The Brookes of Sarawak

I’ve never seen a genealogical demonstration of this, but I have heard it alleged (and it is entirely plausible) that I’m a very distant cousin of Sir James Brooke (1803-1868), the first of the “White Rajahs” of Sarawak, on the northern coast of Borneo. And it is both comic, embarrassing and rather ghastly to record that, according to Sylvia Brooke’s later memoir, Queen of the Headhunters, the Sarawak national anthem used to contain the line, “And tens of thousands yet unborn / Will bless the name of Brooke”.

I’ve been aware of this possible genealogical connection for a while now, but never really paid attention to the activities of the Brookes of Sarawak. In the last six months, however, they are cropping up in the most surprising places.

First, my colleague Giovanni told me all about the Italian Sandokan films and TV series, which are based on an extraordinarily popular set of novels by Emilio Salgari (1862-1911), who is sometimes called “the Italian Jules Verne”). In these films, the hero is Sandokan the Pirate (“the Tiger of Malaysia”); his arch-nemesis is Sir James Brooke (“The Exterminator”), who is leading a crusade against the pirates in the area. Like James Bond, the part of Sandokan has been played by several actors; and just as there is general agreement that Sean Connery was/is the best Bond, Kabir Bedi is generally reckoned to be the definitive Sandokan.

But Sir James Brooke isn’t just a important semi-fictionalised character in Italian popular culture, however. He’s also a man who may or may not have his penis shot off in India, a question to which the London Review of Books has, oddly enough, devoted an entire column of the current issue, and which apparently lies at the heart of Nigel Barley’s “lightweight but entertaining” new biography, White Rajah.

Well, perhaps he hadn’t, after all. While family tradition seems to have insisted that he had (hence his refusal ever to marry), Adam Kuper’s review notes that Brooke eventually come to recognise “an illegitimate son who had been born while he was recovering at home”, and, he asks, “Would Mrs Brooke have exhibited on her mantlepiece a bullet that had been removed from such a sensitive part of her son’s anatomy?” But it’s good to know that the LRB is continuing to discuss the questions that matter.

Raj writes [15.12.2002]: I’ve always been a Kabir Bedi fan. A staple of Hindi movies, he was always far more enjoyable to watch than the cleanshaven identikit heroes who would eventually triumph over him with a loud dooshoom-dooshoom (the fictionalised sound of good fist on evil jawbone, known to all who have ever watched Bollywood).

Richard adds [1.1.2003]: This is a bit late for comments but I’ll send it anyway: small world dept. The Adam Kuper who wrote the review of the book about your (vague) ancestor (featured on 8.12.02) is the father of Simon Kuper, author of the wonderful Football Against The Enemy (and Times football columnist — the only thing worth reading in the Monday pull-out-and-throw-away sports section).

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