Historical Oddities: The White Rajahs

Today the island of Borneo is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, but before the arrival of European traders and up until the 19th century was controlled by various native states. The most powerful of these was the Sultanate of Brunei, which controlled much of the northern coast of Brunei and had an empire stretching into the Philippines. Southern Borneo was largely a haven for pirates preying on the spice trade in the East Indies. In the 19th century, however, British and Dutch expansion and consolidation in the East Indies saw the decline of many of the empires in the region and the conquest of the islands by Europeans.

One of the more curious incidences of conquest in the region was in Sarawak, the area of the northwest coast of Borneo that is now part of Malaysia. After the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, zones of influence were established between the British and Dutch colonial spheres. Borneo was divided into two halves; the British had control over the north, while the Dutch had control over the south. In 1838, the British trader and adventurer James Brooke sailed a schooner to northern Borneo and arrived at the city of Kuching on the far northwest of the island. The city at the time was in rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke helped crush the rebellion, and in return for his assistance the sultan offered Brooke the governorship of Sarawak. As governor, James Brooke used his governorship to combat the rampant piracy in the region. After Malay nobles in Brunei tried to overthrow the sultan, Brooke helped restore him with assistance from the British Navy. In 1842, the sultan declared Brooke Rajah of Sarawak and in 1846 he was granted full sovereignty from Brunei. Because James Brooke and his descendants continued to hold the title, they are commonly called the White Rajahs.

James Brooke ruled Sarawak as a British colony from 1842 until his death in 1868. His anti-piracy measures caused some controversy with the British colonial administration, and in the 1850s his actions were monitored by the Singapore Royal Commission to ensure he was not being excessive with the natives. After James’ death in 1868, his nephew Charles became Rajah of Sarawak. Charles ruled Sarawak from 1868 until 1917 and for the most part continued the policies of his uncle’s rule. Charles continued to crack down on piracy as well as slavery and head-hunting. In 1891, Charles established the Sarawak Museum in the capital of Kuching, the first museum on the island of Borneo. He also encouraged Chinese immigration to Sarawak.

Charles was succeeded by his son Vyner Brooke in 1917. Vyner ran a relatively lax administration, under which Sarawak prospered. The rubber and oil industries boomed in Sarawak under Vyner’s rule, and he was able to modernize many of the country’s institutions. However, Vyner’s benevolent rule in Sarawak was interrupted in 1941 with the outbreak of the Pacific theater of World War II. Vyner himself was in Sydney at the start of the war and remained there for its remainder, but Sarawak was quickly occupied by Japanese forces during their conquest of the British and Dutch East Indies. After Sarawak was liberated by Australia in 1945, Vyner briefly returned to Borneo. However, he abdicated on July 1, 1946 and Sarawak became a crown colony of Britain. Despite opposition and uprisings over the cession, Sarawak remained a crown colony until 1963 when it became independent and joined the Federation of Malaysia.

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