Part of Sarawak’s heritage buried deep in Devon

The Burrator reservoir is seen with the granite tor behind it.

The Burrator reservoir is seen with the granite tor behind it.

THE new Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita in Kuching will soon be officially opened by Jason Brooke, a direct descendent of Rajah Sir James Brooke. I thought that this little tribute to the Brooke dynasty from 1839 to 1946 may well whet readers’ appetites and encourage them to pay a visit to this permanent exhibition of rich heritage that will be on display, dating from 1839 to the present day.

The funding for the restoration of Fort Margherita is partly shared between the state government, the Brooke Family Heritage Trust, the Sarawak Museum Society and private donors. The Brooke Memorial outside the Old Court House, in Kuching, depicts the lives of the first two Rajahs and the relief, depicting an Iban warrior, is a piece of art in its own right.

My own house is bedecked with Sabahan, Sarawakian and Indonesian artefacts. Many of these I have received from former students, well-wishers and through personal links from former colonial service families. Over the years, I have purchased numerous articles from the Main Bazaar shops to include tapestries, shields, blowpipes and quivers, paddles, native gardening tools and musical instruments. Only 15 years ago I was able to ‘kill’ a balloon held in one of my student’s hands by using a blowpipe from 10 metres away. Alas, the European Health and Safety Laws no longer permit this. That said, I no longer have enough puff other than for my tobacco pipe.

In deepest Devon

I once lived on the western borders of the Dartmoor National Park in Devon and frequently would walk with my then young children for about 10km to Sheepstor and Burrator for a family picnic. The word ‘tor’ simply means a rugged hill in the Cornish language. What I did not know then was that 25 years later I would be a frequent visitor to Sarawak and would work there for over two years in Kuching. Subsequently, I have often visited Sheepstor to wonder at the sheer beauty of its granitic landscape and to visit Sheepstor church.

The Anglican Church of St Leonard is set in a small village in a relatively remote part of Dartmoor, which seems to be locked into a time capsule and is probably not a lot different from the time when Sir James Brooke retired there, to his house at Burrator Lodge in 1863, sadly only to live there for five further years before he died at the age of 63. He was born in the year when Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson died of his wounds at the victorious naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Sir James Brooke’s red polished Aberdeen granite tomb embellishes the St Leonard’s Church back churchyard. Actually the origins of this church dates back to 1240 AD, when a chapelry was built on this site, using the waters of a nearby well (still to be seen today) for baptisms. Such ancient chapelries were not uncommon in Devon and its adjoining county, Cornwall, before a full-sized church was constructed.

St Leonard’s imposing perpendicular church tower, built in Gothic style, was constructed out of local moorland granite in 1450. As I write, that tower is receiving major surgery because of the ingress of rainwater into the church. Currently shrouded in plastic sheets, costly renovation work is in progress.

The tombs of the Brooke Rajahs are seen in the St Leonard’s Church back churchyard. — Photos by Revd Prebendary Nick Shutt

The tombs of the Brooke Rajahs are seen in the St Leonard’s Church back churchyard. — Photos by Revd Prebendary Nick Shutt

Brooke family tombs

Time stood still in this quiet area of West Dartmoor until the creation of Burrator reservoir, which involved the flooding of a deeply incised valley to supply the ever-growing city of Plymouth with drinking water. In 2011, the famous film director Steven Spielberg chose Sheepstor as one of the locations for his film, ‘War Horse’, based upon the theme of a Dartmoor horse embroiled in  World War I.

Spielberg passed a comment to the effect that this was one of the most beautiful places that he had ever visited. Interestingly ‘War Horse’ was written by a Devon children’s author, Michael Morpugo, and is now a stage play around the world, recently performed in China.

Behind St Leonard’s church, the tombs of four Rajahs are surrounded by iron railings with the Sarawak crest of arms emblazoned on a small shield. The red granite tomb of the first Rajah is inscribed with his own chosen epitaph, “Sacred to the Memory of Sir James Brooke, KCB, DCL, Rajah of Sarawak …”

The distinguished Associate Professor in History at Murdoch University, Western Australia, Bob Reece, in his book, ‘The White Rajahs of Sarawak’ records, “James Brooke was a man almost forgotten in the land of his birth but a legend in the country of his own making.”

Other tombs contain the remains of the second Rajah, Sir Charles Brooke (1829 to 1916), whose local, coarse Dartmoor granite tomb took 11 heavy cart horses to drag off the nearby moorland to his resting place. Between those imposing tombs lie smaller ones to commemorate the burials of Sir Charles Vyner Brooke (1874 to 1963) and his brother, Bertram (1876 to 1965), the Tuan Muda. It is thought that these two brothers shared the Raj, with Vyner returning to England for that country’s summer months and Bertram leaving for the English winter.

Elsewhere in the graveyard and near to these tombs lie polished granite tablets commemorating other more recent members of the Brooke family, who requested, as individuals, in their last will and testament that their ashes be interred in this churchyard. With crocuses flowering nearby in Spring-time, it truly is an idyllic setting for the final resting places of a remarkable family.

The gifts from Sarawak - stained glass window and pua kumbu - are seen inside St Leonard’s Church.

The gifts from Sarawak – stained glass window and pua kumbu – are seen inside St Leonard’s Church.

Inside St Leonard’s Church

Three gifts from Sarawak remind all worshippers of the omnipresent link between Sheepstor and Kuching. There’s the beautiful Sarawak stained glass, leaded light window featuring an inscription in memory of all Sarawakians who lost their lives during the World War II occupation. This window was donated through the great generosity of Sarawak’s civil servants.

Hanging alongside this window, on the south wall of the church, is a magnificent pua kumbu presented personally to the parishioners of this church, as a gift from Sarawakians, by Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Masing, in 1996, in his then role in the Ministry of Tourism. Eleven years later, I was proud to serve under Masing’s leadership when he was chairman of The Lodge Group of Schools governing body in Kuching.

On the church lectern proudly hangs another eye-catching piece of Sarawakian tapestry donated by Sarawak Tourism Federation advisor Lim Kian Hock.

Geological links

Both the Dartmoor National Park and Mount Kinabalu National Park, though poles apart, are granitic batholiths produced by the collision of continents. Whilst there are quite different minerals in their granite structures, each granitic area has experienced tropical and sub-glacial conditions in sculpturing their landscapes at quite different times in geological history.

It is perhaps something of a mystery as to why James Brooke chose Dartmoor as a place to retire. Little then did he know that, several eras before, his view of Sheepstor was created by the same tropical climate he had left behind in Sarawak. I am proud to have clambered over both these national parks’ granite wonders.

Close up shows the inscription on the stained glass window.

Close up shows the inscription on the stained glass window.


I should like to record my most genuine thanks to the Rector of West Dartmoor, the Reverend Prebendary Nicholas Shutt LLM, for all the photographs he has personally taken for me to embellish this article and for his friendship. St Leonard’s Church is in need of restoration and still needs further funding to quicken the repair of the roof.

For more information read ‘The White Rajahs of Sarawak – A Borneo Dynasty’ by Professor Bob Reece (Archipelago Press 2004) and go to