James Brooke (29th April 1803 – 11 June 1868)
The picture is from a painting by Sir Francis Grant in 1847
Sarawak, the name brings forth ideas of head hunters and ‘daring do’ from comics that I read in the 1950’s.
Little did I know that one day I would sail up the Sarawak River to the town of Kuching on the island of Borneo.
Sarawak had been James Brooke’s & his descendants fiefdom since about 1841 – until . .
In April 1942 the Japanese captured Sarawak, and for three years they ran the place as part of the Empire of Japan.
The Japanese surrender to the Australians in 1945, and Sarawak became a British Colony.
In May 1961 the PM of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, put forward a plan for a greater Malaysia, which included Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah & Brunei. In 1962 eighty percent of the population of Sarawak & Sabah voted to join Malaya to create Malaysia, along with Singapore.
Indonesia and the Philippines didn’t like the creation of Malaysia. So Indonesia encouraged discontent with the communists of Sarawak and trained them in military tactics, and also supplied armed ‘volunteers’ to causes problems for Sarawak and the newly created country of Malaysia.
The fighting began in 1963 with infiltration forces from Indonesia in to Sarawak. By this time the British were involved in support of Malaysia, who had only gained independence from Britain a few years earlier in 1957.
Later Australia & New Zealand became involved in support of Malaysia.
Knowing little of the details that I know now, I flew in to Singapore to join LST (Landing ship tank) Frederick Clover in April 1966. The company, British India Steam Navigation Co, held the contract to man various LSTs based in Singapore, Malta, Aden etc and I’d drawn the straw for Frederick Clover, based in Singapore.
If you wish to see other photographs of the LST and why I fired a machine gun click on the highlighted letters.
Frederick Clover, alongside in Singapore, her bows open to accept military cargo for Borneo. The photo is old and not very clear.
As you see she was an old ship, built in 1945. The captain’s chair had to be lashed down to make sure we didn’t lose it in a strong wind. My hair isn’t moving because our top speed was 10 knots . . . .
At least we had a compass. Although we could have found our way to Borneo using the echo sounder by following the empty beer cans from our previous trips. At that time being Green meant you were sea sick, not environmentally aware.
While we were alongside in Kuching the ‘Auby’ moored astern of us. She was to take a Gurkha regiment back to Singapore. The Auby was a cargo ship of about 1700 tons , with facilities for a few passengers in the for’d accommodation. I can only assume the soldiers traveled as ‘deck cargo’. The Auby carried about 31,000 troops in and out of Singapore during the ‘confrontation’. The picture is not all that clear but the troops can be seen formed up on the quay.
In 2011, Maureen & I attended a reunion in Singapore of cadets from HMS Conway Training College, so after the reunion I thought it would be an ideal time to take Maureen to Kuching and a spot of ‘I remember when’ for me.
While in Kuching we did a river cruise in a small boat, which allowed me to photograph the quay, (see above), which I think is the same one in the photographs showing the Gurkha troops.
Our boatman and his boat that we used.
We stayed at the Pullman Hotel, which overlooked the town.
This one shows the Sarawak River
Kuching is also known as Cat City – there are a number of anecdotes as to why Kuching got its name. It used to be called Sarawak until James Brooke arrived by sea and asked his guide the name of the place, while pointing to the small town. The local guide thinking that James was pointing at a cat, answered ‘Kuching’, which is the Malay word for cat i.e ‘kucing’. Against this story being true is that the local Malays who live in Kuching call a cat a ‘pusak’
Another story is that the town is named after a river called Sungai Kuching, which means Cat River. Another idea is that it is named after mata kucing, which is a fruit grown in Malaysia, Indonesia and the northern parts of Australia. The name means Cats Eye.
The mata kucing fruit looks like a lychee.
So with a name like ‘Cat’, Kuching turned itself in to a tourist attraction by becoming the Cat City.
The above cat statues are outside our favourite restaurant.
The James Brooke on the water front.
It is also a bar, and you do not have to order food.
Of course we ordered lunch – Laksa – beautiful, and for me a cold beer helped it down.
The following year we returned to Kuching with two other couples, and it wasn’t a hardship to revisit many places again.
During one evening in the James Brooke restaurant I overheard an accent that I recognised – it was a Liverpool accent. The four men having their evening meal worked as contractors for an aircraft company and flew around the world fixing problems. Because Maureen originated in Liverpool it didn’t take long for us to get chatting.
I asked one fellow where he lived on Merseyside and he told me Birkenhead. I mentioned that I came from Lower Tranmere in Birkenhead, and we then swapped details of the exact area. It turned out that he knew where my childhood street was, because he lived quite close.
The following night we met him again and he said that he had phoned his father in the UK, who was retired and still living in Lower Tranmere, and told him of meeting me. It turns out that his father was our milkman, and he used to deliver milk to my home when I was a child. Talk about a small world.
During my remember when holiday I couldn’t understand why the river never dropped as the tide turned.
Dressed overall for the last voyage to Singapore before the ship would be sold.
Generous meals, as the guest of various army units, helped to break the boredom of being in an out of the way port. We were not there to make a profit through trade, but in support of our own troops, a huge difference.
When we heard that the ship was to be sold on our return to Singapore, we decided to have a farewell dinner along with a number of army officers. Tables were booked at the local Chinese restaurant and all the ship’s officers left the ship, leaving just a watchman. It was a quiet night with little river traffic so we felt a single watchman was enough. The majority of the crew were allowed shore leave, because they would soon be out of work once we reached Singapore.
The evening went well until we returned to the ship and found her lying at a strange angle. What had happened was that the tide had gone out and the river had dropped causing the ship to settle in the mud. Being flat bottomed she would have settled upright if the watchman had slackened off the mooring lines – he’d not done so, and Frederick Clover was lying with a very large list away from the wharf – her mooring lines were bar tight with the strain.
There was little that we could do but wait for the tide to turn and raise her back to normal, which fortunately is what happened.
So during our holiday I asked why I hadn’t seen the river drop as the tide went out – it was all down to a barrage that had been built at the mouth of the river in the late 90’s, which controlled the flow of the river. The gates would be opened each Friday afternoon to flush out any rubbish etc.
They do have the facility to allow small fishing boats to enter the river – which means that they must have a lock system.
At least I wasn’t going mad, because I was sure that the river would drop as the tide changed.
If you are interested in Sarawak and the island of Borneo, but don’t wish to read a great tome, try the above book, which is an easy and interesting read.
The wife of the third Rajah, Sylvia Brooke, who wrote her own autobiography in 1970, also wrote a synopsis of the life of James Brooke, which was bought by Warner Brothers film studio.
Errol Flynn wanted to play James Brooke, but in the script that he wrote, after reading the synopsis, he had James Brooke arriving in Borneo with a young woman dressed as a boy.
Sylvia Brooke refused to allow Flynn’s story to go any further, because there wasn’t any ‘love interest’ when Brooke arrived in Borneo. According to Sylvia Brooke James Brooke was the first white man to set foot in Borneo – which I find hard to believe.
Finally when Somerset Maugham visited Sarawak, it was suggested that James Brooke’s life would make a good film, but Somerset Maugham said, no it wouldn’t, because there wasn’t any love interest.
James Brooke’s life was full of love, he inspired love and felt love, so perhaps it is time for the right actor to take up the challenge and recreate The White Rajah.
6 thoughts on “The White Rajah”
As always and not unexpectedly, interesting, educational and entertaining. Another ace.
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It’s a joy to write, when readers enjoy reading ‘what is wrote’ . . .:-o)
I have to agree with Robert Davidson, a great read.
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Lots of info in the Kuching museum on James Brooke. Interested to read about the tidal movements. There was a lot of mine sweeping in the area in 65/66.
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I was not involved in mine sweeping, just the transport of troops & equipment – Kuching, Sibu, Kota Kinlabau, Bandar Seri Begawan – we were based in Singapore and the LST was manned by merchant seamen not RN – officers were British (only 7 of us, Captain, Mate, 2nd & 3rd mate and two engineers & radio office ) and the crew were from the Singapore seaman’s pool. It was an interesting time :- o)
Tony your name rings a bell – were you at Well Lane or Prenton Sec ?
I was born 1944 so 1949-55 Well Lane & 55 to 60 Prenton Sec and then 60-62 at HMS Conway before going to sea.