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How were executions carried out during Brooke’s time in Sarawak?

Execution of criminals has been used by almost all societies in the world.

If you’ve watched Braveheart you’ll know that there were many painful and cruel methods of carrying out an execution throughout history. One example is keel hauling. This form of execution was carried out on sailors at sea and was usually a torture technique used by pirates as early as 700BC.

They would tie the condemned to a rope line looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship. Then they would dragged the poor man under the ship’s keel, either from one side of the ship to the other or the length of the ship from bow to stern.

The persecuted man would die either from drowning or head trauma from colliding against the ship, especially if the vessel was moving.

Death by Malay dagger, the keris

When Sarawak came under the first Rajah, James Brooke in 1841, executions were carried out using a Malay dagger called keris. He also elected a man named Subu as the Public Executioner.

The first Ranee of Sarawak, Margaret Brooke described how executions were first carried out in her book My Life in Sarawak.

“A kris is a curious-looking dagger, straight and flat, the blade double-edged, eighteen inches long, with a sharp point. It is inserted in the cavity of the condemned man’s right shoulder, and thrust diagonally across the body through the heart, causing instantaneous death. “Do they never tremble?” I would ask Subu. “No,” he said, “they do not tremble. They smoke cigarettes while their grave is being dug, and sometimes they eat betel nut and sirih. Then, when I tell them, they sit on the brink of their grave as though they were sitting on the edge of their bed, prepared to take their afternoon sleep. We always parted good friends,” said Subu, “and very often we talked all the way to the place of execution.”

The condemned men never quite knew when their last moment had come, for they sat placidly smoking until Subu approached from behind them, and with one blow of the kris sent them into eternity. “You white people fret too much about trifles, and that makes you frightened of death,” Subu would say. “We take it just as it comes, and consider that Allah has chosen the best moment to end our lives. Many such murderers have I sent to their peace,” he often said to me.

W.J. Chater wrote in the Sarawak Gazette on May 31, 1964 that executions by Subu used to be carried out near the Batu Kinyang rock at the second mile of Rock Road, Kuching.

At that time, the area was still considered to be deep in the jungle.

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Execution by shooting

Subu held the post as Sarawak Public Executioner from 1841 until his death in 1873. Then his son Tomah took over the post until 1889. This was the year execution by shooting was first introduced.

Charles Brooke, the second Rajah wrote a letter on Aug 12 that year to Major Irvin Day, the Commandant of Sarawak Rangers, ordering an execution of six prisoners.

Here is the content of the letter:

“I hereby direct that you will take command of a guard of twenty Rangers and proceed at half past six o’clock tomorrow morning to receive at the prison entrance the six prisoners to be shot. Then take them on board the “Young Harry” and proceed to the execution ground, accompanied by Dr Rolph and a guide which Mr Daubeny can furnish.

You will then have these six men shot as mercifully as lays in your power and buried on the spot, and return.”

These six men became the first prisoners to be executed by shooting in Sarawak.

According to Chater, the prison referred in Charles’ letter was at the Pangkalan Batu Police Post.

It was built as a prison in 1879, the same year as Fort Margherita and contained the prisoners’ cells on the ground flood and the Police Officer’s quarters above. Back then, C. W. Daubeny held the post of Inspector of Police and Prison. As for the execution ground, it was located on the riverside somewhere near Santubong.

“Young Harry” was a vessel named after Charles’ youngest son, Harry Keppel Brooke. He was born in 1879 and given the title of Tuan Bunsu or the Youngest Lord.

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The Rajahs’ perceptions on death penalty

Chater reported, “The second and third Rajahs held an intense dislike for executions. The third Rajah in particular was definitely against capital punishments; and whenever there was a death penalty to be signed he would usually be conveniently away in an outstation and the senior government officer in Kuching would have to do the signing.”

For this reason, the third Rajah Vyner Brooke was reportedly extremely merciful about the way executions were carried out.

The condemned was always given an injection. In the days when executions were carried out downriver, there was always a bottle of brandy in the boat for the prisoner.

“I have heard it said that sometimes by the time the party reached the execution ground the condemned man was feeling fine and would help to beach the boat before standing up to be shot,” Chater wrote.

Execution by hanging

When Sarawak became a British colony, hanging was introduced for the first time in Sarawak.

As for the keris that was once used by Subu, it had been handed to the Sarawak Museum by Bertram Brooke (Vyner’s brother) in the 1960s with the tip broken. The second White Rajah broke the tip off to prevent it being used again.

Execution by hanging was only introduced when Sarawak became part of British colony.
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 worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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