Sarawak: Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak – a life story worthy of film

Sarawak – a place name that has an exotic ring to it and its history is none the less interesting. British trading rights had been established in countries such as India and Malaysia and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Singapore had become a major trading port. However, further east the influence was less significant. Many of the islands making up the eastern archipelago of the East Indies were covered in dense jungle and inhabited by indigenous tribes (Dayaks). The coastal areas had been settled by people that had migrated from the Malay Peninsula and were ruled by Sultans who often fought over disputed boundaries. The local natives showed no interest in such squabbles unless they had a vested interest.

One of the largest islands in the eastern archipelago is Borneo. Whilst the Dutch had laid claim to the south and east, the north and west were ruled by the Sultans with the Sultan of Brunei being the most powerful. Within his control were Labuan, Sabah, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei itself. However, one Englishman was to have an impact on the development of Sarawak in particular. His name was Sir James Brooke.

James Brooke was a military man that had served in the British Army in India and had taken part in the First Anglo-Burmese War where he was severely wounded. He returned to England in 1825 hoping to recuperate and return to India but the Army authorities considered his injuries sufficient to pension him off from military service. James Brooke visited China in 1830 to ‘improve his health’ and as the ship that carried him passed the islands of the East Indies he was impressed by their natural beauty. His father had once worked for the East India Company so he had some understanding of the significance of trade with the Far East. On his return to England he endeavoured to raise money to pursue his trading interests albeit with limited success. However, James Brooke’s father died in 1835 and he inherited sufficient funds that allowed him to purchase a schooner named Royalist that he sailed to the Far East arriving in Singapore in 1839.

While in Singapore, Brooke heard the story of how a group of British sailors had been shipwrecked off the coast of Borneo and that they had been saved and assisted by Pengiran Haslim, the uncle of the Sultan of Brunei. Knowing that Brooke intended to travel to Borneo, the British Governor General of Singapore asked Brooke to officially thank Pengiran Haslim for saving the British lives. This was how James Brooke came to meet the family of the Sultan of Brunei. The Sultan was troubled by rebellions within his country and attacks from Asian pirates. Being a military man, James Brooke offered his services in quelling the rebellions and curbing the activities of the pirates along the Borneo coast. So successful was he that over a period of a few years, the Sultan gave Brooke large areas of his land that eventually became the State of Sarawak with the main town of Kuching situated on the Sarawak River.

James Brooke was now not only the ruler of the State but also the head of its legal system. He banned slavery, headhunting and piracy, introduced basic law and order, and in doing so, earned the respect of the natives. Brooke still had the ambition to set up stronger trading links with the west. He arranged meetings between the Sultan of Brunei, visiting Royal Navy ships and representatives of the East India Company. He promoted the British interests to the Sultan even when he arguably had no real authority to carry out these negotiations on behalf of the British Government. 

The Sultan still exercised capital punishment in Brunei that Brooke disliked and this caused friction between the two men especially when the Sultan had Pengiran Haslim, his uncle, and members of his family assassinated because they were considered a threat to the Sultan’s rule. In the late 1840s the Sultan ceded the island of Labuan to the British as a naval base under the guidance of James Brooke and with this he achieved yet more power on the island of Borneo. In 1852 the Sultan died and the new Sultan gifted more land to Brooke for his services to Brunei. His exploits in and around Brunei had become legendary – but there was increasing unrest from the native tribes. The disturbances in 1853, 1857 and 1860 shook the Brooke administration in Sarawak. Brooke considered selling his personal ‘kingdom’ but it was not until 1864 that the British recognised Sarawak and James Brooke as its Head of State. 

James Brooke’s nephew, Charles Brooke, who had visited his uncle in Sarawak as a young man was captivated by the country so much so that he stayed on to work in the Sarawak administration. He became the natural successor to James having been beside his uncle for over a decade and so when James returned to England in 1863 he left Charles to run the State albeit with monthly instructions from himself. Mail took about a month to reach Sarawak from England at this time so responses and guidance could hardly have been considered immediate.

Sarawak 1888 20c stamp featuring Sir Charles Brooke
1888 20c stamp featuring Sir Charles Brooke

Back in England, James bought himself a small farm on the edge of Dartmoor, Devon and spent his final years on his smallholding, using a horse drawn cart to enjoy the scenic beauty of Dartmoor. He commissioned the first postage stamp for Sarawak from the Glasgow printers Macdonald and Son but before it could be issued, he suffered a stroke on Christmas Eve 1867 followed by a second in June 1868 that resulted in his death aged 65. In March 1869, 8 months after his death, the postage stamp featuring the effigy of James Brooke was issued in Kuching (featured image).

Postcard of Sheepstor village in Devon, England
Sheepstor village in Devon, England

The churchyard at Sheepstor Church, less than 10 miles from Plymouth, was James Brooke’s final resting place. In acknowledgment of his standing, the Church holds several artefacts and memorabilia associated with Sarawak and has become a focal point for visitors and historians alike. Such was the dramatic life story of James Brooke that he was a model for the hero of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, and he is briefly mentioned in Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King. In 1936 a Warner Bros. film about his life called The White Rajah, based on a script written by and starring Errol Flynn was suggested but sadly never made. However, in 2021 the adventure drama film Edge of the World was released starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, based on the life of James Brooke.

Poster for the 2021 film, Edge of the World
Film Poster – Edge of the World (courtesy of Wiki:Contents)

To view postal issues of Sarawak, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by billmandsphilatelycom

William (Bill) Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 60 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the British Commonwealth including most notably, the issues from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, he also has specialist interest in the postal history of Egypt, Norfolk Island, Papua New Guinea, Sarawak, Sudan and the Italian States as well as a fine collection of overprints.

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