“My address is Sarawak.”
So claimed Sylvia Brooke, consort to the last White Rajah of Sarawak. Should a conscientious correspondent have chosen to fill up more of their envelope, they could have added “The Astana, Kuching”. Either way, it was sure to find its addressee, one of the most notorious Englishwomen in Asia.
The Brookes ruled over Sarawak for a little more than a century. Their capital Kuching lay just a few degrees north of the Equator and their power base for the majority of their strange colonialist adventure was The Astana. A modest palace facing central Kuching over the Sarawak River, it was built by the second rajah, Charles, as a wedding gift for his beloved ranee Margaret in 1870. Its name is a variation on “istana”, the Malay word for “palace”.
Margaret’s brother (and Charles’ aide-de-camp) Harry de Windt, later a travel writer, made life at The Astana sound like a stay at an exclusive country club: “Déjeuner à la fourchette over, a siesta and cigar would be indulged in till five o’clock, when a ride or rattling set-to at lawn tennis, followed by a refreshing bath, prepared one for dinner—the more enjoyable for the violent exercise that had preceded it.”
Around 100 years ago it was the turn of Sylvia Brooke, wife of the heir apparent, Vyner Brooke, to sail up the Sarawak River and alight at The Astana for the first time. As local custom demanded she remained a reverential four paces behind her husband. She describes all of this in her 1970 autobiography Queen of the Head-Hunters, in which she reveals herself as a funny, eloquent and self-aware chronicler, although her later biographer Philip Eade points out numerous factual flaws in her account.
Through her eyes we witness rigid Sarawakian etiquette, a marked difference from the days when, as she wrote to her friend George Bernard Shaw, she “came and went without ceremony and usually in a bus”. And we accompany her through the sprawling rooms of The Astana, which she describes as “a fantastic medley of beauty and bad taste” (a description which might also have applied to the scandalous ranee herself).
“Outside,” Sylvia’s description continues, “its walls were white and it had a grey tower where a sentry stood on guard day and night. Inside tremendous rooms stretched the whole length of the building. There was nothing wrong with their proportions; but the old Rajah had filled them with appalling imitation stuff from every period of English and French history. […] Only the ceilings were beautiful. They were heavily carved with gorgeous dragons and wide-open flowers of plain plaster, designed and executed by an ordinary Chinese workman. With Oriental furniture to match, the palace would have been a masterpiece instead of a travesty.”
Sylvia describes a routine of tropical languor: “We woke at 6 a.m. and went from our bedrooms to the coolness of the veranda where we drank tea and ate mango and pawpaw. We gloried in the sun rising slowly through a soft grey mist, and the little town emerging gay and colourful from its cloak of night. Cocks would begin to crow, and the cries of the Chinese water-carriers would herald the dawning of the day.” All of this was evidently thirsty work; pre-noon gin slings were followed by more drinks at lunch, during which they would be fanned by Malay servant boys.
Just beyond the landscaped gardens waited the teeming rainforest which made up much of Sarawak. Its wild inhabitants worked their way into the palace, including twin orang-utans named Gin and Bitters. After the rajah gave Gin to the then Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor, Bitters apparently died of a broken heart. Then there was the domesticated porcupine which would stake out the ranee’s bathroom. “It took a violent dislike to me and would throw its quills at me as soon as I descended the steps, so that I was obliged to go down to my shower with an open umbrella in front of me.”
Relations among The Astana’s human inhabitants were just as fractious. Vyner’s hold on power loosened as his reign wore on, and he devoted almost as much attention to extra-marital affairs as state affairs. Sylvia tried to circumvent the law of male succession to put one of her daughters on the throne and was predictably at odds with her nephew Anthony Brooke, the heir apparent (“FAR too apparent,” in Sylvia’s words), who only died last year. Then there was Vyner’s right-hand man, the duplicitous, half-mad Gerard MacBryan, who nursed ambitions to establish himself as ruler of an East Asian caliphate.
The Second World War rendered the Brookes’ in-fighting irrelevant. They left Sarawak, and when the Japanese occupied the island of Borneo, they destroyed Vyner’s library and mockingly framed love letters the rajah had received from female admirers. Vyner abdicated soon after the war, with much of the negotiations left up to MacBryan. When Lord Mountbatten came to oversee the cession of Sarawak to Britain, Sylvia observed her husband chewing on a handkerchief with nerves. And soon it was time to go back up the river.
The White Rajahs are gone but The Astana is still there, its name spelt out in large letters on the lawn, facing a much enlarged Kuching. It is now home to the Governor of Sarawak, a largely ceremonial role whose present 90-year-0ld incumbent is having his second go at it. Philip Eade reports that The Astana’s “gaudy interior decoration makes strenuous demands on anyone trying to imagine how it might have all looked in the old days.”
Or, if we are to believe Sylvia Brooke, maybe not.