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Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak

The White Rajahs refer to a dynasty that founded and ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, namely the Brookes, who came originally from England. A Rajah is a princely ruler in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.



Sarawak was part of the realm of Brunei until James Brooke, who was to become the first White Rajah, received a sizable chunk of land from the Bruneian Sultan. Throughout the rule of the first two Brookes, Sarawak's size increased tremendously as more territory was leased or annexed from Brunei. There were three White Rajahs:

Graves of the White Rajahs at St Leonard's Church, Sheepstor, Devon, England.

All three were educated in England and are buried there.

By and large the Brookes pursued a policy of paternalism, aimed at protecting the 'native peoples' from 'capitalist exploitation,' and as a result preventing the same levels of development which were evident in some other parts of the British Empire. While James laid much of the groundwork for the expansion of Sarawak, it was his nephew Charles who was the great builder, both in terms of public buildings such as forts and also in extending the borders of the state. While the manner of his departure was controversial, Vyner nonetheless instituted significant political reforms, including ending the absolute rule of the Rajah in 1941 ahead of the Japanese invasion by granting new powers to the Council Negri (the parliament).


"Rajah Muda" was the title given to the heir apparent of the Rajah of Sarawak, preceded by "His Highness". The wife of the Rajah Muda had the title "Ranee Muda".

Cession to the United Kingdom

After World War II, Vyner Brooke ceded Sarawak to the Colonial Office for a sizeable pension for him and his three daughters. His nephew and designated heir, Anthony Brooke, initially opposed cession to the Crown, as did a majority of the native members of the Council Negri. Duncan Stewart, the second British governor to Sarawak, was assassinated in the resulting unrest. However, there is now no serious movement for the restoration of the monarchy.


Brooke Memorial outside Old Courthouse at Kuching showing relief of Iban warrior

When James Brooke first arrived in Sarawak it was governed as a vassal state of the Sultanate of Brunei. When he assumed control of the original area around Kuching in the 1840s, much of the system of government was based on the ineffective Bruneian model. James set about reforming the government and eventually created a civil service, which recruited European, mainly British, officers to run district outstations. The Sarawak Service was continually reformed by Rajah James and his successors. James retained many of the customs and symbols of Malay monarchy and combined them with his own style of absolute rule. The Rajah had the power to introduce laws and acted as chief judge in Kuching. The Brookes were determined to prevent the peoples of Sarawak from being 'exploited' by Western business interests and formed the Borneo Company to assist in managing the economy. This entity also provided military support to the Brookes during events such as the Chinese Rebellion, when one of the company steamships, The Sir James Brooke, helped recapture Kuching. A small paramilitary force, the Sarawak Rangers, was formed by Rajah Charles to police and defend the expanding state. This small army also manned a series of forts around the country, performed ceremonial duties and acted as the Rajahs' personal guard.


Fort Margherita was erected by Rajah Charles and named after his wife, the Ranee Margaret.

The period of Brooke rule is generally looked upon favourably in Sarawak, although successive post-federation Malaysian governments have attempted to downplay and, to a certain extent, denounce the Brooke Raj.

The coaling station of Brooketon in Brunei was named after the Brooke family.

The architectural legacy of the dynasty can be seen in many of the country's nineteenth century and colonial heritage buildings. In Kuching these include the Astana, or governor's residence, the Old Sarawak Museum, the Old Courthouse, Fort Margherita, the Square Fort, and Brooke Memorial. Several key buildings from the Brooke period have been demolished, such as the offices and warehouses of Borneo Company.

Modern Kuching still boasts many businesses and attractions which capitalise upon the era of the White Rajahs. The Brooke Dockyard, which was founded in the period of Rajah Charles, is still in operation, as is the original Sarawak Museum. The James Brooke Café and the Royalist, a pub named after Rajah James Schooner, pay tribute to the Brookes.

Sarawak is notably different from peninsular Malaysia and even Sabah in that its ethnic groups are more varied due to the large proportion of tribal peoples such as the Iban and Dyaks. Chinese and Indian migration was encouraged at various times by the Brookes.

Heraldry and emblems

The heraldic arms of the Brooke dynasty were based on the emblem used by James Brooke, and consisted of a red and black cross on yellow shield, crested by a badger, known in heraldic parlance as a brock and hence alluding to the dynastic surname. A crown was added in 1949 and the shield design was used as the basis of the Sarawak flag until 1973. In 1988 the state flag reverted to these original colours.


  • Runciman, Steven, The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, Cambridge University Press, 1960
  • Ranee Margaret of Sarawak (2001). My Life in Sarawak. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-582663-9.  
  • Sylvia, Lady Brooke, Queen of the Headhunters, 1970.
  • Reece, R.H.W., The Name of Brooke: The End of White Rajah Rule in Sarawak, 1993.
  • Eade, Philip, Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: A Biography of Lady Brooke, the Last Ranee of Sarawak London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007

External links



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