Vyner Brooke He was a charmer and womaniser who grew up in the shadow of an autocratic father and then sold his crown for a million pounds. PREMILLA MOHANLALL digs up some juicy stories on Charles Vyner Brooke.
(Taken from The Star, 30th October 2004)
Getting lost can lead you on a voyage of discovery! I had taken a wrong turn after a shopping trip in London and found myself wandering through quiet Albion Street when I stopped to stare at a bronze plaque that read:
Brooke, Sir Charles Vyner
Last Rajah of Sarawak, lived here.
13, Albion Street W2
This sent me trawling through the history books to find colourful stories about the family that are little known to most Malaysians.
Charles Vyner Brooke’s best claim to fame was as the rajah who sold his kingdom for a million pounds to the British Colonial Office. He then retired to lead a reclusive life in London, a broken “king” but with a sexual appetite that didn’t wane – he died in the arms of a 17-year girlfriend at age 87!
Brooke, the grandnephew of James Brooke, was an easygoing and spendthrift young man. His father, Rajah Charles, the second White Rajah of Sarawak and James’ nephew, once warned his heir: “Our family never entertained the idea of founding a family of Brookes to be European millionaires!”
But his advice fell on deaf ears and the young man, together with his queen, squandered the family money and title, and eventually died in relative obscurity in London. His life reflected his rejection of the spartan lifestyle that his frugal father had imposed on the family.
Young Charles Vyner grew up in the Astana, in Kuching, that was sorely in need of renovation. His father, however, refused to change even one stick of furniture. It was reported that when a resident, A. B. Ward, took it upon himself to replace the moth-eaten tablecloth in the Astana, the enraged Rajah Charles flung it out. Rajah Charles abhorred luxury and comfort saying that he could live as rough a life as his subjects, especially those in remote villages.
From all historical accounts, Rajah Charles was a model ruler. He had inherited a bankrupt state in 1870 from his uncle, James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.
The new rajah was a quiet and severe young man who dismissed the British Colonial Office’s model of administration for the colonies as being “apt to exalt Western civilisation to the exclusion of native customs, forcing home-made laws upon reluctant people.”
However, he was opposed to slavery and headhunting and devoted his energy to abolishing these practices. To effect these reforms, he started the Sarawak Service, with 50 officers. He encouraged his officers to marry local women, something that did not endear him to the English ladies of Kuching.
As the white rajah, he, however, considered it his royal duty to produce a white heir. He returned to England to marry Ranee Margaret, a lively young lady, 20 years his junior. Fort Margherita is named after her.
The newly married Rajah Charles then built the Astana, now the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak. Not surprisingly, the Astana was a no-frills affair. He sired three children but they died on a trip back to England on board a British mail boat. From then on, Rajah Charles travelled only on French liners.
He later sired three boys – Charles Vyner, Bertram and Harry. His succession assured, he and Ranee Margaret led separate lives – he preferred the quiet life of Sarawak while she enjoyed the gaiety of London society.
Ranee Margeret socialised with the London literary set and displayed great courage when she chose to ignore convention and protect the two young sons of Oscar Wilde from their father’s homosexual scandal that rocked English society in the 1880s.
Rajah Charles, meanwhile, attended to the affairs of the state with unstinting devotion. He built the courthouse, now a Kuching landmark, where he heard several cases daily. During his reign, gold and oil deposits were found in Sarawak. He also encouraged crop cultivation for exports. To work the mines and grow crops, he encouraged the Chinese to migrate here. This period saw new townships in the predominantly jungle landscape – Sibu, Bintulu and Samarang. Kuching also grew fast.
Charles was a keen horseman who loved racing. He built the Kuching Turf Club to feed this passion. He proclaimed a Race Week once a year, something like the Melbourne Cup Week or Ascot. The first races were held in 1890, using ponies from Sabah; later he imported studs from Australia.
Two racing days were declared public holidays, when Kuching society gathered at the turf club in Pandungan. Grandstands were allocated to Europeans and native chieftains, with a line of huts across the grandstand for locals.
Like his uncle James Brooke, Rajah Charles ruled Sarawak, independent of the British Colonial Office.
Charles Vyner Brooke inherited a financially well-managed state. An affable young man, he married Sylvia Brett, the daughter of Lord Esher and godchild of novelist J.B. Barrie and Bernard Shaw.
She was a social butterfly, who organised dances and amateur theatre for the European community of Kuching. The Rajah built a cinema that was named after her. He also renovated the Astana, transforming it from a ramshackle building to a stately mansion and had an elaborate coronation. Ranee Sylvia proclaimed yellow as the royal colour, for the exclusive use of the Rajah and his family.
This was the heyday of social life in Sarawak, portrayed in the novels of Somerset Maugham – of theatre, dances and Whites-only clubs. During this period, locals were discouraged from entering European clubs, a practice that ran against the previous Brooke rule of encouraging integration.
Charles Vyner was a charming personality and Ranee Sylvia wrote in her biography published in 1972 (released after she died in 1971) that he was a man with a voracious sexual appetite on the trail of skirts, especially local ones, many of whom became close family friends.
In her book, Ranee Sylvia describes the pleasures and strains of life in Kuching, where as the Rajah’s wife, she vetted and accepted philosophically his many mistresses.
Ranee Sylvia was bored and given to big spending; he, on the other hand, did his best to improve the lot of his people but did not enjoy the rigours of administration.
Before long, the state coffers began to dwindle and just months prior to Japanese Occupation, Vyner, who was tired of ruling, announced that he planned to celebrate the centenary of Brooke rule by divesting himself of absolute power. He had no male heir; the Sarawak Constitution drawn up by the earlier rajahs clearly stipulated that the ruler must be male. Charles Vyner had three daughters and Ranee Sylvia tried to amend the constitution to include female rulers but she failed.
After the war, nationalism was on the rise. Charles Vyner realised that he might have a losing battle on his hands. Besides, he wanted out. So, he ceded the state to the British Crown. He handed over Sarawak’s accumulated reserves of £2.75mil on the understanding that £1mil pounds would be set aside in a trust for himself and his family. Thus ended 100 years of Brooke rule in Sarawak, which became a British Crown Colony on Jul 1, 1945.
Charles Vyner and his wife went their separate ways – he went into exile in London, where he died in 1963.
Ranee Sylvia continued her royal role abroad. Dressed in the royal regalia of Sarawak, she entered the lecture circuit and toured America, where she was received as the Queen of the Headhunters (it’s also the title of her autobiography). A woman with a sense of drama, she also took the Brooke family saga to Hollywood but nothing came out it. She died in 1971 in Barbados.
Their daughters Leonora, Elizabeth and Valerie gained notoriety for their public brawls, family feuds and illicit love affairs. Elizabeth went on to become an actress and died in 2002. Little is known of the other two.
* James Brooke was romanticised as a buccaneer and it is said that Charles Kingsley dedicated the novel Westward Ho! to him.
* Errol Flynn was tipped to play the part of James Brooke in a Warner Brothers movie in 1930s. The script was so heavily fictionalised that the Brooke family refused to endorse it – Hollywood wanted James to be portrayed as a womaniser, which he wasn’t, given an injury that had made him impotent.
* Rajah Charles was considered an eccentric. After losing an eye in a riding accident he replaced it with a fake eye that was destined for a stuffed albatross!