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Margaret, wife of the not so jolly Rajah

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers Margaret Brooke, the Ranee of Sarawak

30 July, 2020 — By Neil Titley

Margaret Brooke wearing her royal attire

RECENTLY there has been much press comment about the difficulties encountered by Meghan Markle in adapting to her new role as royalty. Any problems that she may have experienced could be regarded as minor in comparison to those confronting a previous commoner promoted to sovereignty.

Margaret Brooke (1849-1934) owed her exotic title to her marriage to Sir Charles Brooke, son and heir to his father’s personal kingdom of Sarawak in the East Indies.

When they married in 1869, Charles Brooke was in his mid-40s and had spent the previous 17 years in Sarawak; Margaret was 20 and had never been outside Western Europe. Charles was a frigid man of Spartan habits and few words who although not consciously cruel was hopelessly out of touch with English life and incapable of expressing emotion.

He had arrived back in England to find a child bearer, and originally paid court to Margaret’s mother.

When this was rejected, he proposed to Margaret by handing her a note. Margaret found his total lack of a sense of humour and his bizarre attitude to marriage rather amusing.

Margaret wrote later that their Devon honeymoon commenced at Paddington: “Arriving at the station he went to a bookstall and bought the Times and Punch. He sat me in a corner with Punch and himself sat back with the Times and was immersed in it to Exeter.”

At the Exeter hotel that evening, a waiter asked if the couple would like to have dinner. The Rajah grumpily declined saying that it was too expensive, but agreed to allow Margaret some bread and butter.

The next day they drove on by carriage. When they reached Crediton, Margaret shyly mentioned that she was a little hungry. The Rajah turned down the idea of a meal at a pub but, stopping at a baker’s shop, walked in, slapped five shillings on the counter, and asked for “Captain’s Biscuits”, an almost inedible concoction used mainly as hard tack by the British Navy.

He emerged bearing two-dozen paper bags of biscuits. Although the Rajah doggedly munched his way through them, Margaret found them completely indigestible.

On arrival at Burrator, they found that the servants had used their own money to pay for a wedding cake to greet the newlyweds. The Rajah scowled at the sight, barking: “Quite unnecessary and very expensive.”

When her mother-in-law visited the couple, Margaret innocently announced one morning that she was thinking of “saddling my horse for a ride”. The mother-in-law sniffed: “Your horse! Remember, young lady, that nothing is yours but your wedding ring.”

Margaret’s patience finally snapped. Smiling sweetly, she replied:

“If that is the case, I shall appear tonight at dinner with nothing on but my wedding ring”. A bleak silence ensued.

The couple finally left Devon bound for Sarawak. For Margaret, the monotony of the journey was broken only by her frequent bouts of extreme seasickness. During one such bout, the Rajah insisted that the best cure was to come up on deck to attend an impromptu ship’s concert.

As she listened to a large gentleman bellowing a song called “Oh Ocean! Swell, thou Mighty Monster” she unavoidably threw up again, and was rushed below.

On arrival in Sarawak, the Rajah took her into the interior to inspect her new kingdom. They were greeted in one village by an orchestra staffed by Dyak head-hunters. One dancer was waving what Margaret took to be a coconut but discovered was a human head. When the Rajah explained to her that this was an honour, Margaret replied faintly: “But, Charlie, I have never seen skulls brought out at parties before.”

Back in the capital, Kuching, Margaret gradually accustomed herself to tropical life, though occasionally betraying her naivety. After one dinner party, she was sitting on the verandah with her guests discussing the lack of and need for rain in the country. Suddenly she heard the sound of drops of water and leapt to her feet, exclaiming: “The rain is coming, can you not hear it?”

She wrote afterwards: “The silence with which my words were greeted grew into a sea of amused glances and giggles. The sound that I thought was rain was in fact the Rajah relieving himself over the verandah railing.”

Margaret displayed her courage when, in the Rajah’s absence, a gang of bandits forced their way into the compound to loot the place.

Margaret strode out to confront them and pointed to a cannon on the roof. She told them that if they did not leave the compound would be swept by grapeshot. They scattered, not realising that Margaret was alone and that there was nobody on the roof to fire the (empty) weapon.

Finding out that the Rajah preferred native women, Margaret returned to England, though still dutifully travelling to Sarawak every couple of years to allow the Rajah to impregnate her, producing three sons in six years.

She eventually retired to live at No 2, Prince Albert Road in Camden so that she could hear the tropical birds and animals at night in London Zoo. Fort Margherita in present day Kuching is named after her.

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