World Coins: The Coinage of the White Rajahs of Sarawak: Part 1 Rajah James Brooke

Posted on 10/11/2011

The story of Sarawak goes back thousands of years, but the tradition of its state coinage started with James Brooke, a white Englishman born in India.

The coinage of Sarawak is highly prized and collected today by people all over the world. However, the average American may not have heard of it before, know where it is or of its rich history. The story of Sarawak goes back thousands of years, but the tradition of its state coinage started with James Brooke, a white Englishman born in India.

Sarawak, a state in current day Malaysia, is on the island of Borneo which is split between three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. North Borneo and Sarawak were important trade portals for Asia for hundreds if not thousands of years. The area was ripe with rebellions beginning in the 15th century against the Sultanate ruling authority. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Sarawak was colonized by the west under the governorship of James Brooke.

James Brooke was born in 1803 in India to white English parents. With a limited English education, James returned to India from England at 16 years old. He enlisted in the Bengal Army of the British East India Company, which at the time controlled a vast amount of India. In 1824, the First Anglo-Burmese War began and James Brooke participated in the Assam campaign. James was wounded in 1825 and sent to England to recover. After an unsuccessful attempt to rejoin his unit in Madras, India in 1830, he returned to England. Brooke began an Asian trading business but was unsuccessful in his ventures.

In 1833, Brooke inherited £30,000 from his father, which he used to buy a schooner named The Royalist. His plan was to circumnavigate the world with an expedition to the East Indies. Armed with six 6-pounder cannons and an abundance of small arms The Royalist was a formidable private warship.

Now an adventurer who commanded his own warship, Brooke reached Brunei (in North Borneo) in 1841 to find it in a major rebellion against Pengiran Mahkota in Sarawak. James Brooke assisted Rajah Muda Hashim, the son of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II, in suppression of the rebellion. Brooke was granted the title of Rajah of Sarawak, effectively making him governor and ruler of Sarawak. Rajah Brooke immediately established his rule over Sarawak by taking actions to reform the administrations, codifying laws and fighting piracy.

In 1847, Brooke returned to England a hero. He received the Freedom of the City of London and was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of Labuan. After a brief stay in England he returned to Sarawak to continue his rule. While Brooke faced significant threats from native warriors and pirates, he remained in power in Sarawak for the rest of his life. James Brooke was the founder of the “White Rajah” Dynasty of Sarawak and established a method of succession for those to follow. He died in 1868 and was buried in England.

Rajah James Brooke left a long and lasting legacy in Sarawak and Borneo including the coinage of Sarawak. While most coinage circulating in Sarawak originated in other countries, the first Sarawak coinage issued under Rajah James Brooke’s rule was the 1841-dated One Keping coin made by the Birmingham Mint. The coins feature a badger facing left, with J.B. (for James Brooke) under the badger and dated September 24, 1841, to commemorate the date Brooke was made Rajah. The reverse dies were recycled from dies used to make earlier Singapore Merchant tokens. While considered tokens by some, the coins circulated and today these pieces are very scarce and highly prized by collectors in any condition.

Sarawak 1841 One Keping
Click image to enlarge.

Following the British monarchy, in 1863 coins were made by the Birmingham Mint in ¼ cent, ½ cent and one cent denominations and featured the bust of Rajah Brooke and the inscription “J. Brooke Rajah” for use in Sarawak. These coins established the new monetary standard for Sarawak where 100 cents was the equivalent of one dollar. The mintages of the 1863 pieces are unknown but considered low with the survival rate even lower. While these were the final coins issued under Rajah Brooke, they set the precedent for the future coinage of Sarawak’s White Rajahs.

Sarawak 1865 One Cent
Click image to enlarge.

It is hard to believe that Sarawak's coinage all started with an Indian-Born Englishman who died a Rajah. Without Brooke, Sarawak’s history and its coins would have been very different.

Next month: Part Two

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