I’ve just had a lovely review of The White Rajahthat saidThere are echoes of Conrad’s Lord Jim in this wonderful book.” 

There’s a reason for that. The White Rajah is based (quite closely) on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo. It’s an amazing tale. A friend said it must have been an easy book to write because Brooke’s biography read like a novel. Unsurprisingly, James Brooke has appeared in a lot of fiction.

The latest imaginative retelling his life was a film which came out this summer: Edge of the World. Given that it’s a Hollywood movie, it’s much more historically accurate than I would have expected.

Edge of the World says that it is “the true story that inspired The Man Who Would Be King,” a novel by Rudyard Kipling. Although the European characters in the novel make a couple of references to Brooke, I wouldn’t say that they are based on him other than that they become monarchs of a small Far Eastern kingdom. The novel that is usually quoted as being strongly influenced by Brooke’s life is Lord Jim by Conrad. In that book, the hero becomes the leader of a local tribe on an island in the South China Seas. He is atoning for failures in his earlier life and devotes himself to the people there, who call him Tuan Jim – “Lord Jim”. It’s not a subtle reference to Tuan Brooke, as James Brooke was often called.

More recently Brooke features in McDonald Fraser’s Flashman’s Lady. As with many of McDonald Fraser’s books, the character is lightly sketched, but he’s recognisably the James Brooke I know and the history is sound.

Before I wrote The White Rajah, Nicholas Monsarrat wrote a well-known novel with the same title. I did try to come up with an alternative, but it’s difficult to think of anything that tells people what they are getting better than ‘The White Rajah’. I did think of ‘Sons of Thunder’ but I suspect most people will miss the reference. (A free e-copy of The White Rajah to the first person to spot it.)

C. S. Godshalk called his version Kalimantaan. That’s a reference to Kalimantan, which is the Indonesian part of Borneo (which, obviously, does not include Sarawak). You see what I mean about it being difficult to come up with a clear title that doesn’t mention White Rajahs.

There are others, including Warren Blake’s A Long Way from Home, which is classified as “adult” although the synopsis looks like quite a serious take on the Brooke story.

James Brooke’s life provides enough drama for a dozen novels. Several of them have already been written, but I’m sure there’s room for more.

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