“There came out to Sarawak at about this time a young man who was destined to play a sinister part in the history of the Sarawak Raj.”
This is how Sylvia Brett, the last Ranee of Sarawak introduces Gerald MacBryan in her book Queen of the Headhunters.
The Brooke family governed Sarawak between 1841 and 1946. James Brooke ruled the area until his death in 1868. He was succeeded by his nephew Charles who in turn was succeeded by his son Vyner.
During the Brooke family’s reign, many British citizens were employed into Sarawak service.
One of them being Gerard Truman Magill MacBryan, whom some historians believed was Sarawak’s equivalent to Rasputin.
The story of MacBryan
MacBryan was the son of a doctor who owned a mental hospital near Bath, England. He was described as tall, graceful with bright eyes and ivory-white skin.
MacBryan was only 18 when he entered the Sarawak government service in 1920. Soon after MacBryan arrived in Sarawak for duty, however, rumours already began spreading about him.
According to Sylvia, “MacBryan, it was said, suffered from hallucinations that his bungalow was being attacked, and would start shooting wildly into the darkness.”
Sylvia was not the only one who recorded MacBryan’s lunacy.
Robert Payne in The White Rajahs of Sarawak stated that most of the white Sarawak officers during the Brooke reign were too busy to indulge in complicated pleasures.
“With Malays, Dyaks, Chinese, and Indians, all around them, and with a growing country to serve, they were kept occupied. Only one went mad, but he had a streak of madness in him long before he came to Sarawak.”
And of course the madman Payne referred to in his book was none other than MacBryan himself who was reported to have had a series of manic episodes.
Once in South Africa, he appeared naked at a party, and afterwards explained that he thought he was invisible. Sometimes he thought he was a dog, and would walk on all fours, barking at the top of his voice.
MacBryan also allegedly stole from shops and alms-boxes.
Gerard MacBryan and Vyner Brooke
Even so, with all the manic incidents, how MacBryan would continue to stay and serve in Sarawak was due to his relationship with the third white rajah, Vyner Brooke.
Of his first impression, Vyner told his wife, Sylvia that he thought MacBryan was “wonderful, but nuts”.
Putting aside the nuisance he presented to some of his fellow white officers, the Malay and Dayak people reportedly loved him.
MacBryan spoke fluent Malay and had even delivered a speech in Kenyah.
He also proved himself helpful by negotiating the peace-making ceremony between the Ibans and Kayans in Kapit in 1924.
Vyner nicknamed MacBryan the “Baron”, after Baron von Munchausen, the German cavalry officer who had been renowned for his fantastic and irresponsible antics.
According to historian Dr Bob Reece in The Name of Brooke, MacBryan was a man of considerable talent with an intelligence superior to that of most officers.
“More importantly, he was a skillful politician and a shrewd judge of character. He seems to have had the knack of knowing how the Rajah’s mind worked and of suggesting courses of action which would fulfil his wishes. In other words, MacBryan was capable of doing the Rajah’s thinking and decision making for him, something Vyner Brooke found very useful sometimes.”
MacBryan interfering with the succession to the throne
Vyner and Sylvia had no sons, so MacBryan began courting their young daughters. He even openly talked about becoming the next Rajah.
At one point Vyner had enough of the ‘Baron’ and fired him. MacBryan was subsequently banished from Sarawak for about four years.
During this time, he married a Malay lady, announced his conversion to Islam and even made a pilgrimage to Mecca. He had planned to make himself the Muslim ruler of the east.
MacBryan did not manage to do that but he did successfully make a return to Sarawak. By 1927, he was put in charge of Sarawak Gazette and eventually became Vyner’s secretary again.
Despite his best efforts, however, MacBryan was unable to seduce his way to the White Rajah’s throne.
But some reports claimed that he made sure the next heir apparent, Vyner’s nephew Anthony, would not make it to the throne either.
Another popular opinion was that the last Ranee was trying to push her eldest daughter, Leonora or her grandson Simon MacKay, to succeed the throne.
At the time, it was believed that Sylvia was plotting with MacBryan.
But on July 8, 1940, Sylvia wrote a letter to her brother in-law Captain Bertram Willes Dayrell Brooke (Anthony’s father) claiming her innocence.
“I happen to know more about the MacBryan plot than anyone. It began with MacBryan making violent love to Didi (Elizabeth, Vyner’s second daughter). I don’t think that Didi was more than fourteen at the time. But as you know MacBryan was determined to get into the family somehow. The whole thing has really grown from the evil seeds in MacBryan’s brain.”
Gerard MacBryan’s role in Sarawak’s cession to the British
But MacBryan’s biggest role yet in influencing Sarawak’s history was when Vyner appointed him to negotiate the terms of cession between Sarawak and the British government.
Local historian Ho Ah Chon stated in Sarawak Historical Events 1941-1945 that:
“After the war, Vyner sent out his private secretary to induce the leading Kuching Datus to sign letters in which they agreed to support any moves Vyner might think fit to make ‘in the interest of Sarawak’.”
According to reports, the letter never mentioned cession .
The community leaders signed the letters, not knowing the truth till few days later.
“One of the Datus, Datu Patinggi Abdillah, was furious when he discovered that they had been tricked, and he returned the $12,000 (all those who signed were given a large sum)- saying it was a bribe.”
And that private secretary was MacBryan.
Sylvia also wrote,“I think it can safely be said that if there had been no Gerard MacBryan there would have been no cession of Sarawak at that time — July 1946.”
When Vyner and Sylvia returned to Sarawak in 1946 to say their final farewell, the Baron was not there with them.
“He had sworn he would see Vyner through the difficult period of Cession. After all, it was he who set the machinery in motion; who had coerced and corrupted the Malay Datus into signing papers they did not understand. And then he had simply vanished, leaving Vyner to face the music alone, to withstand the disapproval of his brother, and the shocked fury of his nephew.”
However according to Reece, this claim might not be true.
“There is no way of verifying later accusations that MacBryan used trickery and even force to obtain the necessary signatures. But it is clear that he deliberately misrepresented Bertram and Anthony as having agreed to the cession.”
Nonetheless, the information retained and reproduced in a Malaysian secondary school History textbook for Form 3 was that of Gerard T. MacBryan using trickery to gain signatures from Council Negri members.
The Brooke family ceded Sarawak to the British government as a crown colony on July, 1 1946.
Life after Sarawak for MacBryan
By late 1949, there were reports of him losing his sanity. He was arrested for stealing peaches from a fruit barrow in London eventhough he had more than £40 in his pocket.
At one point, he also carried with him everywhere a mysterious black box which he said could blow up the world.
He occasionally checked himself into a mental institution in London.
Towards the end of his life, he was living in a cheap hotel in Hong Kong until he died in 1953.
Vyner believed MacBryan hanged himself although Sylvia believed MacBryan starved himself to death.
In her final mention of MacBryan in her book, the former Ranee stated, “…although he had thousands of dollars in the bank, the ‘Baron’, with his charmed and twisted dreams of powers, looked down-and-out, filthy and in rags. I never dared ask Vyner what he thought about the downfall of his friend.”