Sir James Brooke
Rajah of Sarawak
Reign18 August 1842 – 11 June 1868
Installation18 August 1842
PredecessorSultan Tengah (as Sultan of Sarawak)
Pengiran Indera Mahkota Mohammad Salleh (as Governor of Sarawak)
SuccessorCharles Brooke
Born(1803-04-29)29 April 1803
Bandel, Hooghly, British India
Died11 June 1868(1868-06-11) (aged 65)
Burrator, United Kingdom
St Leonard's Church, Sheepstor, Dartmoor
HouseBrooke dynasty
FatherThomas Brooke
MotherAnna Maria Brooke
ReligionChristianity (Church of England)
OccupationFormer soldier, trader, independent gentleman, Governor; Rajah
1st Governor of Labuan
In office
LieutenantWilliam Napier (1848–1850)
John Scott (1850–1856)
Preceded byNewly Created
Succeeded byGeorge Warren Edwardes
Personal details
ChildrenReuben George Brooke (son) (1834–1874)
Military service
Allegiance British Empire
Branch/serviceBengal Army, British East India Company
Years of service1819–1830
Battles/wars (1824–1825)

Sir James Brooke, Rajah[note] of Sarawak KCB (29 April 1803[1] – 11 June 1868), was a British soldier and adventurer who founded the Raj of Sarawak in Borneo. He ruled as the first White Rajah of Sarawak from 1841 until his death in 1868.

Brooke was born and raised under the Company Raj of the British East India Company in India. After a few years of education in England, he served in the Bengal Army, was wounded, and resigned his commission. He then bought a ship and sailed out to the Malay Archipelago where, by helping to crush a rebellion, he became governor of Sarawak. He then vigorously suppressed piracy in the region and, in the ensuing turmoil, restored the Sultan of Brunei to his throne, for which the Sultan made Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak. He ruled until his death.

Brooke was not without detractors and was criticised in the British Parliament and officially investigated in Singapore for his anti-piracy measures. He was, however, honoured and feted in London for his activities in Southeast Asia. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was one of many visitors whose published work spoke of his hospitality and achievements.

Early life

Attack by Illanun pirates on Brooke's Jolly Bachelor, T. Datu, 1843
Attack by Illanun pirates on Brooke's Jolly Bachelor, T. Datu, 1843

Brooke was born in Bandel, near Calcutta, Bengal, but baptised [2] in Secrole, a suburb of Benares. His father, Thomas Brooke, was an English Judge in the Court of Appeal at Bareilly, British India; his mother, Anna Maria, born in Hertfordshire, was the daughter of Scottish peer Colonel William Stuart, 9th Lord Blantyre, and his mistress Harriott Teasdale. Brooke stayed at home in India until he was sent, aged 12, to England for a brief education at Norwich School from which he ran away. Some home tutoring followed in Bath before he returned to India in 1819 as an ensign in the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. He saw action in Assam during the First Anglo-Burmese War until seriously wounded in 1825, and was sent to England for recovery. In 1830, he arrived back in Madras but was too late to rejoin his unit, and resigned his commission. He remained on the ship he had travelled out in, the Castle Huntley, and returned home via China.


Brooke attempted to trade in the Far East, but was not successful. In 1835 he inherited £30,000, which he used as capital to purchase a 142-ton schooner, Royalist.[3] Setting sail for Borneo in 1838, he arrived in Kuching in August to find the settlement facing an uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Greatly impressed with the Malay Archipelago, in Sarawak he met the sultan's uncle, Pangeran Muda Hashim, to whom he gave assistance in crushing the rebellion, thereby winning the gratitude of the Sultan, who in 1841 offered Brooke the governorship of Sarawak in return for his help.

Rajah Brooke was highly successful in suppressing the widespread piracy of the region. However, some 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 1842 Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien II ceded complete sovereignty of Sarawak to Brooke. He was granted the title of Rajah of Sarawak on 24 September 1841, although the official declaration was not made until 18 August 1842.

Cession of Labuan to Great Britain

James Brooke negotiating with the Sultan of Brunei, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Labuan between the Brunei sultanate and the British delegation on 18 December 1846 at the Brunei palace, in which Labuan was ceded to Great Britain.[4][5]
James Brooke negotiating with the Sultan of Brunei, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Labuan between the Brunei sultanate and the British delegation on 18 December 1846 at the Brunei palace, in which Labuan was ceded to Great Britain.[4][5]

In 1846 Brooke presented the island of Labuan to the British government. He was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of Labuan in 1848.


Painting of the Rajah of Sarawak in 1847 by Francis Grant
Painting of the Rajah of Sarawak in 1847 by Francis Grant

During his reign, Brooke began to establish and cement his rule over Sarawak: reforming the administration, codifying laws and fighting piracy, which proved to be an ongoing issue throughout his rule.[citation needed] Brooke returned temporarily to England in 1847, where he was given the Freedom of the City of London, appointed British consul-general in Borneo and created a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB).

Brooke pacified the native peoples, including the Dayaks, and suppressed headhunting and piracy. He had many Dayaks in his forces and said that only Dayaks can kill Dayaks.[6]

Brooke became the centre of controversy in 1851 when accusations against him of excessive use of force against the native people, under the guise of anti-piracy operations, ultimately led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854. After investigation, the Commission dismissed the charges but the accusations continued to haunt him.[7]

Brooke wrote to Alfred Russel Wallace on leaving England in April 1853, "to assure Wallace that he would be very glad to see him at Sarawak."[8] This was an invitation that helped Wallace decide on the Malay Archipelago for his next expedition, an expedition that lasted for eight years and established him as one of the foremost Victorian intellectuals and naturalists of the time. When Wallace arrived in Singapore in September 1854, he found Rajah Brooke "reluctantly preparing to give evidence to the special commission set up to investigate his controversial anti-piracy activities."[9]

During his rule, Brooke suppressed an uprising by Liu Shan Bang in 1857 and faced threats from Sarawak warriors like Sharif Masahor and Rentap and managed to suppress them.[10][11]

Death and burial

The red granite chest tomb to James Brooke in Sheepstor churchyard
The red granite chest tomb to James Brooke in Sheepstor churchyard

Brooke ruled Sarawak until his death in 1868, following three strokes over ten years.

A memorial stained glass window in St Leonard's Church, Sheepstor, 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
A memorial stained glass window in St Leonard's Church, Sheepstor, 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

All three White Rajahs are buried at St Leonard's Church in the village of Sheepstor on Dartmoor in western England.


Having no legitimate children, in 1861 he formally named Captain John Brooke Johnson-Brooke, his sister's eldest son, as his successor. Two years later, the Rajah reacted to criticism by returning to the east: after a brief meeting in Singapore, John was deposed and banished from Sarawak. James increased the charges to treasonous conduct and later named John's younger brother, Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke, as successor.

Personal life

James Brooke
James Brooke

Brooke was influenced by the success of previous British adventurers and the exploits of the British East India Company. His actions in Sarawak were directed at expanding the British Empire and the benefits of its rule, assisting the local people by fighting piracy and slavery, and securing his own personal wealth to further these activities. His own abilities, and those of his successors, provided Sarawak with excellent leadership and wealth generation during difficult times, and resulted in both fame and notoriety in some circles. His appointment as Rajah by the Sultan, and his subsequent knighthood, are evidence that his efforts were widely applauded in both Sarawak and British society.[citation needed]

Among his alleged relationships was one with Badruddin, a Sarawak prince, of whom he wrote, "my love for him was deeper than anyone I knew." This phrase led to some considering him to be either homosexual or bisexual. Later, in 1848, Brooke is alleged to have formed a relationship with 16‑year‑old Charles T. C. Grant, grandson of the seventh Earl of Elgin, who supposedly 'reciprocated'.[12][13] Whether this relationship was purely a friendship or otherwise has not been fully revealed. One of Brooke's recent biographers wrote that during Brooke's final years in Burrator in Devon "there is little doubt ... he was carnally involved with the rough trade of Totnes."[14] However, Barley does not note from where he garnered this opinion. Others have suggested Brooke was instead "homo-social" and simply preferred the social company of other men, disagreeing with assertions he was a homosexual.[15]

Although he died unmarried, he did acknowledge one son. Neither the identity of the son's mother nor his birth date is clear. This son was brought up as Reuben George Walker in the Brighton household of Frances Walker (1841 and 1851 census, apparently born ca. 1836). By 1858 he was aware of his Brooke connection and by 1871 he is on the census at the parish of Plumtree, Nottinghamshire as "George Brooke", age "40", birthplace "Sarawak, Borneo". He was married (in 1862) and had seven children, three of whom survived infancy; the oldest was called James.[citation needed] George died travelling to Australia, in the wreck of the SS British Admiral[16][17] on 23 May 1874. A memorial to this effect – giving a birthdate of 1834 – is in the churchyard at Plumtree.[18]

Rajah James Brooke
Rajah James Brooke

James Brooke was 'a great admirer' of the novels of Jane Austen, and would 'read them and re-read them', including aloud to his companions in Sarawak.[19]

In popular culture

Fictionalised accounts of Brooke's exploits in Sarawak include Kalimantaan by C. S. Godshalk and The White Rajah by Nicholas Monsarrat. Another book, also called The White Rajah, by Tom Williams, was published by JMS Books in 2010. Brooke is also featured in Flashman's Lady, the 6th book in George MacDonald Fraser's meticulously researched The Flashman Papers novels; and in Sandokan: The Pirates of Malaysia (I pirati della Malesia), the second novel in Emilio Salgari's Sandokan series.

Brooke was also a model for the hero of Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim, and he is briefly mentioned in Kipling's short story "The Man Who Would Be King".

Charles Kingsley dedicated the novel Westward Ho! (1855) to Brooke.

In 1936, Errol Flynn intended to star in a film of Brooke's life called The White Rajah for Warner Bros., based on a script by Flynn himself. However, although the project was announced for filming, it was never made.[20]

In September 2016, a film based on Brooks' life was to be made in Sarawak with the support of Abang Abdul Rahman Johari of the Government of Sarawak, with writer Rob Allyn and Sergei Bodrov as its director. The Brooke Heritage Trust, a non-profit organisation, was to serve as the film's technical advisors, with one of them being Jason Brooke, the current heir of the Brooke family.[21] The film, titled Edge of the World, was released in 2021.

Honours and legacy

British Honours

Some Bornean plant species were named in Brooke's honour:

also insects:

three species of reptiles:[24]

and a snail:

In 1857, the native village of Newash in Grey County, Ontario, Canada, was renamed Brooke and the adjacent township was named Sarawak by William Coutts Keppel (known as Viscount Bury, later the 7th Earl of Albemarle) who was Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Canada.[25] James Brooke was a close friend of Viscount Bury's uncle, Henry Keppel; they had met in 1843 while fighting pirates off the coast of Borneo.[26] Townships to the northwest of Sarawak were named Keppel and Albemarle. In 2001, Sarawak and Keppel became part of the township of Georgian Bluffs; Albemarle joined the town of South Bruce Peninsula in 1999. Keppel-Sarawak School is located in Owen Sound, Ontario.

Brooke's Point, a major municipality on the island of Palawan, Philippines, is named after him. Both Brooke's Lighthouse and Brooke's Port, historical landmarks in Brooke's Point, are believed to have been constructed by Sir James Brooke. Today, owing to erosion and the constant movement of the tides, only a few stones can still be seen at the Port. The remnants of the original lighthouse tower are still visible, although the area is now occupied by a new lighthouse.


a.^ The term Rajah reflects traditional usage in Sarawak and English writing, although Raja may be better orthography in Malay.


  1. ^ Calcutta Monthly Journal Archived 8 August 2014 at the Wayback Machine, May 1803, p.158, "Bengal Births..At Bandel, on the 29th ultimo, the Lady of T.Brooke, Esq. of a Son"
  2. ^ Birth and Baptism records
  3. ^ James, Lawrence (1997) [1994]. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 244–245. ISBN 0-312-16985-X.CS1 maint: location (link)
  4. ^ Różan Yunos (7 September 2008). "Loss of Labuan, a former Brunei island". The Brunei Times. Archived from the original on 28 April 2014. Retrieved 29 April 2014.
  5. ^ Stephen R. Evans; Abdul Rahman Zainal; Rod Wong Khet Ngee (1996). The History of Labuan Island (Victoria Island) (PDF). Calendar Print Pte Ltd. ISBN 981-00-7764-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 July 2013.
  6. ^ "Iban Heroes". Iban Customs & Traditions. 8 June 2009. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  7. ^ "The Rajahs of Sarawak". The Spectator. 29 January 1910.
  8. ^ Raby, Peter. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 87
  9. ^ Raby, p. 100.
  10. ^ "Sir James Brooke's personal narrative of the insurrection at Sarawak". The Sydney Morning Herald. 31 July 1857. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  11. ^ Heidhues, MFS (2003). Golddiggers, farmers, and traders in the "Chinese Districts" of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. SEAP Ithaca, New York. p. 102.
  12. ^ Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, Ronald Hyam; pp.44–45
  13. ^ Walker, J. H. (1998). "This peculiar acuteness of feeling: James Brooke and the enactment of desire". Borneo Research Bulletin. 29: 148–189.
  14. ^ Barley, p. 208.
  15. ^ The White Rajahs of Sarawak: A Borneo Dynasty by Bob Reece (Archipelago Press, 2004)
  16. ^ "British Admiral wreck". Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  17. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 February 2008. Retrieved 18 January 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. ^ "September 2005 Meeting Report". Keyworth Local History Society. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  19. ^ Spenser St John, 'The Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak'
  21. ^ "White Rajah: Malaysia's first Hollywood epic film". 6 July 2017. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  22. ^ John Lindley and Hugh Low (1848), "A notice of some species of Rhododendron inhabiting Borneo", The Journal of the Horticultural Society of London: 81–84
  23. ^ Beccialoni, George
  24. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Brooke", p. 39).
  25. ^ Marsh, Edith L. A History of the County of Grey. Owen Sound, Ont.: Fleming, 1931, pp. 210-211.
  26. ^ Jacob, Gertrude L. The Raja of Saráwak: An Account of Sir James Brooke. London: Macmillan, 1876, vol. 1, ch. XIII.


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Further reading

James Brooke Brooke familyBorn: 29 April 1803 Died: 11 June 1868 Regnal titles New titleKingdom established Rajah of Sarawak1842–1868 Succeeded byCharles Government offices Preceded byNewly Created Governor of Labuan1848–1852 Succeeded byGeorge Warren Edwardes