Brookes of Sarawak:
The White Rajas
Three generations of Brooke family members—known as the “White Rajahs”—reigned as Kings of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946. The founder and first monarch of the dynasty was adventurer James Brooke. Born into an established Anglo-Indian family, he left the East India Company’s army due to an injury, and with his father’s inheritance purchased the schooner Royalist, in which he set out to explore Borneo.
In Sarawak, forced labor in mines and high taxes, compounded by a lack of protection from pirates, led the population to rebel against their overlord the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke befriended the Sultan’s emissary, and as a reward for ending the rebellion, and in accordance with the Sarawakians’ conditions for surrendering, he was made governor of a newly-autonomous Sarawak. Assuming the dignity of Rajah (King), he established the Brooke dynasty as a sovereign reigning house.
The Raj of Sarawak, perpetually misunderstood, is often erroneously equated with European colonialism, negating the deeds of the Brookes, the history of the Sarawakians and the context of Borneo. In an island with a history of outsiders becoming rulers, the Brookes’ ethnicity is not a unique characteristic; Sarawakians were ruled by the Sultan of Brunei—of different ethnicity and religion than them. Two other white men also became Rajahs in Borneo. More remarkable is how James Brooke, in a nation-building effort, coalesced multiple disparate and often warring peoples—"the Malays, the Sea Dayaks, the Land Dayaks, the Kayans and other tribes"— into an established and recognized state with “a native government” free from Bruneian control.
As citizens, Sarawakians participated in the political life of their new country at all levels of government. Having their own state helped shield them from foreign intervention, as did the Brookes’ statesmanship: cleverly navigating and resisting pressure from the Great Powers and declining lucrative yet sovereignty-eroding business deals. Indeed, their very dignity as sovereign monarchs depended on their subjects’ status as independent peoples. Today, the iconography of the Raj is wielded by Sarawakians seeking independence from Malaysia—a fitting indicator of modern Sarawakians’ appraisal of the Brookes dynasty.
The current head of the House of Brooke is Jason Brooke (born 1985) a grandson of the last Raja Muda (Crown Prince) of Sarawak, who is very active in promoting the legacy of the Raj of Sarawak. He is at the helm of the Brooke Trust, a nonprofit "with a vision to explore Sarawak's unique heritage" and which runs two museums in Kuching, capital of Sarawak. Brooke served as a consultant to Edge of the World, a 2021 biopic of Sir James Brooke (portrayed by Jonathan Rhys Myers). His facebook account provides further insight into his life and activities. (Image: First house (bungalow) of Sir James Brooke, First Rajah of Sarawak, in Kuching.)
The Brooke Rajahs
1. James Brooke (Reigned 1841–1868)
The first Rajah established the foundations of the nascent state. Aware of his desired dignity, he transformed his position from governor to monarch. He created a hybrid administration based on modern British bureaucracy and local traditions, issued currency, and greatly expanded Sarawak. He abolished slavery and banned headhunting. A Supreme Council, with a majority of Sarawakian counselors, was established which would evolve into the more comprehensive Council Negri—Malaysia's oldest legislature. The United States was the first nation to recognize Sarawak in 1850; Britain did so in 1863.
2. Charles Brooke (Reigned 1868–1917)
The second Rajah consolidated the state he inherited from his uncle and further extended its boundaries. He created the first government departments, incentivized commerce and international trade, and fomented Chinese immigration.
Culture and inquiry greatly improved with the opening of the Sarawak Museum. Education was expanded under the patronage of Rannee (Queen) Margaret, who also composed the national anthem. The Rajah's habitation became a veritable Royal Palace with the construction of the Astana. Other symbols of statehood achieved during his reign include the building of the Courthouse and the issuing of postal stamps.
Sarawak's international standing was demoted when a Protectorate with Britain was established in 1888. Nonetheless, Rajah Charles —fiercely Sarawakian— criticized British imperialism and refused a Baronetcy from King George V in 1911.
3. Vyner Brooke (Reigned 1917–1946)
The last Rajah took advantage of an increase in the price of commodities to further modernize the state. Co-ruling with his brother Bertram, he professionalized the civil service, established a modern penal code, nurtured native cultures, and banned missionaries. He founded Sarawak's first chivalric order. When Japan invaded Sarawak in 1941, Vyner went into exile in Australia He opposed British plans to annex Sarawak but ultimately had to cede his rights as Sarawak became a Crown Colony.
Because Rajah Vyner did not produce a male heir, his nephew Anthony Brooke, son of Bertram Brooke, was the last Rajah Muda (crown prince) of Sarawak. He led the opposition against his uncle's decision to cede Sarawak, and the Brookes' throne, to Britain.
Reuben George Brooke (1834–1874)
James Brooke’s first son was Reuben George Brooke, raised as Reuben G. Walker, whom he acknowledged in 1857 to the vexation of his nephews and heirs. Upon legitimation, Reuben George took the surname of Brooke. Although his date and place of birth are unclear, in 1862 he married Elizabeth Mowbray, with whom he had seven children. In his marriage certificate, he stated his father’s occupation as “Knight, Rajah of Sarawak.” He died in a shipwreck en route to Australia in 1874. His headstone at the Plumtree churchyard (England) reads “In memoriam Reuben George Brooke, only son of Sir James Brooke K.C.B., Rajah of Sarawak.”
Although James Brooke avowedly excluded Reuben from the line of succession, he took great pains to ensure his son’s acceptance into genteel society, providing both financial and affectionate support. The first Rajah of Sarawak’s living descendants are active in Facebook and have created a pedigree. (Headstone image © Plumtree Church)
Daughter of James Brooke
James Brooke and Pangiran Anak Fatima were married religiously and had a daughter, whose name remains unknown.
Esca Brooke (1867–1953)
The second Rajah Charles Brooke’s firstborn son was Esca, child of his first wife Dayang Mastiah, a Malay Sarawakian. He was placed for adoption — allegedly at the behest of Brooke's second wife Margaret de Windt — and moved to Canada with his adoptive family. Throughout his life, he sought recognition as Charles Brooke’s heir. His descendants actively celebrate their heritage via a facebook group.
Coat of arms of the Rajah Brookes of Sarawak, and of the sovereign Raj of Sarawak during "White Rajah" rule.
Map detailing the territorial expansion of Sarawak from the original concession of Kuching and its surroundings in 1841 (lower left) to the last annexation in 1904 (upper right). Credit: Public domain; original here.
Painting of Kuching (in the background) and its riparian environs, 1876. Credit: Public domain.
Rajah James Brooke. Image: Public Domain
View from the veranda of Rajah James Brooke's first house (bungalow) in 1847. Across the Sarawak River is the town of Kuching. Image: Public Domain
Objects in our Collection
Letter handwritten and signed by Sir James Brooke, first Rajah of Sarawak, to Mr. Powles. Displays embossed crest of the Brookes and of Sarawak. New acquisition: more information to come.
Consider a Donation
Artifacts: We accept donations of objects relating to the White Rajahs of Sarawak, as well as to any other self-proclaimed, ephemeral or adventurer-founded monarchies.
Financial contributions to help with acquisitions are also welcome.