Rajah Charles Brooke’s secret life revealed

The Kuching Astana in the 1900s.
Rajah Charles Johnson Brooke

The true story of Rajah Charles Johnson Brooke and his ‘Eurasian’ son from Malay aristocrat Dayang Mastiah and a jealous step-mother

The forgotten son

We always think we know everything about Sarawak’s rich Brooke history.

In fact whatever knowledge we have provided in the old history books are just the tip of the iceberg. If it is anything to go by, “A History of Sarawak under its two White Rajahs’ (1839-1908) was written about the political careers and achievements of the first two Rajahs. But little is mentioned about their personal and social lives with the people of Sarawak, especially the fairer sex.

However, an Australian, Dr Sandra Pybus, from the University of Queensland in her publication “White Rajah — A Dynastic Intrigue” has painted a different picture of  the inside story of Charles Brooke — the second White Rajah who married a local Malay aristocrat according to Muslim rites 150 years ago.

Charles Brooke as the young resident of Fort Lingga.

The story hinges on Charles’ association with Melanau-Malay leader Abang Aing Datuk Laksama Menuddin whom he met in 1853 when he was Resident of Fort Lingga at the mouth of Batang Lupar River in Simanggang district.

As a rookie 24-year-old resident, Charles commanded 20,000 fiery Iban warriors but with the help of Aing, son of the Sarawak Malay admiral Laksamana Menudin, he named himself “Rajah Ulu” or Rajah of the wild tribes.

Within a decade, Charles consolidated his position and his legendary exploits as he moved upriver to establish his own “Astana” palace on a hill, overlooking the Batang Lupar. Abang Aing and his whole clan followed suit and established a village at Kampung Ulu, not far from Charles’ residence.

Since his bachelor days, Charles had trysts with numerous native women and is believed to have fathered some children with his Iban mistresses. Eventually he was betrothed to Dayang Mastiah — a niece of Abang Aing who led three major expeditions against the Iban warlord Rentap of Skrang between 1854 and 1861. 

According to a descendant of Abang Aing, his ancestor arranged for Charles to have a permanent wife and for a Muslim marriage to Dayang Mastiah at Kampung Ulu. “I was told that during the Nikah ceremony, Dayang was given away by a ‘Wali hakim’ (magistrate guardian) and the marriage to be conducted by a ‘Qadi’ (religious judge) before the union was solemnised according to the Islamic rites,” said Aing’s descendant.

In December 1866, Dayang Mastiah accompanied her husband to Kuching where she stayed for two months before the pregnant mother returned to Simanggang to deliver her child.

Isaka Brooke when he was raised in Simanggang as a Malay.

Charles named his first-born “Isaka” which is the Malay name for Isaac on August 27, 1867. Growing up at the Simanggang Astana, Isaka was raised by Dayang Mastiah and Abang Aing and only spoke Malay.

In the meantime, Charles ran the affairs Batang Lupar until his 65-year-old uncle Rajah James suffered a stroke and died on June 11, 1868. Charles then moved to Kuching with his new responsibility of administering Sarawak as the second Rajah only to realise that the government he had inherited was bankrupt.

As such, he felt it necessary to marry a rich European to be his “Ranee” queen and so he left for England where he planned to propose to his first cousin Elizabeth Sarah Johnson @ Lily Wiles Johnson de Windt who was a wealthy widow. Instead, he married his rich cousin’s daughter, Margaret Lili de Windt who was 20 years younger on October 28, 1869.

Ranee Margaret when she was married in 1869.

Even before they married, Margaret found it difficult to understand him let alone read his mind. On August 27, 1870 Ghita Brooke was born at Charles “Astana” in Kuching and Charles was disappointed Margaret did not bear him a son.

The following year, he brought Isaka to the Astana in Kuching and much to Margaret’s horror, she discovered that the “half-breed” called Isaka was in fact Charles son. This was the beginning of a fallout between the old-fashioned and stoic Charles and his modern and stylist French-English wife when they realised they had nothing in common.

Eventually both agreed to lead separate lives — she lives in London as the renowned and popular “Ranee” of Sarawak and he stays as Rajah of Sarawak. Still determined to bear Charles a son, in 1871 Margaret bore twins, James and Charles, hoping that one of them would eventually succeed her husband to the Sarawak throne.

However, Ranee Margaret was determined to raise her sons in England while Charles wanted them to have a Sarawak native upbringing.       

Ranee Margaret and Charles Brooke had six children together.

In January 1872, Charles got his son Isaka baptised as Esca at the Anglican Church in Simanggang by Reverend W. Crossland to ensure that as a Christian, Esca Brooke have a better opportunity to improve his lot.

A year later fate struck an unkind blow when in March 1873, Margaret who was pregnant with her fourth child, slipped and hurt herself after falling down a hatchway. Sadly, she gave birth to a still-born child on May 20 who was buried by the Muslim Imam in Kuching.

Esca Brooke became a successful businessman and philantrophist later in his life.

After she recovered from her miscarriage and a serious debilitating bout of malaria, Charles decided to take the family, including Esca, to England for Margaret’s convalescence. One of the reasons was because Charles wanted Esca to have an English education in his homeland. But Margaret had different plans for the young boy.

In September 1873, the family of four left Singapore on the P&O liner ‘Hydaspes’. They  departed from Singapore but when they left the port of Aden and entered the Red Sea tragedy struck. All four children contracted cholera with James, Ghita and Charles dying on October 11, 14 and 17 respectively. Only Esca, who was six, survived.

Margaret in her memoir wrote: “Everyone on board was kind to me. My husband, despite his own terrible sorrow, did everything to help. Knowing a prolonged stay on the ship of death would be intolerable, he and my dear brother took me ashore at Alexandria, from where we went overland to Cairo.

From there they took another steamer to England when and arrived in November where they moved into a house in London. In the meantime, Esca, his attendants and an English nurse continued their journey on the Hydaspes to Portsmouth.

Esca was sent to James Brooke’s famous abode ‘Burrator’ in Sheepstor, Devon to be brought up and schooled under Reverend William Daykin and his childless wife.

On September 21, 1874 Margaret gave birth to her fifth child — Charles Vyner Brooke who later succeeded his father as the third Rajah of Sarawak. Two others, Bertram and Harry, followed suit.

Charles Brook and his three surviving children from Margaret Brooke in 1890—From left: Vyner, Harry and Bertram.

Soon after this, Esca was conveniently ‘forgotten’ and Reverend Daykin was persuaded by the Ranee to migrate to Canada where Esca Brooke Daykin had his education at Trinity College School. An intelligent and sociable teenager, Esca rose to become the head boy of his school and the school’s soccer captain.

He later married and then ventured into business where worked for Sir David Dunlap, one of Canada’s richest men at that time dealing in silver. In 1927, when Esca was 60 and had become a successful businessman, he claimed a right to the succession in Sarawak but failed.

After the war, when his half-brother Rajah Vyner ceded Sarawak for a fee of one million pounds, Esca asked for his share of inheritance as Charles Brooke’s oldest child, but again failed.

However, despite this, Esca who was well-off, dropped his claims and turned philanthropist and became a pillar in the church before his demise in Toronto in 1953 at the age of 86.

Canadian Dave Carley who wrote a world-famous play entitled “Canadian Rajah” said: We are all struggling to make sense of this world. I have spent a long time trying to make sense of just one life. Esca Brooke began, for me, as an intriguing figure in a newspaper review. That has deepened into a determination that the erased life of Esca Brooke might find its way to its proper place in both his adopted country, and that of his birth.”