1950: Rosli Dhobi, Sarawak patriot

Add comment March 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Rosli Dhobi or Dhoby was hanged by the British for assassinating the governor of Sarawak.

The scene of events lies in the present-day state of Malaysia, which gained independence in 1957. As a glance at the atlas will show, Malaysia oddly comprises two principal chunks of territory lying hundreds of kilometers apart across the southern reaches of the South China Sea: the end of the Malay Peninsula, reaching south from Thailand and the Eurasian landmass — and the northern third of the island of Borneo, which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei.

Dhobi’s passion is a story of the Borneo side — from what is today the largest of Malaysia’s 13 constituent states, Sarawak.

The British presence at Sarawak dated to the mid-19th century when the Kingdom of Sarawak began as a series of personal concessions extracted from the Sultan of Brunei by an ex-Raj officer turned adventurer named James Brooke. Casting about for a vocation in the mother country back in the 1830s after resigning his commission, Brooke had plunked his £30,000 inheritance down on a schooner, sailed it to southeast Asia, and made such a timely and effective intervention against pirates plaguing Borneo that the Sultan put him in charge of parts of Sarawak.*

The man proved to have a deft hand for diplomacy and governance and steadily grew his fiefdom, eventually establishing his own dynastic monarchy, the White Rajahs.

In 1946, the third and last of Brooke’s dynasty, Vyner Brooke,** ceded his family’s interest in Sarawak to the British Colonial Office — changing it from a crown protectorate to a crown colony and setting Sarawak on the path to transit the era of decolonization tied to the British colony of Malaysia instead of, say, independent statehood. No surprise, this backroom arrangement among Anglo suits played to many in Sarawak as a wanton abnegation of self-determination, spurring a widespread anti-cession movement.

Thus aggrieved, our man Rosli Dhobi (English Wikipedia page | Malaysian) became deeply involved with an anti-cession group called the Sibu Malay Youth Movement.

Out of this body, 13 particularly radical members eventually formed a secret terrorist cell called Rukun 13 (“13 Pillars”). Balked of their plan to murder the British governor Charles Arden-Clarke by the latter’s timely transfer to Ghana, they instead greeted his successor Duncan Stewart just days after arrival — with Dhobi fatally daggering the new guy when he appeared at a photo op at the town of Sibu. Dhobi was only 17 years old at the time.

In time the British successfully suppressed the anti-cession movement, but Dhobi’s execution was so politically sensitive when it occurred that he was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Kuching Central Prison. The judgment of posterity in Sarawak has been quite a bit more generous: on March 2, 1996, the forty-sixth anniversary of his hanging, he was reburied in the Sarawak Heroes’ Mausoleum in Sibu. A school in that town is also named for him.

* Another noteworthy example of an intrepid private individual redrawing the colonial map for his mother country occurred decades later with Germany’s presence in Tanzania.

** Vyner Brooke’s nephew and his heir apparent as the prospective next White Rajah, Anthony Brooke, bitterly opposed the cession, so much so that British intelligence initially considered him a possible suspect in Duncan’s murder. Anthony Brooke formally ceded all his own potential claims to the rule of Sarawak in 1951.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Malaysia,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Separatists,Terrorists

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