Transforming Sarawak Under the Rule of the White Rajahs

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This post was written by Sarah Rees


It seems too strange to be true: A white man sits on the throne of a tropical island, where the locals impress their ladies by collecting severed heads and the wild jungle surges, untamed, around the small wooden huts that count as civilisation.

And yet this seemingly fictional image of Borneo’s past is astonishingly accurate, and is the reason that people the world over have long been charmed and intrigued by the tale of the White Rajahs of Borneo; a family of gentlemen who traded their English parlours for a wooden hut in the untamed land of Sarawak, tackling piracy and slavery while their fellow men back home grappled with nothing more trying than an extra slice of bread and butter at teatime.

As can only be expected in such a fanciful story, these gentlemen were anything but ordinary. Their personalities and lives have become romantic myths that colour the history of Sarawak, while their deeds and actions helped shaped the tribal area into a blossoming kingdom and helped preserve the culture and heritage that is still celebrated there to this day.

The White Rajahs’ story begins in much the same way as that of many early British meddlers: A young, adventurous gentleman decided to spend his inheritance on a grand scheme to make millions on the lucrative trade routes in the East. He journeyed far from home, squandered his money, and stumbled into a punch-up in a country he had barely heard of.


This optimistic adventurer was James Brooke, and he arrived in Borneo at the age of 38 with a background in impulsive endeavours. Born in India and educated in the UK, he ran away from school and joined the army, earning his stripes in the Anglo-Burmese war. While his ambitious plans for investing in trade fell by the wayside upon arrival in Borneo, he swiftly found himself in possession of something much more valuable and life-changing.

James docked in Sarawak to find some tribesmen engaged in full-scale rebellion against the then-leader, the Sultan of Brunei, and the plucky Brit gamely muscled in to curb the unrest. The Sultan, overwhelmed with relief, repaid the debt by handing James the government and revenues of the kingdom. By 1841, thanks to a little wooing of the Sultan’s daughter, James was made Rajah, and the whole area came under his control. Unlike many of the British colonialists who struggled to engage with the local people, James won the admiration of the Sarawakians with his down-to-earth attitude and open-door policy. Visitors were always welcome at his bungalow, and he was often seen strolling the kampungs and chatting with the locals. His prime area of industry, however, was in establishing laws and administrative processes and tackling piracy, although the latter earned him some criticism for his overzealousness.

Despite enjoying the attention of various women during his years in Borneo, adventurer James never tied the knot and so, with no legitimate children of his own to pass the crown to, he named his nephew Charles as his heir.



Charles was an obvious choice. After a few years in the navy, Charles had arrived in Sarawak to work under his uncle in 1852, allowing for an easy transference of power upon James’ death in 1868.

If James had the fortitude to take on a throne in a far-flung tropical jungle, Charles had the quirks to maintain such a surreal life with apparent zeal. His idiosyncrasies are well documented, and an article that ran in The Telegraph (March 2011) had Charles as “an austere character” who “considered jam ‘effeminate’ and replaced his lost eye with a glass one from an albatross.”

Much like his uncle, Charles balanced his curious tendencies with a sensible head, and he was instrumental in further shaping Sarawak into a civilised nation. He committed himself to tackling piracy and headhunting, abolishing slavery, extending the size of Sarawak, rebuilding Kuching, and creating many new structures and establishments, all of which earned him respect of the residents.

Unlike his freewheeling uncle, Charles married a British woman and had four children, although three died of cholera on a voyage back to the UK. His remaining child, Charles Vyner Brooke, was educated in the UK but re-joined his Dad in 1897 at the age of 23, working in his service before becoming Rajah himself in 1917. Little did Charles Junior realise, it was to be the beginning of the end.


The younger Charles was somewhat less eccentric than his father, and while he shied away from ceremony, he maintained the open-door spirit of the Rajahs and encouraged the local people to approach him with their problems. He also continued to shun the British colonial practise of imposing the European ideologies on the local people, blocking Christian missionaries from coming in to convert the locals away from their own faiths. That said, he drew the line at headhunting, and would spend many an afternoon trying to explain to the young men that cutting off heads was not the only way to impress a girl.

There was a boom in the rubber and oil industries during Charles’ early years of power, and as the economy rose and institutions were modernised, Charles was credited with progressing the kingdom far along the path to development.

He was not, however, without his vices. He found his administrative duties fairly tiresome, preferring to spend his energies (and time) on his various mistresses and transforming Kuching into a social oasis, with dances, theatres, and clubs catering to the fun-loving Brits in his service.


The good times were, of course, not to last. Funds dwindled, as did Charles’ enthusiasm for the hefty job, and the rule of the White Rajahs began to lose momentum as the Second World War started rippling across the globe. There are various stories circulating about the final throes of the kingdom, and the diplomatic version states that, without a male heir to leave the power with, Charles decided to mark the century of White Rajah rule by handing the reins back to the British Crown, which he did in 1945.

That power went back to Britain in 1945 is an established fact, but another story claims that the last few years were a little murkier. According to some, Charles was persuaded by the ambitious Japanese to cede power to them in return for money from the Treasury, which he pocketed before scuttling off to Australia to lie low until the Japanese left in 1946. Charles returned to Sarawak briefly to close up the shop before setting sail for his distant homeland and leaving Sarawak behind forever.


The century of adventure in the wilds of Borneo, one that began so exhilaratingly with an ambitious explorer stumbling into a kingdom of headhunters and pirates, ended under considerably less captivating circumstances. Charles died alone in London in 1963 at the age of 88, and the Brooke line dwindled. As the years passed, the facts and the lives of these extraordinary gentlemen melted off into fiction, and time moved on without them.

The White Rajahs may now be no more real than the fanciful legends of the region, but their influence lives on in the kingdom they helped shape into the progressive, culturally fascinating, and modernised state it is today.


Source: The Expat November 2012

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