The White Rajah of Sarawak

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The White Rajah of Sarawak

James Brooke painted by Francis Grant /

James Brooke painted by Francis Grant /

In a recent article, I published a brief account of the rise and fall of the British empire. The empire was just as much a product of private enterprise and individual initiative as it was a result of British and foreign politics. British adventurers discovered the lands and islands that eventually formed the empire, British politicans secured their ‘new ownership’, and British administrators managed the vast possessions, while the British Navy sailed round the world protecting them. James Brooke is a perfect example. Young, ambitious, ruthless, slight in build but wide in intellect, Brooke arrived in Borneo as just another administrator. He immediately set about helping one of the Brunei princes to put down a revolt, organised what ships of the fleet he could find to seek out pirates (of which there were thousands) and destroy them, and found himself rewarded with the governorship of Kuch in 1841 before he was forty.

Before very long he had established himself as an independent ruler, known as the White Rajah. He governed as a benevolent (sometimes) autocrat and extended his rule of much of Sarawak. He organised and pushed through legal reforms, continued the constant conflict with the corsairs in most of the waters of the Far East. He successfully warded off the Chinese in 1857.

There is a portrait of this extraordinary adventurer in the National Gallery in London. It catches with great accuracy his restless energy and resolution, as well as that romantic air which made him a focal point for the ladies. He was in fact an early Victorian hero, though he had a secret. In an early milkitary engagement during an Assam Campaign engagement he lost his testicles via a serious wound in the groin, though this tragedy did not seem to affect what the Spanish tastefully describe as his cojones.

At Murdu in February 1844 Brooke suffered a face wound in a mighty sea battle with Sumatran pirates. One of his lieutenants was the young Henry Keppel (1809 – 1904), who was one of the foremost fighting seamen and captains of the period. Keppel was known to the Dyaks as ‘The Red Devil’ on account of his red hair. Keppel served under Brooke in numerous raids against ports where pirates lurked. He lived for many years despite his adventures with Brooke, and survived to become Admiral of the Fleet.

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814 – 1906) was the richest heiress in the kingdom due to being granddaughter to Thomas Coutts, the banker. She helped finance Livingstone, Stanley . . . and Brooke, with whom she fell in love. She proposed marriage to him and was politely rejected, though of course a Victorian gentleman could not tell the reason why. Nevertheless she stayed very good friends with Brooke, and greatly helped him by securing official recognition of him as ruler of Sarawak. Brooke never married.

His views on native peoples, piracy, Borneo’s future, missionaries, colonial development, religion, ethics, honours and decorations, personal ambitions and private tastes – all the philosophy of this remarkable man in fact – is to be found in his journals and letters.  Charles Johnson (1829 – 1917) was Brooke’s nephew, and became the second White Rajah after his uncle’s early death in 1868. He took the same surname, and reigned for almost fifty years, during which time he extended Sarawak’s boundaries. He, like James Brooke, was essentially a fighting man, but he was also an unusually clearsighted colonialist, predicting at the beginning of the 20th century the end of empire, and the ascendency of the new Eastern Powers in the shape of Russia and China.

Back in England, W.E.Gladstone the politician showed how Liberal he was by pressing charges against Brooke for ‘cruel, illegal and excessive’ actions against the suffering Bornean and Sumatran pirates (who used to decorate the prow and gunwales of their praus with the skulls of their enemies). A writer in The Times described this in these words: ‘James Brooke’s sympathies lay with the victims of piracy, while Gladstone’s were with the pirates’.

The pirate prau were up to seventy feet long, heavily armed with small but effective cannon, and packed with young and agile fighting men who gave no quarter and expected none. They were the scourge of the East Indies until well into the 19th century. Cruising in fleets of hundreds from the famous pirate nests in the Phiippines and North Borneo, they assaulted shipping as well as the coastal towns, in search of slaves and plunder. Brooke, the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy fought them to a standstill.

Sarawak was effectively ruled by the Brooke family until the Japanese occupation of 1942 – 45. There are descendents of James Brooke’s brothers still living in Warwick and London. Coutts Bank still exists too, to a great extent as successfully as in the 19th century. They are the Queen’s bankers.

By | 2010-10-31T10:58:55+00:00 October 31st, 2010|Asian History, English History|11 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Don Noyes-More January 10, 2011 at 12:06 am - Reply

    This was a very interesting article about a little known piece of history.

    Thank you,

    Don Noyes-More Ph.D.
    Editor in Chief

  2. admin December 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    Received today a superior comment from Mr. Jon Marshall,telling me my piece on The White Rajah is ‘a badly constructed bundle of some true elements’; corrects me about Keppel and Brooke’s testicles, and awards me a ‘B Grade mark or ‘Could do better in my opinion’. No-one told me my article was a thesis submitted for Mr Marshall’s correction and valuation. But I will tell surviving members of the Brooke family, and various authors if they are alive that the information in their books of reference is badly constructed, and contains ‘falsehoods’ Appreciation of one’s work is always appreciated. Thank you so much, Dean.

  3. Dean Swift December 30, 2011 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    I am sure you are right. It is difficult to know exactly which path to follow when writing about history, as history affects each individual differently. The historian cannot possibly please everybody, but it IS nice to know that someone from Sarawak has read the article on Rajah Brooke.

  4. Desmond leong February 20, 2014 at 3:15 am - Reply

    Untold Brooke Secrets!

    I’ve published a book The White Rajahs…Myths Retold/ The Massacre of th Bau Hakkas. Bau is gold mining town half an hour’s drive from Kuching, Sarawak’s State Capitol.
    Sir James Brooke ordered his headhunting militia to elimate every Chinese Hakka gold miners and their families after they killed four white men It was the biggest ethnic cleansing operation during his iron handed rule.
    Never told is the fact that Brooke Rajahs maintained a headhunting army which lasted for 80 years. At its height, the Brookes led 12,000 headhunters to attack the minority tribes living upriver at the distant border jungles with Dutch Kalimantan.

    • Dean Swift April 11, 2014 at 7:41 pm - Reply

      Dear Desmond, everyone has the right to an opinion, historical or otherwise; glad you have published a book on the Brooke Rajas. Where did Rajah Brooke find the 12,000? What a pity Vyner Brooke could not find 12,000 Dayaks to defend Sarawak when the Japanese invaded in 1941.

  5. Desmond leong April 16, 2014 at 12:11 am - Reply

    You are invited to visit my FB to read the real history of Sarawak.
    James Brooke never eradicate head hunting here. He entice the headhunters to join his war expeditions. Their reward for taking part was they could chop any number of heads they want after each victory. The London Times commented that the slaughters in Sarawak were without parallel in the annals of British history.

    • Dean Swift April 17, 2014 at 10:54 am - Reply

      Desmond, if the slaughters in Sarawak were without parallel in the annals of British History, where does that leave the battles at Towton, Tewkesbury, St Albans (Wars of the Roses) and especially the Great War 1914-1918? I know perfectly well that the White Rajah accepted the Dayak practive of head-hunting, but it is recorded that he and his successors TRIED at least to reduce it. Please do not teach Grandmother to suck eggs. Best wishes, Dean.

  6. js June 11, 2014 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    Desmond Leong

    Finally headhunting is stopped now (at least paused) and may be used for good reasons in the future.

    • Dean Swift June 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm - Reply

      Desmond, are you sure? Do you think that headhunting might start again? Perhaps this is wishful thinking. This practice might improve things a lot in Europe, but the politicians’ skins are too thick even for a sharp parang. Best wishes, Dean.

  7. js June 11, 2014 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    Desmond Leong

    Didn’t the Bau Hakkas attack James Brooke first at Kuching and fail because they cannot recognize James Brooke and they forgot about Charles at Simanggang? Attack and revenge was the order of the day, wasn’t it?

    Linggir “Mali Lebu” who was an Iban from Paku, Saribas did try to behead James Brooke while at dinner with several Europeans at Astana but hesitated and finally abandoned after arrival of reinforcement by Malays. I wonder what would be the effects and consequences if that attempt was successful. I guess the whole might of the British Navy will come over.

    The overall effects of the Brooke colonialism seem fairly good to natives and non-natives including Chinese except that British may have let go of Sarawak and Sabah too early before the people are ready for self-administration due to the British government’s decolonization policy at that time.

    The Brooke’s policy of non-interference with native affairs especially those of Dayaks e.g. in education development, did not speed up their civilization and modernization in preparation for autonomy and self-administration. This is rather in contrast to their stated moral objective of civilizing the natives to end headhunting, piracy and slavery.

    The Brooke’s policy of disapproval or non-preference of foreign investment and enterprises into Sarawak to protect Sarawak also did not speed up the overall development of Sarawak compared to that of Malaya.

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