James Brooke
Portrait by Herbert Watkins, 1858
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
IssueReuben George Walker (Brooke)
HouseBrooke dynasty
FatherThomas Brooke
MotherAnna Maria Brooke
ReligionChristianity (Church of England)
OccupationFormer soldier, trader, independent gentleman, Governor;
1st Governor of Labuan
In office
MonarchQueen Victoria
LieutenantWilliam Napier (1848–1850)
John Scott (1850–1856)
Preceded byNewly Created
Succeeded byGeorge Warren Edwardes
1st Consul General to the Sultan and Independent Chiefs of Borneo
In office
Succeeded bySpenser St. John
Military service
Allegiance British Empire
Branch/serviceBengal Army, British East India Company
Years of service1819–1830
Unit6th Regiment Native Infantry[2]
Battles/wars (1824–1825)

Sir James Brooke, Rajah[note] of Sarawak KCB (29 April 1803[3] – 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 during 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

Brooke was born in Bandel, near Calcutta, Bengal, but baptised[4] 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.[citation needed]


Royalist 1834 - Royal Yacht Squadron - illus. 1909

Brooke attempted to trade in the Far East, but was not successful. In 1835 he inherited £30,000 (£3M or US$3.7M in 2022 currency), which he used as capital to purchase a 142-ton schooner, Royalist.[5]

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, Pengiran Muda Hashim, to whom he gave assistance in crushing the rebellion, thereby winning the gratitude of the Omar Ali Saifuddin II, the 23rd Sultan of Brunei, 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, the Sultan 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. Brooke's cousin, Arthur Chichester Crookshank (1825–1891) joined his service on 1 March 1843 and was appointed a magistrate.

Cession of Labuan to Great Britain

James Brooke and Sir Edward Belcher negotiating with the Sultan of Brunei, Oct 1844 which eventually 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.[6][7][8]

In 1844 Brooke began anti-pirate operations with ships of the Royal Navy and the East India Company off NE Sumatra: on 12 February, he received a gunshot wound to his right arm and a spear cut to his eyebrow in their second engagement, at Murdu.[9] Later in 1844 the Sultan offered to cede the island of Labuan to the British but terms were not discussed at that time.[10] In November 1846 Captain Rodney Mundy was ordered to obtain the cession of Labuan. He negotiated the cession on 18 December 1846 and took possession of Labuan on 24 December 1846.[11] James Brooke was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of Labuan in 1848.[12]


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,[13] appointed British consul-general in Borneo[14] and created a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB).[15]

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.[16]

James Brooke's House in Kuching, 1848

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.[17]

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."[18] 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."[19]

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.[20][21]

Personal life

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.[22]

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'.[23][24] 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."[25] 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.[26]

Although Brooke died unmarried, he did acknowledge a son to his family in 1858. 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 married Martha Elizabeth Mowbray on 10 July 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[27][28] on 23 May 1874. A memorial to this effect – giving a birthdate of 1834 – is in the churchyard at Plumtree.[29]

Francis William Douglas (1874–1953), the Acting Resident for Brunei and Labuan from November 1913 to January 1915 in a letter to the Foreign Office on 19 July 1915 that he heard from Pengiran Anak Hashima that Brooke had been married to her aunt Pengiran Fatima, the daughter of Pengiran Anak Abdul Kadir and also the granddaughter of Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam, the 21st Sultan of Brunei. Douglas goes on to say that he had recently met Dr Ogilvie who told him that he had met a daughter of Rajah Brooke's in 1866: she was married but evidently had foreign blood in her."[30]

Rajah James Brooke

Succession, death and burial

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 his successor.

The red granite chest tomb to James Brooke in Sheepstor churchyard

Having suffered three strokes over the last ten years, Brooke died in Burrator, Dartmoor, Devon in England on 11 June 1868 and was buried at the graveyard of St Leonard's Church in Sheepstor.

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

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.

James Brooke is the main antagonist in the second and third novels of the popular Emilio Salgari's Sandokan series. In the 1976 TV production he's played by Adolfo Celi.

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.[31]

In September 2016, a film based on Brooke's 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.[32] The film, titled Edge of the World, directed by Michael Haussman, was released in 2021.

Honours and Arms

British Honours



Coat of arms of James Brooke
9 November 1848
On an Eastern Crown Or a Brock Proper ducally gorged also Or.
Or a Cross engrailed per cross indented , Azure and Sable in the first quarter an Estoile of the second.
Dum Spiro Spero


Species named after Brooke

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

also insects:

three species of reptiles:[36]

and a snail:

Places named after Brooke

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.[37] 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.[38] 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. ^ Brown, G. H.; Clark, F. (1829). East-India Register and Directory for 1829. Secretary's Office, East-India House.
  2. ^ Brown, G. H.; Clark, F. (1829). East-India Register and Directory for 1829. Secretary's Office, East-India House.
  3. ^ 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"
  4. ^ Birth and Baptism records http://indiafamily.bl.uk/ui/FullDisplay.aspx?RecordId=014-000031913 Archived 18 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ James, Lawrence (1997) [1994]. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 244–245. ISBN 0-312-16985-X.
  6. ^ Marryat, Frank (1848). Borneo and the Indian Archipelago with Drawings of Costume and Scenery. Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. ISBN 978-981-05-8830-4.
  7. ^ Belcher, Edward (5 January 2024). Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang, During the Years 1843-46; Employed surveying the Islands of the Eastern Archipelago Vol. 1. Reeve, Benham, and Reeve.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Baring-Gould & Bampfylde, p.103
  10. ^ Brooke, James. "Chapter II: Nov. 17, 1844, to April 4, 1845". The private letters of Sir James Brooke, K.C.B., Rajah of Sarawak : narrating the events of his life, from 1838 to the present time, vol.2. Vol. 2. Stamford Street and Charing Cross, London: W. Clowes and Sons. pp. 34–35. Retrieved 23 April 2022. at the same time I got from the sultan and him, the offer of Labuan for the Government. I intended originally to have reserved this document, and only to have used it in case it became necessary; but as wished to forward it, I could have no objection to his doing so. It can do no harm, and may do good- is most favourable this year to forward my views, and I believe he has written in high strains; with what effect we shall see hereafter. Labuan we examined, and it is an island well fitted for a Government establishment
  11. ^ Mundy, Rodney (1848). Narrative of Events in Borneo and Celebes, down to the Occupation of Labuan: from the Journals of James Brooke, Esq. Vol. 1. John Murray.
  12. ^ St. John, Sir Spencer (1879). "Mr. Brooke visits England: Visit to the Queen". The life of Sir James Brooke: rajah of Sarawak: from his personal papers and correspondence. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons. p. 129. Retrieved 23 April 2022. During his stay in England, Mr Brooke was appointed Governor of the new settlement of Labuan" "with orders to be ready to start from Portsmouth on the 1st February 1848
  13. ^ "The Literary Gazette and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c: Saturday, October 23, 1847- Varieties". The Literary Gazette A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts. London: Henry Silverlock, Wardrobe Terrace, Doctors' Commons. 1847. p. 757. Retrieved 22 April 2022. The City of London, on the motion of Sir P. Laurie, has done itself honour by voting its Freedom in a gold box, to James Brooke, the rajah of Sarawak, and the regenerator of the Indian Archipelago
  14. ^ "The London Gazette". No. 20757. 23 July 1847. p. 2690. Retrieved 22 April 2020.
  15. ^ "The London Gazette". No. 20850. 28 April 1848. p. 1655. Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  16. ^ "Iban Heroes". Iban Customs & Traditions. 8 June 2009. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  17. ^ "The Rajahs of Sarawak". The Spectator. 29 January 1910.
  18. ^ Raby, Peter. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 87
  19. ^ Raby, p. 100.
  20. ^ "Sir James Brooke's personal narrative of the insurrection at Sarawak". The Sydney Morning Herald. 31 July 1857. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  21. ^ Heidhues, MFS (2003). Golddiggers, farmers, and traders in the "Chinese Districts" of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. SEAP Ithaca, New York. p. 102.
  22. ^ Spenser St John, 'The Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak'
  23. ^ Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, Ronald Hyam; pp.44–45
  24. ^ Walker, J. H. (1998). "This peculiar acuteness of feeling: James Brooke and the enactment of desire". Borneo Research Bulletin. 29: 148–189.
  25. ^ Barley, p. 208.
  26. ^ The White Rajahs of Sarawak: A Borneo Dynasty by Bob Reece (Archipelago Press, 2004)
  27. ^ "British Admiral wreck". Kingisland.net.au. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  28. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 February 2008. Retrieved 18 January 2008.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  29. ^ "September 2005 Meeting Report". Keyworth Local History Society. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  30. ^ Brown, D.E. (1972). "Another affair of James Brooke?". Bruneian Museum Journal. 2 (4): 206.
  32. ^ "White Rajah: Malaysia's first Hollywood epic film". Star2.com. 6 July 2017. Archived from the original on 4 December 2018. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  33. ^ Brooke-Little, J.P. "Photostat of original letter written by J.P. Brooke-Little, Bluemantle Pursuivant of Arms to Margaret Noble". The Brooke Trust. Retrieved 25 July 2022.
  34. ^ John Lindley and Hugh Low (1848), "A notice of some species of Rhododendron inhabiting Borneo", The Journal of the Horticultural Society of London, 3: 81–84
  35. ^ Beccialoni, George
  36. ^ 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).
  37. ^ Marsh, Edith L. A History of the County of Grey. Owen Sound, Ont.: Fleming, 1931, pp. 210-211.
  38. ^ 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 Sarawak 1842–1868 Succeeded byCharles Government offices New post Governor of Labuan 1848–1853 Succeeded byGeorge Warren Edwardes