How little we know about Joseph Middleton, Sarawak’s first police officer

Joseph Middleton might be an unfamiliar name to Sarawakians today, but he was actually the first police officer of Sarawak.

He was one of the two boys who departed England with James Brooke on the Royalist in 1838.

Unfortunately, there is a little we know about Middleton during his first arrival to Sarawak.

However, we do know that he was referred to in 1852 as ‘Constable’.

It is also known that he married a local woman. One record showed that he had a son named Peter who was baptised in Kuching on Dec 3, 1848.

Apart from this, we know that he was almost killed during the Bau rebellion.

Joseph Middleton was one of the three targets of the Bau Rebellion

On Feb 18, 1857, some 600 Chinese came down through the Sarawak River to attack the White Rajah in Kuching.

By the time the group had reached Kuching, Brooke already fled from his home.

This did not stop the rebels from burning down properties including Brooke’s house.

According to The Gospel Missionary issued in June 1884, the Chinese announced they did not want to make war on the English or the Malays, only on the Rajah’s government.

The report stated, “It did seem as if it was chiefly a rebellion of revenge, for the only three people they had been anxious to kill were the Rajah himself, and Mr Crookshank, and Mr Middleton, who were the chief constable and the magistrate who had sentenced the offending Kunsi and actually done the flogging. If they could kill these three they did not seem to care how many others they killed.”

Joseph Middleton during the Bau Rebellion

Illustration depicting the Chinese Insurrection from Harriette McDougall’s Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak. Credit: Public Domain.

The rebels certainly did not care how many they killed that fateful night as in the end, they took the lives of Middleton’s two young children.

The Sarawak Gazette revisited the event in an article published on Mar 1, 1929.

It stated, “Two little boys, John and Charles Middleton, aged six and four years, were killed and ‘the fiends kicked the little heads with loud laughter from one to another’. Richard Wellington, a clerk in the Borneo Company, lost his life in gallantly attempting to defend Mrs Middleton and her children.”

So where was Middleton when his house was attacked?

According to Brooke who published his own narrative of the event in the Wellington Independent on Sept 5, 1857, Middleton’s house was one of the earliest places where the attack took place.

The Rajah wrote, “He (Middleton) escaped with difficulty. His poor little wife hid in a bakery till the burning rafters fell about her, and from her concealment saw the assailants kicking about the head of her eldest child. The mother was paralyzed; she wished, she said, to rush out but could not move. The youngest child was murdered and thrown into the flames.”

Joseph Middleton and the second class Europeans in Sarawak

Other than the Middleton family’s tragic fate during the rebellion, there was no significant information about the constable.

According to archivist Loh Chee Yin who wrote for the Sarawak Gazette in 1960-70s, Middleton presumably still held the roll of Constable until his death in Kuching in 1866.

Middleton is unlike some of Brooke’s early officers whose names are immortalised through street names in Kuching such as Crookshank.

Hence, it is easy to forget there was a man named Middleton who came to Sarawak from England as a boy and lived here till his death.

Perhaps it was because Middleton was considered a “second-class European” in Sarawak at that time.

During the resistance led by Syarif Masahor in 1857, Bishop Francis McDougall wrote a letter to his brother in-law.

McDougall narrated in the letter, “I hear that there has been a regular panic at Sarawak among the wives of the second-class Europeans, who all packed up and wanted to start for Singapore, but their fears have been allayed, and only Mrs Middleton, who suffered so much in the insurrection, persists in going.”

The so-called ‘caste system’ among the Europeans in Sarawak is believed to have started due to the different systems of salutes during Brooke time.

At that time, there were three forms of salutes given. The first class was full arms salute, the second class was arm across body to rifle butt, and third class was simply attention.

Those who were entitled for the first class salute included the Bishop, the Commandant of Sarawak Rangers, the Treasurer and the Principal Medical Officer.

Posts such as Magistrates, Superintendent of Works and Surveys Department, Medical Officers, Inspector of Police and Prisons were given the second class salute.

Finally, the third class salute was given to the junior officers and cadets.

The Sarawak Gazette reported, “It is said that this system of salutes caused a sort of caste system among the Europeans since the local people began to refer to them as first, second and third class Europeans instead of officials.”

Middleton, who was sometimes referred to as the Police Inspector, fell into the second-class European category.

Regardless, as Loh pointed out, Middleton had “the distinction of being the first police officer in Sarawak.”

Patricia Hului

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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