Cirencester Civic Society Nov 20

01 Feb 1996, Sarawak, Malaysia — Portrait of Sir James Brooke — Image by © Luca Tettoni/Corbis

The White Rajahs of Sarawak

and Vyners Close, Chesterton, Cirencester

Chance led Cirencester to have an obscure connection with the former state of Sarawak, now part of Indonesia.  Chesterton House and the land now called Vyners Close were the last “seat” of the White Rajahs of Sarawak. The Whites were a dynastic monarchy who founded and ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak until it was ceded to the Indonesian government at the end of the second world war. 

The story begins with James Brooke, son of a judge in the East India Company, who was born in India but educated in England.  He did not settle at school and it seems the only things he learned was navigation and essential sailing.  This limited his career options, so he joined the Bengal Irregular Cavalry and served in India.  There are wonderfully apocryphal stories about how one of his injuries caused him to have his testicles pickled, but this seems at odds with the fact that he became a father in due course.  

But his stories as an adventurer begin to come to life with his return to army service in about 1830 following a period of sick leave in England. As the sailing ship he was on was slow, and he was likely to report back for duty later than expected, he decided not to continue to serve in the army and jumped ship in Madras.  There he purchased a sailing schooner (with a small inheritance), loaded it with goods and set off eastwards as a private merchant trader. 

He got as far as Singapore where the governor asked him to go to Kuching to help the Sultan of Brunei put down an insurrection of the local peoples.  As the sailing ship was armed, he fired into Kuching with cannons, and ordered his men to march through the town firing their muskets. Out of gratitude for his help the Sultan gave him the trading post of Kuching which included the province of Asai Sarawak (or Original Sarawak).  Throughout his time in Sarawak he continued to use his gun boat to maintain the peace through force, but it also meant he was able to gain control of a larger portion of the adjoining territory, through annexation or exploitation.  There is a whiff of piracy!

James was alleged to be gay, but also to have fathered several illegitimate children.  What did happen was that his nephew, Brooke Johnson, was adopted as his heir and took his name (becoming bizarrely Brooke Brooke).  However, family tensions subsequently led to his uncle disinheriting Brooke and the title passed to Brooke’s brother Charles, which is how the story begins to relate to Cirencester.  Originally Charles lived in Purton, but in1899 rented Cecily Hill House and in 1900 bought Oakley Villas, which became Oakley Hall and is now the location for Oaklands. 

Charles lived there until his death 1917 and there are a number of colourful stories about his behaviour featuring exotic animals and unusual sexual proclivity, not necessarily at the same time. With his death the Cirencester connection ended.

His eldest son Vyner inherited the title and co-ruled Sarawak with his brother Bertram, each taking turns of living in Sarawak for 6- 8 months each year. He ended the absolute rule of the Rajah in 1941, before the Japanese invasion of World War II, by granting new powers to the Council Negri (the parliament). It was with a considerable controversy that Vyner attempted secretly to cede Sarawak to Britain in 1946 in what gave rise to the anti-cession movement of Sarawak, now an Indonesian state. The family lands in Cirencester were sold for housing. 

By Meg Blumson

To find out more about the Cirencester Civic Society go to www.ccsoc.org.uk

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