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Part 2 - The Brooke Era


James Brooke


James Brooke, the first
White Rajah

Sarawak has a colonization history almost unique in the world. For just over a hundred years, the state was ruled not by a colonial power, but by an English family, the Brookes. For this reason, Sarawak is popularly known as the "Kingdom of the White Rajahs".

Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, Brunei was a powerful sultanate, and was constantly expanding its empire. The riverine and coastal settlements of Sarawak came under Brunei's control, and Malays and Bidayuhs (Land Dayaks) were forced into hard labor in antimony mines. By the early nineteenth century, however, Brunei's power was dwindling - "anarchy was rife on land and piracy on the sea" (1), and the local Malay chiefs staged an anti-Brunei rebellion in 1835. The governor of Sarawak, Rajah Muda Hashim, was still trying to quell the rebellion when James Brooke sailed up the Sarawak River to Kuching in 1839 to deliver a letter to him.

Brooke was a great admirer of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Singapore's founding father. Armed with a small inheritance, he had earlier arrived in Singapore on his schooner The Royalist. The letter was from the Governor of Singapore, thanking the Rajah Muda for his help in rescuing some shipwrecked British sailors. The Rajah Muda was desperate to regain control of Sarawak, and offered to grant Brooke the Sarawak River area and the title of Rajah if he managed to suppress the rebellion. Brooke interceded, and eventually brought about a peaceful settlement. For this, he was rewarded with a large territory in Sarawak and later installed as the White Rajah of Sarawak in 1842 (2).

James Brooke spent much of his rule fighting pirates, headhunters and bandits in Sarawak's interior and on its coastlines. His reign was not a peaceful one - the natives of Sarawak considered him a pirate who was stealing from the land and the people, and several freedom fighters emerged to lead the people against him (3).

Charles Brooke


Charles Brooke, the second
White Rajah

James Brooke died in 1868, and was succeeded by his nephew, Charles Brooke. Charles Brooke was a capable, organized ruler - the official chronicle entry for 1871 reads: "Sarawak Budget Balanced for the First Time." Sarawak flourished under his rule. He set up a proper system of government and continued to extend Sarawak's borders. The coast from just north of Bintulu up to the mouth of the Baram, which was then under Brunei's control, was handed over to Sawarak in 1883. Gradually, other regions were either given or leased to Sarawak - the Trusan River and tributaries near Lawas in 1885, the Limbang area in 1890, and the fertile Lawas region in 1905. Even British North Borneo (Sabah) was considered as a possible addition to Sarawak (4).

The main development in the last years of Charles Brooke's reign was the discovery of oil. In 1895, traces of oil had already been discovered in Miri, but not in quantities large enough to be commercially exploited. Then, in 1903, a large oil spring was discovered, and in 1909, Brooke granted a concession to a subsidiary of the Shell Oil Company. More deposits were discovered in 1911, and by 1914 Sarawak was producing about 200 tons of oil a day (5). The oil industry continues to be an important part of Sarawak's economy today - in 1994, production of petroleum products reached 11,406,000 tons, and the production of natural gas reached 24,411,000,000 cubic meters (6).

Vyner Brooke


Vestiges of headhunting persisted
into the 20th century. These
skulls were still being displayed
in a longhouse around 1970.

In 1917, Charles Brooke was succeeded by his son, Charles Vyner Brooke, who was to be the third and last Brooke Rajah. Vyner Brooke and his family were in Sydney, Australia, when Kuching fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day 1941. During the Japanese Occupation between 1941 and 1945, Sarawak's economy and administration were badly affected, and many people were killed - both locals as well as British officials who stayed behind.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sarawak was placed under the Australian Military Administration until Charles Vyner Brooke resumed his position as Rajah on 15th April 1946. Not long after this, Vyner Brooke made known his intention to cede Sarawak to Britain. He felt that the existence of Sarawak as the private territory of the Brooke family was an anachronism, and issued a proclamation urging the people of Sarawak to accept the King of England as their ruler. The British government sent officials to Sarawak to determine what the people wanted, and the matter was brought before the Council Negri (the legislature of Sarawak). In May 1946, the Council agreed, by nineteen votes against sixteen, to cede Sarawak to Britain. Sarawak became a British colony on 1st July 1946, provoking protests, demonstrations, and the assassination of the British governor by a Malay in 1949 (7).

The Brooke regime was surprisingly popular for a colonial government mostly because of its hands-off style. The Brookes put an end to cannibalism, headhunting and most inter-village violence, but otherwise didn't change things as much as most colonizers. For instance, Christian missionaries were largely banned (though they made up for lost time after World War II and now the majority of people are Christian). As a result, many indigenous people see the Brooke era as a golden age, where traditions were still strong, the economy was improving, and violence was under control.

The Federation of Malaysia

In the late 1940's and 1950's the British ruled Sarawak directly. Luckily, British colonialism at this stage was more beneficial than rapacious, and the number of schools, courthouses, hospitals and so forth, multiplied. Meanwhile, in 1957 British Peninsular Malaysia became the independent country of Malaya.

In May 1961, the Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proposed the formation of Malaysia, a federation that included Malaya, Sarawak, Brunei, Sabah and Singapore. Indonesian President Sukarno violently objected to this, claiming that it was part of a neo-colonialist conspiracy. He started an undeclared war against Malaysia, which became known as Konfrontasi, or Confrontation. The Indonesian army infiltrated the Kalimantan-Malaysian border on many occasions, landed commandos on Peninsula Malaysia, and sent 300 saboteurs into Singapore to bomb public buildings. A United Nations commission determined that it was the wish of the people of Sarawak to join Malaysia, and that Indonesia's objections were groundless (8). The merger with Sarawak thus took place on 16th September 1963. Sabah also joined, but Singapore and Brunei ultimately remained independent. Because Sarawak and Sabah joined of their own volition, they negotiated arrangements with the rest of Malaysia that in many ways makes them semi-independent countries. For instance, one requires a passport to enter Sarawak from any other part of Malaysia.

Continue to Part 3 - Ethnic and Biological Diversity

Return to Part 1 - Early History


1. Jones, L.W. The Population of Borneo - A Study of the Peoples of Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. London: University of London, The Athlone Press, 1966, p. 6.
2. Eliot, p. 307.
3. Sarawak State Government. 24 Feb 2002.
4. Hutton, Wendy, ed. East Malaysia and Brunei. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1997, p. 101, 129.
5. Crisswell, Colin N. Rajah Charles Brooke, Monarch of All He Surveyed. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 216.
6. Nations of the World: Statistics. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15 April 2002.

7. Eliot, p. 309, 310.
8. Eliot, p. 311.