Few people succeed in founding a country. Cecil Rhodes did. Stamford Raffles did. They became famous. But there was another Englishman who is hardly known at all who also achieved the feat. And he did it with little means and created an enduring dynasty.
The life of James Brooke (1803-1868) sounds more like bad Victorian fiction than history, for he was truly a bored rich man who, exactly 180 years ago, established a line of ” white rajahs” who would rule the principality of Borneo. Sarawak for a century.
His photo at the National Portrait Gallery (above) says it all. A “swagger portrait” in naval uniform, bold, resolute and cloak and dagger, eyes fixed on a great future against a backdrop of palm trees and swamps, he bears an extraordinary resemblance to Colin Firth in the manner of Mr. D’ Arcy. Yet all of Brooke Raj was founded on a simple case of mistaken identity.
James was born the son of a wealthy judge in British India. Joining the East India Company army fighting in Assam, his active military career lasted only two days before he was seriously injured and disabled at home – James always suffered from an excessive urge to blindly charge the enemy. The nature of this injury has been the subject of much speculation. Was he, as some have claimed, injured in his private parts in a way that explains the lack of female romance in his life or are there other more plausible explanations?
Rejecting the Company and its ways, he ends up heading back east in search of adventure on a ship purchased for him by his doting father during the longest “gap year” in history. It was supposed to be a business venture, but it was a financial disaster like all his other such ventures would turn out to be.
Unrepentant, after his father’s death, he bought another ship and sailed to Singapore where the governor asked him to drop off gifts in Sarawak, Borneo – nominally under the rule of Brunei – to thank the local rulers for having shows kindness to shipwrecked British sailors. . It was then that fate obligingly intervened to transform him from a wandering vagrant into a romantic hero.
James’ ship was once owned by the Royal Yacht Squadron and the complex naval gallantries of the time allowed him to wear naval uniform, fly the white ensign and exchange naval salutes. He arrived as a messenger from the Governor of Singapore and delivered great smugness, official letters and much bluster. Everyone in Sarawak immediately realized that he was really the British government in disguise – dangerous to oppose – and James did nothing to correct that idea. Instead, he began to arrogantly interfere in local affairs, using his firepower to put down an uprising, and gradually became indispensable. Hello in the nest, he eliminated the ruling Bruneian nobles and managed to gain recognition as an ill-defined local resident.