SIR JAMES BROOKE, 1803-68
Brave, romantic and highly adventurous, Sir James Brooke was a character perfectly attuned to appeal to Victorian schoolboys. Investing his fortune in a ship, he sailed out to the island of Borneo, where he repressed a rebellion for the local ruler, established himself as founder and first of the white Rajahs of Sarawak in the north of the island, and went on to fight and defeat pirates in a succession of campaigns. Liberal, not much interested in money and hopeless at making it, he was a hero for the more benign ideals of British imperialism. However, what Victorian boys were not taught and never knew, unless they were amongst the lucky few who met Sir James themselves, was that the attraction was very much reciprocated.
Unsurprisingly, Brooke has been the subject of many biographies, but though they generally acknowledged that “he was at his best with the young”, as Sir Steven Runciman put it, and some acknowledged a homosexual side to him, if only repressed, the story of his love of boys was only first told in a monograph on his sexuality by J. H. Walker published as “ ‘This peculiar acuteness of feeling’: James Brooke and the enactment of desire" in the Borneo Research Bulletin 29 (1988) pp. 148-189. The most balanced account of it yet, though less detailed, by Nigel Barley, is extracted below (including some criticism of Walker's account). It is hoped that in the future a more thorough survey may be assembled here from the primary sources. In the meantime, a collection of general illustrations of Brooke's remarkable life is also offered here.
James "Jem" Lethbridge Templer, (of whom Brooke was fond when he was 18) as a man
White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke, by Nigel Barley
Those interested broadly in the life of Sir James Brooke are recommended to read the lively and insightful general biography by Nigel Barley, White Rajah (2002). The excerpts presented here are the most useful for his sexuality and romantic friendships, as they offer the reader both fresh information and a carefully considered point of view that is slightly but significantly different from previous ones.
It was in Canton that James fell ill with a bad attack of influenza and was nursed by John Cruikshank, the Scottish surgeon of the Castle Huntley. They would become affectionate friends for life. The matter has been minutely studied by Dr J. Walker in the Borneo Research Bulletin. Post-modernly attuned to the hidden discourse of sexuality and empire, he has devoted a good deal of effort to spotting, between the lines, James Brooke's 'boyfriends', yet the results are sometimes questionable. Attraction is not seduction, nor is seduction love. To equate them is to reduce the rich, polyphonic music of James's emotional life to a single note.
There may well have been sexual attraction on James's part – later evidence shows he was sensitive to male beauty - but this was no mere passing relationship of the flesh rather a deep and loving friendship. John Cruikshank named one of his sons 'James Brooke' and after his father's death the boy went, at the age of fifteen, to serve in Sarawak where, to avoid confusion, he was known as 'Fitz’. Another, hopelessly alcoholic, son briefly had a job fixed for him as Government Medical Officer in 1860. There is no suggestion whatever in this long relationship of untoward seaborne yo-heave-hoing or jolly rogering. This was an attachment that hailed from a heady mix of mutual youthful exuberance, sudden freedom and the solidarity of shipmates abroad in the world. It certainly matured into something akin to love, but there is no good reason to assume that this required physical expression.
Then there was young James Templer, the mate, succeeded by his younger brother John. John's wife wrote later:
My husband's older brother James was mate in the Castle Huntley. Brooke took an enormous fancy to him, and during a period of four or five years spent a great deal of the time he was in England at my father-in-law's house at Bridport, where a room was always called 'Brooke's room.' Here he made the first acquaintance with my husband, and they soon became great friends, the younger man worshipping in Brooke all the grace, romance, talent and sentiment too, as being so especially attractive at that period of his life . . . On James [Templer] giving up the East India Company's service and going to Australia the friendship with John was intensified, and one may almost say transferred, although Brooke always maintained that he had never met so delightful a companion as James.
When he came to write his biography of James Brooke, Spenser St John remarked, 'One judicious friend had advised me to say nothing disagreeable about [John] Templer and the young Rajah: I would carry out that wish as far as possible,' since, as he stated some time before, he had no wish to reveal ‘the Rajah's own private life“. The whole Huntley period is strongly marked by a strange - almost Californian - touchy-feeliness that is indeed suggestive of more than ‘much merriment and vast foolery'. But it was clearly a golden time of liberty and optimism that the band of young shipmates would never forget, an innocent time free of responsibilities when they made their friends for life, a time of endless undergraduate conversations, when they knew exactly how to set the world to rights, the time perhaps that James had in mind when – a broken and bitter old man - he wrote poignantly ‘that the young hope more than they fear, and that the old fear more than they hope . . .’
We are perhaps too used to the sanctimonious tone of the Victorians as the clear sign of high-Gothic hypocrisy, and over-eager to translate every high-blown expression of esteem into a mere mask for the furtive snap of elastic. Going to bed together is far from the only ‘disagreeable' matter that can occur between two men. In later years James and John Templer had a dramatic and certainly disagreeable falling-out over the state of James’s mind that led to a total rupture of relations. And let us not pretend that we can easily read the discourse of Victorian sexuality, which is a language very different from our own. Two basic signposts show us that we are moving in an alien erotic and moral landscape that would fundamentally affect James Brooke's affections and actions in a way it is hard for us to imagine. The first is that boys at that time were regarded as sexually mature and could legally marry at fourteen (girls at twelve). The second is that sodomy was both an unquestionable sin and a capital offence. There were regular moral frenzies against the crime, and something like 80 per cent of those convicted were actually hanged (unlike other capital offences, where the figure was a mere 12 per cent).
But, outside the main group of friends, were there other entanglements of other kinds with a more clearly homoerotic backwash? Perhaps, with the benefit of evidence from his later years, there were. For example, in 1831 James wrote to Cruikshank rather ruefully of a younger crew member called Stonhouse:
I cannot help having some hope that Stonhouse may value my acquaintance a little more than I give him credit for; but the real truth is, I have been too complying with his slightest wish, and have shown him too many weaknesses in my character for him to respect me much. Now, you will say, I write as if I were sore, and it is true; but the same feelings that make me so would also make me very ready to acquit S. of all intention to hurt me, for you know how well l liked the boy. I expect nothing from men, however; but if they will give me their affection or show me kindness l am doubly pleased.
James spent several days before his death burning papers, but a problem of quite another order is that his closest circle of friends have clustered round and carefully censored even the remaining material, so that while the tnıth about his love life clearly lies beyond the evidence as we have it, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what that truth was. They were evidently sensitive about it. When Spenser St John - after all a lifelong friend - took his final leave, the scene was described as follows. 'l ran down to Torquay, once more before leaving, and in the beginning of April 1867 I saw him, and as I leant over him I felt it was for the last time. As I neared the door he called me back and I saw the tears falling and then I could see how he also felt that it was one last adieu.' But deliberately excised from the published version of this passage as 'too sensational and Nelsonic' and 'contrary to British taste' are two chaste kisses.
There are, of course, many kinds of love, sentimental, physical, blatantly sexual, and James Brooke seems to have been an emotional man capable of them all. Yet erotic love seems to have required a seed of compassion around which to crystallise and in which to hide itself. For him, pity does not lead to a purgation of eroticism into pure sentiment - quite the reverse: it stokes the fires of desire into what may be termed 'compassionate lust'. Sometimes, the balance comes down on one element in the pairing and sometimes the other. While his correspondence with Cruikshank and the Templers does not suggest a physical relationship but something compounded of large amounts of mutual affection and respect that is increasingly rooted in nostalgia for lost youth, indications from his later life, involving not his equals and co-evals but very much younger, poorer, more vulnerable boys, are a different matter. These will be considered in due course but the cumulative evidence is that, where they were concerned, James Brooke was a skilled dissimulator, hiding the sensual in purely avuncular benevolence. St John remarked smoothly, 'He would often endeavour to defend his system and argue that boys should not be thwarted; and certainly he carried his system into practice with all the lads that came under his control, and certainly also with very markedly bad results.“ We shall see how badly later. Thus perhaps of significance is another passage in that letter to Cruikshank about the Penang pool. 'Let me hear from you from the old ship,' it ends. 'Present my affectionate remembrance to her. Tell me how she looks and feels and what sort of folk are aboard. I pity you the job of carving in the cuddy and saying pretty things to the ladies. Take care of the “mids" [midshipmerı] and be kind to them, as you always were, for you know the “mids" of the Huntley are under my especial care.’
On Brooke in Borneo at the time H.M.S. Samarang struck a rock and capsized in the Sarawak River, 17 July 1843:
James's own attentions were otherwise engaged in the form of the thirteen-year-old great-nephew of the Bishop of Calcutta, William Brereton. 'He is a delicate and gentlemanly boy, and his age is tender; and when I think of our Charlie [Charles Johnson] I cannot help my heart expanding toward him.’ In the capsizing of the vessel he had lost all but his trousers. Elsewhere James notes, ‘Writing about boys, I have got a sick one with me, of the name of Brereton, a distant relative of mine - he being a great-nephew of the Bishop of Calcutta; a fine little fellow . . . I have got quite fond of him since he has been here; and somehow there is something in the position of a young volunteer of thirteen years of age, which rouses one’s kind feelings; so young, yet forced into manhood, to share privations and fatigues, when yet a boy . . .’
Brereton would later be engaged in the Sarawak administration and die of dysentery in the Skrang fort, at the still-tender age of twenty-four. But for the time being all was japes and juvenile disporting with the ‘mids’. ‘I do not know what the natives thought of the European Rajah Brooke playing at leapfrog, but it is certain that the Rajah did not care what they thought. I have said little of Mr. Brooke, but I will now say that a more mild, amiable and celebrated person I never knew. Every one loved him, and he deserved it.’
In 1849, when Brereton was only 19 and Brooke led a naval expedition against the local Saribus pirates:
William Brereton, , former 'mid' friend of James, was put in command of the Tiger, [... and following a crushing victory ...] James suggested strongly to Omar Ali [the Sultan of Brunei] that Sarawak should take over the administration of these rivers and divide the revenue with him. The Sultan’s dominion was numinous, the revenues non-existent, and James had just eloquently demonstrated his ability to do anything he liked with the area. Omar Ali hastily accepted the offer. A fort was built and young ‘delicate’ Brereton was sent to live there in terrible isolation. 'I choose Brereton to rule over these people, and I trust to God he will do it well; though young, I have confidence in him, and know that he has many qualities suited to the task.’ It was perhaps just as well that the basis of James's recruitments to the Sarawak service were not more widely known. But Brereton did do well, so well that he was able to organise a formal peace ceremony of ‘drying the eyes and wiping the face’ amongst the various peoples of the river, to finally extinguish traditional enmities.
In September 1854:
An outbreak of dysentery now ravaged the Sarawak forces. Many died in pain and squalor, young Brereton among them. He had sired a child by a local woman…. The Dayaks were astonished but touched that this unpaid official working for love and sheer belief in both James and Sarawak had left his few pathetic possessions to them. James wrote, ‘He was an affectionate and particularly lovable person, able, clever, enthusiastic, and with particular tact in handling the natives. Poor dear fellow, he loved me very sincerely, and I was attached to him from his youth upwards.’
On Sir James’s last years, living in Devon:
Burrator was also a place ‘where he was endeavouring to bring up two young cubs for the Sarawak service. But, as usual, these cubs remained cubs to the end, and were a source of trouble and mortification until they disappeared from the scene. Strange infatuation to believe that he could do anything with such materials when gentlemen cadets were to be had by the score.’ What upset St John was not the presence of boys as such, but lower-class boys who did not know how to behave.
One of the lads was William Blackler, thirteen years old when James made his acquaintance in rather odd circumstances in Totnes. James explains to Angela's companion, Hannah Brown, how
I used to take my invalid saunter in the meadows skirting the ‘Dart’. A party of boys were bathing afar off, as it appeared in forbidden water, when three fishermen in their seven-league boots rushed upon them. They fled (very scantily clothed) excepting one, who having swum further than the others lost his clothes and was himself taken prisoner and led off to the fishing house: It was not in my nature to see this, so I went to the rescue and got the poor boy off. Thus was our acquaintance commenced. Afterwards, he was always pleased to see me and I was pleased with the attention: so we gradually became friends.
Another version describes poor William as shivering in soaked nakedness with the Rajah, naturally unfazed by his total nudity, detaining him in endless comradely chit-chat.
But there is more to William.
His father is a stonemason in the town, his grandfather, with whom he lived, and four uncles, shipwrights, well to do in the government dockyards. He was to be a shipwright too and spoke with pride of his lot. I saw the father who was a really respectable man of the lower order – manly, intelligent, upright, struggling cheerfully to bring up a young family. So it ended. I gave the boy a tip and not till the other day did I think of inquiring about my young acquaintance. He had not been on the sunny wall of fortune – children had increased and wages were low. His grandfather was out of work and so the lad had returned to his father. His uncles had families and could not get him into the dockyards as apprentice … so I thought I could be in the way of helping him and have determined to send him to school for a year or two, and when he has thoroughly mastered book keeping, to send him to Sarawak as a clerk in the revenue department. I am now inquiring for a ﬁtting school: I hope even to do something for the father who is a man one likes to meet - independent but respectful - knowing his place and acknowledging the pains and privations [?] of a life of labour without shrinking or discontent.
He returns to the subject with characteristic rapidity: ‘The father of the lad is a mason by trade and I should like to give him aid (not charity) to become a Master. Do you know any schools where I could put William Blackler - the son? To give him a substantial education and thorough knowledge of accounts and book keeping is my object.’ But he is anxious that he ‘not remove him from his proper sphere, excepting in a proper degree.’
Soon, James is seeking more concrete forms of assistance from Hannah Brown: ‘If you would lend Richard Blackler [William's father] £25 – without interest - it would be a great kindness to a good man and if the Missus [Angela Burdett-Coutts] is rich i.e. has more money than her other good works demand - she will perhaps make the sum up to £50 - a handsome capital to start with and which l think would be repaid in a few years.“
How this extraordinary request went down with Angela is not recorded but we can be sure how it was received in Sarawak: Brooke Brooke had suffered greatly from the stream of useless, wayward boys sent his way by his uncle over the years. In 1861 he wrote to him in some irritation, ‘If you send out new hands let them not be boys but men.' Nevertheless, Blackler did end up in Sarawak until dismissed from the service by Charles in 1867.
It is interesting that we are finally able to compare James's own characterisation of the Blackler family, as the deserving poor, with the assessment of his own administrative officers. For James's relationship with this boy seems to go far beyond anything consistent with previous biographers' claims that his sexual interest remained merely latent, and there is little doubt that at this period of life he was carnally involved with the rough trade of Totnes. He not only accepted physical manhandling, he invited it. St John summed up the whole business with a sad shake of the head:
The Rajah all his life was on the lookout for an ideal which he never found either in man or woman and his singular infatuation that virtue and honesty and simplemindedness were more the attrihutes of the lowborn than of others receives many singular illustrations in the relations he held with such ruffians as Prout, Blackler and May or such incapables as Penty [his steward], Read [his Singapore solicitor] etc., etc. l shall not easily forget the visit Miss Coutts and Mrs, Brown paid us at Burrator, when Blackler pushed the Rajah off the sofa on which he was reclining, in order to have the couch himself. I often expressed my surprise at his permitting such conduct towards himself but he thought it proved great independence of spirit. These were however, but spots on the sun. Still they were curious in a man of as great a refinement of mind.
There were even crude blackmail attempts. Arthur Crookshank, James's deputy, was at Burrator when Blackler arrived demanding entry. When refused, he wrote ‘the most impudent and threatening note to the Rajah saying he was bound to provide for him and must do so or if it came to the worst he (Blackler) had letters which were sufficient to make him do so when necessity required him to shew them. We have advised the Rajah not to take any notice of him, but if he writes again to answer him through a lawyer. He's a bad lot!!’
Another lad, May, seems to have been a sailor friend. After James's death a letter was found among his papers demanding £100 ‘as he was on shore instead of at sea, which did not agree with his health or pocket’. May (‘that wretched boy') ended up, perhaps appropriately, as an inspector of police in Sarawak. In his will James left him £52 per annum, as well as to William Reed (in Crookshank’s words, ‘an encumbrance which should never have existed’), who is regarded as living at Burrator.
And yet, either through sheer innocence or driven by his demons, James remained throughout his life resolutely ‘on the look-out’. There was an earlier protégé, Richard Lawford, shipped out to Sarawak in 1858. He is a foundling, ‘intelligent, fairly educated, a good musician’, rewarded two medals in the army by the age of eighteen but discharged suffering from consumption. Perhaps this was a simple humanitarian act, for James was frequently genuinely moved by the troubles of boys and young men; but it is often the case that his compassion trembled on the brink of lust, and the two might compound powerfully together into something even fiercer and more corrosive that clouded his vision and exposed him to ridicule and terrible risk.
 Sir Steven Runciman, The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 (Cambridge, 1960) 89.
 See the supplement for good reasons given by Nigel Barley for not asserting that James’s friendship with Jem Templer was sexually driven (White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke (2002) p. 23). James “Jem” Lethbridge Templer was born on 9 November 1811, so he was eighteen at the time in question.
 Pangiran Anak Badr ud-din, 6th son of the 21st Sultan of Brunei. His age is quite unknown. He was killed with two of his wives by the agents of his nephew, the reigning Sultan, on 31st December 1845. https://www.royalark.net/Brunei/brunei8.htm
 Charles Thomas Constantine Grant was born on 2 July 1831. He was a grandson of the 7th Earl of Elgin and much the most aristocratic British boy associated with Sir James. (John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry (London, 1837) II 613).
 Charles Johnson was born on 3 June 1829, so he was thirteen at this date.
 Nigel Barley, White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke (2002) pp. 21-25 and 205-9.
 It should be stressed that, in urging scepticism over Walker’s claim here, Barley cannot be accused of joining in the suppression or avoidance of unpopular truth which Walker accuses earlier writers of perpetrating through adherence to a “heterosexist paradigm”: Barley fully accepts Brooke’s attraction to and likely sexual involvement with boys, which, by the time (2002) he was writing, was infinitely more damning than involvement with a man like Cruikshank. If anything, it is Walker who is trying to make Sir James more palatable to modern prejudices by stretching his homosexuality beyond pederasty on such tenuous grounds.
 G. Jacob, The Raja of Sarawak (London, 1876) Vol.1, page 27. [Barley’s footnote 6 to Chapter 2]
 St. John, Spenser. The Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, from His Personal Papers and Correspondence. W. Blackwood and Sons, 1879. [Barley’s footnote 7 to Chapter 2]
 C. Brooke, Ten Years in Sarawak (London, 1866) p. xiii [Barley’s footnote 8 to Chapter 2]
 Norton, R., Mother Clap's Molly House (London, 1992) p. 132 [Barley’s footnote 9 to Chapter 2]
 This is an exaggeration of the situation, at least as regards most of Sir James’s adult lifetime. Sodomy, then the only homosexual offence in English law, meant only pedication with emission. The death penalty was never inflicted for it after 1835 and had been in decline for many years before then.
 G. Jacob, The Raja of Sarawak (London, 1876) Vol.1, page 33. [Barley’s footnote 10 to Chapter 2]
 St. John, Spenser. The Life of Sir James Brooke, Raja of Sarawak (London, 1879) p 92. [Barley’s footnote 11 to Chapter 2]
 St. John, Spenser. The Life of Sir James Brooke, Raja of Sarawak (London, 1879)p 376. [Barley’s footnote 12 to Chapter 2]
 G. Jacob, The Raja of Sarawak (London, 1876) Vol.1, page 45. [Barley’s footnote 13 to Chapter 2]
 J. Templer, The Private Letters of Sir James Brooke, K.C.B., Rajah of Sarawak, Vol. I, p. 266 [Barley’s footnote]. William Wilson Brereton was born in 1830 (Robert Maitland Brereton, The Breretons of Cheshire 1100-1904 A.D., Portland, Oregon, 1904, p. 116), and before 22 September of that year, since he was 24 when he died on 22 September 1854 (The Gentleman’s Magazine, New Series, vol XLIII, London, 1855,, p. 104).
 Frank S. Marryat, Borneo and the Indian Archipelago, 1848. [Barley’s footnote]
 S. St. John, The Life of Sir James Brooke, Raja of Sarawak from His Personal Papers and Correspondence, London, 1879, p 350. [Barley’s footnote 7 to Chapter 14]
 J. Walker, ‘This Peculiar Acuteness of Feeling’, Borneo Research Bulletin, 1998. [Barley’s footnote 8 to Chapter 14]
 James Brooke to Hannah Brown, British Library, BL, Add. 45275 [Barley’s footnote 9 to Chapter 14].
 James Brooke to Hannah Brown, British Museum, BL, Add. 45275, f. 143. [Barley’s footnote 10 to Chapter 14]
 James Brooke to Hannah Brown, British Museum, BL, Add. 45275, f. 148. [Barley’s footnote 11 to Chapter 14]
 James Brooke to Hannah Brown, British Museum, BL, Add. 45275, f. 150. [Barley’s footnote 12 to Chapter 14]
 Correspondence of James Brooke: Basil Brooke Papers, Rhodes House, Oxford, MSS Pac. s. 90, Vol. V, f. 396. [Barley’s footnote 13 to Chapter 14]
 Basil Brooke Papers, Vol. XV, f. 64 [Barley’s footnote 14 to Chapter 14].
 Basil Brooke Papers, Vol. XV, f. 64 [Barley’s footnote 15 to Chapter 14].
 J. Walker, ‘This Peculiar Acuteness of Feeling’, Borneo Research Bulletin, 1998 [Barley’s footnote 16 to Chapter 14].