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  • Book Review: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters

    I picked up my copy of Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters by Philip Eade, at a second hand market bookstall in Bondi Junction one rainy afternoon. A long time fascination with both the head hunting fraternity and historical women of power attracted me to the story, as well as the salacious back cover reviews: “Enthralling…reads like a thriller…jaw dropping…juicily entertaining”.

    Sylvia Brooke was the consort of His Highness Sir Vyner Brooke, last Rajah of Sarawak, a short-lived dynasty of Englishmen who ruled over part of the island of Borneo between and 1841 and 1946. Called the White Rajahs, the dynasty began when James Brooke was awarded a large grant of land from the Sultan of Brunei. Unmarried and without legitimate issue, the title of Rajah passed to his nephew Charles Brooke in 1868, who married Margaret Alice Lili de Windt. Their eldest son Vyner became Rajah in 1917 on the death of his father, and it is to this gentleman that the fascinating Sylvia was married.

    I had already read the autobiography of Margaret, second Ranee of Sarawak, a rather dry and dignified tome which makes only a handful of references to the headhunting Dyaks of Borneo and then only in terms of their troublesome and aggressive natures. Their customs are barely discussed; instead Margaret dwells on the cultural delights of the peaceful tribes under her husband’s rule and his constant battle to improve the lot of the general populace via trade and control of the murderous Dyaks. Margaret comes across as a cultured woman who developed a deep and abiding love for Sarawak; her story gives no hint as to the true state of affairs, which was that she was estranged from her husband, a philandering and parsimonious man, and spent much of her time in England attempting to find husbands for her three sons. She was regarded at best by her peers as hugely eccentric and at worst a “treacherous beast” who surrounded herself with intrigue, suffered from delusions of grandeur and had a faint air of disrespectability about her.

    James Brooke, founder of the Sarawak dynasty

    Vyner Brooke, who abdicated in 1946

    Sylvia, Vyner's wife, who did so much to undermine the Brooke legacy

    Philip Eade, the author of Sylvia’s biography, appears prejudiced against the royal couple from the onset, quoting early on a historian who described Sylvia as “wretched” and the couple as a “seedy pair”. None of this is even remotely inferred in Margaret’s book, who portrays her son only as brave and thoughtful and makes no reference to Sylvia at all – a result, perhaps, of their massive falling out in later years. Eade quotes several very unflattering descriptions of Sylvia by her contemporaries before we even reach the end of the prologue. The entire story is, of course, far more complicated.

    Despite her privileged upbringing, Sylvia was a deeply unhappy child, overshadowed by her luminous parents, their colourful friends and her confident siblings. By her own account she attempted suicide three times by her early teens, in typically outré fashion, first by eating rotten sardines, then by lying naked in the snow and finally by wrapping herself in wet towels.

    Before she married Vyner she had begun to forge a respectable writing career of her own and counted amongst her friends George Bernard Shaw and JM Barry, the author of Peter Pan. However she suffered from chronically poor self-esteem, a psychological condition unknown in the early 1900’s. She described herself as a “grim though undeniably plump spinster, dreaming of the things that might have been”, while longing to be loved for her own sake rather than for the social position bestowed on her by birth. Her protracted courtship of and by Vyner was farcical in the extreme, opposed by both sets of parents and spanning years, punctuated by awkward meetings beset by self doubt and mundaneness.

    According to Sylvia, the couple did not have relations until their wedding night and it did not go well. This was to set the tone for their entire relationship, which was, according to her husband, better off based on friendship anyway. He was morbidly shy with his white contemporaries, but more relaxed with his native subjects, with whom he had spent most of his formative years. And he followed in the footsteps of his father, taking many European and native mistresses, some of whom were procured by Sylvia herself, possibly in an attempt to control him. Since she herself had several liaisons and obsessive “friendships” with men over the course of their marriage, the relationship could hardly be called unequal and indeed might today be held up as a very successful form of open marriage.

    Sylvia and Vyner’s early years together were marked by extreme family jealousies and squabbling with his siblings and their wives, with the old Rajah inclined to distrust Sylvia’s family and their motives in allowing her to marry his son, fearing a “back door” take over of his beloved Sarawak and its wealth of resources by the English government. During this time Sylvia had two daughters and continued with her own writing career and social calendar in England, noting that in Sarawak she was serenaded with the Sarawak national anthem when she went to the bath house but in England was plain old Mrs Brooke.

    Sylvia had already gained a reputation within her own family for cattish and malicious behaviour. Her letters home from Sarawak during the first world war were full of malevolent comments and unflattering descriptions of Rajah Charles, somewhat understandably as the “doddery” old Rajah had a number of unpleasant habits, including relieving himself in public at State events. In truth she shocked the Europeans living in Sarawak, who expected decorous behaviour from their Ranee-in-waiting.

    On 17th May 1917 Charles Brooke died and on 21st May Vyner was proclaimed Rajah in his place. Sylvia was in no position to enjoy her new status, but lay gravely ill in England and during this time became increasingly paranoid, convinced that there were plots underfoot to depose her husband and install his younger brother Bertram, who the old Rajah had preferred, in his place. Added to this was the understanding that she could have no more children and that none of her three daughters would be allowed to inherit the Sarawak throne.

    Sylvia and Vyner settled into life as Rajah and Ranee. Spending much of her time in England without her husband now that the Great War was over, Sylvia’s behaviour became more bohemian, and at one point she facetiously reassured her mother than she and her sister Doll were “not prostitutes”, although they did do “unconventional things”. This aura of disrespectability was to remain with her all her life and did much, in the long run, to undermine the authority of the Sarawak monarchy.

    When in Sarawak, the royal couple held dinners, card parties and dances, although European company was thin. Both she and her husband advanced the standing of individual officers based on their infatuations with either the men or their wives. In London Sylvia shamelessly capitalised on her title in order to mix with the stars of the day, people like Tallulah Bankhead and DH Lawrence, and spent Sarawak revenues on a lavish lifestyle for herself and her daughters. She also began a series of Machiavellian plots to change the line of succession from Vyner’s despised nephew Anthony to her daughters. The death of her father in 1930, the one restraining influence in her life, only served to lessen her sense of decorum more, and she also actively encouraged her daughters to behave outrageously, in turn reducing the dignity of the Sarawak monarchy as a whole. As Vyner himself became more idle and eccentric, and the administration more amateurish in the eyes of an evolving world, the English Colonial Office began to look upon the province as a possible acquisition. Perhaps seeing the likely end to the Sarawak monarchy, and with their personal finances increasingly in tatters, she and Vyner shopped out Sarawak to the British, and when an outright sale was rejected, exchanged 200,000 pounds and other financial incentives for a Constitution and reduction in absolute powers. However, it was the onset of war in the south Pacific in 1941 that brought about the beginning of the end of the Brooke dynastic rule. Vyner and Sylvia unceremoniously abandoned Sarawak to its fate before the Japanese invaded, tarnishing what was left of their reputations irreparably. Finally, after many attempts to either sell Sarawak or reinstate himself as absolute monarch, Vyner formally abdicated in 1946, as much, apparently, to spite his despised heir-apparent nephew as for any other reason. The Ranee knew instantly knew what she had lost along with her title; over the following years, Sylvia and her daughters’ lives slowly degenerated into genteel mediocrity. She spent much of her remaining life living out of suitcases and travelling between various family members, finally dying in 1971, having just published her second autobiography entitled, most fittingly, Sylvia Queen of the Headhunters.

    How can one sum up Sylvia’s life? Most of it was lived in luxury and privilege, a fact that she apparently had no trouble taking for granted. She was despised by many for her thoughtless, meddlesome and outrageously self-serving behaviour, and yet it seems that she was no better or worse than many of her Edwardian contemporaries, who were equally self absorbed wastrels with high opinions of themselves. She was considered talented as a writer and some saw her as charming, bright and vivacious, rather than the majority who viewed her as an unscrupulous and eccentric liar. Eade writes her story well, although perhaps without sympathy. At the very least, it is the promised rollicking good read, a story hard to put down until the very end.

    Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Outrageous Englishwoman And Her Lost Kingdom,  Philip Eade 2007, published by Orion Books London and available here


    Sea dyak women, Sarawak
    Sea Dayaks (Iban) women from Sarawak, wearing rattan corsets decorated with brass rings and filigree adornments. The family adds to the corset dress as the girl ages and based on her family's wealth. Photo Dr. Charles Hose, from Hutchinson, H. N. ed. "The Living Races of Mankind." London: Hutchinson & Co., ca 1910.


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