John Crawfurd and Anti-Colonialism in Sarawak

Author: Gareth Knapman, Debra Rengga

Singapore’s second colonial Resident, John Crawfurd, is an unlikely anti-colonial campaigner—but that he was.

Crawfurd was a highly capable colonial administrator for the British East India Company (EIC) in Uttar Pradesh, Java (as Resident Governor at the Court of Yogyakarta), Singapore (as its second Resident), Siam, Burma/Myanmar and Cochin China before retiring in 1827. He then proceeded to forge a second career working anonymously to orchestrate British Radical opposition to James Brooke’s imperial adventures in Sarawak.

Brooke, the “White Raja” of Sarawak, usurped traditional rule in Sarawak to create his own private kingdom that relied on using (or manipulating) British naval power to terrorise and murder his opponents. In opposing Brooke, Crawfurd developed a moral opposition to European expansion in Southeast Asia that was in direct opposition to the legacy of mainstream colonialists like Sir Stamford Raffles and Brooke. Crawfurd maintained that colonial control of large tracts of land and people would result in “death and economic waste”.[1] Among his contemporaries he was regarded as one of the pre-eminent—if not the pre-eminent—authority on the “Far East” and colonisation. It is only with the dubious “benefit” of hindsight (especially that generated by late-colonial and post-colonial state-sponsored myth-making) that lesser figures such as Sir Stamford Raffles have overshadowed him. Crawfurd’s activism demonstrates the heterogeneity of 19th century voices regarding colonialism at the many levels of government and society, the complex views held by people who participated in colonialism, and even suggests lessons for us to ponder as we struggle to create better societies.

Crawfurd’s second career

After his first career as a doctor-turned-diplomat/Resident in the East India Company, Crawfurd’s second career was that of professional lobbyist and journalist who was often representing Indian and Chinese interests in London. He regularly published anonymous opinion articles on Asia in the leading London liberal paper, The Examiner, and various other review journals. He also actively worked behind the scenes talking with government officials about policy and purportedly was a trusted authority on all sides of government.[2] As a member of many London Clubs, associations, and the Masonic Temple, he had access to political and other leading figures through non-official channels.[3] The merchant associations of India and Singapore paid him to shift the political and public opinions of the British elite.

From his first major publication, the History of the Indian Archipelago, Crawfurd demonstrated he was not the usual colonial official. In 1820, he concluded that one of the key problems of the world was: “differences of colour and language are the great obstacles to the happiness, improvement, and civilization of mankind”.[4] He argued that democracy in the colonies was the answer. He wrote that a colony’s government “should make no distinction” between Europeans, Chinese, and the “mixed mass of native inhabitants” but rather treat all equally: “the dark-coloured races should not be looked upon as minors under the guardianship of the state”.[5] Such a colony, he believed, would “create a race of men more improved, more intelligent, and more virtuous, than either the existing native or European population”.[6]

This was Crawfurd’s vision of what colonialism should look like: an island city-state in which all inhabitants are voting citizens, not subjects as opposed to an expanse of land under overt foreign occupation.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Crawfurd regularly gave evidence before parliamentary committees on Indian and Asian affairs. In providing evidence, Crawfurd wanted to push British colonial policy away from ideas of expansion and “humanitarian protection” for which Thomas Stamford Raffles (the founder of Singapore) had argued. In 1832, Crawfurd wrote a submission arguing for non-intervention in the native states and a reduction of Britain’s imperial obligations in Asia. He critically cited his own experience in Java during the British occupation from 1811–1816, stating that before he became Resident of Yogyakarta, the “sultan of Java, had a fertile territory, and about a million and a half of subjects”. Yet he painted his time as Resident of Yogyakarta as a failure for exercising colonial rule and thereby destroying the country:

… we exercised, during our possession of Java, the same kind of interference which we exercise in the administrations of [India] … after a quarrel with him [the Sultan of Java (Yogyakarta)],[7] which followed almost immediately on the conquest of the island, and which arose out of a desire to throw off the yoke of the European supremacy, which terminated in hostilities.[8]

Crawfurd went on to state “the less we interfere in their internal affairs the better”. Yet despite his regular criticism of empire, Brooke and his supporters expected Crawfurd, as a former EIC official, to be one of their allies and support Brooke’s private colonial enterprise in Sarawak.[9] They were to be disappointed.

In 1820, he concluded that one of the key problems of the world was: “differences of colour and language are the great obstacles to the happiness, improvement, and civilization of mankind”. He argued that democracy in the colonies was the answer.

In October 1846, Crawfurd published an anonymous commentary in The Examiner titled “On the projected colonisation of Borneo”, in which he rejected the idea of colonising Borneo.[10] He opened this lengthy article with a blunt call for a “little knowledge and common intelligence” to “substitute for the dense cloud of vapour and rhetoric”.[11] He went on to explain the folly of colonising Borneo, arguing that it was an unproductive jungle, with poor soil and a geography. The only form of colonisation that was possible, he maintained, was whereby Europeans could become a “dominant caste” that “exist by the toil of an inferior race, — that is, by holding that race in virtual slavery”.[12] Crawfurd intended such a statement as a shock to the senses alongside the shocking images he evoked of dead Englishmen and money buried on the “monster” island:

The colonisation, or the conquest, or the settlement of Borneo, or of any portion of Borneo, will in our humble opinion, be a very good scheme for burying Englishmen and their money in a tropical swamp; also, for swamping no inconsiderable portion of English reputation of common sense and forecast; but good for nothing else. In reference to these questions, therefore, let us hear no more of the monster island; — no, not even under its exotic sounding name of Kalamantan.[13]

By the late 1840s, despite Crawfurd’s efforts, advocates of colonialism in Borneo appeared to gain support within Britain.[14] Crawfurd’s apprehension is apparent in his letters to the radical parliamentarian Richard Cobden. Cobden had requested a background briefing from Crawfurd on Sarawak. In letters marked “Private” written two years after his first public but anonymous criticisms of colonisation in Borneo, Crawfurd indicated that he was extremely apprehensive about Brooke’s character and conduct.[15] Crawfurd warned Cobden that Brooke was dangerous and promoting aggressive colonialism for personal gain. “Nothing but death and wast [sic] was to be got of it,” Crawfurd wrote. “I tried […] ‘to arrest it, to stop the blowing of the trumpets’ but the ‘aldermen of London and the accompanying fishmongers would have none of it and allowed the trumpet to blow on’.”[16]

The massacre of Beting Marau

Crawfurd’s opposition initially fell on relatively deaf ears, but circumstances changed in 1849. On 31 July, in collaboration with British Naval forces, Brooke launched an offensive campaign to destroy the capacity of the Saribas and Sekrang Iban to commit acts of “piracy”. The campaign was centred on a fight that came to be known as the Battle of Beting Marau. Opponents labelled the battle a “massacre” and used news of the event to challenge Brooke’s civilising claims and the legitimacy of colonialism in Borneo.

Throughout the 1840s, individual naval commanders had profited considerably from supporting Brooke’s anti-piracy campaigns, despite senior commanders increasingly believing north Borneo was a distraction from real anti-piracy campaigns. The 1825 Piracy Act for “encouraging the capture or destruction of piratical ships and vessels” allowed commanders to claim £20 prize money for every pirate captured or killed and £5 for every pirate who was alive before the battle, but whose fate was unknown.[17] Naval captains wanting to make money further inflated the numbers of “pirates” involved.[18] In 1844, Captain Belcher claimed £11,900 in head money for killing 350 pirates, but the Dutch Resident on the island of Ternate (from where the pirates came) reported only 16 deaths and 40 wounded.[19] Naval officers could easily make their fortune by agreeing with Brooke’s request and slaughtering large numbers of poorly armed Iban warriors and then further inflating the claims.

In 1849, supported by Naval Commander Arthur Farquhar,[20] Brooke continued his campaigns from 1844 and 1846 against the Iban.[21] Brooke had information that a large Saribas and Sekrang “war fleet” was assembled, that Brooke believed was destined to raid coastal communities. He assembled his own force that included 2,500 Iban warriors, 70 war-prahus, his private warship the Royalist and the British naval forces of a naval sloop H.M.S. Albatross and an armed paddle steamer named H.M.S. Nemesis. Brooke’s and Farquhar’s original plan was to destroy the Saribas villages as he had earlier in 1844 and 1846, but hearing of a large raiding fleet making its way up the coast, they decided to lie in wait and ambush the pirate fleet.

The engagement on 31 July 1849 turned into a slaughter. Farquhar later claimed that 300 pirates were killed, 88 prahus destroyed and that 500 wounded pirates would have later died in the jungle. Most of these deaths were caused by the steamer Nemesis ploughing through the disorientated Saribas and Sekrang “war fleet” with its paddle wheels—chopping the “pirates” into pieces. After the “battle”, Farquhar and his men claimed £20,700 (equivalent to approximately £2 million in 2013) in head money.[22]

Such a large sum of money awarded to Farquhar caught the attention of Radicals in the British Parliament, such as Cobden and Hume, who were always on the lookout for profligate spending on colonial and military escapades. The Radicals used the large sums being allocated for head money as a means of criticising Brooke and his campaign in Sarawak. The debate about head money allowed the Radicals to bring the argument to public attention, which Crawfurd had failed to achieve in the mid-1840s.

The campaign against Brooke

There were two stages to this campaign of criticism. The first stage was limited to questioning the veracity of naval officers’ accounts for claims being made for extravagant head money. These questions were first raised by Cobden, Joseph Hume and other Radicals in the British parliament. Outside of Parliament, the Radicals also gained support from the Aboriginal Protection Society and the Peace Society. The second stage was the public campaign against Brooke lead by Joseph Hume. Hume used Parliament to make broad calls to establish a Commission of Inquiry into abuses of power by James Brooke as honorary Consul to Brunei.

At first glance, the personal vitriolic nature of the debate in the press and the British parliament can easily blind observers to the real issues the Radicals raised in their criticisms of Brooke. Contemporary defenders of Brooke claimed Cobden and Hume were besmirching his good and noble character. Until the 1970s, many historians had followed in this fashion, with most being quasi-apologists for Brooke.[23] Such views reduce the ideological differences in the 19th century to mere personality. The clear moral and material objections to colonial expansion into Southeast Asia are lost in most historical interpretations.[24]

In late November 1849, a comprehensive account of the Battle of Beting Marau was published in the London dailies. The account made clear the immense disparity of technology, with rockets and cannons on one side against spears and swords on the other. Such descriptions left many humanitarians wondering if the “battle” had been more like a massacre. On 6 December, Cobden wrote a long letter to his colleague John Bright reflecting the moral indignation of the humanitarians over Brooke’s escapades in Borneo: “It shocks me to think what fiendish atrocities may be committed by English arms without rousing any conscientious resistance at home, provided they be only far enough off, and the victims too feeble to trouble us with their remonstrances [sic] or groans”.[25] Cobden’s focus was on the apathy of the public. He saw it as a moral argument, with religious overtones: “We as a nation have an awful retribution in store for us for wicked deeds”.[26]

Crawfurd developed the three central arguments that the Radicals would promote; first, that the massacre of the Saribas and Sekrang Dayaks was a consequence of corruption in the Royal Navy; secondly that this corruption was a threat to the peoples of Southeast Asia; and thirdly, that the tribes of Sarawak and north Borneo were not practicing piracy, but rather inter-tribal war, and it was not the role of the British Empire to interfere. Any intervention, Crawfurd maintained, would lead to even greater atrocities by British forces who did not understand the people or the environment in which they were operating.

Contemporary defenders of Brooke claimed Cobden and Hume were besmirching his good and noble character. Until the 1970s, many historians had followed in this fashion, with most being quasi-apologists for Brooke.

In 1848, a year before the furore over Brooke broke out, Crawfurd had argued that naval corruption would lead to colonial expansion. He summarised the problem with Brooke as one in which the British navy had placed too much power in the hands of naval officers. Crawfurd changed the focus from Brooke’s actions and instead to the naval officers that chose to support Brooke. In his review of Captain Belcher’s account of Sarawak, Crawfurd had begun to develop the grounds for a future challenge to Brooke, by questioning the role and function of the Royal Navy. He concluded that British naval captains had an “enormous range of powers and functions …. They make war and peace as their own conscience[s] dictate; they contract alliances and promote the foundation of colonies…. Truly a remarkable mission for a race of men, not always overstocked with education or intelligence.”[27]

Following Crawfurd’s reasoning, in 1850 the humanitarians soon moved their argument from moral indignation to particular concerns mirroring the stance Crawfurd took a year earlier—when he was the only activist working against Brooke. Cobden and his radical followers took Crawfurd’s suggested lead. By his anonymity, Crawfurd concealed much of the evidence of his involvement in the campaign against Brooke. He pleaded to Cobden to maintain “confidentiality” because Crawfurd argued “such things are most biting when anonymous”.[28]

In late January 1850, the Aboriginal Protection Society met to discuss the issue at Cobden’s urging. Cobden had proposed a “public and solemn protest” of both the Peace Society and Aboriginal Protection Society. Although the meeting began as a castigation of British butchery in Southeast Asia, it soon turned to the practical question of how to change British policy and stop the butchery. The meeting called for a repeal of the system of head money, resolving that the practice was “barbarous and unjust in principle” and presented “a direct temptation to the shedding of innocent blood”.[29] It was clear that the payments were open to abuse.[30] The Radicals presented a Bill for the total repeal of the head money payments in early February 1850.

Although the Radicals failed in enacting a repeal, they did succeed in pushing for a new Act that gave discretion to the Admiralty Courts to determine the merits of each payment of head money and thereby prevented naval officers determining who constituted a pirate.[31] These changes removed much of the financial imperative behind naval support for Brooke. The Radicals therefore were successful in changing government policy and isolating Brooke.

The debate around James Brooke would continue in the House of Commons for many years. The central focus of the debate was the definition of piracy: how do you determine or define what constituted a pirate?

Piracy or tribal war?

Cobden first raised the question of what constituted a pirate in Parliament in February 1850 and called for a committee of investigation. He made the cautious claim that “there was no evidence that they [the Iban] interfered with British commerce”. He also proposed in the February sitting of Parliament that the tribes in Borneo were merely “carrying on predatory wars with each other” and, by implication, this was not piracy.[32] Brooke’s supporters all claimed that Borneo and Southeast Asia was riddled with pirates and argued that for extensive military campaigns to destroy coastal communities.

Crawfurd led the campaign to reject the idea that Borneo was plagued by a pirate problem. On 12 January 1850, he returned to the theme of piracy in his Examiner columns. Crawfurd’s accounts did not address piracy directly, but rather portrayed the people of Borneo as tribal with very limited technologies and not capable of threatening ocean-going vessels.[33] Crawfurd wanted to demonstrate that Iban were not the fierce warriors that Brooke and his supporters made them out to be. Instead, in his article, all the tribes became poorly armed aborigines that made war on their neighbours, who were equally poorly armed.

Although Crawfurd did not publically moralise like Cobden, he did provide intellectual support to Cobden’s claims. On 22 July 1850, Cobden used Crawfurd as an authority in parliamentary debates stating “Crawford [sic] had distinctly stated before the Committee, that there were no pirates near Sarawak”.[34] Crawfurd’s intellectual position needed to be challenged by Brooke’s supporters. James Augustus St. John attacked Crawfurd in The Sunday Times: “With regard to Mr. Crawford [sic] whose name was mentioned in Monday night’s debate, his authority is not worth one farthing, one way or the other”.[35]

The debates were getting personal and Crawfurd must have been worried that the debate would focus on him and his opinions, rather than the merits of Brooke’s case. Crawfurd reminded Cobden about the importance of maintaining his anonymity.[36] He was certainly aware that St. John and other Brooke supporters would easily transfer focus away from the ideas Crawfurd was making and instead attack his credibility—in a similar fashion to the attacks that Cobden and Hume continually received.

Throughout 1851, Crawfurd continued to give his largely anonymous commentary on Brooke and the question of piracy. In May 1851, Brooke returned to Britain to challenge his accusers. In The Examiner, Crawfurd placed his support behind calls for a commission of inquiry into Brooke, writing “if without such commission Sir James Brooke attempts to put down piracy, after his own or any other fashion, he commits an illegal act, and becomes himself, in the eye of the law, the pirate he denounces”.[37]

In June 1851, Crawfurd again took up his pen to outline reasons why the Dayaks were not pirates and support calls for an inquiry. “The existence of piracy in the Indian Archipelago”, he admitted, is “undoubted”, but he maintained piracy is a product of advanced civilisations not tribal communities: “the pirates of the Indian Archipelago known to Europeans were never alleged to be any other than the most advanced nations of that part of the world—Malays and natives of the Philippine islands”. ‘Throughout human history’ he maintained there was:

[N]o case where the pirates mere untutored savages, without arts or effective arms. The pirates of the American Archipelago were not the Caribs, nor any other sort of red men [but rather Europeans]; and the pirates of the Indian Archipelago were not mere Dayaks of Borneo, or any other savages, sailing in cockle-shell and destitute of any weapons which could make them dangerous even to an English long-boat. In fact, Dayaks were never, until the last seven years, even alleged to be pirates.[38]

Crawfurd proceeded to dissect the parliamentary papers, concluding that:

[T]he two proscribed tribes are only poor savages, somewhat less truculent than savages in the same state of society usually are in other parts of the world, — incapable, from sheer impotency, however willing, of committing piracy on the high or narrow seas, and mischievous only to their savage neighbours, who, as usual, retaliate by mischief for mischief. The public is either asleep, or not quite sober on this subject.[39]

The savages were not nice people: Crawfurd was clear about that. Savages killed each other, but it was advanced and civilised people that were capable of brutal acts of barbarism on a large scale. His argument was that human nature was barbaric and that there was no difference between the savage and the civilised. When placed in a barbaric environment, all people resort to barbarism.

The Commission of Inquiry into James Brooke

In 1852, a new government formed in Britain that relied on the Radicals support for legislation to pass through the House of Commons. Hume’s and Cobden’s lobbying finally resulted in a commission of inquiry. Hume requested that the inquiry focus exclusively on piracy and if Brooke had violated any acts of parliament or the treaty of friendship between Britain and Borneo. Despite Hume’s focus on piracy, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Earl of Clarendon (George Villiers) did not focus primarily on piracy but rather the legal status of Brooke as both as Raja of Sarawak and Governor of Labuan and consul to Brunei.[40]

The Senior Commissioner was Charles Prinsep the Advocate-General of Bengal, who behaved erratically during the course of the commission and on his return to Bengal was certified as insane.[41] The second Commissioner was Humphrey Devereux, a longstanding officer in the Bengal Civil Service.

Much of the questioning focused on distinguishing differences between piratical activities, peaceful trade and legitimate conflict. Although the commissioners never questioned the Iban, they did question European and Asian traders as well as villages who were the victims of the Iban’s attacks.

When addressing Europeans, the questions attempted to establish if the witnesses could tell the difference between the different tribes they encountered, or the difference between war prows and trading prows. When William Napier (the former Governor of Labuan, dismissed by Brooke in 1851) was questioned on 29 September 1854, he was asked “[have you] satisfied your mind as to the piratical or intertribal character of the predatory expeditions of the Saribas and Sekrang Dayaks [Ibans]?” Napier’s answer was:

I have no doubt that the Dayaks have inter-tribal wars, and long-standing feuds, and that these feuds and inter-tribal wars are the origin of many of their expeditions against each other, that their expeditions may also combine piracy by attacking the smaller trading prows they fall in with, I also think highly probable.[42]

Napier’s evidence highlighted the general problem the inquiry faced. Were the Dayaks acting out of tribal war or piracy and how could you tell the difference? In Napier’s evidence the motive was inter-tribal wars, and any act of piracy was mere opportunity and not the direct motivation. When the commission turned to asking the non-European inhabitants of Borneo they asked the question “Do you know anything of the Saribas and Sekrang Dayaks?” and usually got the response in the affirmative and a long statement of how they attacked villages.[43]

Prinsep concluded that it is “in my opinion neither necessary nor prudent that he [Brooke] should be entrusted by the British Crown with any discretion to determine which of these tribes are piratical”.

Although the native accounts were horrendous, such attacks on villages were not necessarily piracy but rather legitimate inter-tribal war that Britain had no business getting involved with, as Napier’s evidence and the long commentary in parliament by Cobden, Hume and other radicals demonstrated. Consequently, the commissioners needed to assess how these acts constituted piracy or legitimate warfare. Napier argued that there was some feud or disagreement at the source of the Saribas and Sekrang expeditions. In legal terms this would amount to a casus belli (cause of war), therefore when questioning the natives of Borneo the Commissioners asked for a cause.

For example, on 16 October 1854, they asked Mohamot Sally, “What is the general character of these attacks, were they provoked?”

He responded, “No cause or bad feeling, their object is only to get head and plunder.”

Similarly, on the same day, the commissioners questioned Hajji Mahomet Sahat asking “what was the cause of offence given?”

He responded, “There was no cause but a mere desire to obtain heads.”[44]

In his analysis of the evidence, Decereux noted the “attacks were all on one side” and that there was an “unanimous declaration that no cause of offence has been given”.[45]

By focusing on cause or the lack of cause, the commissioners were trying to establish the legitimacy of the attack. The evidence they received from the people of Borneo was that there was no legitimate reason for the Saribas and Sekrang attacks and the only reason for doing so was to plunder the people. Although still not the normal definition of piracy, the focus on plunder without cause meant the actions of the Saribas and Sekrang Dayaks had according to Prinsep “nothing of the character of intertribal warfare” and therefore were closer to piracy than they were to inter-tribal war.[46] Nevertheless Prinsep concluded that it is “in my opinion neither necessary nor prudent that he [Brooke] should be entrusted by the British Crown with any discretion to determine which of these tribes are piratical”.[47]

When the commission concluded, it exonerated Brooke of accusations of misusing his Public Office of Consul to Brunei to support his private empire in Sarawak, yet decided that his position as ruler of Sarawak was incompatible with holding an official British position.

The commissioners did not agree on the most important problem for the British government: whether or not Brooke was the sovereign ruler of Sarawak. Both commissioners supported Brooke’s claim that the Saribas and Sekrang Dayaks were pirates and therefore legitimate targets.

On receiving the Commissioner’s report in August 1857, Crawfurd was not impressed. In May 1854, he had predicted that “Sir James too anxiously anticipates an adverse judgement”.[48] But receiving the report, Crawfurd complained that “notwithstanding this huge volume, it cannot be said that there is in law the report of a commission at all”. In describing the proceedings he called Prinsep the “professional member” but labelled Devereux the “lay brother” whose report Crawfurd believed was an “abstract of the evidence, in which we find a mere naked skeleton without muscle, sinew, or ligament, and above all things, without brains”.[49]

Devereux claimed that the killing of 1000 Saribas and Sekrang Dayaks in 1849 was “just and expedient, and in conformity with the obligation of treaty, that punishment should be inflicted on them, with a view to the repression of their atrocious outrages” and that Devereux saw no “reasonable ground for sympathy with a race of indiscriminate murderers”. Crawfurd responded that: “proportionally it is about the same thing as if in a single night from 200,000 to 240,000 adult Englishmen had been put to the sword.”[50] Crawfurd was totally unconvinced by the Commissioner’s conclusions:

To call, then, the Seribas and Sakarran savages of Borneo “pirates,” that is, men guilty of the crime of robbing on the high seas (for that is the only legal definition of piracy), is about as extravagant and absurd as if we were to call the highwaymen and footpads of Bagshot heath a hundred years ago, corsairs and buccaneers.[51]

The consequence of the commission was to end Brooke’s ability to call on naval support and effectively end British expansion in Sarawak. The Commission thus delivered a qualified victory to Crawfurd and the Radicals trying to prevent the expansion of the British Empire.

In 1858, Brooke toured Britain trying to raise capital and promoting the idea of selling Sarawak to the British Government. Crawfurd was initially tired of the campaign, writing to Cobden “I shall be obliged at last to write on the dirty topic although I should have been glad to have avoided it”. He speculated to Cobden a line of argument:

I think the course you and I support will be the least… the House of Commons should thank his services worthy of a reward, it should vote him, at one a handsome sum and get rid of him and his Bornean tropical morass.[52]

Cobden however persuaded Crawfurd to continue the fight. On 9 October 1858, Crawfurd wrote in The Examiner “we can no longer remain silent respecting this new agitation of the Sarawak question”.[53] He called merchants and manufacturers supporting Brooke “ignorant” and proceeded to reiterate all the problems he had previously raised with Sarawak and why it should not be a British colony. Brooke was requesting to be reimbursed for all the money he had spent on Sarawak over the previous 17 years. Crawfurd rejected this, but as he outlined in his letter to Cobden, he suggested Parliament give Brooke some form of token grant for his services. Cobden forwarded copies of Crawfurd’s articles to other activists, requesting they lobby the government as much as possible against the purchase of Sarawak, trying to stop Brooke’s momentum.[54] The government listened to the arguments made by Crawfurd and Cobden and rejected the Brooke proposal. In his Examiner column, Crawfurd congratulated the government:

We feel it our duty to offer Lord Derby and his colleagues our hearty thanks for the courage and intelligence they have shown on this occasion, qualities which, had they been displayed by their predecessors, would have saved the nation from an imposition, which from first to last has cost much money, much foolscap, and expense for printing, to say nothing of the slaughter of some 5,000 savages or barbarians.

Crawfurd in history

Today we often focus on the carpetbaggers of Empire as the quintessential 19th century figures: people like James Brooke and, to a lesser extent, Stamford Raffles, who were prepared to slaughter and destroy local resistance in the name of colonial expansion and personal gain. Yet Crawfurd’s staunch activism points to the heterogeneity of 19th century voices regarding colonialism and more broadly the complex views held by people who participated in colonialism.

Crawfurd championed colonial enterprise and the equality of races without seeing a contradiction. He was an indefatigable critic of the EIC even as he was one of its more capable and well-rewarded administrators, with his family owning much of central Singapore until the early 20th century. He fiercely opposed colonial expansion and the subjugation of the “savages” and “barbarians”, but readily pursued his “duty” as an EIC official in India, Java, Singapore, Siam and Burma, serving the interests of the East India Company. By the end of his career in the East India Company, he was an undisputed giant figure among scholars of Southeast Asia and the most eminent of his generation of historian-administrators, but has since been overshadowed by lesser figures like Raffles and even, in a way, Brooke.

Crawfurd championed colonial enterprise and the equality of races without seeing a contradiction.

Crawfurd’s significance lies in three elements in particular. First, his direct impact on Southeast Asian colonial history through his work as a colonial administrator. Crawfurd, with Raffles, was responsible for destroying Yogyakarta as an indigenous source power that could rival the colonial state—an action that Crawfurd later regretted. As the Resident of Singapore, Crawfurd allied himself with the Chinese merchants and worked with them in building Singapore as a trading hub. He was a great advocate of free trade and restricting colonial outposts to geographically constrained ports (like Singapore) so as to disturb native civilisations as little as possible. In this role, Crawfurd the administrator made a very direct mark on Southeast Asia in the first half of the 19th century, albeit one that was totally undone in the second half, as the British carelessly made gigantic footprints on the Malay Peninsula, in North Borneo and in Myanmar/Burma, along with the Dutch in the Indonesian archipelago and the French in Indochina.

Second, his decades-long post-retirement career as a lobbyist and journalist working for both Indian (indigenous), Chinese and European mercantile classes in both India and the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang and Malacca). In both these roles, he worked hard to reform the operations of the East India Company. Crawfurd spearheaded Singapore’s first local “nationalist” campaign, where European merchants in the Straits Settlements sought to have administration removed from the EIC in Calcutta and transferred to London, where it would be directly governed as a Crown Colony in 1867. This shift would be a major turning point for the colony’s development, and not as Crawfurd had hoped with the colony expanding into the Malay Peninsula. Much of his lobbying work took the form of anonymous pamphlets and columns in outlets such as The Examiner, The Westminster Review and The Edinburgh Review.

Third, Crawfurd combined the attributes of the philosopher, historian, and activist, demonstrating a passion for upholding the equality of races and respect for indigenous civilisations and the customary rights implicit in their traditional management of their land. His most prominent published work was his History of the Indian Archipelago (1820), but this was merely his first major scholarly publication among many. There was no clear distinction between his scholarly works, his submissions to government, and his anonymous pamphlets and contributions to the popular press, and in all of them we meet Crawfurd the historian, Crawfurd the ethnographer, and even Crawfurd the pseudo-theologian, since much of the debate was couched in biblical terms. For example, did humankind (or “mankind”, to use the language of the day) descend from Adam and Eve or did it appear independently in many different parts of the globe? At stake in this particular debate was the question of whether there was any value in indigenous civilisations. If there was just one set of parents, then English logic dictated that there was just one pathway to civilisation and, obviously, this was the British/European/Christian way. The rest were mere corruptions to be redeemed or discarded in the campaign to uplift the savages. This was the vision that Raffles brought to both Java and Singapore, and it was the accepted orthodoxy of the day.

Crawfurd_Spot_Web - New Naratif
Debra Rengga

Heretics like Crawfurd argued, mostly anonymously, that humanity and civilisation had many independent origins (polygenesis) and there was intrinsic value in all of them, even if some were further along the path of progress than others. In this Radical world, the role of European colonialism was that of the barbarian invader, which Crawfurd saw as providing a trigger that prompted and accelerated natural change and improvement in both the natives themselves and in their civilisations. Much of the debates and political fights referred to above were fought within the parameters of this or comparable scholarly discourses. The argument over the massacre of the Dayaks, for instance, turned substantially on ethnography. True, they were head-hunters and plunderers, but should this behaviour be characterised as piracy, or was it something else: inter-tribal warfare, or perhaps just a way of life? And was it Britain’s role to act as a global policeman? Crawfurd argued it was not and that whenever the British took on that role, they made things worse.

If Crawfurd can be summarised into a single lesson, it is to avoid creating divisions and conflict: that conflict results in “death and waste” for no gain to the people. Today, as we are faced with rising levels of majoritarian identity politics and nationalist populism in the United States of America, the European Union, the People’s Republic of China, as well as other countries throughout the world, perhaps Crawfurd’s 1820 observation that “differences of colour and language are the great obstacles to the happiness, improvement, and civilization of mankind” applies as much to 2020 as it did to 1820.


Article: Gareth Knapman
Illustrations: Debra Rengga

Research for this article is drawn from the author’s book Race and British Colonialism in South-East Asia, 1770-1870: John Crawfurd and the Politics of Equality (Routledge, 2017). This article also draws on Michael Barr’s review of the book, published in History Australia 15:1 (2018), 181-183. The author wishes to express thanks to Michael for his wonderful encapsulation of Crawfurd’s place in history.


[1] John Crawfurd, ‘Crawfurd to Norton Shaw, 29 February’, Royal Geographical Society, Royal Geographical Society, CB4/Crawfurd (1860); John Crawfurd, ‘On the Projected Colonization of Borneo’, The Examiner, (October 24, 1846).
[2]Anonymous, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, (April 15, 1847). In a letter to Cobden, Crawfurd notes that Brooke’s supporters were asking him for support John Crawfurd, ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden, December 31’, West Sussex Record Office, Cobden Mss 3/12 (1850).
[3]For reference to Crawfurd being a Mason see letter to John Crawfurd, ‘Crawfurd to Norton Shaw June 8’, Royal Geographical Society, Royal Geographical Society, RGS/CB4/Crawfurd (1860). Also, his obituaries state he was in most of the intellectual clubs. Anonymous, ‘Death of Mr. John Crawfurd’, (13 May, 1868); Anonymous, ‘Mr John Crawfurd’, (16 May, 1868).
[4]Crawfurd, History of the Indian Archipelago: Containing an Account of the Manners, Arts, Languages, Religions, Institutions, and Commerce of its Inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co). , vol. 3, p. 63
[5]Ibid., p. 67
[6]Ibid., vol. 1, p. 154.
[7]It is interesting to note that Crawfurd actually called him the Sultan of Java: an acknowledgement of the Yogyakarta’s wider authority.
[8]Hyde Villiers, ‘Report from the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company; with minutes of evidence in six parts, and an appendix and index to each’, Volume 3, Part 1, Issue 47., (1832)., ‘Letter from John Crawfurd, Esq., to Thomas Hyde Villiers, Esq. 24 February 1832’ Appendix No. 8 page 93
[9]Crawfurd commented to Richard Cobden that many of Brooke allies asked him to write memorials supporting Brooke’s attempt to get Sarawak transferred to British colonial authority in John Crawfurd, ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden October 16’, Cobden Papers, West Sussex Record Office, Cobden s/111 (1858).
[10]Crawfurd, ‘On the Projected Colonization of Borneo’, The Examiner (October 24, 1846). The article was syndicated/reprinted in other papers as well including the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on October 31, 1846 and even the Sydney Chronicle on 3 April 1847.
[11]Crawfurd, ‘On the Projected Colonization of Borneo’.
[14]For a discussion on how Brooke British supporters manipulated public opinion see John Ingleson, Expanding the Empire: James Brooke and the Sarawak lobby, 1839-1868, (Nedlands, W.A.: Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Western Australia, 1979).
[15] ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden February 10’, ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden December 24’, Cobden Papers, West Sussex Record Office, MS 3/11 (1850); Crawfurd, ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden, December 31’, ; ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden, March 22 ‘, Cobden Papers, West Sussex Record Office, MS 3/17 (1851); ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden October 16’; West Sussex Record Office, Cobden s/111 (1858); ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden September 20’, Cobden Papers, West Sussex Record Office, Cobden s/114 (1858).
[16]‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden February 10’.
[17]A bill to make further provision for the payment of the crews of His Majesty’s ships and vessels; and for encouraging the capture or destruction of piratical ships and vessels, 1825 (House of Commons, UK)No. 174.Vol. 3 p.543. .
[18]Graham Irwin, Nineteenth-Century Borneo: A Study of Diplomatic Rivalry, (Martinus Nijhoff’s-Gravenhage, 1955), p. 146.
[20]No relation to the first Resident of Singapore.
[21]Ibid., p. 138.
[22] real price of that commodity is £1,874,000.00, labour value of that commodity is £14,820,000.00, income value of that commodity is £22,790,000.00
[23]St. John, Life of Sir James Brooke (Kuala Lumpur ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), S. Runciman, The White Rajah: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Nicholas Tarling, The burthen, the risk, and the glory (Kuala Lumpur ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1982); Irwin, Nineteenth-Century Borneo.
[24]Nicholas Tarling focuses on Government policy in Nicholas Tarling, Piracy and politics in the Malay world; Nicholas Tarling, British Policy In The Malay Peninsula And Archipelago: 1824-1871, (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1969); Nicholas Tarling, Imperial Britain in South-East Asia, (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975). Irwin rejects the Radicals position totally arguing the Radicals were misguided and had little knowledge of the situation in Borneo or South-East Asia generally. Graham Irwin however did not realize that Crawfurd was one of the main architects of the radical position, Irwin, Nineteenth-Century Borneo. Robert Pringle generally accepts Irwin narrative, but does realize that the Radicals were presenting a strong moral claim and included a radical statements as an appendix Pringle, Rajahs and Rebels: the Ibans of Sarawak under Brooke rule, 1841-1941 (London: Macmillan, 1970).
[25]John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903), p. 520.
[27]John Crawfurd, ‘Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang, during the years 1843-46; employed Surveying the Islands of the Eastern Archipelago; accompanied by a brief Vocabulary of the principal Languages. By Captain Sir Edward Belcher, R.N. Commander of the Expedition. With Notes on the Natural History of the Islands, by Arthur Adams, Assistant Surgeon, R.N. Reeve and Co.’, The Examiner, (March 18, 1848).
[28]24 December 1850 Cobden MS 3/11
[29]Anonymous, ‘Meeting of the Aboriginal Protection Society over Borneo’, The Examiner, (February 2, 1850).
[30]‘Pirates (Head Money) Repeal Bill’ House of Commons, Monday, February 11, 1850, Hansard, 3rd series, vol. 108, p. 662.
[31]Irwin, Nineteenth-Century Borneo, p. 146.
[32]Pirates (Head Money) Repeal Bill’ House of Commons, Monday, February 11, 1850, Hansard, 3rd series, vol. 108, p. 662.
[33]Crawfurd, ‘Borneo and its resources’, The Examiner (January 12, 1850).
[34]SUPPLY—LABUAN. House of Commons Debates, 22 July 1850 vol. 113 cc106-22
[35]Brooke, ‘Trade and Piracy’, The Sunday Times (28 July, 1850).
[36]Crawfurd, ‘Crawfurd to Richard Cobden December 24’,
[37]Crawfurd, ‘Modest Merit’, The Examiner, (May 31, 1851).
[38]Crawfurd, ‘Bornean Piracy’, The Examiner (June 28, 1851).
[40]Earl of Clarendon, ‘Earl of Clarendon to Sir Charles Wood, 21 June’, Foreign Office, National Archives (UK), FO 12/21 (1853), p. 3.
[41]St. John, Life of Sir James Brooke, p. 270. M. Allbrook, Henry Prinsep’s Empire: Framing a distant colony, 2014), p. 56. Also Runciman, White Rajahs. It is also worth noting that Prinsep was the senior commissioner and his verdict was not as favourable to Brooke as Devereux. The evidence for his insanity goes back to St. John’s version of events. As a supporter of Brooke, St. John has every reason to slander Prinsep.
[42]Anonymous, ‘Evidence of William Napia (Former Governor of Labuan and at the time Law Agent in Singapore court House) 29 September’, Foreign Office, National Archives (UK), FO12/20 (1854), p. 67a.
[43]FO 12/20 this is usually the 2nd or 3 question asked, with the first questions being devoted to establishing the identity of the informant.
[44]FO 12/20 pp. 287, 293.
[45]Anonymous, ‘Commission of Inquiry into James Brooke’, p. 22.
[46]Charles Prinsep, ‘Mr Prinsep to the Governor-General of India in Council, Opinion’, Foreign Office, National Archives UK, FO 881/482 (1855), p. 4.
[47]Ibid. p. 6.
[48]John Crawfurd, ‘The Borneo Inquiry’, The Examiner, (20 May, 1854).
[49]John Crawfurd, ‘Results of the Brooke inquiry’, The Examiner, (25 August, 1855).
[50]FO 881/482 Memorandum on Piracy of the Serebas and Sakarran Dyaks.
[51]John Crawfurd, ‘The Brooke and Borneo Inquiry’, The Examiner, (1 September, 1855).
[52]‘Crawfurd to Cobden, 30 September’, Cobden Papers, West Sussex Record Office, Cobden MSS 5/109, 5/110 (1858).
[53]John Crawfurd, ‘Rajah Brook and his claims’, The Examiner, (9 October, 1858).
[54]Cobden to Joseph Sturge in R. Cobden and others, The Letters of Richard Cobden: Volume III: 1854-1859, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2012), p. 409.


Gareth Knapman

Dr Gareth Knapman is a researcher with the Australian National University specialising in nineteenth century Southeast Asia and Australia. Gareth’s current research explores the idea of land ownership and Indigenous sovereignty in eighteenth and nineteenth India, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Debra Rengga

Debra is a Sarawakian-born illustrator currently living in Vancouver, Canada. Proud of her Iban roots, her goal is to develop an animated film that will showcase stories of the indigenous communities in Borneo. Her works can be found at or Instagram @doodlebugdebz. Reach her at

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