that most charming of despots

Her Highness Sylvia Brooke (1885-1971) was the last Ranee of Sarawak

The Brookes ruled their jungle kingdom on the island of Borneo for just over a century. They were the only English family ever to have occupied an Oriental throne and seem to have been remarkably popular with their subjects.


The whimsical Rajah, his Rasputin-like private secretary and the ham-fisted British government all bore their share of responsibility for the clumsy way in which the Raj was brought to an end. But in many people’s eyes a bigger villain was Ranee Sylvia, the extravagantly dressed author of 11 books who was submissive consort one moment, outrageous self-dramatist the next, described by the press as ‘that most charming of despots’, and by her brother as ‘a female Iago’.


Sylvia’s elder sister Dorothy (later better known as the Bloomsbury painter ‘Brett’ and the third in DH Lawrence’s ménage à trois in New Mexico) recalled being wheeled in a double pram with Sylvia by their nurse in Hyde Park one day and being told to wave to their father, Reginald Brett, who was out walking with a friend. Reggie wondered to his friend why those children were waving at him. ‘Perhaps they are yours,’ the friend ventured.

Sylvia’s sister, the painter Dorothy Brett

Sylvia’s lack of restraint as Ranee shocked serious-minded members of the Sarawak service – in 1930 the chief justice complained about the ‘unbelievable amount of smut in Her Highness’s conversation’. In 1946, after observing the Ranee dancing with two prostitutes in a nightclub and taking them back to the palace to paint their portraits, a visiting MP from Westminster concluded that ‘a more undignified woman would be hard to find’. Despite not enjoying sex she managed to give birth three times, always to girls.


Sylvia’s daughters grew up with little in the way of boundaries. The ‘dangerously beautiful’ Brooke girls eventually married eight times between them; their various husbands included the 2nd Earl of Inchcape (Princess Gold) and the bandleader Harry Roy (Princess Pearl).

When, in 1937, Valerie, (Princess Baba) the wildest of the three, fell into the clutches of the European middleweight wrestling champion Bob Gregory, her wedding was attended by a blaze of publicity which they eagerly fanned by driving around in a white open car with ‘Baba and Bob‘ painted on the back, and Valerie carrying a toy monkey, larger than she was, wherever she went. They later announced they were going to buy an island in the East Indies to be called ‘Babaland‘. ‘We’re going to have a democracy,’ Valerie declared, ‘but with a court and things – maybe an aristocratic democracy. I think a country without lots of uniforms and braids is no fun.’

Princess Baba and Bob

In December 1941 Sarawak was overrun and occupied by the Japanese while the Rajah and Ranee were – conveniently, it was muttered – out of the country. After the war Rajah Vyner controversially returned to meet with his people and abdicate, ceding Sarawak to Britain as its last colonial acquisition.

During this final visit, Dyak chiefs came to the palace to tell of their wartime experiences.  In Sarawak as a whole it was estimated that 1,500 Japanese had lost their heads – which were particularly prized by the Dyaks for being ‘nice round heads with good hair and gold teeth‘. Pride of place went to the skull of the Japanese director of education, who had once worn glasses. Every day the Dyaks removed the director’s spectacles and gave them a good polish before reverently replacing them on his increasingly withered nose.

Vyner and Sylvia spent their last night morning inspecting a collection of Japanese heads, which had been smoked and hung in a special corner of a longhouse. The Dyaks explained that they had sent their prettiest daughters down to a pool in the jungle to bathe, and when the Japanese had crept up to stare at them ‘they had simply lopped off their heads as they went by‘……

Published in: on October 3, 2010 at 1:05 pm  Comments (38)  
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38 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Note to self: jungle voyeurism, no. Not even for Dorothy Lamour.

  2. We learnt about the Brookes in history, minus all these interesting facts… I bet this would make history much more appealing to school kids 😉

    • I would have enjoyed history lessons more if they’d included the salacious details….

  3. My tattoo artist is from the headhunter clan of borneo….i suppose i should be careful not to fall asleep while in the chair 🙂

    • How many tattoos have you got Saby?

      • Just got my 9th tattoo 2 weeks ago 🙂

        Do you have any luv?

      • Just one

  4. Have you seen a movie called White Mischief? This post reminds me of it.

  5. Darn Citizen K beat me to the White Mischief comparison!

    It must have been like having a private playgound for the Ranee and her predecessors

  6. Indeed it was. Here’s another excerpt from the article:

    “A year later, in 1912, Vyner took Sylvia on her first visit to Sarawak. After a week she wrote from the royal palace that she was ‘alas no longer what I was, a humble, dutiful wife, but a howling snob with a head as swelled as the largest coconut in the land – every time I go to pick a flower in the garden the guard turns out, and every time I go to buy a button in the village, 60 people gather about the shop, when we go to dinner our national anthem is played as we go up the steps, and we sit upon cloths of gold.”

  7. A lot of smoking head at the end of this post… heh heh…

  8. Wow, war stories too?

  9. i think a country should have lots of uniforms. you know i’m a sucker for a man in uniform – from doormen to sailors, they knock me on my tailfeathers!

    • What about a Boy Scout Leader?

  10. On my to-do list: become a citizen of Babaland.

    • Or better yet… start up a Mitziland

  11. Totally over-the-top. The best today’s wimps can offer? Snorting a line of coke in a bathroom.

    • Or making a sex tape 😦

  12. Smoked heads?
    I don’t know why that seems so much worse than the chopping off their heads part.

    • Hey kitty – nice to see you here again. How was Japan?

  13. Why couldn’t I have been born into a royal family on a tropical paradise? I would’ve put the Brooke’s exploits to shame.

    • Your only chance now is to marry into royalty. Or get yourself adopted…..

  14. Michael Jackson must have been related ….. surely

    • Did he have three daughters and swear like a trooper?

  15. Such a LOVELY collection of Japanese heads! So much larger than mine. It’s SO hard to get those, these days.

    • Larger heads or larger collection? Because I think smaller heads are more prized. In this case at least 😉

  16. “They were the only English family ever to have occupied an Oriental throne…”

    Whenever I see people being referred to as “English” I always suspect the writer is exploiting a technicality and hoping the reader does not (or can not) distinguish between English and British – terms which are often used synonymously.

    Which prompts the question….how many Scottish, Welsh or even (sometime) Irish families have occupied Oriental thrones?

    Yeah…sorry….I’m a cynical pedant at times.

    • I don’t suppose “The Last King of Scotland” counts does it?

      • Sadly not quite but an excellent thought. I suppose Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King would qualify….if it were true.

  17. I always learn something over here. 🙂 Never knew the wife of a rajah was a ranee.

  18. It would be cool to be “dangerously beautiful”. I’ve learned to settle with “doesn’t make me vomit”.

  19. Sylvia’s eyes haunt me. She’s so versatile too.

  20. rather morose with all this decapitation stuff.

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