The White Rajahs were a dynastic monarchy of the English Brooke family, who founded and ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo, from 1841 to 1946. The first ruler was Englishman James Brooke. As a reward for helping the Sultanate of Brunei fight piracy and insurgency among the indigenous peoples, he was granted the landmass of Sarawak in 1841 and received independent kingdom status.
Based on descent through the male line in accordance with the Will of Sir James Brooke, the White Rajahs' dynasty continued through Brooke's nephew and grandnephew, the latter of whom ceded his rights to the United Kingdom in 1946. His nephew had been the legal heir to the throne and objected to the cession, as did most of the Sarawak members of the Council Negri.
Sarawak was part of the realm of Brunei until 1841 when James Brooke was granted a sizeable area of land in the southwest area of Brunei – around the city of Sarawak (now Kuching) and the nearby mining region of Bau – from Bruneian Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II. He was later confirmed with the title of Rajah of the territory. The Kingdom of Sarawak developed and expanded during the rule of the first two White Rajahs, growing to occupy much of the north region of the island of Borneo. The Brooke administrations leased or annexed more land from Brunei.
The White Rajahs pursued a policy of paternalism, with the goal of protecting the "native peoples" (indigenous peoples) from "capitalist exploitation". While James Brooke laid much of the groundwork for the expansion of Sarawak, his nephew Charles, the second rajah, was the great builder. He constructed public buildings to serve welfare, such as a hospital, in addition to forts. He worked to extend the borders of the state.
Vyner Brooke instituted significant political reforms during his tenure. 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). Bertram co-ruled with his elder brother, taking turns of 6 – 8 months in charge of the country each year. By 1939 Bertram's son Anthony had taken the reins of government, and it was with considerable controversy that Vyner attempted to cede Sarawak to Britain secretly in 1946 in what gave rise to the anti-cession movement of Sarawak.
When James Brooke first arrived in Sarawak, it was governed as a vassal state of the Sultanate of Brunei; the system of government was based on the Bruneian model. Brooke reorganised the government according to the British model, eventually creating a civil service. It recruited European, chiefly British, officers to run district outstations. The Sarawak Service was continually reformed by Rajah James and his successors.
Rajah James retained many of the customs and symbols of Malay monarchy, and combined them with his own style of absolute rule. The Rajah had the power to introduce laws and acted as chief judge in Kuching.
The White Rajahs were determined to prevent the indigenous peoples of Sarawak from being exploited by Western business interests. They allowed the Borneo Company Limited (the Borneo Company) to assist in managing the economy. The core of the early Sarawak economy was antimony, later followed by gold, which was mined in Bau by Chinese syndicates who imported numerous workers from China. After the local Chinese uprising in 1857, the mining operations were gradually taken over by the Borneo Company; it bought out the last Chinese syndicate in 1884.The Borneo Company provided military support to the White Rajahs during crises such as the Chinese uprising. One of the company steamships, the Sir James Brooke, helped recapture Kuching.
Rajah Charles formed a small paramilitary force, the Sarawak Rangers, to police and defend the expanding state. This small army also manned a series of forts around the country, acted as the Rajahs' personal guard, and performed ceremonial duties.
CESSION TO THE UNITED KINGDOM
After the Second World War, during which Sarawak and Borneo had been occupied by Japanese forces, the third rajah, Vyner Brooke, ceded his life interest in Sarawak to the Colonial Office. Unclear as to the legality of cession, the British Government simultaneously passed a Bill of Annexation. Rajah Vyner's nephew and legal heir, Anthony Brooke, initially opposed annexation by the Crown, as did a majority of the native members of the Council Negri.
Because of his opposition to the cession, Anthony Brooke was considered a suspect when Duncan Stewart, the second British governor to Sarawak, was assassinated by two people that were believed to be members of a group dedicated to restoring him as Rajah. In fact they were from a political group agitating for union with newly independent Indonesia. He was never prosecuted. Documents released in the late 20th century indicate that the British Government knew that Brooke was not involved, but chose not to reveal the truth of the matter so not to provoke Indonesia. It had recently won its war of independence from the Netherlands, and the UK was already dealing with the Malayan Emergency to the north-west.Since those events, there has been no serious movement for the restoration of the monarchy, although Anthony's son James Bertram Lionel Brooke remains the principal beneficiary (heir) under the Will of Sir James Brooke.
The period of Brooke rule is generally looked upon favourably in Sarawak, and in recent times the government has accepted the importance of their legacy for its social, cultural, and touristic value.
The Brooke family still maintains strong ties to the state and its people and are represented by the Brooke Trust, and by Anthony Brooke's grandson Jason Desmond Anthony Brooke, at many state functions and supporting heritage projects.