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.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Those who win the wars are the ones who write "history", the way they want history to be...

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    The British politicians have repeatedly lied to us and externally to others and done so knowingly and with impunity. These are politicians from every party. Mistakes of the past, hardly, more like manslaughter in many cases.
    They still continue with the lies about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and now the situation in Syria.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    @Rick in Hull

    Indeed, GCHQ was intercepting the Nazi communications and warning the Russians of impending troop movements and Nazi attacks.

    Without the British intelligence, the Russians would have been defeated.

    The Greeks were over-run by the Nazi's in a few weeks. The Greeks then had their own civil war during WWII - the Greeks and collaborated with the Nazi to destroy each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    To read some of these comments you would think Duncan Stewart was a Godly walking talking beatified Saint.

    I'm sure far worse things have happened to much better people. This is no reflection on Stewart, but he was a subject of the Crown and would have taken part to discredit others if ordered to do so, or if needs required.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    How do we even know this story is true ? Politicians and the "establishment" have lied to us for generations and will continue to do so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    History is littered with these little and not so little injustices. I suppose clearing his name now, does little more than rewrite history.

    But this was "political spin" used for the greater good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    @Name#6....Sorry! That what NOT my intention. I do not seek to justify the Empire: All are ultimately "wrong". All I am trying to say, within the confines of this medium, is that what happened (& which we cannot alter) is history, we should be seeking to build on whatever positives came out of the experience & not repeat the negatives.
    I would NEVER "trivialise" the negatives & gross errors made.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    What I mean (ref. #38) is that Anthony Brooke had no duty to sacrifice more than any other British citizen, and the authorities had no right to use, no, SACRIFICE HIM for political gain. In fact he was, apparently, an upright and steadfast servant of the Crown. This scandal might have damaged his family's careers. Their reputation alone must be worth at least several million Pounds, NO?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    @RickInHull. Well Said. According to Danaos Hitler was defeated ONLY by the USSR: Clearly shows his limited reading on the subject.
    What about those who perished on the Arctic Convoys bringing vital aid to USSR?
    The USSR paid a huge price for their mis-dealings with Hitler.(Leave Stalin for another day.)
    But forces from all over the world fought & died so that Danaos could write his drivel here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    @. 36 Stevero
    To call the Irish potato famine or Indian famines 'mistakes' not only trivializes these terrible deliberate acts of policy but comes across like the all to common modern revisionist historians that seek to justify the Empire.
    Lawlessness and corruption are endemic in all post modern empires (witness the soviet Union). No empire is justifiable, we're still feeling the effects of Rome!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I'd say it's more than sad. I'd say that the Crown owes Jason Brook and in fact all of Anthony Brooke's family just compensation for the damage it did to their family and it's members, and I think the amount of the settlement should be high, because the wrong was deliberate, calculated and egregious. If the law says otherwise the law is wrong. What they did is absolutely wrong, in every way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Modern-day Sarawak is just as fascinating! At least one Briton continues to attempt to influence the place for the better: Clare Rewcastle Brown was born there and runs Sarawak Report ( ). It's a right riveting read.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    To obtain & create wealth you need order & structure.
    Ireland was an instance where many mistakes were made. But please do remember, Britain does not govern Commonwealth countries.
    History is there to remind us of the good & the bad of our pasts.
    If we fail to learn from those lessons....then we have failed as humans.
    Read again the comment at #33..."some regret.........."

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    #22 Danos - Seems you forget which was the only country to stand up to Hitler after he'd overrun all Europe including Greece. You forget which country had a pact with Hitler and sent him millions of tons of supplies, the USSR. Which country sent aid to the USSR when it was being overrun by Hitler? Which country at the same time stood up to Japan? And we could not have done it without the empire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Just another cover up by a government. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these each year. Politicians only care about themselves and their own interests. They don't care who they hurt in the process of furthering their own agendas. It's just the same today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Interesting. I’ve been fortunate enough to live and work in several former colonies and I’m always interested to talk to the nationals to find their perspective on colonial rule. I have often found that there is a great respect for what Britain bought to their countries including development, law and order, and some regret their departure, as they are sick of corruption, injustice & poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    all to long ago to have much point now.the whole world was and still is a complete mess and it should not suprise anyone that truth was hidden in the public good.power and money still rule

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The British Empire always did what was best for the British Empire.
    Foreign countries where not colonized so that we could bring 'order & structure' to them but to see what wealth could be purloined and created.

    The Republic of Ireland has had some pretty awful leaders since independence in 1922 but I doubt you'd find many there who still wished they were governed by the British.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Dear-oh-Dear....there go the Brit-Bashers again. Ask yourselves one question: Why, after independence, did many colonies ask to remain within the umbrella of Britain, ie, the Commonwealth? And why, did at least two countries, that were never British Colonies, ask to join the Commonwealth?
    Could it possibly be that, on the whole, Britain did a pretty good job in many countries?
    Educate yourself!


Page 1 of 3



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.