestige.

The best option, therefore in McArthur's view, was to introduce a British Residency. Despite limiting the executive authority of the monarch, it was by far the 'less obnoxious' choice than for the Bruneians to lose their Sultan and their Jati Diri, the much touted Bruneian identity. Never before was a British Officer so forthright in his opinions that the British Government finally listened to help the Brunei throne. 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)