Author Deborah Swift embarks on an adventure in the South China Seas to review Tom Williams’s reissued novel, The White Rajah, and finds much to enjoy.
I’d never heard of James Brooke before reading Tom Williams’s excellent biographical novel, so I have been educated as well as entertained.
Set at the beginning of the 19th century, the novel is narrated by John Williamson, Brooke’s lover, who he meets while at sea. Whether this kind of relationship really existed between the men is open to debate, but it makes for excellent fiction and pins the heart of the novel.
The developing relationship between the two men is subtly drawn, with many aspects (such as their physical intimacy) implied rather than given full rein. This restraint works well for the mores of the time, but also supplies us with an underlying tension that gives the novel depth, especially when Brooke is given control of Sarawak as the first ‘White Rajah’.
The plot itself has all the ingredients of a ‘ripping yarn’ including pirates, storms at sea, rebellion and massacre – but Williams manages to elevate it to much more with his meticulous descriptions of life in mid-Victorian Borneo. The writing style of the narrator is dispassionate and gives space for events to unfold without excessive melodrama.
For The White Rajah of Sarawak, the commercial interests of colonial life versus the protection of the indigenous population are never far away, and these rise up to bite him near the end of the novel.
This is a meticulous piece of research giving an insight into a little known Englishman in colonial times, who led a fascinating life.
Tom’s also the author of the James Burke series of books set during the Napoleonic Wars; the latest, published in March 2021, is Burke in Ireland. He’s written about the background to these books, and his adventures while researching them, in several Historia features:
The Battle That Changed Britain
Researching the Land of Silver
When my Spanish research trip went astray
Why I wrote about Irish history
Deborah Swift is the author of a number of novels, including Pleasing Mr Pepys, A Plague on Mr Pepys and Entertaining Mr Pepys, all taking place in the 1660s. In January 2021 her third book in the World War Two Sagas series, The Lifeline, came out. Her latest book, The Poison Keeper, is the first of a new series and is set in early 17th-century Naples. It was published in paperback on 12 April and as an ebook on 18 May, 2021.
Deborah’s also a generous contributor of features for Historia, including:
A different kind of WWII resistance
In search of the animals in the Great Fire of London
And so to bed – a goodbye to Pepys’s diary
Luck or lottery? Choosing your valentine in the 17th century
Health and hellfire: personalising the Plague in 17th-century London
Animating Pepys’s Women