The British Family That Ruled in Borneo as ‘White Rajahs’
The Brooke family seized the chunk of the island from the Dutch, and would rule it in all their eccentricity for a century.
While Americans warn that wealthy families go “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” the White Rajas of Borneo went from combat boots to dancing shoes—and from superstar to nut-bars—in their three generations of colonial rule.
The Brooke family’s century of ruling what is today a key state of Malaysia—Sarawak—proves a key democratic and nationalist lesson: Although colonialism sometimes facilitated stability, prosperity, and harmony, the cost in the imperiousness of the rulers and the infantilization of the ruled was too high. This colonialist version of getting the trains to run on time helped produce today’s relative harmony among the Dayak, ethnic Chinese, Malays—each representing more than 20 percent of the population. Similarly, in the 1840s, the White Rajas fought piracy and outlawed horrific rituals which included courting your sweetheart and celebrating your child’s birth with your neighbors’ freshly killed skulls. Nevertheless, you cannot put a price tag of people’s national dignity to decide their own fate.
In 1838, James Brooke, a British adventurer, captained his 142-ton sailing ship, the Royalist, to wrest control of southern Borneo from another imperial power, the Dutch. The Sultan of Brunei thanked Brooke for crushing a local Iban rebellion by awarding him 3,000 square miles of the area known as Sarawak in 1841. In 1842, more military backing earned Brooke the title “Rajah of Sarawak.” While bringing in Western values that respected individual dignity, while building the economy but discouraging too much Western trade to protect his subjects for exploitation, Brooke did have the British imperial blind-spot to collective sensibilities, let alone democracy for all. The national flag Brooke created for Sarawak of a red and purple cross on a yellow ground was more suited to Brits than to Borneo.
Nevertheless, Brooke’s reign was humane enough to impress Alfred Russel Wallace the British naturalist, socialist, and egalitarian reformer. Brooke invited Wallace to explore the Malay Archipelago—and in Wallace’s classic book of that title, he writes that the Rajah “held Sarawak solely by the goodwill of the inhabitants. Rajah Brooke was a great, a wise, and a good ruler—a true and faithful friend—a man to be admired for his talents, respected for his honesty and courage, and loved for his genuine hospitality, his kindness of disposition, and his tenderness of heart.” More concretely, Wallace praised Brooke’s “highest talents for government,” including his careful diplomacy with clashing tribal chiefs.
Alas, Wallace—whose domestic radicalism impressed John Stuart Mill and others—reflects the nineteenth century British gentleman’s myopia. Russel called this regime “a unique case to the history of the world, for a European gentleman to rule over two conflicting races without any means of coercion.” Claiming Brooke didn’t use means of coercion is delusional—that was the foundation of his power.
A painful war injury in what Victorians delicately called his private parts probably discouraged Brooke from marrying. Shortly before he died, he designated his nephew Charles Johnson as heir. Charles honored his uncle by taking his last name—and ruling benevolently from 1868 through 1917. A classic colonialist, Charles expanded the size of his empire till it rivaled England’s, banned slavery, established a parliament, and developed a railroad, roads, and waterways. Along the way, he indulged in imperious eccentricities, serving his wife a pie made of her pet doves and banning his sons from eating jam because he feared it was unmanly.
Not surprisingly, his wife Margaret called him “something of a queer fish” and lived most of her life away from her pet-killing husband in England.
In 1911, Charles’ son Vyner married Sylvia Brett who would eventually embrace the crude title one headline-writer gave her: “the queen of the head hunters.” When Sylvia first arrived in Sarawak with her brother, he found the place “very different from what I had anticipated, far safer, far more advanced, far happier, far more civilized... a very happy country, guided by European brains but untouched by European vulgarity.”
“The magic of it all possessed me,” Sylvia would recall, “sight, sound and sense; there was in this abundant land everything for which my heart had yearned.”
Eventually, Sylvia’s self-dramatizing streak eclipsed her aesthetic sense. Playing up, in eleven books and countless headlines, the exotic anomaly of these British blokes running a jungle kingdom, the Rainee Sylvia ended up downplaying the progress the Rajahs and their country made. She and her husband also had numerous affairs—and encouraged their daughters to be equally libertine. The three princesses Lenora, Elizabeth and Nancy—nicknamed “Gold, Pearl and Baba” by reporters—dressed like “tarts,” had flamboyant escapades with numerous men, and married eight times—including to a bandleader and a boxer. “Thank god I haven’t four daughters,” Vyner exclaimed. “What a family!”
The timing of all this ribaldry and sensationalism helped doom the Rajah. The family’s hijinks undermined its credibility just as colonialism was on the wane—and Japan was on the march in the Far East. One European critic, appalled by the family’s kitsch and the island’s indolence, sniffed: “Everything in this obscure little country bears the stamp of slackness and hopeless disorder.”
Sylvia’s biographer Philip Eade would write: “The Colonial Office branded her ‘a dangerous woman,’ full of Machiavellian schemes to alter the succession and often spectacularly vulgar in her behavior. After observing the Ranee dancing with two prostitutes in a nightclub, then taking them back to the palace to paint their portraits, a visiting MP from Westminster concluded: ‘A more undignified woman it would be hard to find.’”
When Japan occupied the region during World War II, the Rajahs lost their grip on their little kingdom. Amid the brutality, some backsliding occurred and tribesman beheaded 1500 Japanese soldiers. In 1946, Great Britain annexed Sarawak—paying the family two hundred thousand pounds and making the region Britain’s last colonial acquisition. The country achieved independence in 1963 and soon joined the federation of Malaysia with Malaya, North Borneo, and Singapore later that year—until Singapore seceded.
Sylvia and Viner had an uneasy retirement. She hated being “shorn of our glory, and faced with the necessity of adjusting to a world in which we were no longer emperors but merely two ordinary, aging people, two misfits... in the changing pattern of modern times.” He missed his subjects—many of whom continued to revere him.
Of course, it was a reverence rooted in the British upper crust’s condescending colonialism and skewed power relations. Independence and democratic rule are more just—even when more chaotic. But good historians are scorekeepers not executioners, tallying up various pluses and minuses, not merely passing binary judgments. All too often imperialists in the old days, like academics these days, prefer moralizing in black and white to assessing—and teaching—in the gray, where subtlety and true enlightenment lie. The Brooke family’s descent into eccentricity was not random—it reflected the underlying corruption that made colonialism work.
For Further Reading:
Nigel Barley, White Najah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke, 2003.
Robert Payne, The White Rajas of Sarawak, 1987.
Bob Reece, The White Rajas of Sarawak: A Borneo Dynasty, 2004.
Philip Eade, Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and her Lost Kingdom, 2014.