In this new series called Improbable destinies, let’s take Sarawak’s white raja with James Brooke, a little detour to the China Sea. First, let’s correct two common errors: first, white raja is written raja and not rajah. The rajah is a king in India, the raja, in Southeast Asia, is a lord vassal of another lord more powerful than him; secondly, the Lord of “Lord Jim“, of Joseph Conrad, is not a title of nobility, it is the translation of Tuan, title by which the Indonesians address themselves systematically to any foreigner whom they respect, it is only a polite expression.
James Brooke (*) was born in 1803 in India, in the sacred city of Benares, where his father, Thomas Brooke, was a judge and tax collector for the English East India Company. The father, Thomas, is intelligent, cultured, and has beautiful black eyes. The mother, Anna Maria Stuart, loved and trusted by all, is Scottish, the Scots having always played a prominent role in British colonization (see Hong Kong, which is a den of Scots).
James has beautiful blond hair and big blue eyes. At the age of 12, he was sent to England to Norfolk College to further his education, but James Brook was a rebel who escaped from school. At the age of 22, he enlisted in the army of the Company, reached the rank of lieutenant and was seriously injured in Burma, which forced him to resign.
He then entered a British ship, Castle Hunley, which took him to Penang, Malacca and Singapore. James Brooke reads ” The Eastern Seas or Voyages and Adventures in the Indian Archipelago“, by George Windsor Earl, and learns with amazement that there is a territory in the North-West of Borneo, the Sarawak, rich in diamonds and gold, and it happens that this territory is not claimed by anyone.
The opportunity is magical for a determined and ambitious young man. However, the Singapore merchants offered to send James Brooke to Sarawak to thank the governor, raja Muda Hassim, appointed by the sultan of Brunei, Omar Ali Saifuddin, for rescuing British sailors. James Brooke, who, with the inheritance of 30,000 pounds from his late father, had acquired a 142-ton schooner, The Royalist, is in high demand.
At this point in Sarawak’s history, raja Muda Hassim was on the verge of a revolt by local leaders who placed themselves under the protection of the Dutch. In exchange for his help in fighting the rebels, the raja promises to James Brook to give him his place, a promise, once the rebels are subdued, that the raja will have a hard time honoring; James Brooke will help him a little!
With courage and determination, he forces his hand thanks to the help of his 20 crewmen (and the superior armament which they have) which he had brought with him, Muda Hassim runs and endsup fading, then, in July 1842, James Brooke went to Brunei to obtain confirmation of his status by the sultan. Confirmation obtained (James Brooke will later free himself from the tutelage of the Sultan). Here is James Brooke officially promoted to raja de Sarawak!
James Brook, a born negotiator
James Brooke will prove to be an excellent raja, a fine negotiator and a clever politician. White rajas will not be seen as colonizers, but as full members of the community. Even today, while Sarawak is an integral part of Malaysia, the locals keep white rajas a great memory. I could see it by visiting Kutching, a tiny tiny town lost in the middle of the jungle, about thirty years ago.
You can visit the palace of the rajas, which is in fact only a large colonial house. James Brooke described it as follows: “It is quite comfortable because it is built of wood and on stilts. It is also spacious – with a large room in the center, two entrances, my bedroom behind the living room, and four bedrooms in a row. ” This is called frugality …
Ex raja Muda Hassim wanted to execute local leaders who had opposed his authority. James Brooke did nothing, forgave them, pardoned them, released their enslaved wives and children, and even gave former rebels places in government, thereby restoring people’s unity and social peace.
James Brooke respected indigenous customs: “In the long run, the best attitude … is to be completely natural, and in no way condescending. A clever mixture of kindness and freedom, while being severe when necessary, and avoiding harshness and bullying … the natives are not inferior, but different “.
In fact, the local people, the Dayaks, were in constant conflict with each other, and the authority of a European, combined with the power of the Royal Navy, which James Brooke used on occasion, rendered the authority (and arbitration) of an acceptable European, and, as we have seen, James Brooke will prove to be a very fine negotiator.
In London, James Brooke became a hero, decorated with the Freedom of the city of London, Doctor Honoris Causa of Oxford, gold medalist of the Royal Geographical Society, and, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, he became Sir James; the richest woman in England asked him to marry, he did not act. However, the Sarawak government was not at all easy: embezzlement of Henry Wise, a commercial agent, loss of support from England and the Royal Navy, Dayak revolts, attempt to seize power by Chinese miners.
All passed there, James Brooke even contracted small pox. Finally, in 1863, James Brooke, sick, returned definitively to England and, not being married and having no legitimate heir, he handed over power to one of his nephews, Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke. Once in London, he obtained recognition from the British government of Sarawak as an independent state. James Brooke died in 1868, and on his tombstone, at Sheepstor, one can simply read “Sir James Brooke, K.C.B, Raja of Sarawak“.
Dynasty sets up… waiting for the end of game
Charles Brooke, the new raja, was a Royal Navy officer, pragmatic, courageous, determined, passionate about opera and French literature, but also a great womanizer. He ended up marrying Margaret de Windt, a Franco-English aristocrat and largely his younger sister. She became the Rani of Sarawak, or Raja Rani, as the locals called her, and composed the national anthem of Sarawak:
“Leaving from beyond the seas to unknown lands,
Where fate calls you to carry the sword and the crown
Advance, by the grace of God, for the salvation of creatures deep in the jungle … “
The whole attitude of the Rani was to break down the social barriers between English and Malaysian, following the policy of James Brooke. As for Charles, if he enjoyed an appalling reputation in the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office, he nevertheless set up an efficient administration with powerful ministries to manage his territory.
Charles Vyner of Windt Brooke, one of the couple’s sons and the third raja of Sarawak, was an avid gamer, who essentially distinguished himself in Cambridge for the practice of boxing. He succeeded his father Charles Brooke, and very quickly had very bad relations with him, his father deeming him frivolous and incapable.
Under the patronage of the Foreign Office, Vyner’s brother, Bertram, or “Tuan Muda“, shared power from 1917 onwards with Vyner, and we stuck to this solution which was not very comfortable but which had the merit of avoid family conflicts. Vyner married Sylvia Leonora Brett, descendant of the founder of Baring Bank, but they separated and Sylvia embarked on an immoral seductive career in London, while her three daughters, “Princess Gold“, “Princess Pearl” and “Princess Vava“, all three very pretty women, made the joy of the scandalous press. The Brooke family had gone into buffoonery
In 1940 Vyner, who had no male heir, turned over the management of the business to an “Administration Committee” made up of senior officials, and in 1941 the Japanese invaded Sarawak.
In 1944, Anthony Brooke, nephew of Vyner, became head of the provisional government of Sarawak in London. Some time later, he agreed to cede the sovereignty of Sarawak to the British Crown, while the Malays were defending the cause Brooke family, the only ones in their eyes capable of guaranteeing the independence of Sarawak.
But Anthony, reversing his decision, organized, from Singapore, an anti-session movement; however, in 1951 he had to face the facts and finally accepted the surrender of Sarawak to the British crown. The Brookes, who were worshiped, were never forgotten by their people, whom James Brooke had served so well. Anthony’s children, Lionel, Angel and Celia, always regretted that their father had to cede his throne to Britain. Lionel became a racing driver, Angela had a career in London, and Celia settled with a Sufi musician in the Pyrenees in France. Thus ended the extraordinary fate of the Brooke family.
James Brooke will serve as a model for Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, Lord Jim, and the Sarawak is now part of Malaysia. So history is written …
(*) To find out more, “The white rajahs, the Brooke dynasty in Borneo”, Bob Reece, Les Editions du Pacifique, Arte Editions, 2004
Header illustration/ James Brooke painted by Francis Grant, 1847.