Book review: ‘Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters,’ by Philip Eade

June 20, 2014

Sylvia Brooke was in her mid-40s when, in March 1929, she made her first visit to the United States. Though she was here for personal reasons, she always traveled as what she was: the ranee of Sarawak, a British protectorate in what is now part of Malaysia, where her husband, Vyner Brooke, ruled as its rajah. She was billed “by one newspaper headline-writer there,” Philip Eade writes in his engaging account of her singularly unusual life, “as the ‘Queen of the Head Hunters’ ” and celebrated in prose that fairly crackled with romance:

“She rules over one of the wildest countries in the world, swarming with tigers, venomous snakes 15 feet long, boa constrictors many feet larger and the most dangerous wild beasts and reptiles known to the Asiatic jungle. The people of Sarawak, who number a million, are addicted to headhunting, cannibalism and other fearful avocations when not restrained by their charming ruler. They are devout believers in demons, ghosts, witchcraft and all kinds of magic, and life among them is more like a story from Arabian Nights than an ordinary everyday existence.”

All of which was more or less true, if amped to a fare-thee-well by an over-zealous journalist, though by the late 1920s Rajah Vyner had succeeded in persuading the chief headhunters, the Sea Dyaks, or Ibans, to tone down the practice; they “traditionally saw the taking of heads as a means of consecrating important events in their lives,” but like countless other residents of Sarawak they venerated Rajah Vyner for “his genuine and benevolent concern for his people” and were willing to follow his counsel with regard to headhunting. It should be noted, though, that they revived it during World War II, under Japanese occupation: “In Sarawak as a whole it was estimated that fifteen hundred Japanese had been liberated from their heads, which were particularly prized by the Dyaks for being ‘nice round heads with good hair and gold teeth.’ ”

Rajah Vyner was the third member of the Brooke family to preside over Sarawak in the course of a full century: “Popularly known as the White Rajahs, theirs was the only English family ever to have occupied an Oriental throne. They had their own flag, currency, postage stamps and armed forces, and each rajah had the power of life and death over his subjects, variously Malays, Chinese and Dyak tribesmen. . . . The third Rajah, educated at Winchester and at Magdalene, Cambridge, was one of the few monarchs left in the world who could still say ‘L’Etat c’est moi.’ Yet he ruled his kingdom, it was noted, rather as if it were an English country estate, with tribal chiefs always welcome at the big house.”

He was amiable but excruciatingly shy. It had taken all the courage he could muster to court Sylvia Brett, the daughter of an aristocratic family well-connected in royal and political circles, presided over by her father, Reggie, who had far less time for his several children than for his various affairs of state, with the consequence that all of them grew up to be willful and independent to the point of eccentricity, none more so than Sylvia. She and Vyner were married in February 1911 and arrived in Sarawak in May of the following year. Her brother Oliver had come along for the ride and pronounced Sarawak to be “very different from what I had anticipated, far safer, far more advanced, far happier, far more civilized . . . a very happy country, guided by European brains but untouched by European vulgarity.” Sylvia was enchanted by its natural beauty. “The magic of it all possessed me,” she wrote, “sight, sound and sense; there was in this abundant land everything for which my heart had yearned.”

‘Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom’ by Philip Eade (Picador)

Still, it was not in her nature to leave even the most beautiful things alone. “I have always unfortunately been made that way,” she said. “I cannot keep my fingers out of the fire, no matter whose fire it is. I am nearly always to be found there disturbing it and adding on the fuel.” When she arrived, the second rajah, her father-in-law, Charles Brooke, was still very much in charge. The friction between him and Sylvia was palpable. She did nothing to help matters by involving herself in a struggle over his successor, who by rights should have been Vyner; Rajah Charles thought his younger son, Bertram, was more qualified and in any case didn’t want Sylvia close to the source of power. The dispute finally was settled in Vyner’s favor in a more or less amicable way, but Sylvia disliked Rajah Charles long after his death in May 1917 and made unflattering references to him in many of the articles and books she published in her long writing career. Her books included novels and memoirs, but only her last, “Queen of the Headhunters,” was a commercial as well as a critical success.

The squabble over the succession was only the beginning. Sylvia simply could not stay out of trouble, much of it of her own making. Her marriage to Vyner produced three daughters but not the son required for orderly succession, so that was yet another reason for her to jump into the fray. Apart from producing those daughters (all of whom grew up to be almost as difficult as she, parental neglect once again being a prime cause), she does not seem to have had much interest in amatory relations with her husband and eventually had relationships with other men, the exact nature of which is unclear; there can be no doubt, though, that Vyner was serially unfaithful, right up to his death in May 1963 at the age of 87. Certainly Sylvia gave him more than he cared to handle:

“Ranee Sylvia, the extravagantly dressed author of eleven books . . . was submissive consort one moment, outrageous self-dramatist the next, described by the press as ‘that most charming of despots’ and by her own brother as ‘a female Iago.’ The Colonial Office branded her ‘a dangerous woman,’ full of Machiavellian schemes to alter the succession and often spectacularly vulgar in her behavior. After observing the Ranee dancing with two prostitutes in a nightclub, then taking them back to the palace to paint their portraits, a visiting MP from Westminster concluded: ‘A more undignified woman it would be hard to find.’ ”

Ultimately she was powerless to affect the succession. At the end of the war, Rajah Vyner returned to Sarawak only to cooperate in a scheme to cede it to the British Crown, which was accomplished on July 26, 1946, leaving Sylvia to bemoan the fate they shared, “shorn of our glory, and faced with the necessity of adjusting to a world in which we were no longer emperors but merely two ordinary, aging people, two misfits . . . in the changing pattern of modern times.” They returned to England but lived more apart than together, cultivating their eccentricities and struggling — with not a great deal of dignity — to make the most financially out of a poor situation. Sylvia visited her daughters, who had taken themselves to various places in the New World, flitting in and out of marriages but somehow managing to give her grandchildren and even one great-grandchild.

Sylvia died in November 1971 but lived long enough to see her last memoir, “Queen of the Headhunters,” praised by one reviewer as of a piece with “an Evelyn Waugh novel, as witty, as eccentric, as essentially English, a period piece.” Much the same can be said of Eade’s book, which may restore her to at least some of the renown that escaped her not long after her death. She may have been barmy, to use a word favored by that chronicler of English eccentricity P.G. Wodehouse, but barmy can be a lot of fun so long as it’s in someone else’s house.

SYLVIA, QUEEN OF THE HEADHUNTERS

An Eccentric Englishwoman and
Her Lost Kingdom

By Philip Eade

Picador. 362 pp. $30

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