By Andrew Symon
SINGAPORE and KUCHING, Sarawak - The connection between Hollywood's Pirates
of the Caribbean set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the
still-pirate-infested seas surrounding modern-day Singapore is more than just
the fancy of US screenwriters.
Placed in its historical context, the film serves as a perhaps unintentional
allegory for modern-day efforts by the United States to exert its influence in
strategic Asian waters.
In the latest installation of the blockbuster series, viewers find Captain
Barbarossa (and his followers in the Singapore lair of Captain Sao Feng)
looking for a map and a vessel to reach the end of the world. Eluding British
authorities, they hope to rescue comrade Jack Sparrow from "the other
side" - a kind of Hades on the beach. How Jack got there and what happens
later are convoluted and beyond the scope of this article.
But there is a real and relevant link between the Caribbean and British efforts
to stamp out piracy there and the subsequent spread of British imperial power
in Singapore, the nearby Riau islands and northern Borneo after 1819 - when
modern Singapore was founded by East India Company administrator Thomas
British laws that gave the Royal Navy (RN) extensive powers to deal with the
real Jack Sparrows and Barbarossas in the Caribbean were never made
geographically specific and hence were also applied in the seas around
At the time, piracy was disrupting growing trade in the South China Sea and
Malacca Strait. The first resident of British Singapore, William Farquhar, was
greeted by a row of skulls - the trophies of Malay Riau island pirates - when
he stepped ashore in September 1819 at what is now Labrador Park on the inner
Singapore merchants later petitioned the RN, and so under a law originally
designed to deal with pirates in the Caribbean, a bounty was also placed on the
head of every pirate killed or captured in the South China Sea. When RN
captains, who were on a long leash anyway, heard the potentially lucrative call
to combat piracy, they were only too pleased to assist.
The most famous of the Admiralty's captains was Henry Keppel - the namesake of
Singapore's still-active Keppel group of companies, Keppel Harbor, and Keppel
Road. Keppel, who was a bit of a pirate himself, was locally nicknamed Rajah
Laut or "King of the Sea". He became an admiral, was knighted and was
a favorite of Queen Victoria.
Today, at the eastern end of Labrador Park, looking across to Sentosa Island
and the entrance into Keppel Harbor, there is a plaque recalling those bad old
earliest times these pirates preyed on merchant ships in these waters. They
would attack in fleets of large, heavily armed boats, sometimes in clear view
of the harbor, and quickly escape with the booty into a labyrinth of islands.
By the 1830s, the menace had become so serious that it was believed to threaten
the Asian trade with "total annihilation".
would go on to project British power across the seven seas, his greatest legacy
while stationed in Singapore was in aiding English adventurer James Brooke in
instituting his rule as the "White Rajah" of Sarawak in northern
Brooke, born in India to a father working as judge for the East India Company,
was a mixture of idealistic dreamer and "freelance imperialist", as
Australian historian Bob Reece describes him in his recent book The White
Rajahs of Sarawak: A Borneo Dynasty. He arrived in Sarawak in his sloop,
the Royalist, at a time when the sultan of Brunei, whose sovereignty then
extended over all of northern Borneo, faced rebellion by Malay and Bidayu
tribes around today's city of Kuching on the island's northwest coast.
The sultan's representative, Raja Muda Hussein, enlisted Brooke, and the threat
of the Royalist's cannons subdued the rebellions. In return, Brooke was made
rajah of the Kuching area in 1841, in return for an annual tribute to the
sultan. Thus a century of rule by the White Rajahs began: three generations of
Brookes, ruling independently of London - Sarawak was never formally a part of
the British Empire.
However, the so-called Pax Brookania of later decades was not achieved
without the guns of the Royal Navy and plenty of bloodshed in the name of
fighting piracy. On the eastern front, there was opposition by Malay leaders,
drawing on support from armed bands of headhunting Iban tribesman. There were also
the ferocious Ilanun seafarers from the southern Philippines.
Keppel came to Brooke's aid in 1843 and 1844. Joining with Brooke's own Malay
and Iban followers, Keppel's HMS Dido sailed along the Borneo coast and up
rivers, burning their enemies' strongholds. Keppel himself wrote what proved to
be a publishing hit in England when it appeared in 1846 - The Expedition to
Borneo of HMS Dido for the Suppression of Piracy:
punishment we had inflicted was severe, but no more than the crime of hatred
horrid piracies deserved. A few heads were brought away by our Dayak followers
as trophies ... The destruction of these places astonished the whole country
How many of
the enemy were really "pirates" is, of course, a moot point. Iban and
Illanum raiders were feared, roaming as far as Java and Sumatra, in search of
plunder and slaves. But there is no doubt many of those killed were simply
resisting Brooke and the British flag.
Reports of massacres published in journals such as The Illustrated London News
stirred concerns in London and led to a commission of inquiry in Singapore in
1853. While the actions of Brooke and the navy were exonerated - they had the
support, among others, of Singapore merchants - it led to the end of the pirate
Now, more than 150 years later, that old Western strategy of taking the fight
to pirates' lairs has had new appeal in the US-led and British-assisted
"global war on terror". Washington has in recent years warned that
Islamic terrorist groups might move to disrupt global trade flows by attacking
crucial seaports, including an alleged foiled plot to ram explosive-laden ships
Citing that commercial and security threat, then-US defense secretary Donald
Rumsfeld suggested in 2005 that the US Navy could hunt down shadowy
pirates-cum-terrorists in the nearby and narrow Malacca Strait - a bottleneck
through which more than 70% of China's imported oil flows and which US gunboats
could conceivably choke in a future US-China conflict.
While US ally Singapore was partial to Rumsfeld's proposal, it was quickly
rejected by Malaysia and Indonesia. They perhaps recalled the history of just
what can happen to a country's, and a region's, sovereignty and stability when
Western navies come calling in the name of combating neighborhood piracy.
Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based journalist and consultant.
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All