Residences of the Rajahs: The Astana and its predecessors

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Dr JH Walker

BUILT in 1870, the Astana is one of the most prominent and important buildings to survive from the Brooke era. It was the fourth building to house Brooke Rajahs, and by studying the design of those houses we can learn something of the nature of Brooke power in Sarawak.

The processes which caused Sarawak to emerge independent from both Brunei and Sambas began on 24 September 1841, when James Brooke was publicly installed as Governor of Sarawak by Pengiran Muda Hashim. The term ‘Sarawak’ then referred to the area which extended from Tanjong Datu eastward as far as the Sungei Samarahan basin and which was centred on the Sungei Sarawak.

Although James would later establish, as Rajah, his full independence, he initially used the title, Tuan Besar, recognising that he had entered into the traditional political system of Brunei, no different in standing from other provincial governors such as the brothers, Sheriff Sahib of Sadong and Sheriff Mullah of Skrang; Datu Patinggi Abdul Rahman of Sarikei; or Sheriff Masahor of Igan.

That James was a local official rather than a Colonial interloper is indicated by the design of his first house in Sarawak, which was located on the site of the present Astana. The house was built by local Malays from local materials and to a local Malay design. James described it as:

“…an edifice fifty-four feet square, mounted upon numerous posts of the nibong palm, with nine windows in each front. The roof (atap) is of Nipah-leaves, and the floor and partitions are all of plank: furnished with couches, tables, chairs, books, etc. the whole is as comfortable as man would wish for in this out-of-the-way country; and we have, besides, a bathing-house, cook-house, and servants’ apartments detached. … our abode, however, though spacious, cool, and comfortable, can only be considered a temporary residence, for the best of all reasons – that in the course of a year it will tumble down, from weight of the superstructure being placed on weak posts. The original plan was to have had a lower story, but about this I am now indifferent.

When Henry Keppel published James’s diaries (The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido for the Suppression of Piracy) he included a drawing of what was claimed to have been James’s house. James subsequently wrote to Keppel, complaining about the volumes’ many errors and inaccuracies, stating:

There is scarcely a name of a place or person rightly spelled, and the plates do not represent what they are said to represent. For instance, Makota’s likeness is said to be a likeness of Muda Hassim. And Makota’s house is said to be Mr. Brooke’s old residence.

Fig 1: Pengiran Indera Makhota’s house, but James’s house would have been very similar. It was called “Mr Brooke’s Bungalow”.

Although the illustration that Keppel published was, therefore, of Pengiran Indera Makhota’s house, and not James’s, James’s house would have been very similar. Since it was built by local Malays, its interior design reflected Malay ideas about space. The house probably comprised a front room or luar, where Brooke received guests and conducted public business, behind which was located another room, the tengah, reserved for sleeping and more private encounters. Behind the tengah, and detached from the house, Brooke had, as he observed, a kitchen (dapur), servants’ quarters and ablution facilities.

Although the house was Malay in form, Brooke lived in it in an English style, furnishing the interior with couches, tables and chairs, all of which were foreign to Malay interior design at that time. Whereas Malay rulers conducted business in a separate balai, James initially used the luar in his house to conduct much of the public business of government. Spenser St John recorded that:

“The house was thrown open to all – rich or poor, Malay, Dyak, or Chinese, any were welcome. Often a very poor man would creep in, take up his position in the most obscure corner, and there remain silent but attentive to all that passed. There he would wait till every other native had left, neither addressing Mr Brooke nor being addressed by him, but when the coast was clear the Governor would call him to his side and gently worm his story from him. Generally it was some tale of oppression, some request for aid. None of these stories were forgotten: in the morning careful but cautious inquiries were made as to their truth, and rarely was it found that the suppliant had attempted to deceive willingly. Redress or aid followed …”

As James had recognised, this house was not constructed with a view to permanence and, at the end of 1842 or in early 1843, he built a second, more substantial house on the opposite bank of Sungei Bedil, on the edge of where Kampung Sungei Bedil is now located. As contemporaneous illustrations show, this second residence reflected something of the Anglo-Indian bungalows with which James was familiar from India. Two architectural features which point particularly to European influences are the bungalow’s hipped roof and its veranda.

Fig 2: James Brooke’s second house called “The Grove”.

Hipped roofs appear to have been unknown in traditional Malay domestic architecture, and there is a widespread consensus that their adoption in various parts of the Malay world reflected European, Chinese or Javanese influences. Similarly, although features which resemble verandas (in Jaku Iban, ruai, tanju) occur in longhouses, they appear also to have been unknown in Malay domestic architecture prior to James’s construction of his second house. The use of large shutters along the exterior walls of Sarawak Malay houses, coupled with the dedication of the luar to public interactions, meant that Malays had no use for a separate veranda. This assertion is supported also by linguistic evidence. Had Sarawak Malay houses during the pre-Brooke period included verandas, such structures would have been called luar, whilst the luar would have been more logically designated the tengah.

Although James’s second house continued to show the influence of Malay design in its exaggeratedly high-pitched roof and its elevation on piles, it was more European in its interior layout, with separate bedrooms in each of its four corners, framing a large sitting room in the centre, with, according to W. J. Chater, “a special room for the Rajah at the back.”

It was also in 1843, shortly after the construction of this more permanent home, that James went to Brunei, where Sultan Omar Ali II gave him the right to nominate his own successor. This allowed James to imagine his founding a dynasty of Brooke rulers, leading him to abandon the title of Tuan Besar in favour of Rajah. “Henceforth”, Spenser St John wrote, “I may occasionally call him the Rajah, par excellence, as he was in truth the rajah in Sarawak”.

This second house of Rajah James was burned down on the morning of 19 February 1857, when Hakka goldminers from Bau attacked Kuching and forced the Rajah to flee to the coast, fearing for his life. A major priority for the Rajah after he regained control of his capital, with the help of a Borneo Company schooner, the Sarawak Malays and Bidayuh and, subsequently, Iban forces under the command of his nephew, Charles, was to build a new house, his third.

Following his humiliation at the hands of the Hakka, the Rajah needed to re-establish his prestige, which can be seen in the grander design and name of the new house, which he constructed across the Sungei Bedil from his second house, and back on the site of the present Astana. While his first house had been referred to simply as ‘Mr Brooke’s bungalow’ and the second house as ‘the Grove’, this new home he grandly called ‘Government House’. Although clearly asserting greater prestige than either ‘Mr Brooke’s bungalow’ or ‘the Grove’, the choice of the name ‘Government House’ also reveals just how unsure of his position the Rajah was. ‘Government House’ was exclusively associated with the official residences of British colonial governors. James’s choice of name sought to imply a relationship with a much greater, protecting power, the British Empire, a relationship that, in fact, did not exist.

Fig 3: James Brooke’s third house called “Government House”.

John Ting has analysed the architecture of Government House, pointing out that James continued to incorporate Malay design features, such as the use of timber in construction, the belian timber shingles and the double pitched roof. It is also possible, as Ting suggested, that the “rest of its design is reminiscent of an Anglo-Indian bungalow that has been adapted to equatorial conditions”. More noteworthy to me, however, is that the house shares many design features with elite domestic architecture from British Malaya and Singapore, which also had adopted Malay design elements.

Although building his new house had been a priority for the Rajah as he re-established himself following the Chinese attack, he barely lived in it, retiring not long afterwards to England. He returned to Sarawak in 1861, when he installed his long-suffering nephew, Brooke Brooke, as Rajah Muda, and again in 1863, to disinherit poor Brooke, banishing him for derhaka (Editor: rebellion) and declaring him an outlaw. He died on 11 June 1867, aged 65, with Brooke following him to the grave 18 months later.

Charles Brooke, when he succeeded James as Rajah, was unsure of the strength of his position. He was unsure also of the degree of loyalty that the Sungei Sarawak Malays might have retained for his brother, Brooke, with whom they had enjoyed a long and close association. After a period during which he stabilised his rule, Rajah Charles left for England in 1869, essentially, to find a European wife. Charles appears previously to have been married to Dayang Mastiah (the adopted daughter of his close friend, Abang Aing bin Datu Laksamana Minudeen), with whom he had had a son, Esca, and whom he left in Skrang when he moved to Kuching. The possibility of Esca succeeding as Rajah, with his close links to the powerful Skrang Malay abang-abang, would not have been acceptable to the Kuching abang-abang and Datus, on whose support Charles’s own power depended.

Before leaving, Charles ordered the partial dismantling and substantial rebuilding of Government House into a new and even grander residence. His motives for undertaking such an expensive project at a time when his finances were extremely uncertain remain obscure. Chater speculated that the old house might have been regarded as unlucky, since Brooke Brooke had lost two wives and a son there in a mere three-and-a-half years. But Rajah Charles was more parsimonious than he was superstitious. Therefore, his uncharacteristically extravagant building-project was probably intended to demonstrate his financial resources (and, hence, his power or kuasa) to the otherwise ambivalent population of Kuching. That Charles intended the project to manifest his power is also indicated by his naming the building, the Astana, a loanword from Sanskrit used for the palaces of rulers in the Malay world.

Fig 4: The Astana built by Charles Brooke.

The Astana is far grander than any of the first Rajah’s houses. Built in bricks and mortar, its high-pitched roof, belian shingles and wide eaves demonstrate clearly the continued influence of Malay architectural traditions, with its deep veranda and internal layout pointing to European influences. Charles almost certainly intended this hybrid, Anglo-Malay design to represent in bricks and mortar the hybrid nature of his government, of which he was very conscious. In 1873, he referred publicly in Kuching to the “necessity of the European and Native elements comprised in the Government being firmly and steadfastly bound in unity of accord to administer justice among the various classes of the population.”

From the very beginning of their rule in 1841, the Brooke Rajahs had combined “European and Native elements” in their living arrangements, as they did in the way in which they ruled the country. Today, the Astana stands as a symbol of the remarkable “European and Native” collaborations on which Brooke rule in Sarawak was based.

Dr JH Walker is a retired academic whose main research interest is in the nature and sources of Brooke rule in Sarawak, on which he has published extensively.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily