KUCHING: For 100 years, Sarawak was ruled as an independent kingdom by a succession of White Rajahs from the Brooke family. Starting with James Brooke in 1841, it passed on to his nephew Charles Brooke and finally to Charles’ son Charles Vyner Brooke until the Japanese invaded Sarawak during the Second World War in 1941.
Now the history and legacy of the Brooke era can be seen in the newly-opened Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita in Kuching.
A collaboration between the Brooke Trust, Sarawak Museum Department and the state Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry, the gallery is a permanent exhibition telling the story of Sarawak under the White Rajahs.
Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg said the gallery not only served as a record of Sarawak’s history but would also be an important tourist attraction.
“We have this history and we record it for future generations as well as the international community. Various personal items have been loaned by the Brooke Trust to the gallery, including the currency used by the Brookes and other historical items that the present generation does not know about.
“The young generation wants to know more on history. At the same time this will boost Fort Margherita as a tourism product,” he said after opening the gallery on Sept 24, the 175th anniversary of the founding of the state by James Brooke.
Abang Johari said Sarawak was transformed under the Brookes, who introduced democracy and modernisation.
“It was during the Brooke era that our Council Negri was formed. That is a legacy from the Brookes. Power was gradually given to local leaders in the Council Negri and this is the oldest legislative assembly in Malaysia,” he said.
He also noted the importance of the 1941 Sarawak Constitution and its nine cardinal principles, which stated that the Brookes would eventually give Sarawak back to Sarawakians.
“Unfortunately the Japanese came so it was not executed. The British came in after the war to reconstruct Sarawak. After that we became independent through the formation of Malaysia and Sarawakians attained self-government on July 22, 1963,” he said.
Brooke Trust director Jason Brooke, the great-great-grandson of Charles Brooke, said the idea for the gallery came about during his visit to Sarawak some years ago, when he received a warm welcome through engaging with the state’s history.
“The Tourism Ministry was very keen on harnessing the tourism potential of this history. So we suggested that we could loan artefacts from the Brooke family’s collection and return them to Sarawak where they can be appreciated as part of the history here,” he said, adding that Fort Margherita was an “ideal location” for it.
State museum director Ipoi Datan said one of the lasting legacies left by the Brookes was the series of forts built all over Sarawak.
He said Fort Margherita, named after Charles Brooke’s wife Margaret Alice Lili de Windt, was completed in September 1879 at a cost of 8,100 Sarawak dollars.
“Other forts include Alice in Sri Aman, Lili in Betong, Sylvia in Kapit, Emma in Kanowit, Hose in Marudi, Brooke in Meluan, Arrundel in Batang Ai, Old Fort in Limbang, Vyner in Belaga and Florence in Trusan. All are still standing except the last two,” he said.
Ipoi said Fort Margherita was converted into a Police Museum in 1971, displaying items collected from the early days of the police force in Sarawak. In 2000, the fort was handed back to the state government.
“I hope the Brooke Gallery will be an added value and attraction to the fort, apart from disseminating a portion of our colourful and interesting history to the public,” he said.
The gallery begins with “The Allure of Borneo” on the ground floor, detailing what attracted explorers and traders to the island over the centuries leading up to James Brooke’s arrival in 1839.
The exhibition continues on the first floor, accessed via the fort’s original spiral staircase, with sections on how James Brooke became the Rajah of Sarawak, the birth of an independent state and the building of Sarawak by Charles Brooke.
On the second floor, visitors can discover what life was like in Brooke-era Sarawak as well a glimpse into the lives of the White Rajahs and their families. A final section looks at the end of Brooke rule and Sarawak’s role in founding the Federation of Malaysia.
The gallery is open daily and admission is free.