Jason Brooke: "Certainly, I would consider the Brookes Sarawakian"
Q&A: From a descendant of the White Rajahs: a Bornean tale for Hollywood, finding identity and opportunity in a family legacy, and grappling with history in a post-colonial world.
I’m writing to you, again, from home. Malaysia is ostensibly still under “lockdown” until August 31, but a very relaxed one—a loosening that began in several phases in late April, with most economic sectors having resumed operations. Where I used to leave the house only to buy groceries, I’ve since been out to cafes and restaurants with friends and family. And—good news!—there are now fewer than a hundred active cases in Malaysia. We still can’t leave the country until the the Movement Control Order (MCO) is lifted, but interstate travel has been green-lit, and I’ve been thinking about a road trip…
But I digress. In a previous letter, I said I would share a conversation I had with Jason Brooke, a sixth-generation descendent of Sarawak’s “White Rajahs”—a British family dynasty that ruled the territory from 1841 and then ceded it to Britain after World War Two in 1946—for the South China Morning Post. And now is particularly good timing, with debate firing up around the world about the memorialisation of historical figures, and the Hollywood biopic about his ancestor James Brooke due to debut at Cannes. In particular, I was interested in what he said about how Sarawak has shaped him.
So, in this letter, I’m returning to Kuching—the capital of the state of Sarawak (which became part of Malaysia in 1963), wended through by a broad river with colourful boat taxis, home to incredibly diverse indigenous cultures and consequently great food. People visiting Malaysia don’t often have Sarawak on their list, and you should if you decide to come when it’s safe to travel again.
I visited Kuching only for the first time two years ago—at least, I think so. I was told that my grandparents might have brought me with them when they attended a gathering of Hainanese in the nineties, but that’s likely an imagined memory. In 2018, I made a trip with a friend for the Rainforest Fringe Festival and the coinciding Rainforest World Music Festival—you can see how much silly fun we had on my Instagram highlights.
After my friend left, I stayed a few more days in Kuching on my own and visited the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita. At the time, I had been working as a researcher on a documentary about the Brookes’ century-long rule over Sarawak. The documentary would eventually be broadcast on National Geographic Asia, but I also wanted to write about the comeback the Brooke story seemed to be making in Sarawak and how that jived with local understanding. I pitched it to a fair few publications unsuccessfully and was about ready to give it up, but SCMP said yes, and I finally got to write the story—though not in the detail I wanted to. I hardly ever get to write in the detail I want to.
Thing is, the history of the Brookes is rather convoluted. Much of the early defining historical accounts were apparently sourced from the Brookes themselves, while more critical and contradictory accounts by later historians exist. Because of this, it can sometimes be difficult to state a fact categorically, without qualification. It’s also difficult to characterise the Brookes’ reign as a whole, considering the three rajahs—James Brooke, Charles Brooke, and Charles Vyner Brooke—and the last rajah muda (crown prince) Anthony Brooke had different personalities and different ambitions for Sarawak, and different ideas on how to rule it, which led to inter-generational feuds. Consequently, I found it tricky to weave a basic summary for my short SCMP story that also covered enough critical ground, but hope I still managed a fair job of it.
Here’s a transcript of my conversation with Jason Brooke, done over a call in December last year, condensed and edited for clarity. I’ve also included some further insights from James Chin, a Sarawakian historian whose candour I always appreciate in a country where most tend to mince words. Anyway, best to read my published article first before continuing, and please note that [italics in brackets are my comments and clarifications].
Anyway, I hope you find the Brooke story interesting. It’s certainly complicated.
A note that the views and experiences related in these conversations are the speakers’ own. Guest appearances in this newsletter hope to reflect the variety of life in this world.
Emily Ding: When did you first become aware of your family’s history?
Jason Brooke: I’ve been interested in the Sarawak part of my family’s history for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, we had Bornean artefacts, swords and shields, Sarawak flags, and the like around our house. I asked my father to tell me about them, but I think it was a difficult topic for him because he would have been the rajah if things had gone differently, and if the British hadn’t taken over Sarawak as a colony after the Second World War. So he had a feeling—maybe a kind of lost inheritance, a lost feeling of purpose—that troubled him throughout his life. He encouraged my interest in Sarawak, but he didn’t himself engage with it.
But I had a relationship with my grandfather, Anthony Brooke, who had been the rajah muda before the War. He was living in New Zealand, and he very much encouraged my interest. So I kept reading and collecting and studying, but from a distance, through my teens. Then I finally asked my grandfather if he would take me to Sarawak to see the place for myself—and he asked me, would I please wait until I was mature enough to appreciate what Sarawak meant to my family on a spiritual level?
So I did, I hung on. And my grandfather was well into his nineties and I was into my twenties when I thought, right, I must be mature enough now. (Laughs.) So I flew to see my grandfather—I hadn’t seen him since I was a child, and he was quite frail at that stage. We spent a couple of weeks together, and he came out of his shell and engaged in a way that he hadn’t in a long time. It was an amazing experience for me, and he sent me with his blessings to Sarawak.
I think it was important for my grandfather that people understood the Brookes hadn’t forgotten about Sarawak. They were exiled by the British government—in the 1940s, they were banned from entry, right up until Malaysia was formed twenty years later in 1963. And at that point, I think my grandfather felt it would have been politically unhelpful for the Brookes to re-establish themselves in Sarawak, though not as part of the government. So he thought, well, let’s give some time for this new nation to settle.
[Anthony Brooke did not want to cede Sarawak to the British, but his uncle and third rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, did—in fact, in exchange for £200,000.]
ED: When did you first visit Sarawak and what was it like?
JB: I went to Sarawak, I think, in 2008 for the first time. No Brooke had been there since my grandfather visited in the 1980s as a guest of the state for the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Malaysia. I didn’t know what the reception was going to be, and I hadn’t really booked anything and I didn’t know anybody. But as it happened, I was approached by the state government and they arranged a press conference in Kuching and they sort of said, Speak! You know, tell us what the Brookes have been up to. Because there weren’t very many Brookes left really. My grandfather was an only son. My father was an only son. There were only, at this point of time, three living Brookes. It was a sort of mystery, what had happened to this family that had ruled Sarawak for more than a hundred years.
So it was just a series of things—the timing of my interest, my being of a generation where I didn’t have the political baggage and the feeling of having lost this kingdom—that I could engage with Sarawak in a different way. I was very much encouraged to pursue the preservation of Sarawak’s heritage, and the education about that heritage, encouraging young people in particular to take an interest in history, and to appreciate that, This is part of your identity. This is what gives you rootedness in your society, the feeling of a stake in your society. We bring thousands of school children through our exhibitions every year, free of charge.
It had also started to give me the feeling of something useful to do with my life, which I hadn’t necessarily expected, and I saw it having that effect on other people too. The Brookes obviously didn’t build Sarawak by themselves. When you start to engage with the history and understand people’s genealogies and backgrounds, you realise that everyone in Sarawak today has some ancestry that was important in building the modern state over the course of a hundred years. So that’s why [the Sarawak story] has been fascinating to me and, I think, quite successful in engaging local people.
ED: Do you feel there were any misconceptions of Brooke rule that surprised you?
JB: I wouldn’t say it surprised me because I had a western education and I understood how the world views that period of European colonisation. I understood that it’s kind of natural for people who don’t understand the deeper history to see the Brookes as white people ruling over Asian people, and it’s as simple as that in most people’s minds.
So part of my challenge—and I guess it’s still an occasional frustration, but it’s not a frustration that comes from Sarawak, because if you spend any time there you’ll quickly become aware that race is quite irrelevant to local people. I think there are about thirty-eight subethnic groups in Sarawak that have been there for as long as Sarawak has existed, that have been ruled or led by people of a different ethnicity to themselves, necessarily, once you go beyond a tiny community—and it’s never been an issue. It’s kind of ironic that it’s the post-colonial mindset of western people, mostly, that are most critical of the Brookes. They see the Brookes as just like other white people because they don’t necessarily understand the local perspective. If you look in detail at the Brookes’ rule, that argument falls pretty flat.
I think in Sarawak itself, with the government being enormously encouraging and supportive of my interest and what we’ve been doing… You’ll find that most people in government have some ancestry from political leaders who were very close to the Brookes, and who fought for the restoration of Brooke rule in the 1940s when the British were going to take it over.
And I think locally, there’s a certain amount of pride that Sarawak, I suppose, survived European colonisation unscathed. It managed to not become a British colony, a Dutch colony, or a French colony, and to remain independent—and really only lost its independence after the Japanese invaded in 1941 [which started World War Two in Southeast Asia]. So I think there is a certain amount of pride in that and we are probably tapping into that as well with our museums.
[Some historians I interviewed for the documentary have a more qualified, critical view of the Brookes. The general consensus is that they ruled with a fairer hand than other colonial powers in the region, but were not so “benign” as some would suggest and did use violence to subjugate those who opposed them.
And some historians such as Robert Reece, in his detailed study of the end of Brooke rule, suggest that the local people were fighting for the continuation of Brooke rule—not so much as an end in itself, but as an eventual path to independence, which had been promised by the Brookes.
A question worth asking: Were the Brookes colonialists too? Some say yes.]
ED: With your projects, what do you hope to achieve in reviving a better understanding of your family’s history?
JB: I think history is important anyway. I’ve always been interested in the history of people and places because I think it explains where we are in the world, how we got here, and how we can do things better in the future. I think with Sarawak, and with Malaysia as quite a young country… Often, new countries don’t really look at their history. They’re looking forward, they’re looking at what’s the next thing, and sometimes they lose sight of preserving what got them to where they are. And sometimes it takes a bit of time before countries start looking back.
So I think what we were thinking was: Okay, Malaysia is up and running and Sarawak is very established within Malaysia. But there are still a lot of wonderful tangible heritage surviving, and a lot of intangible heritage in terms of the history and the communities we engage with, and now is really the right time to start preserving these things, and then looking to, I suppose, learn from them, and encourage people and inspire people… let alone the tourism potential which, of course, the state government is hugely supportive of.
Because Sarawak’s story is a unique story. There’s nowhere else in the world with a story like this, so it’s appealing to tourists. And bringing economic benefits and a higher profile to Sarawak is in everybody’s interest.
ED: Can we talk about the efforts you’ve made so far in reviving your family’s history? In 2016, the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita opened. Was that the first project that came up?
JB: No, it wasn’t. After my first visit, I was absolutely determined to do something. I didn’t quite know yet what it was, but there was so much encouragement, so much warmth and good feeling towards my family’s history, which I hadn’t quite expected—not so much that I had expected anything negative, but it had been such a passing of time: seventy years since my family had been there, and I just thought people wouldn’t really care, and I was completely wrong. So I thought, I have to do something.
What I thought that would be, at the start, was a very traditional heritage charity in the UK where we would look after old stuff just for the sake of it, and it would be stored away safely, and so on. I set up the charity [The Brooke Trust] and convinced the family and everybody to donate all our archives.
It was through my subsequent visits to Sarawak that I realised that wasn’t enough. We needed to be sharing this stuff with Sarawak. It wasn’t enough just to keep it in existence, because old stuff is pretty meaningless unless you use it to tell a story. So the first big project we successfully pulled off was the digitisation of the Brooke archives, completed in 2012 with the kind support of the National Archives in Kuala Lumpur. We developed an online archive so that Sarawakians could access their hundred years of history free of charge for the first time.
Now, what about all the physical stuff—the swords, the flags, all that? My grandfather died in 2011, and after his memorial service in Sarawak, I met with Abang Jo, the current Chief Minister—who was then the Deputy Chief Minister and the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture—and I told him, We have all these things, I’d love to see them come here to Sarawak if there were an appropriate place for them. And we had lunch and he said, Well you should use Fort Margherita—which was then derelict, unused, unloved, and required a lot of restoration.
So we developed that into a formal proposal, which we had state cabinet approval for, and I went away and fundraised privately. We didn’t receive any state funding for it; we wanted to do this independently as a charity. We designed and installed the museum, and a little bit unexpectedly towards the last minute, we also ended up operating it—we were invited to by the state government. I think they liked how we had involved them very closely over the years in developing the narratives and things.
The Brooke Gallery opened on the 175th anniversary of the founding of Sarawak, and it was just so well received, I think we were a little bit overwhelmed. Because of that, we became more of a Sarawakian operation. I had thought all those years ago that we would be a UK charity—and yes, governance-wise, we’re a UK charity, but ninety-nine percent of what we do is in Sarawak now, and rightly so. Then, the Brooke Gallery’s success led to being invited to establish the Ranee Museum at the Old Courthouse, which opened in 2018.
ED: How are you and the Brooke Trust involved in the upcoming movie biopic about James Brooke, the first Rajah?
JB: We were approached by the movie crew some six years ago, and my agenda, I suppose, was to see what they were up to—if it was going to be a good thing, and if we could get it made in Sarawak to support the local industry. Because at the time, they were thinking of making it in Indonesia. So I convinced them that Sarawak has an airport and stuff like that, and they came with me in 2013 and met the current Chief Minister, who was enormously supportive. And the state government invested in the movie on the condition that they would make the film in Sarawak and spend the money in Sarawak, and so on.
Eventually, they got it all together and filmed in October [last year]. The Brooke Trust had agreed to be a volunteer technical adviser to steer the film away from any cultural sensitives that these Hollywood guys maybe wouldn’t understand. That was our role. They didn’t really have any interest in consulting us on the storyline itself because that’s in the public domain of course, and they have their own dramatised version, which I wouldn’t necessarily agree with. I’m hopeful that it will be a very good visual representation of the state. It looks very beautiful in the rough edits that I have seen.
[By the way: It’s apparently not the first time someone’s tried to make a James Brooke biopic. Cue Errol Flynn.]
ED: What sensitivities do you mean?
JB: I think I was concerned about the stereotyping of local people. So I encouraged them to get as authentic a sense of the local culture as they could. It’s an opportunity to promote Sarawak’s diverse and fascinating local cultures, so why not dress them up properly, and get them to behave like real people as opposed to kind of “natives” or whatever in the jungle. I was trying to get them to be sensitive to the fact that these were real people, and that this was a different time.
They were quite receptive to that. The director is a very serious artist and he really wanted to immerse himself. They hired a lot of local actors and seemed to be receptive to their input. They would be saying, No, we wouldn’t say that, we would say this... and this is what we should be doing, and this and that… so that was quite encouraging to see, because I’m not an expert in this culture either.
ED: Can you tell me more about what other projects you’ve got upcoming? I heard that a replica of the Royalist was being rebuilt?
JB: We’re collaborating with the Sarawak government on a plan to rebuild the Royalist, which is the ship James Brooke sailed to Sarawak in 1839. That’s in pretty advanced stages, but realistically we’re likely to see the Royalist in about four years, all going well. It’s tremendously exciting. We have a tangible link between Plymouth in England, where we will build her, and Kuching—and we’ll sail her over, which will be quite fantastic. And of course, the Brooke dry dockyard in Kuching is being converted into a maritime museum, so we’re hoping that will be the homeport for the Royalist.
ED: What about James Brooke’s old retreat in the mountains?
JB: We’ve just completed the construction of Rajah James Brooke’s hut up on Bukit Serembu/Peninjau near Siniawan, and we’ve been working with the local heritage committee—a Bidayuh [indigenous] group who are very proud of their connection with James Brooke. The mountain is their ancestral land, so they invited us to work with them to rebuild this retreat so they can take ecotourists up the mountain to follow in James Brooke’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s footsteps, because he had stayed there with the rajah as well. It will be totally operated by them. We’re really just there to support them as best as we can with advice, publicity, and sponsorship towards building materials for the house. It’s a retreat for more adventurous tourists, and it’s got incredible views all over Kuching.
ED: Now that you’ve visited Sarawak many times over, what do you feel towards Sarawak? What sort of relationship do you have with the state?
JB: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think I’ve felt more confident about this over time. When I first went to Sarawak I hadn’t realised just what a part of my identity Sarawak was.
My family had, of course, felt Sarawakian. My grandfather fought against the British—he certainly didn’t feel any allegiance to the British, although he was a white guy. He made great sacrifices in the course of Sarawak’s history because he thought that was his primary identity. The Brookes have European ancestry and, of course, that’s part of their identity and their philosophical worldview, but over the course of a hundred years and four generations… If you think about any immigrant group going to another country, you wonder how long it takes before you become Sarawakian, for example.
Certainly, I would consider the Brookes Sarawakian. I would consider Sarawak a huge part of my identity. And I’ve only really felt that, and the confidence in that, through engaging with Sarawak in a real sense—not in an academic sense, but in terms of the relationships that I’ve rekindled or formed anew over the past eleven years. It’s very hard to summarise what Sarawak means to me, but I kind of see it as my whole identity at this stage: serving Sarawak in some way, in a non-political way. And what I’m doing at the moment feels like the right way to do that.
ED: Your grandfather Anthony Brooke was held responsible for the assassination of a British governor in Sarawak in the 1940s, during the protests against the cession of Sarawak to the British. Do you think that injustice done to your grandfather, and the fact that he died before he was exonerated, pushed you to Sarawak more?
JB: I think it did, and part of this comes around to identity again. We’re all searching for identity, I suppose, at some point in our lives. For me, I think understanding this dynamic between the actions of my grandfather versus the actions of the British government in the 1940s really confirmed for me a feeling that my grandfather saw himself as having a primary service and loyalty to Sarawak. And I think, through the contrast between the two parties I got a clearer sense of where the Brookes stood in the world, so I think that has been important in terms of my confidence going forward and pursuing these projects in Sarawak.
I certainly see myself as kind of picking up the mantle for the Brookes, because there aren’t any left. My grandfather was very happy that I was taking an interest as one of his grandsons. And I think spiritually, it was important for my grandfather that we brought his ashes to Sarawak. That was certainly his wish. When I asked him if he would come to Sarawak with me on my first trip, he had said that his next journey would be a metaphysical one.
ED: I was speaking to a friend in Sarawak and I got the idea that sometime back there was more a sentiment locally of wanting to lionise individuals that had fought the Brookes—the Heroes’ Monument, for example—but that in the past few years that sentiment has sort of changed. Do you agree with that and can you talk about how this dynamic shifted?
JB: I think your friend was talking about the 1980s and 1990s. That was a time when the Brookes hadn’t been around for a while, and Malaysia was very much trying to create a national narrative, for which I don’t think Sarawak’s hundred years of independence really fitted in with.
So, I think the Heroes’ Monument became a bit of a confusing narrative. It’s a bit tricky because they just picked out, basically, everyone who ever fought against the Brookes. What they ended up doing was selecting people who fought against each other and designating all of them as national heroes. Some of the people on the Heroes’ Monument like Datu Patinggi Ali died fighting for James Brooke and he was probably killed by Rentap [an indigenous Iban leader], so they can’t both be national heroes. Likewise, Liu Shan Bang, the leader of the Hakka goldminers’ attack on Kuching in 1857, was killed by Malays and Dayaks, not by the Brookes. [However, the gold miners were rebelling against the Brookes, and the Malays and Dayaks were fighting for the Brookes.]
I think when you understand those events, you try to get away from the idea of national heroes. If I’m being fair to everybody—we include Rentap in the Brooke Gallery—you try to see things from the perspective of that person. You don’t have to be right or wrong or a freedom fighter or a national hero. I think with Rentap, he didn’t want Sarawak to exist. He wanted to lead his community outside of Sarawak—and that’s a completely legitimate worldview, I think most people would agree. It just didn’t really work within a nation state set-up [which the Brookes sought to create in Sarawak]. So you can understand people’s perspectives and why they fought, but I’ve tried as best as I can not to lionise anyone, including the people who supported the Brookes, and just to say that these are the events that happened…
I just try to encourage people to think the best of everybody, who thought what they were doing was probably the right thing. History is rarely a case of bad guys versus good guys. When you make permanent memorials like the Heroes’ Monument, I think it can feel a little bit awkward because you can’t really tear it down—that would feel symbolic, kind of admitting that things aren’t quite right. But at the same time, the history that it’s presenting is quite misleading. I don’t think you can have two national heroes that kill each other if you’re going to have national heroes at all.
Thankfully, at the timing of my involvement, and being clear that we stay well clear of politics, I think people have realised that this period of history isn’t just about the Brookes. It’s about their own journey, their own hundred years of history.
ED: Actually, speaking of the Heroes’ Monument, I was just there [in November 2019] and the area was under construction, and all the faces were missing except Datu Patinggi Ali’s.
JB: Really? That’s interesting… It wasn’t me! (Laughs.)
But yes, it’s a tricky one. I’m not a nationalist. I don’t believe in these symbolic assertions of things. I think we need to understand history as this nuanced thing. You know, we all have good ancestors and bad ancestors, judging by the standards of today.
[When I spoke to Sarawakian historian James Chin, he said that from what he had heard, it wasn’t a political thing, and that the monument was under construction to make the faces more accurate. Then I googled around, and it turns out it wasn’t the first time the other plaques have gone missing—it happened in 2014 too? 🤷♀️]
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Insights from James Chin on the Brooke narrative in Sarawak
“The starting point [of the revival of interest in the Brookes’ history], if you ask me, was the burial of the ashes of the last official rajah muda, Anthony Brooke. That was the starting point, that’s when the interest started.”
“The last time the people of Sarawak were taught about Brooke heritage was up to 1971. Between 1963 and 1971 they used to learn a bit about the Brookes in the history section of Sarawak’s school system. But from 1971 onwards, when it was taken over by the federal government, the Brooke history completely disappeared. In the last twenty years, the Brooke history has come back as a single page in the Form 4 syllabus. Basically, it’s a straightforward narrative: James Brooke conquered Sarawak, he received permission from the Brunei Sultan to take over Sarawak bit by bit, then he became the colonial ruler of Sarawak until 1941. There’s no analysis. But you know that the picture is much more complicated.”
“This project [the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita and the Brooke story more generally] is fully supported by the state government. The official reason for supporting it is for tourism purposes. But the real reason, in my opinion, is because Gabungan Parti Sarawak [the state’s current ruling alliance] is fighting for its political life. So they are trying to create this narrative that Sarawak has always been an independent country, that it has always been totally separate from Malaysia. The Brooke legacy chimes very well with this political narrative.”
[In 1963, Sarawak and Sabah (then North Borneo) joined Malaysia as equal partners to Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia) and Singapore (which left the federation in 1965), but were designated mere states about a decade later. Many Sarawakians want equal partner status reinstated and more autonomy from the federal government.]
“Generally speaking, people in Sarawak look at the Brooke era as Sarawak’s golden era, when Sarawak was independent and had its own diplomatic status, and that the Brookes were fair-weather leaders. That’s the interesting thing about the Brookes compared to everybody else in Southeast Asia at the time: they were not seen as colonisers, they were seen as people who were there to protect the Sarawakians from outsiders. Which is interesting because from day one, the Brookes always saw themselves as colonising on behalf of the Queen. That’s why they tried forever to get the British to accept them as rulers of Sarawak.”
[The Brookes wanted to be recognised as rightful rulers of an independent Sarawak, but historians may have come to different ideas on the motivations of the respective rajahs. Sarawak was recognised by the United States in 1850 and Britain in 1864, and became a British protectorate in 1888 before becoming a colony in 1946.]
“It’s not true [that they were ‘benign autocrats’]. They killed people to force them to accept Brooke rule. This ‘benign’ thing is based mainly on Steven Runciman’s book, which is considered official history. The one thing I will say is that the Brookes did not exploit Sarawak economically to the extent that the Dutch or the British did in Malaya. And part of this was because investors were reluctant to go to Sarawak as it was not a formal part of the empires.”
[On the flip side of this, the Brookes’ paternalism meant Sarawak’s economy remained under-developed.]
I hope you enjoyed this letter. There is so much more where all this comes from!