Portuguese navigators may have visited Sarawak, or Cerava, as they called the island of Borneo, in the 16th century, but they never actually settled here. It was not until the early 19th century that Western influences began to make themselves felt.
At this time, the Brunei Sultanate controlled huge swathes of Sarawak, but was plagued by piracy and uprisings in various parts of this vast, ungovernable land.
In 1838, James Brooke arrived in a ship he had bought with the proceeds of a recent inheritance. He was an adventurer, seeking to establish himself as a trader in the Far East, and he landed in Kuching (then known as Sarawak) just as Iban and Bidayuh rebels were leading a revolt against the Sultan of Brunei.
James Brooke helped the Sultan quash the rebellion and reduce piracy in the area, greatly impressing the Sultan with his knowledge of military tactics and strategies.
Brunei’s noblemen were restless, though, and they plotted to overthrow the Sultan. Their conspiracy failed, but the plotters’ actions led to unrest throughout Brunei.
When Brooke stepped in, with the assistance of troops from Britain’s China Squadron, to keep the peace and restore the ruler to his throne, the Sultan was so grateful that he gave him Sarawak as a reward. In 1841, the would-be trader was proclaimed rajah or king.
Under James Brooke’s rule, Sarawak expanded its borders and prospered. New laws and reforms were introduced, though the first of the White Rajahs was cruel and heavy handed in dealing with opposition among the local populations.
He fought many battles with pirates in the region, but his health declined after three strokes in ten years and he died in 1868. His nephew, Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke, succeeded him and became the second White Rajah, reigning from 1868 until his death in 1917.
Charles enjoyed the company of the Ibans and was well liked for his understanding and respect for the Ibans’ beliefs, language and way of life. He fought many battles to suppress piracy, slavery and headhunting and was eventually succeeded by his Cambridge-educated son, Charles Vyner Brooke, usually known as Vyner of Sarawak.
Vyner oversaw the expansion of the oil and rubber industries in Sarawak, led expeditions into the interior to punish headhunters and was a relatively benign and popular ruler. He fled to Sydney when the Japanese invaded in 1941 and returned in 1946, when he decided to cede Sarawak’s sovereignty to Britain, against the wishes of most of the local people.
The Brooke dynasty had lasted for just over a hundred years, but it left a lasting colonial influence on Sarawak that is still visible today in many of the state’s buildings and institutions.
In 1963, Sarawak was granted its independence and joined Malaya, Singapore and Sabah in forming the Federation of Malaysia.