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James Brooke
Painting of the Rajah of Sarawak in 1847 by Francis Grant
Rajah of Sarawak
Succeeded by Charles
Personal details
Born (1803-04-29)April 29, 1803
Secrole, Benares, British India
Died 11 June 1868(1868-06-11) (aged 65)
Burrator, United Kingdom

James, Rajah of Sarawak,[note] KCB (born James Brooke; 29 April 1803[1] – 11 June 1868) was a British adventurer whose exploits in areas of the Malay Archipelago led to him becoming the first White Rajah of Sarawak.

Early life

Attack by Illanun pirates on Brooke's Jolly Bachelor, T. Datu, 1843

Brooke was born in Secrole, a suburb of Benares, India. His father, Thomas Brooke, was an English Judge Court of Appeal at Bareilly, British India; his mother, Anna Maria, born in Hertfordshire, was the daughter of Scottish peer Colonel William Stuart, 9th Lord Blantyre, and his mistress Harriott Teasdale. Brooke stayed at home in India until he was sent, aged 12, to England and a brief education at Norwich School from which he ran away. Some home tutoring followed in Bath before he returned to India in 1819 as an ensign in the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. He saw action in Assam during the First Anglo-Burmese War until seriously wounded in 1825, and sent to England for recovery. In 1830, he arrived back in Madras but was too late to rejoin his unit, and resigned. He remained in the ship he had travelled out in, the Castle Huntley, and returned home via China.



First Anglo-Burmese War

Anti-Piracy in Asia

Brooke attempted to trade in the Far East, but was not successful. In 1833, he inherited £30,000, which he used as capital to purchase a 142-ton schooner, The Royalist.[2] Setting sail for Borneo in 1838, he arrived in Kuching in August to find the settlement facing an Iban and Bidayuh uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Greatly impressed with the Malay Archipelago, in Sarawak he met Pangeran Muda Hashim, to whom he gave assistance in crushing the rebellion, thereby winning the allegiance of the Sultan, who in 1841 offered Brooke the governorship of Sarawak in return for his help.

Raja Brooke was highly successful in suppressing the widespread piracy of the region. However some Malay nobles in Brunei, unhappy over Brooke's measures against piracy, arranged for the murder of Muda Hashim and his followers. Brooke, with assistance from a unit of Britain's China squadron, took over Brunei and restored its sultan to the throne. In return the sultan ceded complete sovereignty of Sarawak to Brooke, who in 1846 presented the island of Labuan to the British government.

He was granted the title of Rajah of Sarawak on 24 September 1841, partly attributed to his relationship with a daughter of the Sultan, although the official declaration was not made until 18 August 1842.

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.[citation needed] Brooke returned temporarily to England in 1847, where he was given the Freedom of the City of London, appointed governor and commander-in-chief of Labuan, British consul-general in Borneo and was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB).

Brooke became the centre of controversy in 1851 when accusations against him of excessive use of force against natives, under the guise of anti-piracy operations, ultimately led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854. After investigation, the Commission dismissed the charges but the accusations continued to haunt him.[3]

Brooke met the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in England sometime around 1852 or 1853, because he wrote Wallace on leaving England in April 1853, "to assure Wallace that he would be very glad to see him at Sarawak."[4] This was an invitation that helped Wallace decide on the Malay Archipelago for his next expedition, an expedition that lasted for eight years and established him as one of the foremost Victorian intellectuals and naturalists of the time. When Wallace arrived in Singapore in September 1854, he found Rajah Brooke "reluctantly preparing to give evidence to the special commission set up to investigate his controversial anti-piracy activities."[5]

During his rule, Brooke faced threats from Sarawak warriors like Sharif Masahor and Rentap, and an uprising by Chinese miners in 1857,[6] but remained in power.

Having no legitimate children, in 1861 he named Captain John Brooke Johnson-Brooke, his sister's eldest son, as his successor. Two years later, while John was in England, James deposed and banished John from Sarawak because John had criticised him. He later named another son of the same sister, Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke, who did indeed succeed him.

In November 1862, Captain Brooke rescued several civilians from the Moro Pirates after a pitched naval battle off the coast of Mukah. During the fighting, Brooke's steamer named Rainbow sank four prahus and damaged one other with cannon fire. Over 100 pirates were killed or wounded in the engagement while Brooke, and his Sarawakian followers, were mostly unscathed.[7]

Brooke ruled Sarawak until his death in 1868, following three strokes over a period of ten years.


A memorial stained glass window in St Leonard's Church dedicated to those from Sarawak who died in World War II. It depicts a butterfly, a moth, and pitcher plants, two of which were named after James Brooke.

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

Personal life

James Brooke

Brooke was influenced by the success of previous British adventurers and the exploits of the British East India Company. His actions in Sarawak were clearly directed to both expanding the British Empire and the benefits of its rule, assisting the local people by fighting piracy and slavery, and securing his own personal wealth to further these activities. His own abilities, and those 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 Sultan, and his subsequent knighthood, is evidence that his efforts were widely applauded in both Sarawak and British society.[citation needed]

Among his more notable emotional relationships 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 is alleged to have formed a relationship with 16 year old Charles T. C. Grant, grandson of the seventh Earl of Elgin, who reciprocated.[8][9] Whether this relationship was purely a friendship or otherwise has not been fully revealed. One of Brooke's recent biographers wrote that as Brooke spent his final years in Burrator in Devon "there is little doubt ... he was carnally involved with the rough trade of Totnes."[10] However, Barley does not note from where he garnered his opinion. Others have suggested Brooke was instead "homo-social" and simply preferred the social company of other men and have disagreed with assertions he was a homosexual.[11]

Although he died unmarried, he did acknowledge one son. Neither the identity of the son's mother nor his birth date is clear. The son was brought up as Reuben G. Walker in the Brighton household of Frances Walker (1841 and 1851 census, apparently born ca.1836). By 1858 he was aware of his Brooke connection and by 1871 he is on the census at the parish of Plumtree, Nottinghamshire as "George Brooke", age "40", birthplace "Sarawak, Borneo". He was married (in 1862[12]) and had seven children, three of whom survived their infancy. The oldest was called James. George died travelling to Australia, in the wreck of the SS British Admiral[13][14] on 23 May 1874. A memorial to this effect – giving a birthdate of 1834 – is in the churchyard at Plumtree.[15]


Fictionalised accounts of Brooke's exploits in Sarawak are given in Kalimantaan by C. S. Godshalk and The White Rajah by Nicholas Montserrat. Another book, also called The White Rajah by Tom Williams was published by JMS Books in 2010. 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. Brooke was also a model for the hero of Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim, and he is briefly mentioned in Kipling's short story "The Man Who Would Be King".

Charles Kingsley dedicated the novel Westward Ho! (1855) to Brooke.

Errol Flynn intended to star on a film on Brooke's life called The White Rajah for Warner Bros., based on a script by Flynn himself. However although the project was announced for filming it was never made.[16]


British Honours

Some Bornean species were named in Brooke's honor:

  • Rhododendron brookei, Rhododendron, named by Hugh Low
  • Rajah Brooke's Pitcher Plant, Nepenthes rajah, a pitcher plant named by Joseph Dalton Hooker
  • Trogonoptera brookiana, Rajah Brooke's birdwing butterfly, named by Alfred R. Wallace
  • Brooke's Squirrel, Sundasciurus brookei

In 1857, the native village of Newash in Grey County, Ontario, Canada, was renamed Brooke and the adjacent township was named Sarawak by William Coutts Keppel (known as Viscount Bury, later the 7th Earl of Albemarle) who was Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Canada.[17] James Brooke was a close friend of Viscount Bury's uncle, Henry Keppel; they had met in 1843 while fighting pirates off the coast of Borneo.[18] Townships to the northwest of Sarawak were named Keppel and Albemarle. In 2001, Sarawak and Keppel became part of the township of Georgian Bluffs; Albemarle had joined the town of South Bruce Peninsula in 1999. Keppel-Sarawak School is located in Owen Sound, Ontario.

James Brooke
Brooke family
Born: 29 April 1803 Died: 11 June 1868
Regnal titles
New title
Kingdom established
Rajah of Sarawak
Succeeded by


a.^ The term Rajah reflects traditional usage in Sarawak and English writing, although Raja may be better orthography in Malay.


  1. Birth and Baptism records
  2. James, Lawrence (1994). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 244–245. ISBN 0-312-16985. 
  3. The Rajahs of Sarawak (The Spectator, 29 January 1910)
  4. Raby, Peter. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 87
  5. Raby, p. 100.
  6. Heidhues, MFS (2003) Golddiggers, farmers, and traders in the "Chinese Districts" of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. SEAP Ithaca, NY P102
  7. "Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak, by Harriette McDougall (1882)". Retrieved 2013-02-06. 
  8. Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, Ronald Hyam; pp.44–45
  9. Walker, J.H., "This peculiar acuteness of feeling: James Brooke and the enactment of desire", Borneo Research Bulletin, vol 29 (1998) pp 148- 189
  10. Barley, p. 208.
  11. The White Rajahs of Sarawak: A Borneo Dynasty by Bob Reece (Archipelago Press, 2004)
  12. "index". Retrieved 2013-02-06. 
  13. "British Admiral wreck". Retrieved 2013-02-06. 
  15. "September 2005 Meeting Report ~ Keyworth Local History Society". Retrieved 2013-02-06. 
  16. NEWS OF THE SCREEN: GABLE AND SHEARER FOR 'PRIDE OR PREJUDICE' – HAWAIIAN SETTING FOR BING CROSBY FILM. New York Times (1923–Current file) [New York, N.Y] 1 September 1936: 24.
  17. Marsh, Edith L. A History of the County of Grey. Owen Sound, Ont.: Fleming, 1931, pp. 210-211.
  18. Jacob, Gertrude L. The Raja of Saráwak: An Account of Sir James Brooke. London: Macmillan, 1876, vol. 1, ch. XIII.


Further reading

  • Hahn, Emily (1953) James Brooke of Sarawak, .
  • Ingleson, John (1979) Expanding the empire: James Brooke and the Sarawak lobby, 1839–1868, Nedlands, W.A.: Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Western Australia.
  • Payne, Robert (1960) The White Rajahs of Sarawak, .
  • Runciman, Steve (1960) The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, .
  • St. John, Sir Spenser (1994) The life of Sir James Brooke: rajah of Sarawak: from his personal papers and correspondence, Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Tarling, Nicholas (1982) The burthen, the risk, and the glory: a biography of Sir James Brooke, Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press.

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