Empires Featured

The White Rajahs of Sarawak and the Complexity of Empire

Written by Sam Bidwell

In this account of Britain’s involvement with the island of Sarawak in the East Indies, now part of Malaysia, Sam Bidwell demonstrates that the empire was constructed and governed in many different ways, some of them surprising and serendipitous.

The White Rajahs of Sarawak and the Complexity of Empire

Far too often, the British Empire is presented as a monolith. There exists a pervasive assumption that Britain’s non-white colonies were all governed by a small cadre of civil servants, directed by Westminster, and despised by the natives.

Yet scratch below the surface, and we find countless examples to the contrary. Amongst the most remarkable of these is the story of the White Rajahs of Sarawak.

The tale begins in the mid-19th century, in the jungles of Southeast Asia. James Brooke, an Anglo-Indian soldier and adventurer, had set sail for Borneo in 1838 aboard a 142-ton schooner, the Royalist. Brooke had previously seen combat in the First Anglo-Burmese War, before sustaining serious injuries in 1825 that saw him sent back to England for recovery. On returning to India, he had failed in his initial attempts to trade in the Far East and was only able to purchase the Royalist due to the sudden death of his father, who left him a considerable inheritance. By the time of his 1838 voyage, James Brooke had shown little propensity for success.

On arrival in Brunei, Brooke met with Omar Ali Saifuddin II, the Kingdom’s 23rd Sultan, who tasked him with suppressing piracy in the region. The Sultanate of Brunei had been in decline since the 16th century, hastened by internal conflict and contact with Europeans. From 1570 until 1578, the Sultanate had been engaged in a punishing war with the Spanish Empire. Its naval capacity was severely undermined and, as a result, two hundred years of territorial expansion came to a sudden end. Towards the end of the 17th century, a 13-year long civil war further destabilised the country, pushing it into a slump from which it would never quite recover.

The result was unrest and lawlessness. Pirates plundered the nearby straits with reckless abandon; Dutch ships leaving Java and Spanish ships bound for the Philippines took great pains to avoid the waters near Brunei. In the interior, the indigenous Dayak people fought a guerrilla war against Bruneian control. Over just three years, Brooke put an end to the Dayak uprisings, and greatly reduced the pirate threat. With a mixture of uncompromising force and amnesty for the most cooperative rebels, the Englishman pacified the Sultanate and allowed solitary maritime trade to blossom as it once had.

In exchange, the Sultan rewarded Brooke with sovereignty over the port city of Kuching and its environs, known as ‘Sarawak Proper’. For the next hundred years, the Brooke Dynasty would rule Sarawak, a country of some half a million people, as absolute monarchs. Their domain comprised mostly jungle, populated by a mixture of Malays, Chinese, and the indigenous Dayaks. This latter group lived mostly in the hills, organised in small tribes which survived by hunting and selling timber. Despite their earlier conflict with the Rajah, they would prove to be his most loyal subjects – when the Chinese gold miner Liu Shan Bang led an uprising against Brooke in 1857, it was the Dayak chiefs who came most readily to his aid.

With a combination of family members, mercenaries, and native levies, Brooke would expand his dominion over an area roughly the size of England, conquering some territories and leasing others from the Sultan. His rule was firm, yet he took pains to ensure native assent to his governance. A collection of local chiefs, the Council Negri, would advise him for the duration of his rule.

The rule of the first Rajah was characterised by the careful balancing of relations with Britain and Brunei. Many Malay nobles were unhappy with the granting of such considerable territories to a European and pushed the Sultan to remove Brooke from his position. Brooke, in turn, would spend considerable time and resources supporting pro-British policy in the Sultanate, sometimes through military intervention. For their part, the British Colonial Office in Singapore did not fully trust Brooke, regarding him as a wayward opportunist, little better than the pirates that he opposed. It was only through his work to ensure British primacy in trade with Brunei that he was finally given recognition. In 1864, Britain extended formal recognition to Brooke’s rule over Sarawak; when British warships entered Kuching in the autumn of that year, they saluted the Rajah with 21 guns as a sign of their respect.

Much of the Rajah’s time was spent stamping out piracy and cracking down on the local practice of headhunting. He also banned, and effectively put an end to, the practice of slavery. In 1851, he was accused of excessive force against the native people; while acquitted by a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854, the charges would haunt him throughout his reign.

Having no legitimate children, control of Sarawak passed to his nephew, Charles, in 1868. By the time of his death, James Brooke had garnered a reputation as a hard, solitary man, who had dedicated his life to establishing peace through force in Sarawak and the wider region. He was a bachelor throughout his life, with few hobbies – though according to friends, he was a ‘great admirer’ of Jane Austen’s novels.

Unlike his uncle, Charles Brooke would spend his time on consolidation. Born in Somerset and educated at an unremarkable provincial grammar school, he was more administrator than adventurer. He had enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1842, serving a commission of fourteen years before travelling to Sarawak to support his uncle. He proved a capable soldier, helping to put down Liu Shan Bang’s revolt, and building relationships with local chiefs. He would formally relocate in 1857, bringing along his wife Margaret, who would become his Ranee upon his accession. Before long, however, the Ranee would return to London, preferring the company of Oscar Wilde and Henry James to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Under the rule of the second Rajah, Kuching was developed extensively. The administration encouraged Chinese immigration, which helped to expand the city’s urban merchant class, and gave incentives for isolated rural populations to migrate towards the coast. By 1874, the city was furnished with a hospital, a prison, and a defensive fort, named Margherita after the Rajah’s wife. The Rajah’s palace, the Astana, had been built in 1870 as a wedding gift, complete with landscaped gardens. The Astana still stands today, serving as the official residence of the governor of Sarawak.

In 1888, fearing the encroachment of other European powers, Charles appealed for protection from the British. Though two similar appeals in 1869 and 1879 had been rejected, the 1888 request finally established a formal but loose British role in Sarawak. Sarawak would no longer be responsible for its own defence or foreign affairs; it would, however, continue to govern internally, with the central administrative position of the native chiefs maintained.

By the time of his death in 1917, the Rajah had established parliamentary government, a railway, and schools in which the local Malays could be taught in their own language. The local economy had developed significantly thanks to the discovery of oil and the expansion of rubber plantations.

His son, Charles Vyner Brooke, was expected to continue in his father’s footsteps. Described by the Daily Telegraph as a ‘cloud-living Old Wykehamist’, he governed Sarawak as his contemporaries in England governed their country houses. His style was relaxed and cordial; his wife Sylvia would later recall that the Astana became a place where local dignitaries would come and go freely, dropping in for afternoon tea or an evening drink.

His administration worked to modernise the country’s institutions; in 1924, he introduced a new penal code, and updated the civil service code in line with best practice elsewhere in the Empire. In accordance with local wishes, his administration restricted the passage of Christian missionaries and promoted local traditions.

However, this progress was not to last. The effective Brooke administration was not immune to the machinations of the Japanese, who descended upon Sarawak in December 1941. With British forces occupied in Europe, the defence of Sarawak depended on a single Indian infantry regiment, the 2/15 Punjab Regiment, alongside local forces. A Japanese naval detachment, led by the destroyer Sagiri, landed on 16 December, while the Rajah and his family were on holiday in Sydney. Fearing seizure of the territory’s bountiful oilfields, the British ordered a scorched-earth retreat. By January, Sarawak had fallen; the Rajah and his wife would spend the war exiled in Australia.

Following Sarawak’s liberation in September 1945, Charles Vyner returned to find his kingdom ravaged by Japanese occupation. Lacking the resources to rebuild, he was encouraged to abdicate his title by the British authorities, which he did in 1946. The motion of abdication was accepted by a narrow and reluctant majority in the Council Negri; local resistance to British rule flared up, driven by fears of interference with local customs.

Nevertheless, Sarawak was taken as a British Crown Colony and would effectively be governed from Singapore until its absorption into Malaya in 1963. In that same year Charles Vyner Brooke died at his home in Bayswater. All three of the White Rajahs are buried at St. Leonard’s Church in Sheepstor, a tiny village on Dartmoor.

Today, Sarawak retains significant autonomy within modern Malaysia. Alongside neighbouring Sabah, Sarawak enjoys special constitutional safeguards, including control over immigration, its own discrete judicial system, and the existence of Native Courts.

The story of the White Rajahs highlights the complexities and contradictions of the British Empire. More often than not, it was an empire built by the actions of individuals and private companies. In Sarawak – as in India and much of Africa – centralised rule from Westminster came later.

It should also remind us that the relationships between European colonialists and their native subjects were not straightforward. For much of the world, the British were the latest in a long line of imperial masters. In some places, British rule represented a relatively liberal break from the established norm. In others, it proved repressive and cumbersome. It is impossible to make sweeping generalisations.

This ought not to surprise us. The Empire lasted for more than five hundred years and, at its peak, spanned more than a quarter of the world’s surface. It would be far more unusual if we could make broad generalisations about an institution of that scale.

The best antidote to this unhelpful trend is to draw on stories, like those of the Brooke Dynasty, which highlight the complex reality of empire. In doing so, we can begin to build a more nuanced understanding of Britain’s impact on the wider world.

About the author


Sam Bidwell