THE EXTRAORDINARY TALE OF SYLVIA BROOKE, THE LAST WHITE RULER OF THE JUNGLE KINGDOM OF BORNEO
Sylvia Brooke was one of the more exotic and outrageous figures of the twentieth century. Otherwise known as the Ranee of Sarawak, she was the wife of Sir Vyner Brooke, the last White Rajah, whose family had ruled the jungle kingdom of Sarawak on Borneo for three generations. They had their own flag, revenue, postage stamps, and money, as well as the power of life and death over their subjects—Malays, Chinese, and headhunting Dyak tribesmen. The regime of the White Rajahs was long romanticized, but by the 1930s, their power and prestige were crumbling. At the center of Sarawak's decadence was Sylvia, author of eleven books, mother to three daughters, an extravagantly dressed socialite whose behavior often offended and usually defied social convention. Sylvia did her best to manipulate the line of succession in favor of her daughters, but by 1946, Japan had invaded Sarawak, sending Sylvia and her husband into exile, ending one of the more unusual chapters of British colonial rule.
Philip Eade's Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters is a fascinating look at the wild and debauched world of a woman desperate to maintain the last remains of power in an exotic and dying kingdom.
Impulsive and melodramatic, Sylvia Brett Brooke embraced her role as the Ranee, or queen, of Sarawak, a Borneo Island kingdom and British Protectorate (now part of Malaysia) that had changed little even through WWI. Eade (Prince Philip) supplements his candid account with personal papers of several involved parties, often delivering Sylvia's point of view through her admittedly unreliable memoirs and correspondence, to reveal her difficult childhood lightened by British royal visits and her ensuing desperation for approval. Called "catty" and shallow by family and friends, Sylvia proves tough to like but her story deepens with the deftly described collapse of the Asian paradise's government during WWII and subsequent cession to the British. Her rich experiences fueled her writing career and Hollywood aspirations, accentuated by the truth that her subjects included a tribe of active headhunters and her open marriage in which she helped her husband procure lovers. Sylvia's reign proved as untraditional as she was; dividing her time between her two countries and repeatedly inserting herself into political intrigue and succession battles. Sylvia rarely won anything besides attention, but history has mostly forgotten her and, as Eades notes, "her notoriety evidently expired before she did."