Man Who Burned

Adam Kuper

  • White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke by Nigel Barley
    Little, Brown, 262 pp, £16.99, October 2002, ISBN 0 316 85920 6

In 1921, a boat carrying Somerset Maugham upriver in Borneo capsized in eight-foot waves, and for half an hour the writer clung desperately to the wreckage. ‘At last, helped by some of the crew,’ a district officer reported, ‘Maugham managed to reach the bank utterly exhausted. Dyaks took the shipwrecked party into their house, revived them with drink and provided them with sarongs.’ The officer seized his moment and suggested that Maugham script a film about James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. ‘He said no; there was no love interest in the first Rajah’s life.’

Sylvia Brooke, the wife of the third and last member of the Brooke dynasty, Rajah Vyner, pitched the idea of a film about the first Rajah to Warner Brothers, who summoned her to Hollywood to talk it over. Errol Flynn wanted to play the lead. ‘He said that he had always imagined that the first White Rajah was like him,’ Sylvia reported, ‘and I agreed that he was perfect for the part.’ But Flynn insisted on introducing a love interest, and proposed a story about a girl passing as a boy and following Brooke through the jungles of Sarawak. Sylvia objected that the Dyaks ‘would have taken her head and smoked it, and there would have been an end of your story.’ But there was an even more fundamental objection to Flynn’s plot. Was he ‘aware of the fact that James Brooke had been severely wounded in India, and deprived of his manhood’? Flynn laughed and shrugged. ‘You can’t have a motion picture without love,’ he said. ‘And you cannot have James Brooke with it,’ Sylvia replied.

The elusive love interest is the nub of Nigel Barley’s lightweight but entertaining biography, and he devotes a great deal of energy to establishing whether Sylvia was right about Brooke’s incapacity. Brooke suffered his wound in his first week of service in the army of the East India Company while leading a charge against a Burmese force. Left for dead on the battlefield, he survived and was sent back to England to recover. (Barley remarks unkindly that Brooke’s two days of military service were followed by five years of convalescence.) Many years later, Brooke recognised an illegitimate son who had been born while he was recovering at home, which suggests that the wound did not leave him unfit for love. And there is a perhaps even more decisive indication. 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 if he was capable, why did he never marry? Brooke may have fallen in love as a young man, even becoming briefly engaged to a vicar’s daughter, and later there was a wealthy woman who became infatuated with him and lent him money. Barley concludes, however, that he was not much interested in women. On the other hand, he shows that the Rajah took enormous pleasure in the company of boys and young men, and was never happier than when cruising about in a boat with a complement of lively young sailors. In 1848, travelling back to the East with a company of cadets, his secretary recalled that Brooke’s large cabin was ‘the rendezvous of as unruly a set of young officers as it has been my fortune to meet’:

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