The White Rajah: The Victorian adventurer who won an Asian empire

At the court of the White Rajah

THE WHITE RAJAH: The Philippines officially lays claim to Malaysian province of Sabah, the northeast portion of the Island of Borneo.

Historians argue that the Sultan of Sulu only leased it to the British on a temporary basis and so it should revert to Philippine sovereignty. While the arguments may hold water, it’s unlikely to be ceded to Manila anytime soon.

The other Malaysian province on the island, Sarawak, has no such disputes over sovereignty. However, if it did, it would involve the British descendants of Sir James Brooke.

The First Rajah: James Brooke


To understand the Kingdom of Sarawak as it was ruled by the Brookes, it’s first necessary to understand the ‘patriarch’ of this wacky family. I say ‘patriarch’ in inverted commas for reasons that will become apparent later.

James Brooke was born in British India in 1803. He was educated in India until the age of twelve, sent back to England for a few years of good old-fashioned Victorian boarding school brutality, and returned to India an ensign in the British East India Company’s Bengal Army. It was there that James took a shot to the dick, which basically shut down any chance of James furthering the family line.

Brooke was consoled by the inheritance of £30,000 (approximately £3.3 million today). He used this to buy a massive 133-tonne schooner, which is old-timey talk for ‘ship’. He set sail for Borneo, then controlled by the Sultanate of Brunei. Upon making landfall, Brooke found an uprising against the Sultan in full swing.

Brooke continued the British Imperial tradition of kicking the shit out of native rebels, helping the Sultan put down the uprising. In gratitude, the Sultan granted Brooke the governorship of Surawak, and so began the dynasty of the White Rajahs.

Brooke assumed control of some 3,000 miles of jungle and swamp. The local tribe, the Dayaks, were known mostly for making skull trophies of their own people and presenting them as gifts to their brides-to-be.

Brooke set about putting a stop to that stuff and nonsense immediately. His reign was characterised by the outlaw of skull-taking, extreme anti-piracy measures, and in one particularly memorable case, sentencing a man-eating crocodile to death by beheading. The crocodile’s headless body was left in the swamp as a warning to any other wannabe man-eaters.

Charles Brooke: the second Rajah


Possibly due to the fact that he was a de facto eunuch, James never married. In lieu of a natural-born heir, James nominated his sister’s son, Charles Johnson, as his successor. Charles changed his surname to Brooke in honour of his uncle, and came to power in 1868 after James’ death.

Charles proved himself to be an extremely popular Rajah. Charles expanded the kingdom until it was the size of England, built a railway, banned slavery, and in a move that was no doubt more popular with some than others, encouraged interracial relationships between British men and native women. Charles gave these women the charming moniker of ‘sleeping dictionaries’, since they were used as a backdoor means of learning the local language.

Charles was something of an eccentric. He replaced a lost eye with a glass one from a stuffed albatross, forbade his son from eating jam (he deemed the eating of said confiture ‘effeminate’), and served his wife a pie made of her own pet doves.

Despite their marital difficulties, Charles and his wife Margaret managed to produce three sons. Margaret would spend much of her time in England, obsessively searching for wives for her boys.

Margaret’s labours bore fruit in 1911; Brooke family scion Vyner married the noblewoman Sylvia Brett, later known by the sobriquet ‘Queen of the headhunters’. Sylvia’s brother would remark, when they arrived in Sarawak, that it was a ‘country guided by European brains but untouched by European vulgarity’. Sylvia herself commented that “there was in this abundant land everything for which my heart had yearned”.

Sylvia Brett and Vyner Brooke, whoremongers of Sarawak


Sylvia and her husband wasted no time indulging their bohemian urges. Whilst Vyner took numerous native women as mistresses, Sylvia herself was no slouch in the promiscuity department. Her trysts and public displays were the source of much disgust back home, as were those of her three daughters, whom she encouraged to be equally promiscuous. The scandal sheets back in England were full of tales of the sexual misadventures of the Brooke women; Sylvia and Vyner’s daughters were nicknamed ‘Gold’, ‘Pearl’ and ‘Baba’ by the press, and their various conquests included a bandleader and boxer. The girls managed to total eight marriages between the three of them. “Thank God,” their father remarked, “I haven’t four daughters!”

For all the entertainment the Brooke family provided back home, their antics were also to doom the Kingdom of Sarawak. Japan was on the rise in the Far East, and family matriarch Sylvia was branded ‘a dangerous woman’ full of indignity.

Japanese Occupation and downfall

The was occupied by Japan during World War II, and the Dayak tribesmen gave as good as they got, beheading 1500 Japanese soldiers in one of the more Conan-esque displays of resistance during the .

At the conclusion of the war, the kingdom was sold to Great Britain for the princely sum of £200,000 (roughly £8 million in today’s terms). In doing this, Vyner bypassed the then-reigning Rajah, his nephew Anthony, who had only ruled for six months. Anthony didn’t take this too well, and would later spend his time in north-east Scotland waiting for flying saucers to liberate humankind.

Sylvia and Vyner enjoyed an uncomfortable fall from grace. Stripped of the pomp and ceremony of their Sarawakan lands and titles, Sylvia later lamented the difficulty of going from being ‘emperors’ to ‘ordinary, aging people’.

Vyner continued to be revered by the Dayak people he once ruled, though detractors of the Brookes claimed this was rooted in the uneven power dynamics and condescending nature of Victorian-era colonialism.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the reign of the White Rajahs remains a fascinating and quirky era in the history of Southeast Asia.

Lee Parry has lived in China for 13 years and still doesn’t have bronchitis. When not hurling abuse at fare-dodging taxi drivers, he is the editor of

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