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White Rajah

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Title: White Rajah  
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Subject: Joseph Conrad, Schooner, The Man Who Would Be King, Maharaja, Charles Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, Magdalene College, Cambridge, Ethnic Malays, Richard Halliburton, Limbang, Bidayuh
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White Rajah

Rajah of Sarawak
Former Monarchy
Coat of arms
HH James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak
First monarch James Brooke
Last monarch Charles Vyner Brooke
Style His Highness
Official residence The Astana
Monarchy began 1841
Monarchy ended 1946
Current pretender(s) James Brooke
Other men sometime referred to as White Rajahs include Englishman Alexander Hare in Borneo, Scot John Clunies Ross in the Cocos Islands, and Dane Mads Lange in Bali.

The White Rajahs were a dynastic monarchy of the English Brooke family, who founded and ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo, from 1841 to 1946. The first ruler was Englishman James Brooke. As a reward for helping the Sultanate of Brunei fight piracy and insurgency among the indigenous peoples, he was granted the landmass of Sarawak in 1841 and received independent kingdom status.

Based on descent through the male line, the White Rajahs' dynasty continued through Brooke's nephew and grandnephew, the latter of whom ceded his rights to the United Kingdom in 1946. His nephew had been designated heir to the throne and objected to the cession, as did most of the Sarawak members of the Council Negri.


Sarawak was part of the realm of Brunei until 1841 when James Brooke was granted a sizable area of land in the southwest area of Brunei – around the city of Sarawak (now Kuching) and the nearby mining region of Bau – from Bruneian Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II. He was later confirmed with the title of Rajah of the territory. The Kingdom of Sarawak developed and expanded during the rule of the first two White Rajahs, growing to occupy much of the north region of the island of Borneo. The Brooke administrations leased or annexed more land from Brunei.

The three White Rajahs were all related:

Name Portrait Birth Death Marriages Succession right Note
James of Sarawak (James Brooke)
29 April 1803 11 June 1868 officially unmarried and without legitimate issue granted Sarawak and the title Rajah by the Sultan of Brunei
Charles of Sarawak (Charles Brooke)
3 June 1829 17 May 1917 Margaret Alice Lili de Windt, with whom he had six children; three (including his son Charles) survived infancy His uncle James named Charles as his successor
Vyner of Sarawak (Charles Vyner Brooke)
HH Charles Vyner Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak 26 September 1874 9 May 1963 Sylvia Brett, with whom he had three daughters son of the preceding, inherited the title

All three Brookes had been educated in England. Their bodies were returned there after death and they were each buried at Sheepstor Church.

The White Rajahs pursued a policy of paternalism, with the goal of protecting the 'native peoples' (indigenous peoples) from 'capitalist exploitation.' To some extent, this prevented a level of economic development seen in some other parts of the British Empire. While James Brooke laid much of the groundwork for the expansion of Sarawak, his nephew Charles, the second rajah, was the great builder. He constructed public buildings to serve welfare, such as a hospital, in addition to forts. He worked to extend the borders of the state.

Vyner Brooke instituted significant political reforms during his tenure. He ended the absolute rule of the Rajah in 1941, before the Japanese invasion of World War II, by granting new powers to the Council Negeri (the parliament).


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


When James Brooke first arrived in Sarawak, it was governed as a vassal state of the Sultanate of Brunei; the system of government was based on the Bruneian model. Brooke reorganized the government according to the British model, eventually creating a civil service. It recruited European, chiefly British, officers to run district outstations. The Sarawak Service was continually reformed by Rajah James and his successors.

Rajah 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 White Rajahs were determined to prevent the indigenous peoples of Sarawak from being 'exploited' by Western business interests. They formed the Borneo Company Limited (the Borneo Company) to assist in managing the economy. The core of the early Sarawak economy was gold, which was mined in Bau by Chinese syndicates who imported numerous workers from China.[1] After the local Chinese uprising in 1857,[2] the mining operations were gradually taken over by the Borneo Company; it bought out the last Chinese syndicate being bought out in 1884.[1] The Borneo Company provided military support to the White Rajahs during crises such as the Chinese uprising. One of the company steamships, The Sir James Brooke, helped recapture Kuching.

Rajah Charles formed a small paramilitary force, the Sarawak Rangers, to police and defend the expanding state. This small army also manned a series of forts around the country, acted as the Rajahs' personal guard, and performed ceremonial duties.

Cession to the United Kingdom

After World War II, during which Sarawak and Borneo were occupied by Japanese Occupation Forces, the third rajah Vyner Brooke ceded Sarawak to the Colonial Office. In exchange, he received 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.

Because of his opposition to the cession, Anthony Brooke was considered suspect when Duncan Stewart, the second British governor to Sarawak, was assassinated by a political group agitating for union with newly independent Indonesia. He was never prosecuted. Documents released in the late 20th century indicate that the British Government knew that Brooke was not involved, but chose not to reveal the truth of the matter. Since those events, there has been no serious movement for the restoration of the monarchy.

The period of Brooke rule is generally respected in Sarawak. Successive post-federation Malaysian governments have downplayed the achievements of the family and, to a certain extent, criticized the White Rajahs.


  • The architectural legacy of the dynasty can be seen in many of the country's 19th-century and colonial heritage buildings. In Kuching these include the Astana, or governor's residence; the Sarawak Museum, the Old Courthouse, Fort Margherita, the Square Fort, and Brooke Memorial. The Brooke Dockyard, which was founded in the period of Rajah Charles, is still in operation, as is the original Sarawak Museum.Several key buildings from the Brooke period, such as the offices and warehouses of Borneo Company, have been demolished for more recent developments.

Modern Kuching has many businesses and attractions that refer to the era of the White Rajahs:

  • The James Brooke Café and the Royalist, a pub named after James Brooke's schooner, refer to the history of the Brookes.

Sarawak is notably different from peninsular Malaysia and even Sabah (the neighbouring Malaysian state also located on Borneo), as it has a more diverse population. It has a large proportion of indigenous tribal peoples, such as the Iban and Dyaks. In addition, it received numerous Chinese and Indian immigrants, whose businesses and labour were encouraged at various times by the White Rajahs.

Heraldry and emblems

The heraldic arms of the Brooke dynasty were based on the emblem used by James Brooke. It 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
  • 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
  • Koninklijk Genootschap voor Geslacht- en Wapenkunde, Nederlandse Genealogieen 11 (Chapter "Quast"), Den Haag 1996 (Literature regarding Broek-De Wind)
  • M. R. H. Calmeyer, de Wind, de Windt, de Wint, Name: De Nederlandsche Leeuw; Location: The Nederlands; Date: 1981;, Pag 23. Co - Author Mr. O. Schutte.

External links

  • Old Rajah Brooke website (snapshot from 9 June 2009)
  • A Sarawak Royal Interest Homepage
  • Review of Robert Reece's book 'The Name of Brooke' from Sarawak Literary Society 1993
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