SARAWAK pottery is world renowned. Often depicting ethnic motifs and themes, these multicoloured ceramic receptacles are highly sought after by tourists as treasured keepsakes as well as make meaningful gifts for their loved ones and friends back home. It‘s through this practice and also keen interest from deep pocketed collectors that these exquisite pieces of art have come to spread throughout the country and also the world over.
Recently I had the rare opportunity of viewing a large collection of pottery pieces ranging from drinking water cisterns, candle holders, ashtrays, mugs to teapots, all made by master potters from the Land of the Hornbill. Among the potpourri of shapes, colours and sizes, a pale yellow vase stuck out like a sore thumb — it was a total deviation from the other Sarawak ceramics I have seen.
I promptly picked up the 0.45m tall vessel and began studying it in detail. The first thing that struck me was the absence of the customary traditional flora and fauna designs that are so prevalent in contemporary Sarawak earthenware. Instead, this one depicted a landscaped scene featuring a couple of important looking colonial era buildings. This novel subject depiction was like a breath of fresh air.
Somehow, the buildings looked rather familiar but I just couldn‘t remember at that point of time. Feeling rather exasperated, I left after seeking permission to take photographs of the receptacle. I was hoping to solve the mystery after I get home.
It was only a few days later when I finally realised that the buildings on the vase were actually part of a single large sprawling complex called the Astana. Currently the official residence of the Yang di-Pertua or Governor of Sarawak, this magnificent palace with its iconic white tower, was once the home of
two of Sarawak‘s White Rajahs.
THE GREAT HOUSES
Located on the north bank of the Sarawak River and directly opposite the Kuching Waterfront, the Astana was the third and last residence to be occupied by the rulers of the Brooke Dynasty. All these three great houses occupied the same site on the hill where the early Sultans of Brunei once lived before the arrival of James Brooke in 1838.
The first residence, built by James Brooke in 1842, was burnt to the ground during the Insurrection of February 1857. James Brooke‘s second home, built almost immediately to replace the first, was demolished after only 12 in 1869 to make way for the Astana.
Unlike the magnificent and lavishly-built Astana, the first residence occupied by the first White Rajah was merely referred to as “Mr. Brooke‘s Residence“. Built during those tumultuous early years, this was a very modest structure. Made entirely of wood on raised posts and measuring approximately 5 square metre, it had four bedrooms, one in each corner and a large sitting room in the centre with a room reserved specially for Brooke‘s use at the back.
It was said that Brooke built his first house in the image of the bungalows he‘d lived in during his early years with the British East India Company. Although the large sitting room was the most used section of the house (this was where Brooke held regular meetings with the local chiefs to keep in touch with the most recent developments), it was the vast collection of books in the special room that he treasured the most. It broke his heart when the library and its precious contents were razed to the ground on Feb 18, 1857.
On that fateful day, Liu Shan Bang led 600 of his fellow Chinese Hakka miners from Bau down the Sarawak River and marched towards Kuching. Upon arrival at the town, the mob began attacking government installations, murdering five Europeans and setting alight many buildings in the process. The town was in total chaos and the surviving Europeans hurriedly sought shelter in the town‘s Anglican Church.
Brooke saved his own life by swimming to safety across a nearby stream. His getaway was unknown to the rebels. The renegade Chinese miners then mistook a 17-year-old European lad to be the Rajah, decapitated him and paraded his head around Kuching on the end of a long pole. Fortunately, the timely arrival of a Borneo Company steamer and a large Dayak force from Lingga quickly put down the rebellion.
That particular incident made Brooke realise the need for stronger fortifications to ensure his safety. He immediately set about building a more secure residence and for the first time gave his home an official name — “Government House“. Although the residence was still built of wood, this time the Rajah added a small fort-like structure called “The Tower“ next to his home. The two storey brick and mortar citadel served as a place of refuge during emergency.
Unfortunately, not much has been recorded about this second residence as it was considered an unlucky building after Captain Brooke Johnson, the Rajah Muda at that time, suffered a series of great misfortunes within a space of just three and a half years. He lost his first wife Annie, his son Francis and second wife Julia. All of them died in relatively quick succession and under strange inexplicable circumstances in the Government House. The deceased were laid to rest in the Brooke burial ground on the riverside close by.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE ASTANA
Plans to build the Astana began to surface soon after Brooke‘s death in 1868. A year after he was installed as the Second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Booke decided to go on leave and planned to return home to England with the intention of marrying. Wary of the stigma attached to the Government House, he promptly gave orders for it to be dismantled. A year later, in 1870, a spanking new brick and mortar structure was ready to receive the Rajah and his new bride, Ranee Margaret Alice Lili de Windt.
Everyone in Kuching marvelled at the new building and agreed that it was indeed a fitting residence for a Rajah and worthy of the name Astana, which meant palace in the local language. I scrutinise the image on the vase, conscious of the fact that the original Astana, built nearly 150 years ago, would have been much smaller than it is today.
Quite a number of annex buildings have been added over the years especially on the place where there was once an areca nut plantation. Charles Brooke maintained the trees for the benefit of his Dayak chieftains who‘d call upon him each time they needed a large supply of betel nuts for their feasts.
I initially thought that the painting on the vase was that of two separate buildings after mistaking the Astana‘s square tower and battlements for those of Fort Margaritha. That section in fact serves as the Astana‘s main entrance.
Soon after its completion, the Astana quickly became the icon of Charles Brooke‘s authority to rule. Although too small to be shown on the vase, Sarawak‘s official motto, Dum Spiro Spero (‘While there is life, there is hope‘) taken from the Brooke coat of arms, was placed over the main entrance in Jawi script.
Charles Brooke ruled Sarawak like an English country estate, often standing at the Astana‘s river-facing verandah each morning with a telescope in his hands. He‘d observe his officers arriving for work at the Government Offices on the opposing side of the Sarawak River. A stickler for discipline, Charles Brooke was known to send notices to late comers within minutes of their arrival, reminding them of the official working hours.
Things became a little relaxed by the time the third Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke came to power. Together with Ranee Sylvia Brett, the Rajah entertained regularly and held lavish parties for his guests. Each year, all the important and well connected people in Kuching would look forward to the traditional banquet and ball held at the Astana during New Year‘s Eve. It was said that about 100 guests would sit down and make merry on a long table with the Rajah and Ranee seated at opposing ends.
People living in Kuching prior to the Second World War recall seeing the tower in the Astana covered with a type of local creeper which very much resembled the English Ivy. Legend has it that the plant was there to protect the Astana‘s occupants and bad luck would follow if it was removed or the tower white-washed.
During the war, Sarawak was ruled by the Japanese Imperial Army. Marquis Toshinari Maeda, as the commander of the Japanese forces in northern Borneo which included Sarawak, Brunei, Labuan, and North Borneo, made the Astana his official residence. It was said that the Commander disliked the creepers growing on the tower as they reminded him of his time spent in Great Britain as a Japanese military attache from 1927 to 1930.
Subsequently, Maeda had the creepers removed, exposing the tower‘s white-wash underneath. It didn‘t take long for the whole of Kuching to be awashed with rumours of an impending calamity. Then, just three days later, on Sept 5, 1942, after witnessing the execution of five men accused of stealing petrol, Maeda boarded a plane for Labuan to officiate an airport bearing his name. Sadly, Maeda never arrived. His plane disappeared and was not found until a month later. It had crashed off the coast of Tanjung Datu, Bintulu and experts at the crash site were unable to determine the cause of the fatal accident!
After the war, Charles Vyner Brooke, faced with a series of family disputes concerning succession, decided to cede sovereignty of Sarawak to the British Crown. The Cession Bill was passed by the Council Negri on May 17, 1946 with a narrow majority of just three votes.
Thereafter, the Astana has been occupied by British Colonial Governors and following the formation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963 until today, by Sarawak-born Governors. The Astana still stands proud by the banks of the Sarawak River today, serving as a reminder of the days when all of the state was ruled by the Brookes.