James Brooke

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James of Sarawak
The Rajah of Sarawak
James Brooke.jpg
Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak
Reign Rajah of Sarawak - August 18 1841 - 11 June 1868
Coronation August 18 1841
Born 29 April 1803
Secrore, Benares, India
Died 11 June 1868
London, United Kingdom
Predecessor none (post created)
Rajah Muda Charles Brooke
Successor Charles Brooke
Consort Pengiran Anak Fatima (unconfirmed)
Father Thomas Brooke

The Rajah of Sarawak, Sir James Brooke, KCB, LL.D (April 29, 1803 – June 11, 1868) was a British statesman. His father, Thomas Brooke, was English; his mother, Anna Maria, was born in Hertfordshire, England, the daughter of Scottish peer Colonel William Stuart, 9th Lord Blantyre, by his mistress Harriott Teasdale. James Brooke was born in Secrore, a suburb of Benares, India. After service with the British East India Company, Brooke became a private merchant, acquiring the Sultanate of Sarawak as a result of intervening in an uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Subsequently, he was known as the "white rajah." He was knighted in 1847, and in 1851, led a diplomatic mission from Singapore to Thailand to negotiate a trade treaty. Members of his family ruled Sarwak until the Japanese invasion of 1942. Under the Brookes, Sarawak had a status within the British Empire parallel to that of India's princely states. Sarawak, though, was unique in being ruled by Englishmen. Although accused of misconduct in 1851, surrounding the "head-money" he received for his campaign against piracy, he is generally recognized to have raised the living standards of his subjects. For some, his life is set firmly in the context of how the Europeans of the days of imperialism perceived the East, as a place where an adventurer could travel as an ordinary citizen and end up living in regal splendor as a Rajah, or Sultan, or simply as a rich-merchant, or Nabob, as they were known.

Early career

James' father, Thomas, was an officer with the British East India Company who served for many years in Bengal, attaining the rank of High Court Judge. Born near Benares, James was sent to England to attend Norwich Grammar School in 1815. However, he was unhappy at school and, after running away in 1817, was home tutored at his parents house near Bath, where they had now retired. After completing his education, James Brooke followed his father into East India Company, returning to India as a calvary officer in the 6th Native Regiment. In 1822, he was appointed Sub-Assistant Commissary General. In 1824, he was sent to fight in the war in Burma, where he was wounded in an ambush during January or February, 1925. Awarded the India Medal, he was sent back to England for recovery. In 1830, following some time spent on the European Continent, he returned to India, intent on pursuing a career as an independent trader, having resigned his commission.


A trip to China followed during 1830, as an independent trader. On the journey, he ran into some local conflicts on several islands in Eastern Archipelago, and decided that he wanted to bring peace and order to the people of these islands. One the one hand, he appears to have had commercial ambition. On the other, the germ of the idea of actually carving out a domain for himself, however ambitious a goal that was, also seems to date from this period. By 1833, he was back in England, where he was briefly engaged to be married. That year, he inherited £30,000, which he used as capital to purchase a 142-ton schooner, the Royalist.[1] Before setting sail for the East, he trained his crew in the Mediterranean, then headed for Singapore. His aim appears to have been to explore and engage in scientific research on the one hand and to have an adventure on the other. In Singapore, he heard of a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, and set sail for Borneo in 1838, planning to somehow profit from this conflict. He arrived in Kuching, in August of the same year, where the uprising was underway, and offered his aid to the Sultan. He and his crew helped to bring about a peaceful settlement to the dispute, and was granted the title of Rajah of Sarawak by the Sultan, which was ratified in perpetuity in 1846.

Sarawak, now a Malaysian state

Brooke began to establish and cement his rule over Sarawak; reforming the administration, codifying laws, and fighting piracy, which proved to be an ongoing issue throughout his rule. He banned slavery and tried to curb the practice of head-hunting. He organized a series of raids against pirates, for which his crew received "head-money" from the British government amounting to 20,000 pounds.[2] He formed his own trading company, the Borneo Company, designed as a type of state monopoly to prevent other trading corporations from engaging in exploitative practices. Brooke employed a small European staff to assist his rule, some of whom led the Rangers, the small force he established. He built several defensive forts. The force also undertook ceremonial duties.

London (1847)

Brooke returned temporarily to England in 1847, where he was given the Freedom of the City of London, an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford, and was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.

White Rajah

His Highness became the center of controversy in 1851, when accusations of misconduct against him linked to the raids against piracy led to the appointment of a royal commission in Singapore. Its investigation did not confirm the charges, but the accusations continued to haunt Sir James. However, that year he was sent to Thailand to negotiate better trade terms with the king, Rama III. The mission, though, did not result in a new treaty. He also served as British Consul-General for Borneo and as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Labuan, which the Sultan of Brunei ceded to Britain in 1846. Following the commission, he was "deprived of the governorship of Labuan, and the head-money was abolished."[3]

Having officially no children, in 1861, he named Captain John Brooke Johnson-Brooke, his sister's oldest son, as his successor. Two years later, while John was in England, James deposed and banished John from Sarawak because John criticized him. He later named another nephew, Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke.

He ruled Sarawak until his death in 1868, following three strokes over a period of ten years. Following his paralysis after one of these strokes, "a public subscription was raised, and an estate in Devonshire was bought and presented to him."[4] He is buried in Sheepstor church near Burrator, Plymouth. He was succeeded as Rajah by his nephew Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke.

During his rule, Brooke faced threats from Sarawak warriors but remained in power.

Personal life

Throughout his life, Brooke's principal emotional bonds were with adolescent boys, while he is said to have exhibited a total lack of interest in women, although he was briefly engaged during 1833. Among his more notable relationships with boys was the one with Badruddin, a Sarawak prince, of whom he wrote, "my love for him was deeper than anyone I knew." Later, in 1848, Brooke fell in love with Charles Grant (grandson of the seventh Earl of Elgin), who had just been recruited, being sixteen at the time. His love was reciprocated by the boy.[5]

Brooke himself was influenced by the success of those British imperialists who had preceded him, as well as the exploits of the British East India Company and others. His exploits in Sarawak were clearly directed to both expanding the British empire, assisting and benefiting the local natives and ultimately securing his own personal wealth. His own abilities, and that of his successors, provided Sarawak with excellent leadership and wealth generation during difficult times and resulted in both fame and notoriety in some circles. His appointment as Rajah by the then Sultan, and his subsequent Knighthood in London, is evidence that his efforts were widely applauded in both Sarawak and British society, and he should be remembered in that light.

Although he died unmarried, he did acknowledge one son. It has also been claimed that he married, by Muslim rites, Pengiran Anak Fatima, daughter of Pengiran Anak Abdul Kadir and granddaughter of Omar Ali Saifuddin II, Sultan of Brunei. It is further said that he, too, had a daughter. The identity of the son's mother is not clear.

The son, (Reuben) George Brooke, has been traced on a British census return for 1871, at the parish of Plumtree, Nottinghamshire, where he gave his name as "George Brooke," age "40," birthplace "Sarawak, Borneo." George Brooke was married and had seven children, three of whom survived their infancy. He died in the wreck of the SS British Admiral while on a voyage to Australia, May 23, 1874.[6] As Rajah Robert Brooke died officially "unmarried and without issue," the title of Rajah passed to the son of his sister.


A fictionalized account of Brooke's exploits in Sarawak is given in C. S. Godshalk's novel, Kalimantaan. Brooke is also featured in Flashman's Lady, the 6th book in George MacDonald Fraser's meticulously researched Flashman novels; and in Sandokan: The Pirates of Malaysia (I pirati della Malesia), the second novel in Emilio Salgari's Sandokan series. Additionally, Brooke was a model for the hero of Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim.


All three White Rajahs are buried in St Leonard's Church in the village of Sheepstor on Dartmoor.


The tropical pitcher plant species Nepenthes rajah was named in Brooke's honor by Joseph Dalton Hooker, and the tropical butterfly Raja Brooke, species Trogonoptera brookiana, was named after him by the naturalist Alfred R. Wallace.

The Brooke family continued to rule Sarawak until the Japanese invaded during World War II. Brooke's own reputation was as a paternalistic but just ruler, whose opposition to slavery and humane laws were intended to improve his subjects' welfare. His heirs expanded the size of the Sultanate and continued to try to protect the people from exploitation. Their somewhat paternalistic style of rule, however, also hindered development. The "Brooke" is still used widely in Sarawak where, for example, there is a James Brooke Cafe. Following World War II, the last white Rajah handed over responsibility to the British Government in return for a pension, and Sarawak was administered as a Crown Colony until Malaysian independence in 1963.

Recent studies of James Brooke's life locate his career in the context of the Orientalist enterprise, that is, of the European conquest of, defining and studying of, quest for adventure, and accumulation of wealth in, the Orient. Often depicted as exploitative, Brooke's career may in some respects vary from the norm in that he can not be accused of indifference to the welfare of his subjects. Morgan (1996), who depicts Sir James Brooke's state as the "actualization" of a "man's adventure tale" also compares the attitudes of his successor's wife, Ranee Margarte and of the Bishop of Sarawak toward the local population, and comments that while the former identified with them sympathetically, the latter saw them as "barbarians and potential converts"[7]Brookes fits the Orientalist image of the “benevolent progressive policeman.”[8]


  1. James Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1994). ISBN 0-312-16985
  2. Classic Encyclopedia, Sir James Brooke. Retrieved October 10, 2007.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990). ISBN 9780719025044
  6. 4dw.net, Sarawak: Genalogy. Retrieved October 10, 2007.
  7. Suchitra Mathur, Gender and Geography: The Colonial Construction of Place. Retrieved October 10, 2007.
  8. William Appleman, Empire as a Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). ISBN 9780195027662

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barley, Nigel. White Rajah. London: Little, Brown, 2002 ISBN 9780316859202
  • Brooke, James. The Private Letters Of Sir James Brooke, Rajah Of Sarawak V1: Narrating The Events Of His Life From 1838 To The Present Time. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2007. ISBN 978-1430481072
  • Cavendish, Richard. "Birth of Sir James Brooke." History Today. April 2003, Vol. 53, Issue 4.
  • Jacob, Gertrude Le Grand. The Raja of Saráwak: An Account of Sir James Brooks. K. C. B., LL. D., Given Chiefly Through Letters and Journals. London: MacMillan, 1876.
  • St. John, Spenser. The Life of Sir James Brooke Rajah of Sarawak: from His Personal Papers and Correspondence. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 9789676530363
  • Tarling, Nicholas. The Burthen, the Risk, and the Glory A Biography of Sir James Brooke. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1982. ISBN 9780195825084
  • Wason, Charles William. The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad for the Year 1868. London: Rivingtons, Waterloo Place, 1869.


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