The stabbed governor of Sarawak

Duncan Stewart, Governor of Sarawak Duncan Stewart was killed several weeks into his governorship

Previously secret documents show British officials covered up evidence about the assassination of a colonial governor in East Asia after World War II, fearing the truth might spark a war. But this, it seems, left an unjust stain on the reputation of a British man from a family of so-called White Rajahs.

In December 1949 the new governor of the recently acquired British colony of Sarawak was on his first official tour. Among Scotsman Duncan Stewart's previous postings was Palestine - one of the most dangerous in the world at that time. After that, it was thought he would have little to fear in the comparatively sleepy backwater of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo.

After a couple of weeks in the job, he went to the town of Sibu on his first official visit. He was welcomed warmly by a large crowd, who all seemed to be enjoying themselves, according to press reports of the day.

After inspecting a guard of honour, he walked on flanked by a gaggle of excited school children. Then a youth walked towards Governor Stewart holding a camera and asked to take his photo. As his Majesty's representative prepared to pose, another youth stabbed him.

Officials quickly grabbed the two youths and arrested them.

Despite suffering a deep stab wound, Governor Stewart is reported to have carried on for a while, as if the murderous assault hadn't happened. But when blood began to seep through his starched white uniform he was rushed away for treatment. He died a few days later, after being flown to a hospital in Singapore.

Two local Malay youths, Rosli bin Dobi and Moshidi bin Sedek, were tried for murder and later hanged. Both were thought to be members of a group dedicated to restoring Anthony Brooke, heir-elect of a British family of so-called White Rajahs, to the throne of Sarawak. The "anti-cession" movement objected to the decision to cede Sarawak to the British.

Anthony Brooke Anthony Brooke died in 2011, never officially told the assassination had nothing to do with him

The Brookes had ruled this northern slice of the island of Borneo since the mid-19th Century. It had been given to Anthony's Great Great Uncle James by the then Sultan of Brunei, after the Victorian adventurer had quelled a revolt for him.

It was then run as a virtually independent and apparently benevolent kingdom by the Brooke family. The interests of the varied local tribal groups were, it seems, well protected by the Brookes as commercial pressures grew following an influx of investors and businessmen.

But, finally, in July 1946, Sarawak became Britain's last colonial acquisition. It was handed over to the British crown by Anthony Brooke's uncle, Charles Vyner Brooke, in exchange for a £200,000 pay-off.

Vyner Brooke's reinstatement - he receives the Sword of State from Datu Patinggi after Japanese Occupation, 1946 Charles Vyner Brooke in Sarawak in 1946

But Anthony Brooke, who had been expected to take over as White Rajah of Sarawak, was not happy about this.

Neither were many locals. Even though his family were as British as the new colonial masters, they had become part of the local fabric, unlike the pith-helmeted rulers from far away.

Demonstrations, arranged by each Kampong (village community) greeted the first governor, Sir Charles Arden Clarke, on his arrival in Sarawak in 1946 Protests spread from village to village

Numerous anti-cession protests were held. Placards called for a return to White Rajah rule led by Anthony Brooke.

So when the British governor was killed, suspicions naturally fell on him as the leader and focus of the anti-cession movement. Was he involved in the assassination plot as part of his bid to win back power? British officials left that looking a distinct possibility - but they knew more than they let on.

"That's not what the British government believes at all," says historian Simon Ball, of Glasgow University, who has extensively researched the case.

Indeed, evidence shows the ringleaders of the assassination plot were not acting for Anthony Brooke, nor did they have any intention of returning him to power. Instead, in a letter discovered by Professor Ball, written by one co-conspirator to the other, they make clear their intentions of helping neighbouring Indonesia to take over British Sarawak.

"What they want is freedom as part of Indonesia. So this is the underlying political motive for the killing. It's not to support [Anthony] Brooke."

Find out more

  • BBC Radio 4's Document is on at 20:00 GMT on Monday 12 March
  • Or listen again after broadcast on iPlayer

The British it seems, feared that to confront Indonesia with its involvement in such a plot might spark an unwelcome conflict. The newly independent nation had just driven out Dutch colonial troops by force, and the UK already had its hands full dealing with insurrection in British-run Malaya to the north-west.

So they decided to keep quiet about the fact that this had little to do with Brooke's supporters and a lot to do with an anti-colonial independence movement. In a letter marked "confidential", John Higham of the Colonial Office wrote to a colleague in the Foreign Office. "We have now come to the very definite conclusion that the publication of the correspondence would be dangerous and that it would be undesirable to show it to Anthony Brooke."

The letter in question

The Superintendent of the local Special Branch wrote two weeks later: "There is no evidence or suspicion that AB [Anthony Brooke] knew of the intention to assassinate H.E. [His Excellency] The Governor."

But despite all this, the finger of blame for the death of Governor Duncan Stewart was left pointing at Anthony Brooke, who was never officially told that his anti-cession campaign had little to do with the assassination.

A year later he formally gave up his claim to the Sarawak throne and travelled the world as a self-appointed peace ambassador, before settling in rural New Zealand where he died, aged 98, last year. His grandson, Jason Brooke, says it is distressing that his grandfather went to his grave not knowing the truth.

"I think it was very, very difficult for Anthony, the way he was landed with these… more than implications, almost accusations, of having at least a moral responsibility for what had happened to Duncan Stewart. It's sad, but that's history."

Document will be broadcast on Monday 12 March at 20:00 GMT on BBC Radio 4.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    48 Minutes ago
    "#25 Kane: I, too, have had that experience in a former colony, but what makes you assume that Danaos is not British?"
    From previous blogs I know Danaos to be Greek & with a passionate dislike for all things British/AngloSaxon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    #8 Mike; You know, many of us who live outside of Britain would be happy to pay a yearly fee for being able to have fuller access to BBC programs (being able to watch and listen to programs online), similar to your yearly license fee. I have often wondered why the Beeb does not do this, it might well generate further income without their having to increase program costs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    #25 Kane: I, too, have had that experience in a former colony, but what makes you assume that Danaos is not British?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The comment on advertising was rather away from the point, but I am mostly outside the UK and find that BBC news videos are prefaced by (tedious) advertisements. This doesn't happen when I am in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "Even if the above had any hint of truth,"
    Oh but it is the truth, whenever I visit a former colony I'm inundated with people who say they wished that their country was still under British rule and this is why people such as yourself trawl the BBC with your jealousy because you simply wish that, like us, you were British.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    If your stupid argument is based on any facts and Britain was the bringer of evil as you have portrayed then why did so many former colonies CHOOSE to remain within the Commonwealth? Seems strange to compare the British Empire (which i will admit commited attrocities the world over but also as said in comment 16 brought structure and education to the masses) with Nazi Germany?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    "Outside of the UK, this website is funded by a lot of advertisements"

    Not likely this site with all it's journalistic input could be funded by the adverts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    16. Sandy Harlestone-Smith
    ''The colonies were a damn sight happier under our rule than is currently the case. We gave them structure, discipline and control.''

    Even if the above had any hint of truth, then similarly Hitler did the same thing to eg. Poland and would do the same thing to Britain too had it not been for his defeat by the USSR.

    So what is your point?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Long live the good rajahs of Sarawak and shame on the cretinous post-war British government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @19.kevthebrit - No, that is not the moral of the story at all. You have clearly taken very little away from this story. Whilst you may personally not trust governments or royals, what this story is about is the decision made by the UK government to avert the possibility of a war with Indonesia, potentially costing many hundreds of lives on both sides. Read it again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The moral of this story:- NEVER TRUST GOVERNMENTS OR ROYALS!
    They are ALL in it together!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    My goodness, the colonial commoners and the common colonials are really crawling out of the woodwork on this one. Britain is really no more, nor no less shameful than most other nations, big or small, powerful or otherwise.
    If a nation is its people then why do we judge it by its self-serving government ( I take it as axiomatic that all governments are self-serving).

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    2. Montreal Rob

    The ugly truth is that when it really comes down to a choice between what's good for the State, or good for the People, the State will always put itself first. And gloss over it by saying it's "for the greater good".

    At the end of the day, we're all expendable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The colonies were a damn sight happier under our rule than is currently the case. We gave them structure, discipline and control. From this strong start, many have gone on to squander their colonial legacy and some even blame their current sordid predicament on the those same selfless individuals who gave to generously of their efforts, time and in some cases, their lives, in service to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Frank - grow up. Every sovereign nation has some shame in its history. Britain is, and always has been, one of the most progressive nations on the planet. Still, don't let things like 'facts' get in the way of your ideological blinkers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Frank: The shameful history of Britain.

    Would you prefer the shameful history of Indonesia (remember the thousands murdered in East Timor)? The shameful history of the USA (Native Americans), China (Tibet), Denmark (Greenland), or just about any other nation? Get off your anti-British horse and get a life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    You are fortunate that people in the UK fund this site for you.
    Outside of the UK, this website is funded by a lot of advertisements.
    re. the actual article, you can't judge the world over 70 years ago by today's standards. In fact, it was the misdemeanors of the past that created the present-day social mores.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "The shameful history of Britain."

    Truly shameful, to try to prevent a war at the expense of one man's peace of mind. -_-

    I love the enlightened and not-at-all petty comments that we get from some people. Yes, the Empire did some pretty shameful things in its time, but this?

    Grow up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This is a very fresh perspective of Stewart's assasination. In Malaysian schools they taught us that Rosli Dhobi was a 'freedom-fighter' who wanted the Europeans (both the Brookes and British Colony) to get out and Sarawak to be granted independence. Interesting...

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Excellent, one more excuse for the brainless ensemble to crawl out of the woodwork and utter tripe about the British Empire in the "I must be polically correct" mode just to save themselves the embarrassment of displaying the fact that really they have nothing intelligible to say. A bit like frank #1


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