James Brooke Rajah of Sarawak – Founder of the White Raj of Sarawak

The last years Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak

For 100 Years the White Rajahs Ruled Sarawak. They prevented the natives from being exploited but in so doing caused them to fall behind the rest of the British Empire.

For one hundred years the White Rajahs ruled Sarawak. The three successive rajahs maintained a policy of paternalism that protected the native peoples from being exploited but also caused them to fall behind the progress of the rest of the British Empire. James Brooke laid the groundwork, his nephew Charles became the builder and Vyner Brooke was left to face the oncoming Japanese invasion.

Early Life

The fascinating story of the Brookes begins in India. James was born on April 29, 1803, in Sacrone, Benares to Judge Thomas Brooke and his wife Anna Maria. The family returned to England where James was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Norwich and later enrolled in the Honourable East India Company Military School in Assiscombe, Surrey. He was commissioned an Ensign in 1819 to the 6th Bengal Native Infantry and by 1821 had risen to the rank of Lieutenant. In 1822 he raised a troop of irregular cavalry and led them in action during the First Burma War in 1824. Severely wounded he was invalided back to England and awarded the India Medal and Mentioned in Dispatches.

James returned to India in 1830 as a merchant mariner sailing the China Sea. This enterprise was not as successful as he had hoped but when his father died in 1825 and left him a sizeable inheritance, James used the money to buy a 142-ton schooner The Royalist. A former Royal Yacht Squadron vessel, The Royalist was armed and therefore an effective private warship.

Off to Borneo

James Brooke now sailed for the island of Borneo to make his fortune. The Sultan of Brunei at the time was Pengiran Muda Omar Ali Saifuddin II and he was more than pleased to enlist James Brooke and his ship in his service. Since 1838 the Sultan had been having difficulties with the Dyak (Dayak) people in Sarawak. He appointed Brooke to deal with the uprising.

Sailing in The Royalist, James arrived in Kuching, the main city of Sarawak in August 1838 and quickly put down the unrest. As a reward for his service the Sultan appointed him Governor of Sarawak on September 24, 1941. Before long Brooke had established an independent rule over the territory and the Sultan recognized him as Rajah of Sarawak on August 18, 1842.

James took his role seriously and brought in steps to reform the government, introduced new laws and battled against slavery and piracy. Dyak unrest continued throughout his reign.

In 1846 the British invaded and captured Brunei. The Sultan was forced to sign a treaty to end the occupation and ceded Labuan to the British. In 1847 he signed a treaty of friendship with the British. As all seemed to be going well, Brooke took the opportunity to return to England where he was appointed commander-in-chief and governor of newly acquired Labuan, created a Knight Commander of the Bath and made British consul-general for Borneo.

Returning to Sarawak he soon became embroiled in controversy over charges of misconduct. The investigation by a royal commission in Singapore found no proof in the charges but the accusations would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Dyak Wars

Meanwhile, trouble with the Dyak continued. A new leader, known as Rentap, had arisen. Brooke defeated him at the battle of Sungai Lang but Rentap fortified himself at Bukit Sadok and held off many attempts by Brooke to drive him out. Finally in 1861, after Brooke employed bigger and better cannons, Rentap was defeated. The Dyak leader did not surrender but retreated to Sungai Entabai where he later died.

James Brooke was not a well man, he suffered three strokes after 1858, the third one killing him in 1868. His body was returned to England where he was buried in the churchyard of St. Leonard’s in Sheepstor, Devonshire on June 11, 1868.

Whether or not James ever married is in dispute. He acknowledged having fathered an illegitimate child by his father’s maid and according to Borneo sources he married, by Muslim rites, Penigran Anak Fatima, granddaughter of the Sultan of Brunei. They are said to have had a daughter but British records maintain that he died “unmarried and without issue”. Accordingly the title of Rajah passed to Charles, the son of James’ sister.


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