Sir James Brooke (1803-1868), English soldier, traveller and raja of Sarawak, was born at Coombe Grove near Bath, on the 29th of April 1803. His father, a member of the civil service of the East India Company, had long lived in Bengal. His mother was a woman of superior mind, and to her care he owed his careful early training. He received the ordinary school education, entered the service of the East India Company, and was sent out to India about 1825. On the outbreak of the Burmese War he was despatched with his regiment to the valley of the Brahmaputra; and, being dangerously wounded in an engagement near Rungpore, was compelled to return home (1826). After his recovery he travelled on the continent before going to India, and circumstances led him soon after to leave the service of the company. In 1830 he made a voyage to China, and during his passage among the islands of the Indian Archipelago, so rich in natural beauty, magnificence and fertility, but occupied by a population of savage tribes, continually at war with each other, and carrying on a system of piracy on a vast scale and with relentless ferocity, he conceived the great design of rescuing them from barbarism and bringing them within the pale of civilization.
His purpose was confirmed by observations made during a second visit to China, and on his return to England he applied himself in earnest to making the necessary preparations. Having succeeded on the death of his father to a large property, he bought and equipped a yacht, the "Royalist," of 140 tons burden, and for three years tested its capacities and trained his crew of twenty men, chiefly in the Mediterranean. At length, on the 27th of October 1838, he sailed from the Thames on his great adventure. On reaching Borneo, after various delays, he found the raja Muda Hassim, uncle of the reigning sultan, engaged in war in the province of Sarawak with several of the Dyak tribes, who had revolted against the sultan. He offered his aid to the raja; and with his crew, and some Javanese who had joined them, he took part in a battle with the insurgents, and they were defeated. For his services the title of raja of Sarawak was conferred on him by Muda Hassim, the former raja being deprived in his favour.
It was, however, some time before the sultan could be induced to confirm his title (September 1841). During the next five years Raja Brooke was engaged in establishing his power, in making just reforms in administration, preparing a code of laws and introducing just and humane modes of dealing with the degraded subjects of his rule. But this was not all. He looked forward to the development of commerce as the most effective means of putting an end to the worst evils that afflicted the archipelago; and in order to make this possible, the way must first be cleared by the suppression, or a considerable diminution, of the prevailing piracy, which was not only a curse to the savage tribes engaged in it, but a standing danger to European and American traders in those seas. Various expeditions were therefore organized and sent out against the marauders, Dyaks and Malays, and sometimes even Arabs. Captain (afterwards Admiral Sir Harry) Keppel, and other commanders of British ships of war, received permission to co-operate with Raja Brooke in these expeditions. The pirates were attacked in their strongholds, they fought desperately, and the slaughter was immense. Negotiations with the chiefs had been tried, and tried in vain.
The capital of the sultan of Borneo was bombarded and stormed, and the sultan with his army routed. He was, however, soon after restored to his dominion. So large was the number of natives, pirates and others, slain in these expeditions, that the "head-money" awarded by the British government to those who had taken part in them amounted to no less than £20,000. In October 1847 Raja Brooke returned to England, where he was well received by the government; and the corporation of London conferred on him the freedom of the city. The island of Labuan, with its dependencies, having been acquired by purchase from the sultan of Borneo, was erected into a British colony, and Raja Brooke was appointed governor and commander-in-chief. He was also named consul-general in Borneo. These appointments had been made before his arrival in England. The university of Oxford conferred on him the honorary degree of D.C.L., and in 1848 he was created K.C.B. He soon after returned to Sarawak, and was carried thither by a British man-of-war. In the summer of 1849 he led an expedition against the Seribas and Sakuran Dyaks, who still persisted in their piratical practices and refused to submit to British authority. Their defeat and wholesale slaughter was a matter of course.
At the time of this engagement Sir James Brooke was lying ill with dysentery. He visited twice the capital of the sultan of Sala, and concluded a treaty with him, which had for one of its objects the expulsion of the sea-gypsies and other tribes from his dominions. In 1851 grave charges with respect to the operations in Borneo were brought against Sir James Brooke in the House of Commons by Joseph Hume and other members, especially as to the "head-money" received. To meet these accusations, and to vindicate his proceedings, he came to England. The evidence adduced was so conflicting that the matter was at length referred to a royal commission, to sit at Singapore. As the result of its investigation the charges were declared to be "not proven." Sir James, however, was soon after deprived of the governorship of Labuan, and the head-money was abolished. In 1867 his house in Sarawak was attacked and burnt by Chinese pirates, and he had to fly from the capital, Kuching. With a small force he attacked the Chinese, recovered the town, made a great slaughter of them, and drove away the rest. In the following year he came to England, and remained there for three years.
During this time he was attacked by paralysis, a public subscription was raised, and an estate in Devonshire was bought and presented to him. He made two more visits to Sarawak, and on each occasion had a rebellion to suppress. He spent his last days on his estate at Burrator in Devonshire, and died there, on the 11th of June 1868, being succeeded as raja of Sarawak by his nephew. Sir James Brooke was a man of the highest personal character, and he displayed rare courage both in his conflicts in the East and under the charges advanced against him in England.
His Private Letters (1838 to 1853) were published in 1853. Portions of his Journal were edited by Captains Munday and Keppel. (See also Sarawak.)