Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom
This fascinating history of the waning years of the “White Raj” of Sarawak, which lies just south of Brunei on the island of Borneo, reads at times like a transcript from reality TV. The English came to rule there when swashbuckling James Brooke assisted the Sultan of Brunei in quelling a rebellion of one of the island’s headhunting tribes in 1841 and was then gifted the kingdom. Three generations of the Brooke family ruled as Raj, and the focus here is on the last generation, Raj Vyner Brooke and his wife, the Ranee Sylvia.
Eade writes in an appealing gossipy tone, often quoting directly from Sylvia and Vyner’s letters, and providing substantial documentation of the events and schemes that led to Sarawak’s becoming part of Malaysia in 1946. Sylvia Brooke was seen by many as a manipulator, indiscreet and disingenuous, which makes this an altogether fun read, with serious politics and history as subtext. This book exposes the seedier side of the Downton Abbey crowd, as the aristocracy crumbled and gender and race issues surfaced in the Edwardian and Great War eras; it provides a front-row seat to family dysfunction and imperial intrigue, and yes, the headhunters are included as well.