Thursday 18 October 2012

The Ranee of Sarawak

Margaret Brooke

When I remember Sarawak, its remoteness, the dreamy loveliness of its landscape, the childlike confidence its people have in their rulers, I long to take the first ship back to it, never to leave it again. (Margaret Brooke, My Life in Sarawak)

Today’s featured Lady Traveller is Margaret Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak.  One of her books, My Life in Sarawak, is available through the Internet Archive; the other, Good Morning and Good Night, I found from a secondhand bookshop in Canada (oh Canada!)

A little background: Sarawak is part of the island of Borneo, now part of Malaysia.  Then (19th century) it was under the influence of various local rulers including the Sultan of Brunei until James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak, came, saw and conquered (well, helped the Sultan restore order for which consideration he was appointed governor).  Brooke doesn’t sound very, well, rajah-like, you’ll be thinking.  And you’ll be right.  He was an Englishman (this is sounding more and more Gilbert and Sullivan by the second) but he ruled over the territory as a monarch and, on his death, the title and responsibilities were handed on to his nephew, Charles.  Having reached the age of forty, Rajah II found himself in dire need of an heir himself but first, as was the way of things in those days, he needed a wife.  He went to England on a wife-finding mission and ended up proposing to the daughter of his first cousin, Margaret Brooke.

One of the more enlightening aspects of Lady Brooke's writing is the matter of fact way she describes the proposal and the marriage.  This was not a passionate love affair.  He needed a wife; she longed for adventure.  So she accepted and went to Borneo to become Her Highness, the Ranee of Sarawak, or the Rajah’s Ranee as she was known by locals.

In Sarawak, if you like, she found her passion: the country and its people.  For her husband she felt fondness and admiration and, over time, love (even if not the passionate kind).   

Good Morning and Good Night was written towards the end of the Ranee’s life and it is very much presented as the memoir of a grande dame, looking back.  (She name drops to a ridiculous extent, by the way.)  Her attitude towards the people of Sarawak is benevolent and patronising (not surprising, I suppose) but it’s clear that she loved being there, remote as it was. 

The books both deal, chronologically, with her time in Sarawak, from arriving as a new bride, trips around the territory, getting to know the people, the devastating loss of three young children and - above all - growing into her grand (not to say grandiose) title.  There's humour too - not least in Lady Brooke's faith in champagne as a cure for seasickness ...  

Apart from being intrigued at the existence of this English quasi-royal dynasty in South-East Asia, the book fascinates me because of its insights into marriage.  This was marriage – not even of convenience – but as a means to a more interesting life.  I reflect on the fact that I, as single Lady Traveller, don’t require a husband to seek out adventure (in fact, arguably a husband - though delightful in other ways - might put an end to my peripatetic ways) but that Margaret Brooke’s adventure wouldn’t have happened without a husband.

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