White Rajah Era

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Before true British colonialism, Sarawak was governed by a dynasty of rulers from Britain, known as the ‘White Rajahs’. James Brooke was the first of these foreign sultans when he started his reign in 1842.

Sarawak can boast a political history unlike any other during the expansion of British colonial rule in Asia. The “White Rajah” era that lasted 100 years can best be described as a colonial dynasty, established by James Brooke in 1841.

The era is part of a colourful, eventful and turbulent period for Sarawak before they joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and included Japanese occupation and nearly two decades of British crown rule.

Sarawak’s modern history truly began in the 19th Century with the arrival from Britain of James Brooke, the first white man to govern the territory as its de facto “king” and who passed on rule to male “heirs”.

In 1841, at the behest of Sarawak ruler Pangeran Muda Hashim, Brooke and the crew of his schooner, The Royalist, helped to appease a tribal uprising against the Sultan of Brunei, Omar Ali Saifuddin II.

Sultan Brooke

The Sultan appointed Brooke as Rajah of Sarawak on August 18, 1842 in a move that would change forever the fortunes and culture of a people that had never previously been subjected to Western leadership.

After his death in 1668, James Brooke was succeeded by his nephew Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke. Charles’ son, Charles Vyner Brooke, succeeded his late father in 1917 and began to rule Sarawak in consultation with his brother Bertram Brooke.

A feature of the Brookes’ White Rajah reign was their commitment to protecting the culture and environment of the indigenous tribes of Sarawak from exploitation.

They also expanded the territories that would come under the Sarawak jurisdiction, at the expense of the ever-declining realm of the Brunei Sultanate.

WWII and the rebel Rajah

As the last ruling Brooke was about to embark on changing Sarawak’s constitution in 1941 to provide for a more democratic foundation, Japanese forces invaded Miri and Kuching in December that year. The occupiers stayed until 1945 when Sarawak was freed by Australian troops during the dying stages of World War II.

One year later, Charles Vyner Brooke, somewhat reluctantly but with great personal reward, ceded Sarawak to the British Crown, which ruled the territories of Malaya as a colony until independence in 1963.

As a side story to the end of the Brooke era, Bertram’s son, Anthony Brooke, was appointed Rajah Muda (heir to the leadership) in 1937. After twice losing the title, he opposed giving up Sarawak to British colonial rule and continued to claim leadership of the region.

He was also under investigation by Britain’s MI5 following the assassination, in 1948, of Sarawak’s second colonial governor Duncan Stewart. Anthony Brooke eventually gave up his claims to being the Rajah of Sarawak in 1951.

He had previously been banned from Sarawak for a total of 17 years and was only allowed to return after the state became part of Malaysia in 1963. He died in March, 2011.

Cultural change

The White Rajah era changed the landscape of regional politics forever, the legacy of which can still be seen in culture and society today. During the Brookes’ rule, the Muslim Malays emerged as a powerful political force and were heavily involved in governing the territory.

The indigenous Ibans and other tribes, meanwhile, were called upon to serve as militia outfits.

To say that Sarawak has a tribal culture is an understatement. There are more than 30 indigenous tribes in the area, making Sarawak one of the most ethnically diverse regions in Asia.

An already colourful mix of races and tribes became even more spectacular during the Brookes’ regime with the influx of tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese to Sarawak, causing a dramatic demographic and cultural shift in population.

Known as a resourceful and entrepreneurial group of people, the Brookes encouraged their immigration and now the Chinese make up more than a quarter of its 2.4 million population.

With such diverse ethnic groups and cultures, the best way to ensure political and social stability was through the democratic process, which came about in its true form in 1963 after Sarawak joined the Malaysian Federation.

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Before true British colonialism, Sarawak was governed by a dynasty of rulers from Britain, known as the ‘White Rajahs’. James Brooke was the first of these foreign sultans when he started his reign in 1842.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Before true British colonialism, Sarawak was governed by a dynasty of rulers from Britain, known as the ‘White Rajahs’. James Brooke was the first of these foreign sultans when he started his reign in 1842.

Sarawak can boast a political history unlike any other during the expansion of British colonial rule in Asia. The “White Rajah” era that lasted 100 years can best be described as a colonial dynasty, established by James Brooke in 1841.

The era is part of a colourful, eventful and turbulent period for Sarawak before they joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and included Japanese occupation and nearly two decades of British crown rule.

Sarawak’s modern history truly began in the 19th Century with the arrival from Britain of James Brooke, the first white man to govern the territory as its de facto “king” and who passed on rule to male “heirs”.

In 1841, at the behest of Sarawak ruler Pangeran Muda Hashim, Brooke and the crew of his schooner, The Royalist, helped to appease a tribal uprising against the Sultan of Brunei, Omar Ali Saifuddin II.

Sultan Brooke

The Sultan appointed Brooke as Rajah of Sarawak on August 18, 1842 in a move that would change forever the fortunes and culture of a people that had never previously been subjected to Western leadership.

After his death in 1668, James Brooke was succeeded by his nephew Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke. Charles’ son, Charles Vyner Brooke, succeeded his late father in 1917 and began to rule Sarawak in consultation with his brother Bertram Brooke.

A feature of the Brookes’ White Rajah reign was their commitment to protecting the culture and environment of the indigenous tribes of Sarawak from exploitation.

They also expanded the territories that would come under the Sarawak jurisdiction, at the expense of the ever-declining realm of the Brunei Sultanate.

WWII and the rebel Rajah

As the last ruling Brooke was about to embark on changing Sarawak’s constitution in 1941 to provide for a more democratic foundation, Japanese forces invaded Miri and Kuching in December that year. The occupiers stayed until 1945 when Sarawak was freed by Australian troops during the dying stages of World War II.

One year later, Charles Vyner Brooke, somewhat reluctantly but with great personal reward, ceded Sarawak to the British Crown, which ruled the territories of Malaya as a colony until independence in 1963.

As a side story to the end of the Brooke era, Bertram’s son, Anthony Brooke, was appointed Rajah Muda (heir to the leadership) in 1937. After twice losing the title, he opposed giving up Sarawak to British colonial rule and continued to claim leadership of the region.

He was also under investigation by Britain’s MI5 following the assassination, in 1948, of Sarawak’s second colonial governor Duncan Stewart. Anthony Brooke eventually gave up his claims to being the Rajah of Sarawak in 1951.

He had previously been banned from Sarawak for a total of 17 years and was only allowed to return after the state became part of Malaysia in 1963. He died in March, 2011.

Cultural change

The White Rajah era changed the landscape of regional politics forever, the legacy of which can still be seen in culture and society today. During the Brookes’ rule, the Muslim Malays emerged as a powerful political force and were heavily involved in governing the territory.

The indigenous Ibans and other tribes, meanwhile, were called upon to serve as militia outfits.

To say that Sarawak has a tribal culture is an understatement. There are more than 30 indigenous tribes in the area, making Sarawak one of the most ethnically diverse regions in Asia.

An already colourful mix of races and tribes became even more spectacular during the Brookes’ regime with the influx of tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese to Sarawak, causing a dramatic demographic and cultural shift in population.

Known as a resourceful and entrepreneurial group of people, the Brookes encouraged their immigration and now the Chinese make up more than a quarter of its 2.4 million population.

With such diverse ethnic groups and cultures, the best way to ensure political and social stability was through the democratic process, which came about in its true form in 1963 after Sarawak joined the Malaysian Federation.

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