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National History - Sarawak

The  Kingdom of Sarawak  was a state in Borneo founded by Sir  James Brooke  in 1842. Brooke obtained independent kingdom status for the land from the  Sultanate of Brunei  as a reward for countering piracy and insurgency. In 1888, his successor  Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke accepted a British Protectorate for the region. This status lasted until 1946, when the third ruler Charles Vyner Brooke  ceded his jurisdictional rights to the  United Kingdom . Since 1963,  Sarawak  has been a state of  Malaysia .

History and Government

Sarawak was originally a vassal state of the Sultanate of Brunei in  Borneo. During the reign of Pangeran Indera Mahkota, the trouble state was in the grips of piracy and insurgency. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II (1827–1852) the Sultan of Brunei, ordered Pangeran Muda Hashim in 1839 to restore order. It was during this time that James Brooke visited Sarawak.

Brooke, an independent adventurer with his own ship having left military employment in India after recovering from serious battle injuries. He initially refused pleas of assistance but in 1841, he paid a second visit and this time agreed to assist Pangeran Muda Hashim. Victory over the insurgents ensued and this led to the signing of a treaty in 1841 ceding Sarawak and Sinian to James Brooke as a reward for his efforts.

On 24 September 1841, the title of Rajah was bestowed upon James Brooke. He received a sizable tract of land from the Sultan and effectively became the Rajah of Sarawak, founding the White Rajah Dynasty of Sarawak that would later see tremendous expansion as more territory was leased or acquired from the Sultan of Brunei. It marks a unique arrangement in the history of British imperialism in that Brooke had attained ruler status seemingly without any colonizing pretensions.

At the time, the system of government in the area around Kuching was based on the ineffective Bruneian model. Brooke set about reforming the government and eventually created a civil service known as the  Sarawak Service which recruited European, mainly British, officers to oversee the district outstations. Furthermore, he invited the Anglican Mission to set up the diocese of Borneo with its own Archbishop and schools. Significantly, the mission led by Father McDougall set up the St. Thomas Anglican School in 1848, which remains the oldest established European school in Southeast Asia. In this way, locals received instruction in British and European methods and culture.

However, Brooke retained many of the customs and symbols of neighbouring Malay monarchies and combined them with his own style of absolute rule. Brooke was very particular in ensuring the local customs and beliefs of local indigenous races like the Dayaks, Ibans, etc. were maintained and respected. As the Rajah, he had the power to introduce laws and also acted as chief judge in Kuching.

Brooke’s nephew and sucessor, Charles Brooke, was chiefly responsible for acquiring more land from the Brunei Sultanate which basically led to the land size of Sarawak today.

The third and last Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, instituted significant political reforms, including the termination of absolute rule in 1941 ahead of the Japanese invasion through granting new powers to the  Council Negri. His manner of departure was somewhat controversial as he ceded Sarawak to the United Kingdom in exchange for a guaranteed pension.

The period of Brooke rule is generally looked upon favourably in modern-day Sarawak, with a touch of nostalgia, although lately this tradition has been somewhat downplayed by successive post-federation West Malaysian governments, which bear no relation to the creation of Sarawak or any closeness in culture to the original indigenous races.

Japanese Invasion

During World War II, Sarawak, by then a British protectorate, was dragged into the war against  Nazi Germany as part of the British Empire. It had little direct involvement with the conflict aside from providing war materials.

With its rich petroleum resources and oilfields based at Miri, Sarawak was a prime target for a Japanese invasion of Malaya. Chronically short of natural resources, Japan needed an assured supply of fuel in order to flex its muscles and achieve its long-term goal of becoming the major power in the Pacific region. Besides this, Borneo also stood on the main sea routes between Java, Sumatra, Malaya and Celebes. Control of these routes were vital to securing the territory.

However, resources for the state’s defence were limited because all efforts were all channeled into defence of the home country. Apart from a local military arm (Sarawak Rangers), Sarawak had very limited armed forces. In the late 1930s, an airfield was constructed near Kuching which could be used as a base for the Royal Air Force, but this was largely useless due to the lack of British aircraft available in the Far East.

In late 1940, a detachment of the Indian Army infantry, a heavy 6-inch gun battery from the Hong Kong-Singapore Royal Artillery, and a detachment of 35th Fortress Company (Royal Engineers) were deployed to Kuching to support the Sarawak Rangers. However, the delay in sending reinforcements cost the British dearly. In 1940,Sarawak was overrun in the Battle of Borneo. Rajah Vyner, visiting  Australia during the time of invasion, was unable to return to Sarawak until its liberation in 1945, despite his attempts to return and launch commando raids against the Japanese invaders. A government in exile was formed, although it proved ineffectual due to lack of contact.

Sarawak, along with the rest of Borneo, was liberated by the Australian Army in 1945.

Cession to the United Kingdom

After World War II, Vyner Brooke ceded Sarawak to the  Colonial Office in exchange for a sizeable pension for himself and his three daughters. Charles' nephew, Anthony Brooke, who as designated heir bore the title of Rajah Muda, initially opposed cession to the Crown along with a majority of the native members of the  Council Negri, or parliament. Duncan Stewart, the second British governor to Sarawak, was assassinated in the resulting unrest.


The Sarawak Rangers were a para-military force founded in 1872 by the second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke. They evolved from the fortmen which were raised to defend Kuching in 1846. The Sarawak Rangers were commanded by a former British Army Officer, Sir William Henry Rodway, and were trained in jungle warfare and general policing duties, being equipped with various western rifles, cannons and native weaponry. This small force also manned a series of forts around the country, performed ceremonial duties and acted as the Rajahs' personal guard.

Apart from protecting Sarawak's borders, they were utilized to disperse rebels and were engaged in a number of campaigns during their history. The Sarawak Rangers disbanded for a few years in the 1930s, only to be reformed and mobilised for the Second World War ,in which they attempted to defend Sarawak from Japanese invasion in 1942 at the start of the Pacific War. After the abdication of  Charles Vyner Brooke in 1946, the Sarawak Rangers became a colonial unit under direct British control and saw action in both the Malayan Emergency and the  Borneo Confrontation.


The demographic constituency of Sarawak differs from peninsular Malaysia and even Sabah in that its ethnic groups are more varied due to the large proportion of tribal peoples such as the Iban and  Dayaks. Chinese migration was also encouraged at various times by the Brookes, adding to the multifarious population.



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