“The magic of it all possessed me, sight, sound and sense; there was in this abundant land everything for which my heart had yearned” – Sylvia, Ranee of Sarawak.
Where did I hear about this book? The beguiling title caught my eye on a bookshelf in a flat in Pimlico, London. When I enquired about it, the owner enthusiastically told me it is her favourite book. I was sold.
Brace yourselves for a roller coaster foray back to the turn of the last century, to Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The Kingdom of Sarawak, now a long-forgotten stretch of jungle in Borneo, bursts back from memory through the dazzlingly detailed biography of Sylvia, Ranee of Sarawak.
The biography naturally begins at Sylvia Brett’s early childhood in England, following the antics of the high society Brett family. The reader journeys through Sylvia’s painful but fascinating childhood, through to early adulthood where in 1903 she meets, and eventually marries, Sir Vyner Brooke – a ‘White Rajah’, heir to the Sarawak throne. It is from this point onward that the mysterious Kingdom of Sarawak unfurls.
Throughout the book, the presentation of Sarawak oscillates between images of savagery and gentility. Before the reader experiences any first-hand accounts of Sarawak through Sylvia, it has already been alluded to as a place of savagery and violence – the biography title alone (Queen of the Headhunters) suggests this. The regal wedding is publicised in the national media under lurid headlines such as: “Queen of the Wild Men of Borneo” and “Grand-Uncle of Bridegroom Won Savage Realm as Reward for Aiding Oriental Ruler.”
Despite this horrifying imagery, Sylvia has an unbiased approach to her new Kingdom, which allows her (and us vicarious readers) to experience Sarawak in its entirety. Her initial reaction is largely positive: “There was something fearsome about the richness of this ancient foliage in a land of mysterious legends and beliefs; and yet, as I gazed at all its luxuriant beauty, I knew that a long dark chapter in my life was ending.” Sylvia’s brother is more frank in directly challenging prevailing stereotypes: “It is too lovely a place here…. The idea that it is barbaric or primitive never occurs to one – it is a completely civilised and very, very comfortable life.”
The reader is offered glimpses into the scenery, customs and cultures of Sarawak, but with this being a biography, it is somewhat limited. Moreover, Sarawak is presented through a colonial, foreign, outsider’s lens. We experience the hospitable culture of the Dyaks through the meticulously detailed welcoming ceremonies, we learn about their loyalty to their rulers when jostles for the throne take place, as well as during the eventual cessation. We gain insight into the expectations of female subordination through Sylvia who initially struggles to comply, but then adopts behaviours that remain with her for life. “The Ranee Muda should be a thing apart, but what about Syv, the mad, wild Syv, must she be choked and killed just as she has come to life?” writes Sylvia about herself, followed by (many years later) ….”or break myself from the habit of standing whenever Vyner entered a room, or walking dutifully four paces behind him?” And of course, we do get an understanding of the headhunting practice which continued to thrive despite the White Rajah’s attempts to eradicate it.
Media coverage throughout Sylvia’s life continues to perpetuate the notion of a savage Sarawak Kingdom to lure in readers. In her later years, Sylvia takes advantage of this hyper-exoticisation of Sarawak to propel her own career in writing and lecturing on the subject. Sylvia and her daughters are chiefly able sustain themselves due to Western morbid fascination with the obscure far-flung Kingdom, and its unusual family dynasty. Strangely, the author uses the same ploy to lure in readers, and I discovered I too am not immune to this. As a reader, I am guilty for responding to the appeal of exotic morbidity; – the title was so beguiling I simply had to read the book. Ultimately, this book does not need to rely on such a misleadingly sensational cover to appeal – the vibrancy of Sylvia and her dynasty suffice. Readers seeking an exotic morbid fulfilment are likely to be disappointed.
This biography’s focus is on Sylvia as an individual, and less so about her Kingdom. Thoroughly researched and detailed; it can be heavy on the minute details, so the reader must be prepared to persevere. It is worth it – the myriad of blindingly colourful facts and events will astound and delight in equal measure. Experience the final hurrah of the White Rajah dynasty through this biography; it is a fascinating journey, in which we readers are privileged passengers.
You can also read this review on TripFiction’s website
More reviews for the biography Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters:
The Guardian’s review: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters
The New York Times review: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters