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The history of James Brooke’s schooner, the ‘Royalist’

If Sarawakians were to name one 19th century schooner that they may know, the answer would most probably be the Royalist.

(For Pirates of the Caribbean fans who said The Black Pearl, you’d be off by a century as the trilogy was set roughly in the mid-1700s.)

The Royalist itself was famously known to have played an important role in establishing British adventurer James Brooke’s foothold in Sarawak.

He bought the vessel in 1836 with money he had inherited from his father.

The Findlay

That being said, did you know that the Royalist was not Brooke’s first vessel?

Brooke always wanted to sail to this part of the globe. He was reportedly inspired by the book The Eastern Seas written by George Windsor Earl. According to Robert Payne in The White Rajahs of Sarawak, Brooke begged his father for a ship – any ship.

“At last, in February 1834, his father relented and promised to buy a ship for him and to furnish it with merchandise.”

Finally, he saw a ship he wanted in Liverpool. It was black, with a black hull and black mast.

Like any young man excited over a new ride, Brooke got excited and told his friend about it.

In a letter to Cruikshank, he wrote: “Me voila done! I have a vessel afloat, and nearly ready for sea- a rakish slaver brig, 290 tons burden- one that would fight or fly as occasion demanded, and made to pay her expenses The Indian Archipelago, the northeast coast of China, Japan, New Guinea and the Pacific is the unlimited sphere of our adventure.”

So, the ship (which was called The Findlay) sailed from England on May 6, 1834.

Unfortunately for Brooke, his captain (a friend named Kennedy) and first mate (Harry Wright) did not see eye to eye with each other.

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Kennedy and Wright were constantly quarreling along the journey. Brooke then abruptly decided to sell The Findlay and its cargo.

The Eastern Seas by George Windsor Earl.
The Royalist

Frustrated, Brooke returned to Bath, England where he spent his time fox-hunting and yachting. At this time, Payne stated that he “seemed to have no purpose in life.”

Finally, his purpose in life came in the form of a 142-ton topsail schooner.

When Brooke’s father died in December 1835, he inherited £30,000 (about £3,780,000 in 2019). He immediately bought a yacht, The Royalist. She was believed to be built in Cowes in 1834 as a gentleman’s yacht for Rev T.L Lane.

It was “armed with six six-pounders, a number of swivel guns, and every kind of small arms.”

The Royalist was a vessel of the Royal Yacht Squadron, one of the most prestigious yacht clubs in the world that still exists to this day.

Due to this, she could fly The White Ensign. This was a flag flown on British Royal Navy ships and shore establishments.

In other words, the Royalist was accorded the same right as ships of the Royal Navy.

This time, Brooke had learned his lesson from The Findlay, so he chose his officers wisely. For his first journey on the Royalist, he took some of his relatives and friends to the Mediterranean.

During this journey, he even brought along his nephew John Brooke Johnson Brooke who later became Rajah Muda, his heir to the Kingdom of Sarawak. This was before Brooke disinherited him in favour of his younger brother, Charles.

They travelled to Malta, Bosporus, Halicarnassus (now Bodrum) and Rhodes. Then, they returned home in June, 1837.

For 18 months, Brooke studied where he was going and charted his journey.

In fact, his initial plan was to establish a settlement at Malludu Bay (now Kota Marudu, Sabah).

The Royalist sets sail to the Far East

After that long and studious period of planning, he was ready to sail the Royalist by the end of 1838.

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He was famously quoted from his diary stating, “Could I carry my vessel to places where the keel of European ship never before played the waters, could I plant my foot where white man’s foot has never been before – could I gaze upon scenes which educated eyes have never looked on – see man in the rudest state of nature – I should be content without looking to further rewards.”

Finally, the Royalist sailed from Devonport on Dec 16, 1838 with 19 crew members.

On June 1, 1839, Brooke arrived in Singapore where he remained for a few weeks. It was here that Brooke finally heard about Sarawak.

Payne wrote, “He learned that the antimony ore, which gleamed with a dull silvery gleam and which he could see being unloaded in Singapore harbour, came from Sarawak. He learned, too, that the Rajah (Pangeran Muda Hashim) was fighting some obscure rebels in the interior. There had been no mention of Sarawak in his prospectus. Now he was on fire to enter Sarawak.”

At that time, the future king never thought he would became the first White Rajah of Sarawak.

The Royalist arrives in Sarawak

So Brooke made his preparation, readying gifts such as silk, cloth, sweets, preserved ginger, gunpowder to present to Pangeran Muda Hashim.

Even during the 19th century Made-in-China items were famous as Brooke prepared a huge box of toys from China for Pangeran’s children.

On July 27, the Royalist left Singapore and heading toward Borneo. Then on Aug 11, they laid eyes on Mount Santubong for the first time.

Three days later on Aug 14, the Royalist sailed slowly up Sarawak river passing through mangroves and nipah palms along the riverbank.

“At night, less than two miles from Kuching, he dropped anchor. At first dawn the Royalist rounded a bend in the river, and at seven o’clock came in sight of Kuching,” Payne wrote.

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And the rest is history.

A small replica of The Royalist on display at The Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita.
The royal shipwreck

Two years after Brooke became the first White Rajah of Sarawak on September, 1843, the Royalist was recorded in Brunei.

Then, it was reported that the Royalist was sold as a trading vessel early in 1844 but still retained her name.

On Dec 11, 1854, the schooner was wrecked near Kawhia, New Zealand. Her captain then, a man named Tavernor wrote a letter on Dec 12, 1854 to Charles Davis reporting on the wreck.

“I had done my best to save the vessel from destruction; but afterwards my whole thought was how to save our own lives, but fortunately the tide and serf left us sufficiently for us to get onshore safe. We then commenced to get everything from the wreck that we possibly could, it then being 6 o’clock, and the tide making fast, this morning we cut her fore-mast and main-mast away, saved them with sails and yards, and a little timber, whether we shall save more I cannot say all the timber and most part of the wheat, the vessel is now a total wreck.

The Royalist was 86 tons register, and had on board 1,700 bushels wheat, and 14,000 feet sawn timber, at the time she went ashore.”

Captain Tavernor (Dec 12, 1854)
The Resurrection of the Royalist

In September 2018, the Royalist made headlines as it would make a return to Kuching after 180 years.

Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg announced that the replica of the Royalist, with the exact scale of the original vessel will be placed at the Brooke Dockyard.

This would be after The Brooke Trust and Hollywood were done using it for their shoot in the upcoming White Rajah film.

Patricia Hului
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 worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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