From Part One: Ghita

Kuching, March 1870

The boisterous motion of the Rajah's yacht had slowed. Had they arrived in the Sarawak River at last? For the two days since leaving Singapore, she had lain on her bunk overwhelmed with nausea and drenched in sweat. Charles Brooke, her husband of four months, had not spoken more than a few perfunctory words to her, while her maid was too seasick to be of any assistance. The tropics were vile. The heavily aromatic food she found repulsive, the cloying heat was suffocating and her smart fashions from the Rue de la Paix clung limply to her clammy body. The nights she spent in a perpetual state of terror, anticipating the prick of spiky cockroach legs on her arms and face, or rats scampering across the floor of her cabin and scratching at her pillow. If this was how it was to be, as the wife of the Rajah of Sarawak, she might just as well be dead.

Now she could smell it. The wind carried the aroma of habitation to her porthole, both putrid and sweet at once, intoxicating in a curious, indefinable way. She dragged herself on deck to encounter the most intriguing and lovely place she had ever seen. Morning mist still hung in the mangroves along the river; above the mist, the jagged profile of Mt Santubong rose almost directly out of the water. When the mist cleared she could make out a long beach of stark white sand at the base of the mountain, fringed with casuarina trees. Among the mangroves, airy, insubstantial houses rested on poles sunk into the river where Malay women, dressed in a single cloth which clung to their wet bodies, bathed their naked children. They seemed to have not the slightest interest in the return of the Rajah with his young bride from England. Equally indifferent were the silent boatmen they passed; neither the blue-jacketed Chinamen standing upright in the prow to propel their narrow canoes laden with fish, nor the ragged boatmen sitting cross-legged under the thatch covering of the Malay boats, gave the Heartsease a second look. In contrast, the black-faced monkeys darting among the thickets of mangroves were highly indignant, grimacing and baring their teeth in annoyance as the yacht passed.

What kind of creatures were these? What were the tall palms like giant hearse plumes? How did the mangroves grow? Her excited questions received monosyllabic answers from her husband and the English officer who had come aboard. She would have to discover for herself the mysteries of this vivid and curious place.

Around a bend in the river past a kampong of wooden houses on stilts, she saw the small town of Kuching, dominated by the Malay mosque. On a rise beyond was the whitewashed bungalow of the Church of England bishop, set in expansive English gardens; below it was a bazaar of crowded Chinese shophouses, red-roofed and richly decorated with blue tiles and garish mouldings representing mythical monsters. Under their bright awnings each shop displayed rows and rows of large porcelain jars, bolts of brilliant silk materials, casks of tea and bags of spices, all spilling onto the pavement outside. Acacia trees lined the river side of the bazaar, suggesting the graceful calm of a European boulevard except for the craft moored alongside: clumsy junks with tawny sails and painted eyes on the bow; eccentric Malay boats with houses on deck; canoes hollowed out from jungle logs; schooners from the neighbouring Dutch possession; even two-storeyed dyak war prahus , their raised prows brilliantly carved and painted in the shape of forest birds. All were massed together in an untidy jumble, along with the mail steamer from Singapore. The stylish Heartsease anchored mid-river, slightly downstream from the other craft.

On the opposite bank she saw for the first time her new home, the Astana palace, where an assembly of Sarawak dignitaries waited to greet the returning Rajah. Firecrackers shot in all directions and stentorian guns sounded a salute from the stone fort beyond the bazaar. A sumptuous green barge came alongside--a present from the King of Siam--rowed by twenty imposing Malays in stiff white jackets and embroidered caps. She began to feel quite grand. Misery was behind her. Now, she told herself, her new life would be as she had imagined and she must be equal to the responsibility. No longer was she the frivolous Ghita de Windt; she was Margaret Brooke, the consort of an oriental ruler. She was the Ranee of Sarawak.

At the landing stage an old man, wearing an embroidered gold jacket and trousers trimmed with gold, unfurled a yellow satin umbrella, fringed in silk, which he held with great solemnity above the head of the Rajah as he stepped ashore and strode up to the avenue of waiting dignitaries. Poised on the edge of the barge she hesitated for a moment, watching Charles walk away from her, before she accepted the arm of Arthur Crookshank, the Sarawak Resident, and followed.

With great ceremony Charles Brooke greeted each person. The Malay Datus each carried a staff topped in gold and were dressed in white silk robes with a turban of rich, dark cloth, while several barefoot dyak chieftains wore little more than a brightly coloured loincloth, their tattooed arms and legs covered in bangles. The sole Chinese Tokay, his hair in a long pigtail, was immaculate in a blue silk jacket and black trousers. There were about half a dozen English officers in smart white uniforms. Two English women were also present, in last year's fashions, both fawning attention on the Rajah. Straight away she knew she was not going to like them.

Between the landing and the Astana was a sweep of manicured lawn with a path shaded by bamboo and betel nut palm, under which grew clumps of red and white lilies; graceful shade trees provided protection for dazzling flowerbeds. She was surprised and delighted that her taciturn husband could have created such a wonderful garden, but dismayed by the curious hotchpotch of the newly constructed home. It was quite small, hardly a palace: two stone bungalows, each with a deep spreading roof of wooden shingles and a wide veranda in the Malay style, were connected by a passageway to a central tower built like a small Norman fortress. Over the tower gate hung the Brooke family coat of arms, the motto written in Arabic script. Inside it was airy and cool, furnished in spartan style with hard wooden furniture, and filled with a delicious scent from the garden flowers.

Later that day, alone in the cool recess of the veranda, she drank in her new surroundings on the other side of the world. A whiff of rotting vegetation, borne along by the river, mingled with the heady scent of jasmine, honeysuckle and gardenia, while the air was full of the liquid sounds of rain dripping from the leaves, the rush of the river and the rhythmic splash of boatmen's oars. It was more exquisite than she could have imagined, but already she was desperately lonely.

The official luncheon organised by Arthur Crookshank and his wife had been insufferable. She had never in her life experienced such rudeness. Charles and his officers behaved as if she was not there, and when she looked forlornly around the table for someone who might stick up for her, she understood the two other wives would not help. Bertha Crookshank had already made it clear that even if she was the wife of Rajah Charles, she was just out of the schoolroom, and need not give herself airs. At that moment she hated them all. They had no breeding. They had no manners. She loathed the ugly sound of the name, Margaret, which her husband had given her to replace her pretty childhood name.

She wasn't a girl any more. She was twenty and she should have known what she was doing when she married this aloof man, old enough to be her father. Now she was pregnant. Sarawak would be her home and her children's home, for better or worse. She would have to make her own way in this strange and wonderful place...

From Part Two

How long after her awful honeymoon and the nightmare voyage to Sarawak did Ghita discover her husband already possessed a wife and child? While people in Kuching would have known about this relationship, they would tactfully have avoided giving Rajah Charles's young English wife any reason for her husband's frequent visits to Simanggang... No such discretion was ever evident in Simanggang. In 1927 the Ranee wrote to her nephew, Charles Willes Johnson, about Charles Brooke's harem at Simanggang. It was especially galling, she complained, because the Malay women, whom she might have seen as her allies, "thought such conduct fine on his part, as they said he required lots of 'gundits' ".

Worst of all was the discovery of his son, a boy aged about four. She was appalled to see the local Malays "looking upon the creature as anything but what he was"; deferring to the boy as the Rajah's son and not the half-caste bastard she took him to be. The boy's mother, the Ranee insisted to Willes Johnson with intense venom, was just "a low Malay". Charles could never have married this woman, she reiterated over and over in a series of obsessive letters. "Your uncle was monarch of all he surveyed and certainly would not have married himself to a low Malay", she insisted. "Where are the marriage certificates--who was the Inman [sic] and English parson on the spot to commemorate this visionary union?" Again: "No idea of marriage was ever in his head...marriage between Malay women and Englishmen were unknown in those days." And again: "How about the woman being a Mohammedan--marriages!?! such as these were of the most ephemeral character."

Although no record of marriage or certificate of a marriage between Dayang Mastiah and Charles Brooke has been found, it is accepted among the Malay community of Sri Aman, as Simanggang is now called, that Dayang Mastiah and Charles Brooke were married, and later divorced after Charles took an English wife. Public confirmation of this marriage came only with the unexpected visit to Sarawak of Esca Brooke two youngest daughters in 1981. The Sarawak Tribune published an account of the visit of these elderly Canadian women to Sri Aman, where they were welcomed by their long-lost relatives and photographed among the pepper crop, both a little awkward, yet thrilled to have made their connection to Sarawak tangible. The accompanying journalist was well aware that he had stumbled upon a scoop, confiding: "That Charles Brooke was married to Dayang Mastiah and that they had a son, Esca, is information which has never before been published and was hitherto known only to a handful of people. Even some other members of the Brooke family do not know of this matter."

Quite so. A conspiracy of silence has almost completely eliminated Dayang Mastiah and her son from existence.

To order a copy of any books written by Cassandra Pybus, either order from Gleebooks or email the author.

AHR/ Ed Board/ Cassandra Pybus / Raven Road
Community of Thieves/ Gross Moral Turpitude/The Devil and James McAuley
Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree/ White Rajah