Saturday, August 11, 2012

The White Rajahs of Sarawak

Sir James Brooke, the White Rajah

 Of all the adventurers and scoundrels we've rescued from the obscure fogs of history here at  Just Sayin', it seems the ladies have been the most admirable and the men the most rascally.  One gentleman, however, achieved a great deal while being treated well by superiors and likewise doing the people in his domain more good than most rulers.  He even became the model for Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.
The many examples of that particular type of British imperial explorer (perhaps epitomized by Lawrence of Arabia) who tended to "go native" in Africa and Asia had stories to tell that make fiction seem pale and dull -- think of all the lost or unrecorded minor players whom we will never know of!  Not many became actual titled potentates in exotic lands, but James Brooke did, and established a dynasty that lasted over 100 years. 
Born near Varanasi, India to a judge in the colonial administration, Mr. Brooke ran away from the school he was sent to back in England, and returned to India as an ensign in the Bengal Army but was badly wounded in 1825.  A fortunate and rather substantial inheritance allowed him to purchase a schooner a few years later and he set sail for Borneo in 1838 (I guess fighting in the jungles of Assam had not been enough excitement).  Once there, he helped put down a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, who offered him the governorship of Sarawak along the west coast of the island.  He restored the sultan to the throne after another bloody coup by the nobles, and was rewarded with full authority over his wild territory as Rajah (1841).  Next to being a pirate captain with his own tropical hangout, I'd say this is about as cool as foreign travel gets.
Placing his bets carefully, Brooke gave a lush offshore island to Great Britain and was rewarded again, this time with a knighthood.  Now Sir James, he set about organizing the government and laws of Sarawak, developed sources of trade and income, and pursued vigorous campaigns against the pirates of the South China and Sulu Seas -- as well as making progess in shutting down slavery and head-hunting.  Although he had had an illegitimate son, he was versatile sort and found time to fall in love with Badruddin, a local prince.  In 1862 he fought the infamous Moro Pirates, sinking four of their boats and causing 100 casualties.  No enemy could stop him, but several strokes took their toll and he died back home in Great Britain after naming his nephew Charles to succeed him.  Charles kept up the good work, impressing King George V, and ruled until 1917, when he in turn was succeeded by son Vyner.  Vyner (his picture is on the currency above) got the rubber and oil industries going, which drive the Sarawak economy to this day. Having to stay in Sydney, Australia during the Japanese occupation in WWII, he returned to reign one more year in 1946 when the territory became an official Crown Colony with an appointed governor.
Sir James is remembered in biographies and several works of fiction,and actor Eroll Flynn even wrote a screenplay for Warner Brothers about him (it was scheduled but never filmed).  There's another Hollywood connection:  Vyner's daughter Elizabeth appeared in three movies in the late 1930s under the name Princess Pearl. 


  1. Love it. An adventurer gone native. And we wonder why there are so many expats abroad.

  2. Current day native-British understandings on British colonialism is what comes in Indian Textbooks and what is taught by Indian college teachers. A different understanding about British colonialism and the realities of Asian social systems can be got from Robert Clive's speech in the British parliament. However, even now, not many people give much credence to the profundity in it.