Birth of Sir James Brooke

The first White Rajah of Sarawak was born on April 29th, 1803.

Painting of the Rajah of Sarawak in 1847 by Francis Grant

The son of Thomas Brooke, a wealthy judge in the service of the East India Company, James Brooke was born in Secrore, the European quarter of Benares (also known as Varanasi). He grew up among the womenfolk in the family home in India, much loved and indulged, and contrary to the usual practice was not sent back to England for an education until he was 12. He went to Norwich Grammar School and disliked it so much that he ran away. He did not go back and his soft-hearted parents soon returned to retirement in Bath and had young James tutored at home.

Back in India at 16, James Brooke took a commission in the East India Company's army, where he had an enjoyable time shooting big game, pig-sticking and larking about in male company. He was briefly involved in the Burmese War in 1825, in which he demonstrated his courage and his liking for action and independent command, but was severely wounded, in the lungs according to one story, in the genitals according to the other. The first version seems to be true, but the other was welcomed by some of Brooke's biographers because it provided an acceptable explanation for his apparent lack of any passionate interest in women. It would hardly do for one of the most daring, romantic and ostentatiously high-minded gentleman- adventurers of Victorian England to have been homosexual. In the latest biography, White Rajah, however, Nigel Barley is in no doubt that Brooke was strongly attracted to young men, especially from the lower classes. What exactly he did about it, no one knows, and it now seems that he fathered an illegitimate son, around 1833.

Brooke presently resigned his commission and bought an armed schooner, which he described as 'a rakish slaver brig, 290 tons burden – one that would fight or fly as occasion required', to go adventuring in the East. His opportunity came when he sailed to assist the Sultanate of Brunei, which was trying in a tepid way to put down a rebellion in Sarawak. This area of tropical rain forest in north-western Borneo, lying along the mangrove coast of the South China Sea, was infested with pirates, slavers and head-hunters. Brooke hurled himself enthusiastically into the fray and in 1841 was appointed governor of the territory. Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1848, he made himself an independent potentate.

He believed that contact with Europeans generally corrupted indigenous peoples, had serious misgivings about missionaries and ruled Sarawak with a handful of English aides and a benevolent but firm hand – too firm for his critics in England. The local Dyaks regarded him with awe as a demigod imbued with magical powers.

Brooke never married and left no legitimate son to succeed him. After his death in 1868 he was followed in Sarawak by his nephew Charles until 1917. Charles was succeeded in turn by his son Charles Vyner Brooke, who formally ended the Brooke family's rule in 1946.