"Sarawak was his whole life. It had claimed him heart and soul. It was not to be expected, therefore, that I, an inexperienced girl of twenty, could interest him greatly or evoke from him any great demonstrations of romantic attachment. But I was hardly prepared for his extremely prosaic attitude towards matrimony and it took me a little time to adjust my ideas to his." RANEE MARGARET
Spiral staircase leading to the 3 floors of the recently opened Brooke Gallery displaying the collection of the Brooke Heritage Trust.
View from the garden from the river bank.
THE FORT Stepping into History
The Forts of Sarawak contain a list of ladies, but it was Margaret Alice Lili De Windt who gave her name to three of them – Alice in Sri Aman, Lily in Betong and, of course, Margherita in Kuching. The Ranee’s namesake has kept watch over Kuching for over 130 years in all its upright Englishness, gleaming white. But its relationship with the local residents has waxed and waned as it disappeared behind the tall trees, even for those who live in the kampungs at her feet. Once the first sight of Kuching for those travelling by the Sarawak River, it is now shrouded from view except for the occasional glimpse through the canopy from select spots on the waterfront. However, a 2.3 million ringgit restoration and a new occupant – a permanent exhibition by the Brooke Heritage Trust – may be bringing her back into public consciousness. But what is it she stands for amongst the people of Sarawak?
View from Fort Margherita Tower overlooking the skyline of Kuching City and the Sarawak river.
Fort Margherita has famously never fired on anyone or even been fired upon.
In the immortal words of Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife and it seems the second Rajah of Sarawak in 1869 was no exception. But it must have been a peculiar challenge to find just the wife to fit the position – a woman who could be a source of pride and who was without the prejudice that might make a life of service to a people 8,000 miles away from her home unpalatable. In fact, whether by chance or by pure design, the eponymous Ranee Margaret turned out to be remarkably well-suited – a woman who was plain yet practical, who prized intellect over appearance, a lady who was both hardy and adventurous, an Englishwoman who, in her own words, ‘should rather like to be taken for a Malay’.
At the age of twenty, she found herself married to a man seventeen years her senior and shipped off to the other side of the world. But her memoirs, “Good Morning and Good Night” speak of a very happy time in Sarawak. She was left very much to her own devices thanks to the Rajah’s frequent travels and though the Ranee was English, through and through, she “lived in two different worlds – the world of my stilted conventional English friends and the world of my warm-hearted Malay women.” After all, it was this unusual attitude of the early Brooke dynasty that set Sarawak apart, perhaps the foundations of our legendary harmony. Horror of all horror amongst Victorian colonials, the Ranee very decidedly ‘went native’, learning the local dialects, founding the first school for Malay boys, encouraging education for their girls, even adopting their style of dress and she was applauded for it. As her great-great-grandson Jason Brooke puts it: “Margaret eschewed the superior attitudes of European ladies of her time and embraced all that Sarawak had to offer – she saw Sarawak through the eyes of Rajah Charles, and she loved it in just the same way.”
In her own words: “I thoroughly enjoyed putting on the costume, so comfortable it was, the discarding of my stays, too, those mid-Victorian horrors of steel and whalebone worn by fashionable females of that era. In my cool garb, I felt free, untrammelled, and (greatest of all charms in my eyes) quite Malay!”
By all accounts, especially her own, the Rajah was not an easy man to love. Respect came easily but love was harder to find. Seemingly devoid of any romantic sensibilities, his proposal was framed by his exclamation of ‘what a lot of good she could do in Sarawak.’ Stingy in anything that did not benefit the state, Charles gave few material gifts to his new bride as he didn’t want to burden the Sarawak treasury. But instead, he gave her what he could and unsurprisingly, these gifts would be for the benefit of Sarawak equally. Ranee Margaret’s new husband raised buildings to her - first, the Astana as a wedding gift and then, nearly a decade later, Fort Margherita with its commanding view of Kuching around it.
But this building, completed in 1879, marked a turning point in Sarawak’s architectural style, perhaps a mirror of the changing nature of Sarawak’s statehood and that of the dynasty at its head, of which the Ranee formed an integral part. The fort, with its crenellation and austere white tower was a pure expression of fortress Europe, from a time and place of winter sieges and defence from archers.
“Margaret eschewed the superior attitudes of European ladies of her time and embraced all that Sarawak had to offer – she saw Sarawak through the eyes of Rajah Charles, and she loved it in just the same way.” JASON BROOKE (great-great-grandson)
Far left: Ranee Margaret (second from right) "went native", learning the local dialects and enjoyed feeling "free and quite Malay" in the local garb.Left: The other side of the river in 1890.
The image is one of solidity and impregnability, perched on a defensive hillock that could oversee both sides of the river and the town beyond it. Gone was the hip roof of the previous forts (Kuching and Alice both), gone the verandahs of the Courthouse, gone were the belian timbers, replaced by battlements and bricks and mortar. As Architect Mike Boon suggests, Fort Margherita, along with the Square tower and a new addition of a keep at the front of the Astana, introduced a new style of construction to Sarawak, one that rejected all forms of hybridization that had been so apparent in earlier buildings in favour of a direct import from the homeland of the Rajah and his young wife.
But it is this very image that is so fundamental to the story of our fort. It was this image of Sarawak that Charles wanted to project – established, authoritative, imposing – and he borrowed imported iconography to do it. It was a new era for Sarawak in the eyes of her new Rajah. While James was the adventurer, the Malay ruler in every way that mattered other than the colour of his skin, Charles was the nation-builder. He concerned himself with Sarawak’s position in the world and he was the one who wanted her presented at court, not as a young girl ready for marriage (as James had before him and Vyner, in fact, after him) but rather as a Dowager Duchess with power and position of her own. In fact, the Sarawak historian Dr. John Walker puts forward a theory that the change in style was perhaps prompted by pique, the ultimate anything you can do I can do better riposte. The Ranee describes in detail her husband’s lack of introduction at the court of the English Queen during an early visit where he was presented as Charles Brooke Esq., Rajah of Sarawak. It was the title of a mere civil servant when ‘His Highness Rajah of Sarawak’ would have been more appropriate in his eyes. The Rajah was painfully aware that the sight of colourful painted houses on the approach to Kuching by river was ‘in no way impressive’ to visitors and so he raised a Fort, not for function, but for form – to announce to the world that they were entering the domain of any ruler to rival those in Europe and in some senses, he achieved his aim.
By the 1880s, the tune in Europe had changed and he was given precedence as an independent prince similar to those in India, giving him more prominence than even the Sultans of Malaya. In fact, his choice of Ranee may have helped in this regard. For the woman who longed for the warm- hearted Malays left Sarawak in 1881 and lived out the rest of her days in London, returning only briefly. She raised her three sons there, including Vyner who would later rule, and, understanding well the ways of the English aristocracy as her husband never would, she was the ultimate ambassador for the fledgling nation in all the right circles.
There can be no real doubt that the Fort was built entirely for display. By 1879, Kuching was unassailable and the Rajah was secure in his capital. Unlike Kuching Fort, built in hybrid Sarawak style from Sarawak materials for active service against potential threats both from local uprising and from potential foreign threat in the form of the Dutch, Fort Margherita has famously never fired on anyone or even been fired upon. It is a building unfit for purpose in its current climate. The flat roof leaks in our thunderous tropical rainfall (the damp in the walls was a large focus of the restoration team) and the building bakes during the day and turns into an oven overnight, releasing its heat into the interior. But, it has served well as a symbol of statehood under the later Brooke dynasty, built on the same side as the Astana and away from all the other institutional buildings. It has always stood apart. The very Englishness of the Fort underlines the shift in the style of the Brookes, moving away from the inclusive Malay style of the first Rajah to one of the paternalistic concern of the second for his subjects. They became the Guardians of Sarawak, both at home and overseas, and Margherita has served that purpose well.
Karen Shepherd is a descendent of the ‘nice Mr B.’ who took Marianne North to Tegora as described in John Walker’s article. Perhaps it is this tenuous historical link that has given her an enduring fondness for the strong-willed Ranee.