Ranee Sylvia on the Flying Carpet

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Louise M Macul

SYLVIA Leonora Brett (1885–1971) was the last Ranee of Sarawak as wife to Sir Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak from 1917–1946. Born an English aristocrat she considered herself first and foremost a writer. She began seriously writing in her early 20s under the guidance of literary legends J.M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw who enthusiastically encouraged her writing.

A young Sylvia Brett at her typewriter. Photo courtesy of the Brooke Trust Borneo Archive.

She specialised in short stories, occasionally writing plays, but aspired to be a novelist. A common theme in her writings was Sarawak including her interpretation of local folktales, fictional dramas surrounding the expatriate lifestyle, and social issues.

She also wrote after she left Sarawak in 1946. Between 1908 and 1970, Sylvia Brett Brooke published over a dozen books including a biography, autobiography, novels and short stories. From 1912 to 1941, as Ranee of Sarawak, she wrote eight columns for the Sarawak Gazette.

One such story was published in 1932 and describes Sylvia’s first plane ride which took place here in Kuching. The famous American adventurer Richard (Dick) Halliburton, along with his pilot Moye Stephens, invited the Ranee for a spin around the skies on their bi-plane called The Flying Carpet.

In his new Stearman CB3, Borneo was on Halliburton’s swash-buckling flight path which he later wrote about in a book The Flying Carpet: An Adventure in a Bi-Plane from Timbuktu to Everest and Beyond.

In the book, Halliburton describes his plans to his co-pilot Stephens: “I’ve just given myself an airplane and I want you to fly us to all the outlandish places in the world, Turkey, Persia, Paris and—Pasadena. We’re going to fly across deserts, over mountains, rescue imprisoned princesses and fight dragons. We must have the world. We can have the world!” (https://www.instagram.com/p/C2zfUTwv5Ye/?img_index=1)

Ranee Sylvia took her first ever ride on a plane with Halliburton and Stephens on the Flying Carpet with the experience starting by descending the stone steps at the Astana jetty on the Sarawak River. It is refreshing to know that when we fly today into Kuching International Airport, lucky enough to have window seat, we see the same spectacular landscape that the Ranee describes in this story:

The Flying Carpet
By Ranee Sylvia Brooke
Sarawak Gazette | 2 May 1932

Had I said to an Englishman, “Oh, how I’d simply love to fly!”, he would have replied, after five minutes of the heaviest cogitation, “Look here old thing, hadn’t you better think it over… I mean to say it’s an awfully beastly responsibility for a chap, … by jove it is.”

Not so America. I had hardly finished the sentence before Dick Halliburton had whisked out his notebook and was “go-getting me into that plane.”

“Fly,” he said. “gee girl, that’s easy—-Monday —-stone steps–nine o’clock–we’ll take you up.”

I hadn’t time to protest—I hadn’t time to be alarmed—that’s America! At nine o’clock I was on the stone steps. I couldn’t feel anything except that tremendous sinking you have when deep down in your soul you know you are partaking of forbidden fruit. Suppose something happened. But there, nothing would happen. Wasn’t I being piloted by one of the men who had taken part in “Hell’s Angels”?

The Americans were alarmingly cheerful that morning. The kind of cheerfulness your parents assume when as a child you are going to the dentist. Dick Halliburton would keep on photographing. I didn’t want to be photographed. I didn’t feel like a picture at all. If he could have taken an ex-ray impression of me it might have been different. It might have been interesting to see all my bones leaning together with fear.

We had an hour’s trip by launch to reach the plane which was anchored at Pending, and during that hour a few more grey hairs were added to my head. When we got to Pending Dick Halliburton would photograph again. I remarked grimly that I thought he had taken quite enough of me to identify the body! My one consolation over the whole affair had been that at any rate I should have Dick Halliburton to cling to. Picture my embarrassment when I was pushed into a tiny seat in front of the pilot — alone! —

Then we started. With a roar the Flying Carpet streaked through the dead low water — faster —- faster, and I was just beginning to like it when we started to rise.

Do you know I didn’t mind it after all? That fearful anticipation had suddenly turned into a very pleasurable reality. When we were well up I liked it. As we headed for Kuching I loved it. No giddiness — no sickness — very little bumping — Kuching was beautiful from above. The Astana looked like a mushroom on a fresh green slope. I saw all our Malay [workers] waving from the garden and I tried to wave back, but the wind nearly tore my hand from my wrist, and one of my rings blew right off my finger. I saw little white figures darting from the offices, and one figure, not so little, clambering onto the Dispensary roof. Then we started to turn.

How easily one uses the phrase “paralyzed” with fear. I know now what that means. There were two iron loops in front of me, and I crooked my fingers in those and shut my eyes and prayed. The more I prayed the more Moye Stephens went on turning. I was just contemplating dropping quietly out and getting it over, when we straightened again.

This time we went to the open sea. I felt really safe. We had our floats and the sea was like glass. The thing that struck me most in the scenic effect below was the entanglement of rivers threading in and out of the green jungle like little veins. How in the world these two Americans found Kuching through that maze of water I cannot imagine.

Then we started to come down. Moye said he would come down gradually so as not to hurt my ears. Coming down gradually meant turning and twisting like an eel. Once more that awful paralyzing fear.

Nevertheless, I loved it. And I want to do it again. As Moye and I clambered from the machine I asked him if those iron hoops were really meant for hanging onto.

“Oh that,” he replied, “is the crash bar —- so if you do crash you don’t get the engine in your stomach. Didn’t tell you before,” he added. “Thought you mightn’t like it.”

And how right he was!

First row: Moye Stephens (left), Ranee Sylvia (centre), Richard (Dick) Halliburton (right). Second row standing: Sylvia’s two daughters.
Source: StanChart Magazine, John Seymour (ed.), September 1986

Louise Macul, PhD is a member of FoSM and a museologist who finds adventures in museums, libraries, forests and the sea.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily