Sir James Brooke

Sir James Brooke (1803-1868) was a British empire builder and the first "white ruler" of Sarawak, Borneo. Founder of a dynasty, Brooke ruled with integrity, justice, and a sympathetic understanding of the indigenous population.

James Brooke was born on April 29, 1803, in Benares, India, son of Thomas Brooke, a judge of the High Court of India. At 15 James was sent to England for his schooling, and in 1819 he joined the armed forces of the East India Company. He was seriously wounded in the First Burmese War of 1824 and returned to England to recuperate. Upon his return to India in 1829, he resigned from the East India Company, and en route home again to England he visited China and Malaya.

Greatly impressed with the Malay Archipelago, Brooke invested in a yacht, the Royalist, and a trained crew, and in 1839 he arrived in northern Borneo to carry out scientific research and exploration. In Sarawak he met Pangeran an Muda Hashim, to whom he gave assistance in crushing a rebellion, thereby winning the allegiance of the Malays and Dayaks. In 1841 Muda Hashim offered Brooke the governorship of Sarawak in return for his help.

Raja Brooke was highly successful in suppressing the widespread piracy of the region. 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.

Piracy, mainly by Sea Dayaks, continued to be a major problem, and in 1849, at the request of the sultan of Brunei, Brooke and his Malays raided the Sea Dayak area but did not gain a decisive victory. Shortly afterward, several vessels of the China squadron succeeded in stamping out piracy.

Early in his rule Brooke was concerned with the status of his dominion. The Chinese uprising, and the later Malay rebellion, made him aware of the need for foreign protection, and after the British government refused to provide a protective relationship, he toyed with the idea of turning Sarawak over to the Dutch. His heir designate and nephew, Capt. James Brooke (who had changed his name from Charles Johnson), was completely against any cession. Sir James continued his efforts to obtain England's recognition but without success. In 1863 he retired to England, where he died after a stroke on June 11, 1868.

It is generally conceded that Brooke was a poor administrator and incompetent at finances, but his understanding of the Malays, Dayaks, and other people of Sarawak was profound, and his improvement of their status was undeniable.

Further Reading on Sir James Brooke

A biography of Brooke is Emily Hahn, James Brooke of Sarawak (1953). He is treated in some detail in Robert Payne, The White Rajahs of Sarawak (1960), and Steve Runciman, The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Ingleson, John, 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, 1979.

St. John, Spenser, Sir, The life of Sir James Brooke: rajah of Sarawak: from his personal papers and correspondence, Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Tarling, Nicholas, The burthen, the risk, and the glory: a biography of Sir James Brooke, Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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