When Borneo comes to mind, it’s usually in regard to its tangled jungles, exotic animals and gorgeous tropical beaches. The history of its White Rajahs is a lesser-known aspect of the island’s identity, but the story is an unusual and intriguing one – one that helps to deepen appreciation and understanding of this far-flung locale.
In 1861, the British adventurer James Brooke was awarded Sarawak – now Kuching – as a gift of gratitude by the Sultan of Brunei after helping defend the sultanate against insurgents. Brooke ruled Sarawak as his own personal kingdom from that point, his dynasty retaining rule until 1946, when his descendant Anthony of Sarawak ceded to the United Kingdom upon Japanese occupation.
Brooke made quite an impact on his kingdom. He established new rules – no headhunting or piracy, for instance – and protected indigenous communities from capitalist development. He built his own house on the banks of Sarawak River, and what was once a small village of wooden houses developed into a handsome, modern town. Victorian-era buildings went up and the grand Sarawak Club was founded, while telecommunications and entertainment facilities brought a touch of British culture.
Today, the White Rajahs’ legacy can be seen in Sarawak’s stunning colonial architecture. In Kuching, there’s the old palace built in 1870 – the Astana – positioned on the riverbank, and Brooke Dockyard which is still in operation. There’s also the popular attraction of Fort Margherita, built in the style of an old English castle, and Sarawak State Museum, a proud purpose-built Victorian structure that houses indigenous art and handicrafts, a natural history collection, cultural artefacts from around the region and scientific journals dating to 1911 – the oldest in Southeast Asia.
The best way to explore the Borneo of the White Rajahs is to book a tailor-made city tour of Kuching, or plan a day of exploration around the city on your next trip to Malaysian Borneo. Get in contact with one of our Travel Specialists for more information.