Ludvig Verner Helms, the unwilling candidate for Rajah of Sarawak

During the Chinese Insurrection against James Brooke in 1857, the insurgents proposed making Ludvig Verner Helms the next Rajah.

In the end, however, Helms played a huge role in helping Brooke to fight the insurgents.

So how important was Helms that the Chinese insurgents wanted him to replace Brooke as Rajah?

Ludvig Verner Helms and his life before Sarawak

1846 Ludvig Verner Helms Daguerreotype
Ludvig Verner Helms Daguerrotype taken in 1846.

Born in Varde, Denmark in 1825, Helms was a son of a pharmacist and the 13th of 16 children.

He was basically a merchant and a trader. Helms was influenced by his fellow countryman, Mads Lange who made his fortune in Bali, Indonesia.

Although he had never met or corresponded with Lange, he had letters of introduction from others.

Armed with those letters, Helms arrived in Bali sometimes in 1847.

With no knowledge of the local language, Helms continuously repeated Lange’s name to the locals until one of them showed him where Lange lived.

Lange welcomed him and Helms worked in Bali for the next two years.

In 1849, Helms left Bali to find work in Singapore and eventually arrived in Sarawak in 1852.

Ludvig Verner Helms and the Borneo Company

Kuching Sarawak the Borneo Companys building. Photograph. Wellcome V0037398
Kuching, Sarawak: the Borneo Company’s building. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Photograph c. 1896 By: Charles Hose Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution

When Helms first lived in Sarawak, he worked mainly in trading antimony. Then when the Borneo Company was formed in 1856, Helms became its local manager.

The company was given the mandate to ‘take over and work Mines, Ores, Veins or Seams of all descriptions of Minerals in the island of Borneo, and to barter or sell the produce of such workings; at the cost of royalty payments to the Sarawak government treasury in a 1857 agreement’.

According to Steven Runciman in his book The White Rajah: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, the Board of Company wanted a trained businessman as its local director and Helms fitted the role perfectly.

The first White Rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke however had his own thought.

“Helms was a capable if somewhat complacent man; the Rajah could never bring himself to like him, largely because he had had no say in the appointment. But any annoyance that he felt began to be dissipated when the Company bought a steamer to ply regularly between Kuching and Singapore and named her Sir James Brooke,” Runciman wrote.

Ludvig Verner Helms during the Chinese Insurrection

On Feb 18, 1857, a group of 600 Chinese made their way to the Sarawak River to attack Brooke.

At that time, Brooke managed to flee from his home and look for safety.

That did not stop the rebels from attacking Kuching causing the deaths of five Europeans and the fire that consumed several buildings, including Brooke’s house.

Chinese Insurrection
The Chinese Rebellion Illustration from Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak by Harriette McDougall

After the attack, the Chinese insurgents however did not want to take over the Sarawak government, offering the seat to Helms instead.

Even though Helms found himself unwillingly caught in the middle of the chaos, he refused to tell his side of the story in his book Pioneering in the Far East and Journeys to California in 1849 and the White Sea in 1878 (1882).

He wrote, “I gave thought it better, instead of giving my own account of the Chinese Insurrection, to insert the diary my friend, who was in its midst, and who made notes of the incidents as they occurred. His account is so vivid, and as I can attest, so truthful, that I feel no apology is need for presenting it to the reader.”

From the diary, we know that Helms was missing for awhile during the insurrection with many assuming that he had died, only to reappear two days later at a meeting held at the Old Courthouse.

The diary narrated, “The whole of the Court was filled with scowling Chinese faces, who thoroughly enjoyed their short triumph. The Kungsi then stated their grievances, said that they did not wish to interfere with the Europeans in Sarawak, claimed immunity from taxes and concluded by electing Helms Rajah. He was the popular man, and stood a fair chance of being made a monarch; but he continued respectfully to decline the honour.”

The Borneo Company helps in retaking Kuching town

After the meeting, Helms returned to Brooke’s side. In retaliation, the Rajah enlisted the help of the Malays and the Ibans from Lingga to take over Kuching from the rebels.

The Borneo Company also provided a steamer to help in the attack.

On Feb 23, the diary owner gave a glimpse on what went down on that day.

“Once on board, we started all with our intelligence. Helms who was now Rajah nolens volens decided on going up to the town at once, and the ladies were brought on board. Now came an exciting scene-the guns were got out, the rifles, cutlasses, all piled, and the decks cleared, but while this was being done we saw a large boat making for the river, which turned out to carry the Rajah, who had seen the smoke of the steamer far out at sea. The gloom and depression had passed away from the Rajah now, and everyone was in tearing spirits.

“The moment we opened the town, we were exposed to the fort, and the guns from the old fort opened on us with grape of original composition – balls, nails, scraps of rusty iron, came whizzing round, many of which were picked up afterwards as souvenirs; two of the boats were struck, and the keel of the one above me was splintered in all directions.

“The next instant our long eighteen-pounder forward spoke his mind. Firing almost simultaneously with another gun of same caliber the roar was a good one, and then came the sharper notes of the swivels and rifles. The shot from the gun forward, which was manned by the mate, went slap into the fort and create a scare. Out scoured the Chinese like wild hares in March, some dashing up the road leading to the Channons, while many ran through the bazaar, affording practice for the riflemen on board. The new fort was quickly cleared, and two or three more rounds completed the action. We steamed slowly up the river, on the sides of which the Malay kampong was still burning and then coming back again anchored off the bazaar. And thus the Company’s steamer retook the town of Sarawak.”

Ludvig Verner Helms on the dispute between James Brooke and Captain Brooke

As we dig deeper into Sarawak history under the White Rajahs, we know that Captain John Brooke Johnson Brooke was James Brooke’s first choice to inherit his position in Sarawak. He was Charles Brooke, the second Rajah’s older brother.

He preferred to be known as Brooke and after he left the British Army as a Captain in 1848, he adopted the surname of Brooke.

539px John Brooke Rajah Mudah of Sarawak
Captain Brooke

Captain Brooke first joined his uncle in Labuan when James was the first governor there then later to Sarawak.

A fallout with his uncle James Brooke caused Captain Brooke to lose his title as the Rajah Muda.

Since then, he was practically wiped out from Sarawak history despite his contribution to the country including during the Battle off Mukah in 1862.

Touching on the family conflict which later influenced Sarawak history, Helms explained on the preface his book, “The references to the dispute between two men, both of whom I knew and admired – Rajah Brooke and his nephew, Captain Brooke – will be uninteresting to many and displeasing to some, but there are also those who will remember and who were interested in their careers and who will see that I have attempted, though somewhat late, to do an act of justice.”

True to his words, Helms’ book Pioneering in the Far East and Journeys to California in 1849 and the White Sea in 1878 (1882) is highly recommendable for those who are looking for an unbiased account of what happened between the uncle and the nephew.

Ludvig Verner Helms, the Rajah nolens volens of Sarawak

Going back to the diary, Helms was referred to as the Rajah nolens volens. It is a Latin phrase for ‘like it or not’.

As to why the Chinese chose Helms to be the next Rajah, we are not entirely sure, perhaps due to the trust he built as the manager of The Borneo Company with the Chinese who were mainly miners from Bau.

Regardless, Helms in the end picked a side and went against those who chose him to be a monarch.

Helms lived and started his family here with his wife Anne Amelia Bruce whom he married in London in 1859.

They stayed in Sarawak until 1872 when a lawsuit terminated employment with the Borneo Company.

He reportedly returned to Sarawak around 1890 to prospect various ores but did not stay long. Helms spent the rest of his life in London and passed away on July 26, 1918.

Helms’ book is available for online reading here.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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