A ‘White Rajah’ returns to Malaysia’s Sarawak, but this time to serve
- The Brookes ruled Sarawak for a century until 1946, and are credited with building it into a modern state with its own government and constitution
- Jason Brooke, a sixth-generation descendant of James Brooke, the first Rajah, is looking to preserve the state’s heritage and his family’s identity
The Brookes are seen as having built Sarawak from a territory of disparate ethnic communities into a modern state, with its own government, constitution, flag and currency. Under their leadership, Sarawak expanded from Kuching, its capital today, to its current shape.
With the support of the Sarawak state government, Jason Brooke, Anthony’s grandson, is looking to preserve the state’s heritage, with a focus on educating young people about its history.
His efforts began in 2010 with the archiving and digitisation of records and artefacts from the Brooke era. Then, in 2016, the Brooke Gallery museum opened in the restored Fort Margherita – originally built by the second Rajah, Charles Brooke – followed by another museum about his wife in the Old Courthouse in Kuching.
“There’s nowhere else in the world with a story like this,” said Jason, who is based in London but visits Sarawak frequently.
The story goes that the first Rajah, James Brooke, sailed to Borneo in 1839 as a private explorer when he was in his 30s, attracted to the region’s economic potential. He landed in Sarawak when it was in the middle of an uprising against the nominal rule of Brunei, which had incited local anger by imposing taxes for the mining of antimony.
It is believed that for his help in quelling the rebellion, Raja Muda Hassim, a representative of the Brunei sultanate, offered James Brooke sovereignty over Sarawak.
While he sees Sarawak as part of his family’s identity, Jason Brooke emphasises that the history of its evolution into a state is not just about the Brookes – and he hopes this is reflected in the projects he has undertaken.
“[The Brookes] obviously didn’t build Sarawak by themselves,” he said. “When you start to engage with the history and understand people’s genealogies and their backgrounds, you realise that everyone in Sarawak today has some ancestry that was important in building the modern state over the course of 100 years.”
In administering the state, the Brookes had the help of local Malay chiefs and an army of indigenous people.
Professor James Chin, a Sarawakian historian and political analyst, said Sarawakians’ current understanding of the Brookes had much to do with the efforts of Jason Brooke and the state government, since mention of them was generally lacking in the school syllabus.
Chin has a nuanced take on the legacy of the three Brooke Rajahs. “Generally speaking, people in Sarawak look back at the Brooke era as Sarawak’s golden era, when it was independent and had its own diplomatic status. They think that the Brookes were fair-weather leaders, and the interesting thing about the Brookes compared to everybody else in Southeast Asia is that they were not seen as colonisers. They were seen as protecting the Sarawakians from outsiders,” he said.
But while the Brookes are seen as having brought a semblance of peace to Sarawak, it is a depiction the historian does not entirely agree with – he said that as part of their settling efforts, the Rajahs “killed people to force them to accept Brooke rule”.
James Brooke’s time in particular was marred by the 1849 Battle of Beting Marau, in which he, with his own Iban army and the help of the British naval forces, killed hundreds of Ibans from the Saribas and Skrang regions for piracy. His detractors argue that these Ibans were not pirates, and their actions were part of an intertribal war that should not have been interfered with.
However, historian James Chin said: “The one thing I will say is that the Brookes did not exploit Sarawak economically to the extent that the Dutch or the British did in Malaya. And part of this was because investors were reluctant to go to Sarawak as it was not a formal part of the empires.”
The second Rajah, Charles Brooke, was especially protective of the state, and emphasised that Sarawakians themselves should cultivate their land, not outside prospectors. On the flip side, this isolation meant that Sarawak remained quite underdeveloped during the Brooke era.
Jason also has other efforts to bring the Brooke story to the public in the works. A replica of the Royalist – the schooner in which James first came to Sarawak – will be built and eventually exhibited at the old Brooke dry dockyard in Kuching, which will house a maritime museum.
James’ mountain-hut retreat on Bukit Serembu, once visited by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, has been rebuilt and will host eco-tourism tours operated by the local Bidayuh community. Many of these initiatives are supported by the Sarawak state government, for their potential tourism draw and hoped-for economic benefits.
Separately, a film starring actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers as James Brooke was recently shot in the state, and is slated for release later this year.
Jason Brooke first travelled to the state in 2008, when he was in his early 20s. Until his visit, no Brooke had been to Sarawak for a long time; his grandfather Anthony had been exiled for protesting against its handover to the British, and returned only in the 1980s as a guest of the state government during celebrations for the 20th anniversary of Malaysia’s founding.
“We had Bornean artefacts, swords and shields, Sarawak flags and the like around our house. I’ve been interested in the Sarawak part of my family’s history for as long as I can remember,” he said.
As a teenager, Jason had asked Anthony to travel with him to Sarawak, but while the elder Brooke encouraged his interest, he asked Jason to “please wait until I was mature enough to appreciate what Sarawak meant to our family on a spiritual level”.
“When I first went to Sarawak, there was so much encouragement and good feeling towards my family’s history, which I hadn’t quite expected,” Jason said.
“At the time, I hadn’t realised just what a part of my identity Sarawak was. My family had, of course, felt Sarawakian. My grandfather fought against the British and made great sacrifices for the cause of Sarawak.
“Now I consider Sarawak a huge part of my identity. I see myself serving Sarawak in a non-political way.” ■