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History under the microscope

REAL HERO: Two young children standing near the relief figure of Panglima Rentap during their visit to the Heroes’ monument of the Sarawak Museum in Kuching. — Photo by Churchill Edward.

by Churchill Edward

WESTERN historical narratives on the colonised, focusing specifically on the Dayak Ibans of Sarawak under the Brooke regime, are being scrutinised in a book by an academic from UiTM Sarawak in Kota Samarahan.

Associate Prof Dr Bromeley Philip is shedding some light on how history was written to privilege only the so-called ‘white supremacy’ vis-à-vis the ‘savage’ native inhabitants.

Entitled Historical narratives of the colonised: The Noble Savage of Sarawak, one chapter of the book (still in press by Palgrave Macmillan) focuses on how western historians highlighted only the positive image of the so-called ‘paternal’ White Rajahs who were portrayed as bringing peace to otherwise chaotic Sarawak due to strong resistance from the Iban ‘rebels’ (western label), notably Rentap.

Rentap was depicted as a rebel, befitting the savage image, accorded by the imperialistic west to any other humans besides Europeans.

“The Ibans were probably fortunate because James Brooke saw the Ibans not just as savages but as noble savages – an opinion shared by Charles Brooke too,” Bromeley quipped.

Based on his research, he said: “In fact, James Brooke did write in his diary that the Ibans were “superior in stature, and better made than any Dayaks I have seen.” And I may also quote what Charles Brookes wrote of the Ibans – “strong in body, a mass of muscle, quick in intelligence and perception.” (source: Crisswell, 1978, Rajah Charles Brooke).

He pointed out that the history of Sarawak during the Brooke regime was written only from the eyes of westerners, adding: “We are in the periphery of history, never central in their historical account. It is their history.”

Bromeley said the natives did not really have their own history – it was always the Brooke’s.

Rentap was recorded in their history only to accentuate their supremacy over the native inhabitants and never was Rentap featured from his or his own people’s perspective, he added.

“During the Brooke’s era, we the local inhabitants were just like ‘Friday’ (a native character) in Robinson Crusoe’s story. What matters were things the Rajah did at that material time.

“Crusoe even gave his native friend the name Friday because he found him on Friday! That was rather convenient but unfortunately disrespectful. Crusoe did not bother to know what Friday’s actual name was. Friday was only mentioned in the story book and he did not have any voice – so much so that what he thought did not matter. Crusoe’s story was just analogical of the Ibans’ story under the Brookes as featured by western writers,” Bromeley said.

English commoner

James Brooke was an English commoner who, like most imperialistic European adventurers then, was looking for opportunities in the East and he saw them in Sarawak. He was also known as the first White Rajah who obtained governorship of Sarawak from the Sultan of Brunei and eventually proclaimed himself Rajah of Sarawak.

According to Bromeley, based on his academic inquiry into a book, written by Robert Pringle (revised 2007), the Ibans were not made aware of the existence of any meaningful central government.

Quoting from Pringle (p59), he said: “Their (Ibans’) lack of respect for the Sultanate was quite obvious when the new European overlords arrived. Charles Brooke related a grim tale of some Brunei nobles en route to the Krian. Encountering some Iban marauders on the coast, the pengiran in command displayed the Sultan’s commission, carefully folded in yellow satin, hoping to dissuade them from attack. But the Ibans replied “we don’t know about things like that” (nadai nemu utai bakanya), and proceeded to take the heads of the entire party.”

Bromeley asked: “If the Ibans did not recognise the Brunei’s sovereignty which ceded Sarawak to James Brooke, how could they even recognise the Brooke family as the Rajahs?”

He said based on Brunei’s Selesiah, the Malacca ‘grant’ of the Sultan of Johore only included Kalaka, Saribas, Sadong, Samarahan and Sarawak (Kuching now) but there was no mention of the Batang Lupar river system, the first river in the now Second Division to be settled by Iban migrants from the Kapuas.

According to him, its omission from the Malacca grant, as remembered in Brunei tradition, may indicate the warlike Ibans were soon living along Batang Lupar and Batang Skrang in sufficient numbers to discourage Brunei interest.

Bromeley also said Batang Lupar was what Pringle declared as ‘the Iban country’ but this was not mentioned in the slightest amount of information available concerning the 16th and 17th century Sultanate.

It was along Batang Skrang that Rentap put up a strong resistance against the Rajahs because Rentap was just protecting his territory from a foreign encroachment.

Indigenous viewpoint

Rentap was pictured as a recalcitrant by western writers – Baring-Gould and Bampfylde. Villain as he might have been portrayed by western writers, Rentap’s struggle to ward off alien encroachment of his native land is clearly very commendable from the indigenous perspective.

Faced with strong resistance from Rentap, the Rajah’s expeditions met with failure twice. While the Rajah’s defeats were not highlighted in published accounts of Sarawak, Rentap’s retreat further into the interior (taken to be Rentap’s eventual defeat), was, however, highlighted.

According to Baring-Gould and Bampfylde (1989: p184), “Rentap will not be noticed again. Broken and deserted by all, he retired to the Entabai branch of the Kanowit where he died some years later.”

The writers picture Rentap’s retreat (as viewed by the Rajahs)
as being tragic – that he was broken and deserted. However, there was
no evidence to corroborate that Rentap actually suffered a tragic defeat.

As much as western writers tried to show how successful and effective Brooke’s Rule was against the Iban warrior-chief, what came to light was the fact that Rentap was a force to be reckoned with indeed.

Despite his lack of modern arms and ammunition and small band of followers in contrast to the Rajah’s force, he defended his fortress at Bukit Sadok against two separate attacks by the Rajah. It took three expeditions (June 1857, July 1858, and August 1861) by Charles Brooke, the Tuan Muda, to finally dislodge Rentap from his fortress. Rentap however, evaded capture.

“It was Rentap who actually showed bravery and resilience against the formidable White Rajah,” Bromeley noted.

Rebel or hero?

He asked: “Was Rentap a rebel or a hero? Who would not have reacted the way Rentap had when threatened by an alien race determined to force his people to submit to an unknown power in his own motherland?

“Rentap’s retreat may well have been a sign of strength of character in refusing to submit and surrender to an alien race encroaching on his territory. From an Iban perspective, for as long as one has not openly declared defeat and surrender (nadai nyerah alah), there is neither any real surrender nor any real defeat.

“Rentap knew his small band of men was no match for the Rajah’s forces but for him to have defeated the Rajah twice was nothing
but victory for Rentap and his followers.

“Much of colonialist knowledge of ‘Europe’s Other’ was framed within binaries of diverse interchangeable oppositions between white and black, good and evil, superiority and inferiority, civilisation and savagery, intelligence and emotion, rationality and sensuality, subject and object.”

Bromeley explained: “The Europeans would rationalise their arrival in the savage nations and saw rationality as differentiating the Occident from the Oriental/Other by imposing a dichotomy of superiority and civility by the former over the latter.

“The racialisation of the human subjects and the social order enabled comparisons to be made between the Self (Europeans) and the Other (non-Europeans). The direct implication was that colonised people have been compelled to define what it means to be human because there is a deep understanding of what it has meant to be considered not fully human – that is to be savage.”

Western accounts of Sarawak history under the Brooke Rule for instance, painted a positive picture of the coloniser which saw a ‘paternal’ White Rajah bringing so-called much-needed peace to the otherwise chaotic land of savage headhunters (labels given by western writers).

Most historical narratives of the colonies – with the Brooke Rule in Sarawak being no exception – were written from the western perspective, stories justifying the existence of the coloniser in ‘introducing’ civilisation to the colonised communities.

“My discussion in the chapter first looks at western historical narratives of colonies in general, which is then followed by a scrutiny of western narratives on the Sarawak White Rajahs’ rule over the noble savage – the Dayak Ibans.

“The Dayak Ibans become the focus of the discussion in this chapter because the Iban had given much resistance to the Rajahs’ rule over Sarawak as compared to other native groups,” he said.

“To challenge such accounts and produce alternative ways of making sense of the recorded events of the past, I am compelled, as a ‘conscious’ subject of history, to revisit western discourses of the historiography and historicisation of the White Rajahs in Sarawak as produced by Occident writers, specifically to scrutinise their interpretations of historical events.

“The discourse of histories of Sarawak, as produced by the Occident writers, demands more than a critical gaze because the history of colonisation privileges the supremacy of European agents of the process while the colonised were marginalised and reduced to invisibility,” he elaborated.

Bromeley stressed it must be remembered that the past as an aspect of temporality and history is not stitched into one another such that only one reading of the past is possible or permissible.”

Source : The Borneo Post

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