24 September 1841: James Brooke becomes the Rajah of Sarawak

James Brooke, born in India in 1803, was almost killed at the tender age of 22. He was shot in “the most intimate part of the male anatomy” while fighting the Burmese, according to an article from 2011 in the Daily Mail.

But this brush with death did nothing to dent his enthusiasm for swashbuckling. With £30,000 he inherited from his father in 1835, Brooke bought the 142-ton Royalist to take him into the Malay archipelago. In 1839, his adventures landed him on the shores of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. There he found a rebellion under way against the rule of the Sultan of Brunei, which he happily crushed.

Delighted with the victory, Brooke cheerfully noted, “…the agreement was drawn out, sealed and signed; guns fired, flags waved; and on 24 September 1841, I became the governor of Sarawak with the fullest powers”.

But, as Nigel Barley notes in White Rajah, what he really meant was ‘Rajah of Sarawak’. “He quite unlawfully assumed the title of Rajah… and began his rule and his new life in a legalistic high moral tone”. Following a little gunboat diplomacy, the sultan confirmed the status quo just under a year later.

Brooke lost no time in setting up his courthouse. He appointed himself as judge and sat in session with his companion – an orang-utan named Betsy – at his side, bringing to heel an unruly head-hunting people known as the Dayak, and ridding the area of pirates.

But power wasn’t enough. Brooke was disappointed with the lack of ready wealth that rule brought. He wrote, “We are so accustomed to hear of the riches of the isles of the Eastern seas, that many imagine we have but to step in to reap a rich reward. But the fact is, that the riches spoken of have to be developed or created…”

By seizing the antimony mines and instituting a rice tax, Brooke was able to raise about £5,000 a year by his own (probably unrealistic) estimates to fund his government. And while his fiefdom was awash with crude oil, nobody had yet found a use for it. He did console himself with the discovery of the fabulous ‘Brooke Diamond’. But even that turned out to be, as Barley put it, “a relatively valueless opal”.

Undeterred, James Brooke ruled Sarawak until his death in 1868, when the title of rajah passed to his nephew. The last ‘Rajah of Sarawak’, Anthony Brooke, died in 2011, aged 98.

Also on this day

24 September 1979: Compuserve launches MicroNET

One of the first steps to the internet we know and love was taken today on this day in 1979, when Compuserve launched its MicroNET service. Read more here.