Who Were Malaysia's White Rajahs?

The Astana across the Sarawak River
The Astana across the Sarawak River | © Jaybie250 / Shutterstock
Photo of Sam Bedford
9 June 2018

Malaysia’s largest state Sarawak occupies a vast region on Borneo Island and is known for its caves, former headhunting tribes and the White Rajahs. Here’s the story of the somewhat controversial Brooke dynasty who ruled as the White Rajahs for 105 years.

The birth of the White Rajah dynasty

When James Brooke arrived in today’s Sarawak to challenge the Dutch in southern Borneo (modern-day Kalimantan), he found the region under siege. Brooke, son of an English judge in the East India Company and veteran of the British conquest of Burma, crushed the rebellion and put a stop to the ongoing piracy with his superior weaponry. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II of Brunei gave him the swampy and mostly jungle-covered land inhabited by the notorious headhunting indigenous tribes of Sarawak as a reward. The Kingdom of Sarawak was born.

Illustration of Rajah James Brooke | © WikiCommons

James Brooke: The Kingdom of Sarawak

James Brooke took control as the First White Rajah in 1841. Sarawak quickly changed after he outlawed headhunting by the indigenous Dayak communities and introduced a set of rules overseen by a new police force. But James didn’t have an heir to the throne. As a soldier fighting against the Burmese, he suffered an unfortunate injury in the mid-section which meant he couldn’t have a child.

Charles Brooke: The Great Builder

Nephew Charles Johnson, later adopting the Brooke family name, became the Second White Rajah. Sarawak expanded to cover a land mass the size of England, roads and railways were introduced as well as colonial bungalows, public buildings and forts. The Second White Rajah developed waterworks and abolished slavery too. But his most famous legacies in Kuching are the Astana, or Palace in English, and Fort Margherita. Charles commissioned Astana in 1870 as an extravagant wedding gift for his new bride Margaret. He later named the nearby Fort Margherita after his beloved wife. Though sadly, things didn’t work out and they became estranged after the birth of his heir.

Fort Margherita was named after his wife, Margaret | © Anna ART / Shutterstock

The last White Rajah of Sarawak

Margaret gave birth to the third, and last, White Rajah of Sarawak: Charles Vyner Brooke. The Brooke dynasty lasted more than a century over three generations from 1841 to 1946. After the Japanese occupation of Borneo in World War II, Sarawak was ceded to the British signalling the end of the White Rajahs. Oddly enough, Sarawak became part of the British Crown at about the same time as most of their colonies were breaking away. Sarawak, along with North Borneo (today’s Sabah) joined Malaysia in 1963. Apart from initial resistance, there has been no attempt to restore the Brooke dynasty. The three White Rajahs are buried in St Leonard Church in Devon, England.


But James Brooke and his Kingdom doesn’t come without controversy. Perhaps he did manipulate Sarawak’s dire situation to secure a cushy retirement in the tropics. Maybe he pressed the Sultan into giving him the land. And not to mention how they ruled with an iron fist forcing the indigenous to follow their ‘English’ laws. Today, the jury’s out. On the one hand, the White Rajahs were the same as the Brits in Malaya: Greedy and brutal colonialists. But there’s no disputing their legacy on Sarawak as a state and the capital city Kuching. And they protected Sarawak from western exploitation, which probably contributes to the state’s vast rainforest reserve compared to the alarming deforestation in neighbouring Sabah.

A future White Rajah?

According to James Brooke’s will, any member of the Brooke family can be appointed as heir. Although unlikely, there might be an intriguing twist for the Brooke family and the White Rajah dynasty in Sarawak.

The clock tower is located inside the complex | © Jan S / Shutterstock

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