Sunday, 23 December 2007
Wednesday, 12 December 2007
At the Daily Telegraph obituaries desk in April 2002 we were telephoned by a man introducing himself as Stewart McNair. He was the only son of Valerie Brooke, a colourful figure known as 'Princess Baba' during the 1930s, and the grandson of Sir Vyner Brooke, the last White Rajah of Sarawak, whose extraordinary wife Ranee Sylvia had adopted the sobriquet 'Queen of the Headhunters'. Mr McNair, himself a headhunter, the recruitment kind, was calling to suggest an obituary of his aunt Elizabeth Brooke Vidmer ('Princess Pearl'), who had recently died in Barbados. In the process of cobbling together a piece for our page, I was drawn in to the curious story of the Brooke family.
The Brookes had ruled their jungle kingdom on the island of Borneo for just over a century. They were the only English family ever to have occupied an Oriental throne and seem to have been remarkably popular with their subjects. They had their own flag, currency, postage stamps and constabulary, and each White Rajah had the power of life and death over half a million Malays, Chinese and Dyak tribesmen - notorious for their custom of taking heads. During the 1930s Rajah Vyner, a cloud-living Old Wykehamist, was one of the few monarchs left in the world who could still say 'l'Etat, c'est moi'.
Yet he ruled his kingdom rather as if it were an English country estate, with tribal chiefs always welcome at the big house. His family appeared in Burke's Landed Gentry as 'Brooke of Sarawak', and his career was encapsulated in one of the more arresting entries in Who's Who: 'Has led several expeditions into the far interior of the country to punish headhunters; understands the management of natives; rules over a population of 500,000 souls and a country 40,000 square miles in extent.'
Prior to the Second World War, the press in Britain continued to romanticise the Brooke Raj, but in truth the dynasty was in decline. In December 1941 Sarawak was overrun and occupied by the Japanese while the Rajah and Ranee were - conveniently, it was muttered - out of the country, and after the war Rajah Vyner controversially abdicated, ceding Sarawak to Britain as its last colonial acquisition.The whimsical Rajah, his Rasputin-like private secretary and the ham-fisted British government all bore their share of responsibility for the clumsy way in which the Raj was brought to an end. But in many people's eyes a bigger villain was Ranee Sylvia, the extravagantly dressed author of 11 books who was submissive consort one moment, outrageous self-dramatist the next, described by the press as 'that most charming of despots', and by her brother as 'a female Iago'.When Steven Runciman wrote his history The White Rajahs (1960), he admitted privately that tact and fear of legal proceedings had 'kept me from saying too openly what I think about the later stages'. 'Of the Ranee,' he wrote in a letter to Rajah Vyner's niece, 'I've said very little, as I didn't want to risk libel.' There being no risk of that after Ranee Sylvia's death in 1971, I decided to write her biography, although one esteemed historian confessed he was baffled that I should want to write about such a 'wretched' and 'seedy' character.
Sylvia's elder sister Dorothy - later better known as the Bloomsbury painter 'Brett' and the third in DH Lawrence's ménage à trois in New Mexico -recalled being wheeled in a double pram with Sylvia by their nurse in Hyde Park one day and being told to wave to their father, Reginald Brett, who was out walking with a friend. Reggie wondered to his friend why those children were waving at him. 'Perhaps they are yours,' the friend ventured.
Reggie Brett, a courtier who succeeded his father as the second Viscount Esher in 1899 when Sylvia was 14, was a fabulously well-connected man, the confidant of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, and of every prime minister from Rosebery to Baldwin. Yet he was a remote and often cruelly insensitive father to his children when they were little, apart from his younger son Maurice, whom he worshipped. Girls, in particular, were 'tiresome things until they are grown up', as far as Reggie was concerned.
Written off as plain and tongue-tied by her father, subordinated by her brothers (it was her duty every morning to do up their bootlaces) and mauled by her father's secretary, Sylvia made two attempts at suicide by the time she was 12: she first tried ptomaine poisoning, buying a tin of sardines from the village shop, opening it and leaving it on top of her cupboard for seven days before eating it; when that failed, she sought to catch pneumonia by lying naked in the snow.
After suffering further agonies of adolescent inadequacy, followed by miserable seasons as a ballroom wallflower, she sought refuge in her writing. Lunching each day at 'Lord Esher's table' at the Savoy Grill, she befriended JM Barrie, who helped her to publish her short stories. One of these, The Left Ladies, was inspired by Sylvia's fear of being left on the shelf, a fear exacerbated by the stuttering progress in the closest thing she had had to a love affair.
She had first met Vyner Brooke, the Rajah Muda of Sarawak, in 1903, when he was 29 and she had joined the all-girl orchestra cunningly formed by Vyner's mother, Ranee Margaret, as a means of introducing suitable young ladies to her three shy sons, each of whom would eventually marry a member of the ensemble. Vyner had quickly declared his love for 18-year-old Sylvia, but a combination of her parents' hostility (Reggie Esher not only thoroughly disapproved of despotic forms of government, but also regarded the White Rajahs as characters out of a comic opera) and her own uncertainty meant that it was not until 1911 that she finally accepted him.
At their wedding the press turned out in force, eager to report the news that Lord Esher's daughter had married the heir to 'one of the most romantic sovereignties in all Asia', 'Lord and Taker of Life', 'the greatest autocrat on earth'. When they returned from honeymoon, George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia's other literary admirer, had sent a nursery rhyme:
'Ride a cock horse
To Sarawak Cross
To see a young Ranee consumed with remorse.
She'll have bells on her fingers
And rings through her nose,
And won't be permitted to wear any clo'es.'
A year later, in 1912, Vyner took Sylvia on her first visit to Sarawak. After a week she wrote from the royal palace (Astana) to tell Shaw that she was 'alas no longer what I was, a humble, dutiful wife, but a howling snob with a head as swelled as the largest coconut in the land - every time I go to pick a flower in the garden the guard turns out, and every time I go to buy a button in the village, 60 people gather about the shop, when we go to dinner our national anthem is played as we go up the steps, and we sit upon cloths of gold.'
In 1918 Vyner succeeded his father, Rajah Charles, and Sylvia became Ranee. By this time she had produced three daughters but no son. (Before each birth the old Rajah had primed the bellringers in Sarawak to announce the arrival of a future heir to the Brooke Raj, but they clung to the ropes waiting for a signal that never came.) Shortly after the birth of her third daughter, Valerie, Sylvia was told that she could have no more children, so instead she hatched various schemes aimed at overturning the rules of succession in favour of her eldest, Leonora - 'Princess Gold'. At the same time she took every opportunity to blacken the name of the heir apparent, Vyner's nephew Anthony Brooke, accusing him of folie de grandeur when Vyner briefly left him in charge of Sarawak. She said that he had clamped a golden cardboard crown to his car and instructed that all traffic draw aside at his approach.
Sylvia was hardly one to talk, having confessed to her father shortly after her marriage that she wanted 'crowns plastered everywhere'. In general she did not do dignity. Her lack of restraint as Ranee shocked serious-minded members of the Sarawak service - in 1930 the chief justice complained to his mother about the 'unbelievable amount of smut in Her Highness's conversation'. In 1946, after observing the Ranee dancing with two prostitutes in a nightclub and taking them back to the palace to paint their portraits, a visiting MP from Westminster concluded that 'a more undignified woman it would be hard to find'.
Sylvia's daughters, meanwhile, grew up with little in the way of boundaries and Sylvia was happy to live vicariously through them, relishing the fact that 'they never had to stand in a row of anxious virgins as I had done, waiting to be asked to dine or dance'. The 'dangerously beautiful' Brooke girls eventually married eight times between them; their various husbands included the 2nd Earl of Inchcape and the bandleader Harry Roy. According to cousin Anthony, their antics turned Sarawak into 'a music hall joke'.
When, in 1937, Valerie, the wildest of the three, fell into the clutches of the European middleweight 'catch-as-catch-can' wrestling champion Bob Gregory, her wedding was attended by a blaze of publicity which they eagerly fanned by driving around London in a white open car with 'Baba and Bob' painted on the back, and Valerie carrying a toy monkey, larger than she was, wherever she went. They later announced they were going to buy an island in the Netherlands East Indies to be called 'Babaland', where 'every man would be Rajah'. 'We're going to have a democracy,' Valerie declared, 'but with a court and things - maybe an aristocratic democracy. I think a country without lots of uniforms and braids is no fun.'
Publicly, Sylvia joined with Vyner in disapproving of the match, but in the view of the stern chief justice, she was entirely to blame for bringing her daughters up 'like tarts'. At the same time, she contributed to what Anthony called 'this rotten, cheap publicity' by making wildly inaccurate statements whenever she stumbled across a journalist. She did nothing to dispel the impression that Sarawak was populated entirely by headhunters and lotus eaters, and saw to it that her position and influence as Ranee remained enshrouded in myth. But while her peculiar status and activities were endlessly celebrated by the press, the Colonial Office (CO) had long regarded her as 'a dangerous woman'.
In 1942, when she arrived back in England from Sarawak, imaginatively claiming that she had just 'escaped' from the invading Japanese, and volunteering to go on a lecture tour, the CO could think of nothing 'calculated to do less good and more mischief than a lecture by this lady'. After the war, she wanted to be part of the advance party to Sarawak to help re-establish 'normal life', but it was tersely minuted that she 'ought to be the last civilian in the queue - her spiritual home is Hollywood'. When she eventually returned to Sarawak, in 1946, it was to accompany Vyner as he prepared to abdicate. Although she maintained otherwise, she had been secretly pushing for a transfer of sovereignty since the late 1930s. With the country now on its knees after four years of occupation, and with Anthony's presumptuous attitude over the succession becoming increasingly irksome to them both, cession to Britain in return for a financial settlement had become all the more attractive.
On this, their final visit to their kingdom, they landed as usual by flying boat at the mouth of the Sarawak river and transferred to the royal yacht, with Sylvia standing on deck waving her silk scarf all the way upriver to the capital Kuching. 'Never before had we received such a tremendous welcome,' she recalled: 'hundreds of little boats lined the river banks, and behind the boats the crowds were so dense they looked like a forest of dazzling flowers with their golden sarongs and little coloured coats.'
As they went ashore, a 21-gun salute boomed out from Fort Margherita, and as they walked among the people, Sylvia four paces behind her husband (according to Sarawakian custom, she was his slave), Malay women surged through the guard, prodding Vyner beneath his royal yellow umbrella and teasing him that 'the Rajah has got fat'. Later on, as they looked down from their upstairs veranda at the palace, the crowd sang Salamat rumah Tuan Rajah (Blessings on your house, Rajah) and Salamat Tuan Ranee. Sylvia recalled that she 'would have felt further from tears if some of them had denounced us and called down curses on our heads instead of invoking this gracious and merciful benediction, this unanimous affection.' She wondered if it was crossing Vyner's mind not to go through with the cession.
Over the next few days, Dyak chiefs came to the palace to tell of their wartime experiences. Sylvia's old favourite, Temenggong Koh, was now aged 76 but he looked younger than he had before the war, 'refreshed' by the renewed headhunting that had taken place during the occupation. In Sarawak as a whole it was estimated that 1,500 Japanese had lost their heads - which were particularly prized by the Dyaks for being 'nice round heads with good hair and gold teeth'. Officers in the Sarawak service thought that 'this three and a half years of glorious hunting' would not make the Dyaks out of hand, but rather the fact that they had replenished their head supply would tend to keep them quiet.
Vyner and Sylvia later made one final journey up the Rejang river to Kapit, where Temenggong Koh had summoned hundreds of Kayans and Dyaks in their war boats, scarlet capes and hornbill feather head-dresses. When the Rajah came ashore and made a speech, they all fell silent. As Sylvia later wrote, 'he was amongst the people that he loved; and as always in such circumstances, his shyness disappeared. I don't think I have ever admired Vyner more than I did then, as he stood, a tall informal figure in a khaki suit and an old white topi, addressing his warriors and their wives, explaining to them the reasons for the cession. He did not read his speech, but told his story in their legendary language and in the only way that they could really understand; and their fierce lashless eyes never left his face.'
They spent their last night in a longhouse, and the next morning inspected a collection of Japanese heads, which had been smoked and hung in a special corner of the longhouse. The Dyaks explained that they had sent their prettiest daughters down to a pool in the jungle to bathe, and, as Sylvia recorded, when the Japanese had crept up to stare at them 'they had simply lopped off their heads as they went by'.
On July 26, 1946, soon after Sylvia and Vyner returned to London, the Privy Council ordered the annexation of Sarawak to the British Crown. For the first time during their marriage they were now entirely redundant in her affairs, 'shorn of our glory,' Sylvia wrote in her autobiography, 'and faced with the necessity of adjusting to a world in which we were no longer emperors but merely two ordinary, ageing people, two misfits...'
After her unhappy childhood, Sarawak had been 'like a dream come true', and when it ended her existence seemed 'pointless and monotonous, waking up in the morning with no definite purpose, no plan of activity, and with no future to look forward to, only the past to remember.' At night she 'still seemed to hear the Dyak gongs and the distant resonance of muffled drums; to inhale the perfume of the flowers in the little Malay girls' hair. Would I ever cease to long for that enchanted land, or to forget that I had once been part-ruler of it; or break myself of the habit of standing whenever Vyner entered a room, or walking dutifully four paces behind him? Now that we no longer had our country, we had a feeling of isolation, of not belonging. Where was the sentry presenting arms as we went in and out? Where were the Malay boys softly and gracefully waiting on our every wish? Perhaps I had enjoyed it all more than I should...'
Her desolation was compounded by the fact that she and Vyner now lived separately, she in a flat in Archery Close, just north of Hyde Park, he in a house in Albion Street around the corner, which grew increasingly dilapidated as the years wore on. A budgerigar flew freely about Vyner's drawing-room, occasionally pausing to bathe in a jug of water, from which the old Rajah would then pour drinks for his guests. When it became old and ill and obviously dying, Vyner turned his face away and said to his secretary, 'Put it in the water jug.'
Occasionally, he would ask Sylvia to help him get rid of one of his girlfriends, whereupon she would go round to his house and play the indignant wife. She affected to tolerate his endless affairs as 'part of his colour and charm... his little foolishness', adding that in any case it was not entirely his fault, for although she had 'thawed considerably in the Sarawak sun, I was still, to all intents and purposes, a frigid woman'.
She denied that she felt jealous, explaining to her sister Dorothy that she and Vyner had 'too good an understanding for that', and that they had 'made a glorious success of our marriage just because we don't behave like any other husband and wife have ever behaved. We go out together, dine together, have lots of fun, and then at night we call it a day, and go back to our virgin beds. No one who has ever married has so hated the sleeping together more than either he or I did... It's all right when you are young, and it's all right if you want kids. But as an act it is both ridiculous and awkward, and I take a very poor view of it indeed.''Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Outrageous Englishwoman and her Lost Kingdom' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Philip Ead
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 (1874-1963)
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.
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.
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. W
Originally published in The Star on Saturday October 30, 2004