Sarawak's Colourful History
By Alan Spencer

[Kuching Guide Home]

Sarawak's proud history of the last two centuries provided one of the most fascinating contributions in the whole development of the British Empire.

In the early 19th. century, what was to become Malaysia was still a scattering of newly formed outposts down Malaya's west coast, later to become known as the Straits Settlements. The British were still probing their way past Borneo through the South China Sea towards China and the yet to be formed Colony of Hong Kong.

[Sir James Brooke, First Rajah of Sarawak (from a portrait in the 'Illustrated London News,' Nov., 1847)]

In these early days, young James Brooke of the British East India Company found himself appointed as an adviser to the Sultan of Brunei. The Sultan himself had little control over enormous areas of his lands, and James Brooke was continually warring against his opponents.

As a reward for suppressing a particularly dangerous revolt, the Sultan made James 'Rajah' ('King') of a grant of land far to the west, in 1841. A single river and its tributaries was the only form of travel through the dense jungle, and James Brooke found himself having to get past the fierce and brave Sea Dyaks at its mouth before being able to base his headquarters upriver at the village of Kuching.

Then followed a long series of river wars to include the equally proud inland Iban headhunters within his new lands. James Brooke's original land grant continually expanded until it dwarfed the Sultan's own territory! Thus was born Sarawak.

Still in James' personal ownership, and as news of this remarkable area began filtering out to the British in adjoining areas, Sarawak became better known, and James became known as the 'White Rajah'! Indeed, in 1850 the USA recognised Sarawak as an independent state — as did even the British, in 1864! On his death, James' nephew Charles Brooke took over the 'crown', to be followed by Charles' son, Charles Vyner Brooke.

[Datu Patinggi Abdul Rahman's house, Sarikei]

It was not until after World War II, when the occupying Japanese had left, that it was decided that the time for such 'White Rajah' personal empires had passed. Charles Vyner Brooke abdicated and Sarawak at long last became a 'proper' British Crown Colony, in 1946.

In 1963 Sarawak then became a part of — and the largest territory within — the new Malaysia.

Thus, Kuching and Sarawak, with all its modern benefits, can still remind us of one of the very few examples of a truly privately ruled 'kingdom' in the fascinating days of the British Empire of not so long ago!