Sir James Brooke, KCB. [Obituary]

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. 2, Pt II. (1867) pp. 308-311.

Prepared by Michael Steer

The White Rajahs were a dynastic monarchy of the Brooke family, who founded and ruled the Raj of Sarawak, located on the north west coast of the island of Borneo, from 1841 to 1946. The first ruler was Sir James Brooke. As a reward for helping the Sultanate of Brunei fight piracy and insurgency among the indigenous peoples, he was granted the province of Kuching in 1841. Based on descent through the male line in accordance with the Will of Sir James Brooke, the White Rajahs' dynasty continued through Brooke's nephew and grandnephew, the latter of whom ceded his rights to the United Kingdom in 1946. Brooke ruled Sarawak until his death in 1868, following three strokes over ten years. All three White Rajahs are buried in St Leonard's Church at Sheepstor. There is a memorial stained glass window in the 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. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.



To the honoured name of Dr. Daubeny must be added that of another, who, during the past year, has been removed from among us by death, viz.. His Highness the Rajah Sir J. Brooke, who, although less known to the world of science and letters, nevertheless, occupied a position among modern representative men, perhaps the highest that could be attained, who has left a name behind him destined to stand forth prominently in the future pages of English history, and who has made the English name to be respected and loved in the eastern seas.

Sprung from a good old Somersetshire family, and the son of a plain retired official, who had acquired a handsome competency in the Civil Service of the East India Company, James Brooke was born, either in India or, according to another account, at Combe Grove, near Bath, on the 29th of April, 1803. He received his early education at several schools, but principally at the Grammar School at Norwich, at that time under one of the Valpy family. As a boy he had loved nothing so well as "Robinson Crusoe" and books of foreign adventure; it is not to be wondered at that as soon as he grew towards manhood he should have chosen the Indian army as his profession. He obtained his first commission about the year 1817, and served as a cadet in the first Burmese war, in which he was severely wounded, and shortly after obtained his lieutenancy. After his return to England, upon the death of his father, an accident befel him which altered the whole course of his subsequent life. On recovering from his wound he travelled through France and Italy to re-establish his health; but on reaching India he found that his furlough had expired, and that he was obliged to retire from the service, although he was able to plead in excuse the fact that he had been wrecked on his outward passage, and that he was scarcely accountable for the delay. Accordingly, he made up his mind to do the best that he could under the circumstances, and having purchased a yacht of 140 tons burden - The Royalist, - in her he set sail towards the close of 1838 from the mouth of the Thames, with a crew trained to obey him and feel faith in his command, and steered straight for those eastern seas of which he had read as a child, and which he now resolved to penetrate again. He had heard much of the wretched condition of the natives of some of those eastern islands ; of their habits of plunder, piracy, and murder; of their discontent under the rule of native chiefs almost as savage and lawless as themselves; and of the gradual cessation of trade and commerce, which threatened to plunge them deeper in the gloom of barbarism. In the month of August, in 1839, having already passed the southern shores of India and Ceylon, crossed the Indian Ocean, and landed at Singapore, he reached Sarawak, which is situated a few leagues up country from the sea coast of Borneo.

On reaching the coast of Borneo he found the sovereign of that island engaged in a long and almost hopeless attempt to suppress one of those rebellions which so frequently happen among the rival rulers of subordinate districts. His services were lent to the rajah, Muda Hassim, uncle of the sultan, and they secured the triumph of authority and law. It appears that Muda soon afterwards, being called to the post of prime minister, recommended the sultan to entrust Sarawak to the care and government of the able Englishman. The advice thus tendered was accepted, and forthwith James Brooke was duly installed as rajah.

The newly appointed rajah immediately set about the reform of the local government, the framing of new laws, and the improvement of the people thus strangely subjected to the all but irresponsible sway of the "Tuan Besar”. or great man, as the natives persisted in calling him. He soon attached to himself the native rulers by the tie of affection; and pursuing war as a pastime, chased the pirates to their retreats, and scoured them from the seas. The result of these expeditions was the shedding of a great deal of blood; but it was said that those who perish were freebooters and pirates, and the outcry raised in consequence at home against the rajah gradually died away. Captain Keppel, who had largely assisted him in the suppression of piracy, on his return to England in 1844, published a Diary by the rajah himself, which rendered the public at home familiar with the true state of the case, and prepared them to welcome him on his return with suitable demonstrations of their feelings. On reaching London in 1846, or early in 1847, Rajah Brooke found himself famous, and more than famous. The knighthood of the Bath was conferred upon him by her Majesty; the University of Oxford bestowed upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L ; and he was feted and entertained at dinner by every public body, from the Queen at Windsor Castle, down to the most third-rate and fourth-rate of city companies. He also reaped the more solid and substantial reward of being created by the Queen "Commissioner and Consul to the native states of Borneo, and Governor of Labuan," the latter being a small island near Sarawak purchased from the sultan, and erected into a British colony. As governor he enjoyed a salary of; £2000 a year.

It is not to be supposed that all this time he had no zealous opponents or detractors from the credit and fame which were his due. His conduct was severely criticised and censured by Mr. Joseph Hume and other members of the imperial parliament; and his rule was made the subject of official enquiry, which he felt to be almost equivalent to an official censure. Although he came triumphantly out of the enquiry, yet it laid the foundation of great mental suffering and bodily illness in a man like Brooke, whose sensitive and chivalrous nature, as Edmund Burke has pointedly said, "feels dishonour as a wound." What hard work in the east could not do was speedily effected by mistrust and jealousy at home working upon his sensitive and generous disposition. In 1858 he returned to England, but he had been in this country only a few months when his health received a serious shock in the shape of a paralytic attack. From that time one or two short visits paid to the island of his adoption filled up the intervals of the forced inaction to which broken health and spirits reduced him, his rule in the east being administered by the hand of a relative. To add to his troubles, his books, private papers, and house were burnt in an insurrection in Borneo, which he was not on the spot to quell. A public meeting, however, was held in London, and a sum of money was collected among his friends and admirers sufficient to enable him to replace them and purchase the estate at Burrator, in South Devon, where he ended his days in peace and tranquillity.

He died on Thursday, June 11th, at the early age of 65, deeply regretted, especially by the poor of many parishes in the districts around Burrator, to whom he was always a friend, and to whom his death will prove a great loss. His remains were interred in the parish church of Sheepstor, near Horrabridge.