The connection between Hollywood`s Pirates of the Caribbean, set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Singapore and its surrounding seas is more than just the fancy of screenwriters.
In the latest Pirates adventure, we find Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew in the Singapore lair of Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), looking for a map and a vessel to reach the end of the world.
Eluding British authorities, they hope to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from "the other side" -- a kind of Hades on the beach. How Jack got there and what happens later is another story.
But there is real history in the film: the Caribbean and British efforts to stamp out piracy and the spread of British power in Singapore, the Riau islands and northern Borneo after 1819, when modern Singapore was founded by the visionary East India Company administrator, Stamford Raffles.
This is because the British laws that gave the Royal Navy extensive powers to deal with the real Sparrows and Barbossas in the Caribbean also carried jurisdiction in the seas around Singapore.
Key to this was an attractive financial incentive that placed a bounty on the head of every pirate killed or captured. So when Navy captains, who were on a long leash anyway, heard the call to combat piracy, they were only too pleased to assist. They would bring their evidence back to Singapore and claim their reward.
Certainly, pirates were a problem for the growing trade in the South China Sea and Malacca Strait. The warning signs existed at the very beginning of British Singapore.
When he stepped ashore in September 1819 at what is now Labrador Park on the inner southwest coast, the first resident, William Farquhar, was greeted by a row of skulls -- the trophies of Malay pirates from Riau.
Today, at the eastern end of Labrador Park, looking across to Sentosa Island and the entrance into Keppel Harbour, a plaque recalls the good old days.
"... From the 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 harbour 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`."
Singapore merchants petitioned the Royal Navy, and so dispatched task forces to deal the problem as they saw fit.
The most famous of the admiralty`s captains was Henry Keppel -- hence Singapore`s Keppel group of companies, Keppel Harbour and Keppel Road.
Keppel, who was a bit of a pirate himself, was locally nicknamed Rajah Laut or king of the sea, became an admiral, was knighted and a favorite of Queen Victoria.
While Keppel would go on to project British power across the seven seas, perhaps his greatest legacy while stationed in Singapore was aiding English adventurer James Brooke to institute his rule as the "White Rajah" of Sarawak in northern Borneo.
Brooke, born in India to a father who was a judge for the East India Company, was a mixture of idealistic dreamer and freelance imperialist, as Australian historian Bob Reece describes in his recent book, The White Rajahs of Sarawak: A Borneo Dynasty.
Enamored with the example of Raffles, Brooke, after serving the Company and wounded during battle in Burma, set out from England in 1839 to find his fortune in the Malay world.
Luck was with him. He arrived in Sarawak in his sloop, The Royalist, at a time when the Sultan of Brunei, whose sovereignty then extended over all northern Borneo, faced rebellion by Malay and the indigenous Dayak Bidayu tribe around present-day Kuching.
The Sultan`s representative, Raja Muda Hussein, enlisted Brooke, and the threat of The Royalist`s cannons quelled the uprising. Brooke was then made king of the Kuching area in 1841 in return for an annual tribute to the Sultan.
Thus began a century of rule by the White Rajahs, through three generations of Brookes ruling independently of London -- Sarawak was never formally part of the British Empire.
James Brooke himself was almost the subject of a Hollywood film in the 1930s -- he was to have been played by another swashbuckler, that Tasmanian devil Errol Flynn. Certainly if the latest Pirates should have a cameo role for Rolling Stones`, Keith Richards, then a film about Brooke and Keppels` exploits must have a part for Mick Jagger.
But romanticism needs to be tempered. The Pax Brooke-ania of later decades was not achieved without the guns of the Royal Navy and a lot of bloodshed.
The first years of Brooke`s rule were precarious. On the eastern front was opposition from Malay leaders, drawing on the support of armed bands of headhunting Iban tribesmen. There were also the ferocious Ilanun seafarers from the southern Philippines, and problems with Chinese gold miners south of Kuching.
Enter Capt. Keppel, who came to Brooke`s aid in 1843 and 1844. Joining Brooke`s Malay and Iban followers, Keppel`s HMS Dido sailed along the Bornean coast and up rivers, burning their enemies` strongholds.
Keppel himself wrote in The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido for the Suppression of Piracy -- which proved to be a publishing hit in England when it appeared in 1846.
"The punishment we had inflicted was severe, but no more than the crime of hatred horrid piracies deserved," he writes. "A few heads were brought away by our Dayak followers as trophies ... the destruction of these places astonished the whole country beyond description."
Tough times. And, whether or not the enemy were really "pirates" is a moot point. Iban and Ilanun raiders were feared, but there is no doubt many of those killed were simply resisting Brooke and the British flag.
A further bloody campaign in 1849 followed when the steam-powered man of war, HMS Nemesis, smashed Iban resistance at the battle of Beting Marau, 100 kilometers east of Kuching.
The way was now clear for James Brooke -- now Sir James, knighted in 1847 -- and the captain and crew of Nemesis raced back to Singapore and the Admiralty Court, where they obtained 20,700 pounds in "pirate head money."
But reports of the massacres through London journals such as the Illustrated London News stirred concerns among sensitive souls. Skepticism was growing as to talk of all this piracy, and a Commission of Enquiry was held in Singapore in 1853.
While the actions of Brooke and the Navy were exonerated -- they had the support among others, of Singapore merchants -- this led to the end of the pirate bounties.
But 150 years later, the old strategy of taking the battle against pirates to their hideouts -- rather than just policing the seas -- has had some new appeal.
In 2005, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested that American forces could hunt down pirates/terrorists in the Malacca Strait -- as they were already doing with Filipino counterterrorist troops in Mindanao. Keppel and Co., no doubt are just Rummy`s sort of people.
While Singapore was partial to the idea, it was quickly rejected by Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Perhaps the latter two recalled just what can happen to one`s sovereignty when someone else`s navy shows up.
Source: www.thejakartapost.com (25 Juni 2007)