KajoReviews: Rajah’s Servant by A.B. Ward, an account of a Brooke officer in Sarawak

It is always fascinating to read books written by Europeans who came to Sarawak before there were even proper records by locals of our own state.

Stories about our ancestors’ lifestyles and customs were sometimes seen narrowly through their European point of views.

Hence, the words such as ‘savages’ and ‘primitive’ were often found in their writings.

However if the books were written by Europeans who worked here during Brooke dynasty and during the time Sarawak was under British colony, the tone of writing can be completely different.

Perhaps due to the years they called Sarawak home and getting to know the local peoples, these writers tended to write with not only less judgmental mind but with more understanding and sometimes, fondness.

Brooke officer Ward
Resident Arthur Bartlett Ward at Simanggang circa 1913 (back row, left). Vyner Brooke (seated, second left)

Looking at a Sarawak forgotten historical figure through the eyes of a Brooke officer

One of the things we can learn from reading the memoirs of Brooke’s former civil servants or British colonial officers is to know about the locals.

Some of these locals had contributed to Sarawak but became pretty much forgotten in history.

Thankfully, they left a lot of impact to these former Sarawak officers that their stories were recorded in their books, including Arthur Bartlett Ward.

Ward was born on May 14, 1879. He served for 24 years in the Sarawak Civil Service from 1899 until 1923, 17 of which were spent under the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.

Throughout his service, he had worked in Sri Aman, Bintulu, Limbang, Brooketon and Kuching.

In his memoir written in 1934, Ward had described many of his experiences visiting outstation posts throughout Sarawak.

While in Lubok Antu, he had the pleasure to meet with a police officer named Dagang.

“The fort was garrisoned by a guard of fortmen under the charge of old Police Sergeant Dagang. He was known to us as ‘Sniff and Jingle’ from his habit of sniffing and jingling his official keys to announce a visit to the officers’ quarters. After making a report Dagang always expected a drink of gin. His face was reminiscent of a hideous gargoyle covered with green mildew after gin it almost seemed to assume phosphorescent light.

All the same Dagang was a man in ten thousand. A Banting Dyak who had embraced Mohammedanism, he enlisted as a fortman at Simanggang at 17 years of age. He accompanied the Rajah (then Tuan Muda) on board the sailing gunboat Venus at the attack on Mukah in 1860. The advance up the Mukah river was made at night and the ‘Venus’ ran foul of thick rattan hawser stretched from bank to bank. Heavy fire was opened on the helpless vessel and things are looking bad when Dagang leaped overboard, a ‘parang’ between his teeth, and severed the rope.

Dagang showed his pluck in numerous expeditions, always proving himself a steady soldier and a gallant leader. The old man died in 1915. He was the type of the old class of government servant one was proud to know and treat as a trusted friend.”

If Dagang hadn’t appeared in Ward’s memoir, we would never heard of about the gallant story of ‘Sniff and Jingle’.

Brooke’s policy: Turning enemies into alliances?

Often through these memoirs, we caught a glimpse what was it like to be working under the Brooke’s administrations.

On that note, we can’t help but notice one specific way the former White Rajah ‘managed the locals’ in those days.

During his posting at Simanggang, Ward worked closely with senior native officer Tuanku Putra.

This local Brooke officer had interesting background.

Ward wrote, “The Tuanku was the son of Sharif Sahap, the prime pirate who had been defeated by Sir James at Pemutus in 1844. He was distinctly of the Arab type, and being a Sharif, claimed lineal descent from the Prophet Mohammed. Tall with spindle legs and a Jewish nose, his nickname with us was ‘The Camel, though his fine character had nothing in common with the animal.

“His responsible position was an example of the Rajah’s policy towards those who had once defied him. Having shown his power and reduced his opponents to impotence, they were gradually given important positions in the Government and in practically every case, these ex-rebels proved their worth, and became the most reliable and loyal supporters of the Rajah’s ruler. ‘En passant’ it is rather curious to reflect that, with natives especially, the greatest rascals always make the most faithful servants.”

More than 100 years ago, there were Ibans who made it to New York?

Having spent so much time among the Ibans in Simanggang, there is no surprise Ward spoke highly of them.

He wrote,

“The Dyak in his jungle retreat is a charming person, both men and women of pleasing appearance, short in stature but well made, full of life, hardworking and independent. Hospitality with them is not so much as a custom as a law. The Malay, owing to his contact with Islamic traditions, is reserved and indolent, his womenfold lurk in the background. Not so the Dyak, he is open in his nature, and the women are very much in the fore. My experience of the so-called ‘savage’ of the jungle is that he is definitely more moral, honest and sober than his fellow who has learned Western ideas.

“There is not so much that our wonderful civilization can teach them. The Dyak has an adventurous, roving disposition, so that parties of the young men constantly break away seeking what fortune may bring them in other lands. They go the Malay Peninsula, to Java, to the Celebes Sea, and once in a Dyak house far in the interior I was proudly shown a picture postcard of Brooklyn City Hall sent home by the chieftain’s son, who had reached New York as a ship’s hands.”

We would have never known these little yet still important facts like this about our own people if it were never been mentioned in Wards’ autobiography.

Some facts are still debatable

Still, there are many things told through Wards’ words are debatable to this day.

It is understood that Ward jotted them down based on what the locals told him back in those days. Yet, some of these facts are never or rarely heard of during present times.

This include about the origin of the Kedayan people.

Ward called them ‘one of the riddles of Borneo’ perhaps due to of their unclear origin.

As for they came from, Ward wrote, “Bulkiah, Sultan of Brunei about 1500, a sea-rover and conqueror better known throughout the East in verse and prose as Nakoda Ragam, married a Javanese princess who brought with her many followers to Brunei. These intermarried with the Bisayas, and it is conjectured that the Kedayans spring from this union.”

As we compare this to the common legend about the Kedayans, it is widely believed that a group of Javanese came to Borneo during the rule of Sultan of Bolkiah in Brunei.

However, the common known reason is that the Sultan was interested in Java’s local agricultural techniques.

Hence he brought some of the Javanese farmers back to Brunei to spread their knowledge.

These Javanese farmers subsequently intermarried with local Bruneian Malay people (not Bisaya as per stated by Ward) giving birth to the Kedayan people.

Rajah’s Servant, a book that is definitely worth reading

There are plenty of other Brooke officers as well British colonial officers who came and left with written memoirs of their experiences in Sarawak.

One of many reasons why Rajah’s servant is different from the rest is easily you can tell by the title ‘Rajah’s Servant’.

Ward obviously loved his job in Sarawak and even more so enjoyed working under Charles Brooke. He had mad respect for the former rajah.

When writing about Charles’ death, Ward wrote, “Sarawak had lost a loving ruler. I had lost my hero and a benefactor.”

As for his last days as a Sarawak officer, Ward described them as ‘painful’.

“I sent in my request to be allowed to retire. It was a wrench to so after twenty-four years in a country I was devoted to. All the same I think I was right. I had held the chief executive post for nearly eight years and in that period ideas become set. In every undertaking fresh blood infuses a new spirit, so necessary when old methods move slow to modern thought,” Ward wrote.

Perhaps that is the number one quality from Ward we need from leaders these days; the self-awareness to know when to stop and retire, the consciousness to know that their ideas are slowly going irrelevant against time, and above all having the grasp of reality of when to let go their powers.

Ward might not share the same nationality with Sarawakians but we can never doubt his love and passion for Sarawak.

However, if you also share the same passion for the state like he did, this is one of the books you must read.

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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