Sunday 20 February 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The White Rajah by Tom Williams

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Fictional Drama
19th century
Malaysia (Borneo)

" 1839. James Brooke arrives in Borneo and finds himself plunged into the middle of a civil war. When his support sees the Sultan’s forces victorious he is given his own kingdom as a reward. Brooke is determined to show how the Britain of Queen Victoria can bring civilisation to the natives. But soon pirates are exploiting the divisions in the country and, when the old rulers stage a coup, Brooke is forced to flee into the jungle. Faced with the destruction of all he has worked for, he is driven to desperate measures to reclaim his country. But is he bringing civilisation to Borneo or will his ruthless annihilation of the pirates just bring a new level of brutality to the people he meant to save? The White Rajah is about a man fighting for his life who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke's battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery."

In his early thirties, James Brooke has retired from the East India Company’s army and is looking for adventure and opportunities in the East. The Dutch rule trade in the China Sea, but Brooke sees a chance to open trade with Borneo for the British. The Sultan is at war with rebels, and persuades Brooke to lead an army against them. There follows – I can’t call it a battle. It is almost a siege, with the Sultan’s force refusing to engage if there is a risk of death to any of the men. (This was a time when there were still head hunters in Borneo and possibly cannibals.) It made for hilarious reading as Brooke struggled to maintain his sanity. Back he went to the Sultan with the intention of quitting. To persuade him to stay, the Sultan offers him the lordship of Sarawak and later makes him Rajah.

That is just the beginning of James Brooke’ adventures. He has tribal issues to deal with and pirates who create carnage in peaceful villages.

In this action-packed book, the reader will discover a little-known culture. Love interest is provided by the narrator, who is Brooke’s lover and assistant, John Williamson (fictitious). He cringes at cruelty in war and acts the part of Brooke’s conscience.

I noticed that the author described Brooke as ‘tall’ and in the same paragraph ‘of medium height’. As critiques go, it is a minuscule one – the kind of mistake it is so easy to make. All in all, a splendid book, not terribly gruesome, well-researched and well-written. I enjoyed it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Susan Appleyard
 e-version reviewed

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