State Assembly building, Sarawak
Sheepstor is a sleepy hamlet on the western side of Dartmoor. The population is fewer than 50, yet the graveyard of St Leonard's, its 15th-century granite church, contains the last resting place of four members of a unique dynasty – the White Rajahs of Sarawak. But while the dynasty's founder, James Brooke, the first White Rajah, plus Charles Brooke and Charles Vyner Brooke, the second and third Rajahs, together with Bertram Brooke, the Tuan Muda, or heir presumptive, are all there, the sixth in line to this little-known monarchy – Lionel Brooke – died last month in Edinburgh, far from Devon.
(James) Lionel Brooke, given his (unused) first name in honour of his illustrious ancestor, was, at various times, a racing driver, a woodsman, a poet, an artist and a lawyer who spent many of his 76 years in Scotland. But his life was always overshadowed by his father's long fight as pretender to the throne of Sarawak, the legacy bequeathed by James Brooke. Brooke was an adventurer, born in 1803 near Calcutta (as it was then styled) and raised in north-east India. The son of Thomas Brooke, an English judge in the court of appeal at Bareilly, British India, and Anna Maria, daughter of Scottish peer William Stuart, 9th Lord Blantyre, he was educated in England for some years, before serving in the Bengal Army of the British East India
Company. He was seriously and intimately wounded in Assam in 1825 and subsequently resigned his commission.
In 1833, Brooke inherited £30,000 and bought a 142-ton sailing ship, Royalist. Setting sail for the Malay Archipelago in 1838, he arrived in Kuching on the Sarawak River to find the settlement facing a local uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke helped to crush the rebellion and, in gratitude for his assistance, the Sultan offered him the governorship of Sarawak. In 1842 he was granted the title of Rajah of Sarawak, ruling until his death in 1868. Many years later Hollywood swashbuckler Errol Flynn proposed to play James Brooke in a movie of his life.
Sarawak back then was about 3,000 square miles of swamp and jungle on Borneo's western coast, and Kuching was to become the seat of Brooke rule for the next three generations. They were the only British family ever to occupy an oriental throne and their rule was absolute – the Rajahs having the power to introduce laws and act as chief judge. They had their own flag, postage stamps, currency – and the power of life and death over their subjects. Under James Brooke, piracy and head-hunting were banned. He was also determined to prevent the indigenous people of Sarawak from being exploited by western business interests, keen to get their hands on the kingdom's gold and antimony.
The second White Rajah, Charles Brooke, James Brooke's nephew, expanded Sarawak's boundaries until it was the size of England. He abolished slavery and set about upgrading the infrastructure, replacing timber buildings with brick ones, developing streets and improving drainage. He also formed a small paramilitary force, the Sarawak Rangers, to police and defend the expanding state. By the end of his rule, Kuching had grown into a town with attractive buildings, a hospital, a telecommunications system and even a railway. His heir – his son, Charles Vyner Brooke – oversaw a growth in population to some half a million, and a boom in the Sarawak oil and rubber industries. He also modernised many institutions, including the public services. But the absolute rule of the White Rajahs of Sarawak was coming to an end.
When the Japanese invaded in 1941, the White Rajahs left. In 1946, after the end of the second world war, Vyner Brooke ceded Sarawak to the Colonial Office in exchange for a sizeable pension of £200,000 for himself and his three daughters. But the British government, unclear about the legality of cession, passed a bill of annexation, which was opposed by Anthony Brooke, Vyner's nephew and legal heir, and the father of Lionel Brooke.
Anthony Brooke's vehement opposition to Sarawak becoming what would be Britain's last colonial acquisition made him an MI5 suspect when Duncan Stewart, the second British governor of Sarawak, was assassinated in 1948 by people who were believed to be members of a group dedicated to restoring Brooke as the next White Rajah. He was never prosecuted and the assassins were actually members of a group seeking union with newly-independent Indonesia, a fact of which the British government was, apparently, aware, as a declassified document revealed years later.
But the government chose not to make public that Brooke was not involved in orchestrating the killing, not wishing to provoke Indonesia, which had recently won its independence from The Netherlands. In 2011, Anthony's grandson, Jason Brooke, sought a formal exoneration from the British government for his grandfather, and the acting British high commissioner for Malaysia offered an apology on behalf of Great Britain, finally clearing Brooke of any involvement.
But Anthony Brooke, who had been responsible for administering Sarawak between 1939-40, before being deprived of his titles and then dismissed and expelled from the state the following year, had certainly been involved in helping to direct a five-year campaign aimed at revoking the country's new colonial status and, to some die-hard loyalists, he remained the pretender to the throne.
His only son, Lionel, was born in Bombay in 1940, becoming sixth in line to the throne – the Singapore press at the time heralding the arrival of a future White Rajah. He spent some time living in the Astana, the palace, leaving on one of the last P&O liners heading west before the fall of Singapore. He saw almost nothing of his parents between the ages of five and 11, a separation which would permanently blight their relationship. He also spent five years at Eton being called Rajah, a title he knew he would never inherit.
Lionel Brooke helped to found the Eton Automobile Association and went on to race single-seater cars at Brands Hatch and Silverstone. When he turned 21, his father gave him a book inscribed: 'To my beloved son, whose destiny is to bring peace to the people of Sarawak.' This weight of expectation, without the position to meet it, troubled him throughout his life.
For much of the 70s, he lived reclusively at Shieldaig on the north-west coast of Scotland, where he built a log cabin and worked as a woodsman. He moved to London to train as a lawyer before returning to the Highlands to devote himself to painting, poetry, wood crafts and also to his sons.
He remained deeply affected by the loss of Sarawak and, in 2011, shortly after his father's death in New Zealand at the age of 98, he made his final trip to Sarawak as chairman of the Brooke Trust, the charity set up to preserve his family's unique legacy. The ashes of his father, Anthony, were returned to Sarawak for burial. Perhaps, one day, the remains of Lionel, the scion of the White Rajahs, will rest there too.