AN unexpected Christmas discovery last year has shed light on the life of a young woman who left home and travelled far across the ocean to start her married life in Sarawak in 1868.
She was the first Ranee of Sarawak — the first Queen of the Kingdom of Sarawak — and the discovery of her belongings was a great surprise and thrill to her great great grandson, Jason Desmond Anthony Brooke, who is the Brooke Trust director.
Ranee Margaret or Margaret de Windt married the Second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Vyner Brooke, when she was 19.
The discovery was prompted by a query from Brooke Gallery manager Liza who is quite fond of Sarawak textiles and traditional Sarawak crafts. She asked Jason if any of the textiles in the Brooke family collections survived the passage of time.
So when Jason was at the house of his father’s first cousin in England last December, the latter told him to take a look around and go through the house, pulling out boxes and things.
It was about one to 1.30am when Jason pulled down a dusty old box, opened the lid and beheld a stack of Ranee Margaret’s clothing.
From old paintings and photographs in their possession, he immediately recognised the age of the clothing to be 140 years — twice as old as any of such materials in Sarawak.
In the box were the Ranee’s kebarung, a mixture of baju kurung and kebaya, and a long purple silk, purpose-made for the Ranee, with three beautiful gold plates all the way down the front. It’s an exquisite traditional Malay craft. Very few of it has ever been made.
“Everyone was incredibly excited, and we dug deeper and deeper, and found seven of the Ranee’s keringkam in many colours and in pristine condition, having been away from the tropical climate.
“They were glowing out of the box. We dug deeper and there’s this Sarawak songket, 2.2mx1.5m in dimension, solid gold, absolutely breath-taking,” he recalled.
According to Jason, the Sarawak keringkam is very special because when people say keringkam, what comes to mind is Terengganu keringkam — which is not fair to the relatively unheard of Sarawak keringkam.
Keringkam is a traditional Malay embroidery stitched on a piece of cloth with gold or silver threads and worn as a headscarf.
It’s regarded as a family heirloom to be passed down from one generation to another.
Jason said the Ranee’s keringkam were in rectangle pieces and also used as sleeves on a blouse.
“Two of the pieces were the sleeves of a blouse. The gauze-material was imported from Mecca.
“So from this moment on, we need to make them available to share with fellow Sarawakians,” he told thesundaypost.
He said it was finally decided to do a permanent museum, featuring Ranee Margaret, and this led to the planning of ‘The Ranee: Margaret of Sarawak Exhibition’ at the Old Courthouse.
Jason explained the exhibition tells the story of a 19-year-old who set foot in Sarawak for the first time in the 1880’s, her relationships with Sarawak, how she fell in love with Sarawak and became a Sarawakian.
“Her crafts represent her bonds and immersion with the local culture. We will also share additional items — the jewellery she made, silverware with jawi motifs, her name in Jawi (Arabic writing) and photography.
“We’re talking about a woman in the 1880’s, taking incredible photographs, sketches, watercolour scenery and the kind personal side of her through pictures, letters, poetry and even music.
“We want to tell the story of the journey of a strong woman in the 19th Century, a woman ahead of her time in the approach to race, religion and cultural differences.”
Exciting nine months
For Jason, it has been an exciting nine months developing the project with the team in Sarawak, curating and putting things together for the opening of the Gallery.
“Actually, before the discovery last December, I knew almost nothing about Sarawak keringkam and songket, and I have never heard of kebarung — or even a little of my great-great grandmother.
“I got to know her on a personal sense — by reading her letters and poetry as I only know her as this historical character. I looked at photos and writings that normally would not make it into the history books,” he said.
Jason added that the Ranee was taught photography by Oduardo Beccari, a naturalist who visited Sarawak.
She also composed the Sarawak national anthem — Gone Forth Beyond the Sea — in 1872. It was published in three books — My Life in Sarawak, Impromptus, and Good Morning & Good Night.
Against family’s wishes
According to Jason, Ranee Margaret came to Sarawak against the wishes of her family and married the Rajah of Sarawak. The family thought she was crazy, embarking on a life adventure into the unknown.
She left behind a traditional life and embraced, or rather, built a new one, looking beyond cultural differences and pioneering education for women.
“She approached life in Sarawak in a way I don’t think anyone could have predicted. She threw herself into Sarawak in a way many white people in the world did not,” Jason said.
On the exhibition, he said it would be a permanent fixture at the Old Courthouse.
He hoped it would bring back the heart and soul of the Old Courthouse which was the centre of the Brooke government.
The exhibits will be displayed in 24-hour climate control showcases to preserve the fragile materials.
The exhibition is open to the public from 9am to 4.45pm daily.
The official launching of the Gallery was timed to coincide with the start of the ‘What About Kuching (WAK)’ Festival from Sept 29 to Oct 28. This second edition of the Festival celebrates local talents with 55 groups staging 75 events.
Jason said there would be half-day guided tours of the Gallery, including keringkam demonstration and blowpipe competition, among others.
For further information, visit www.brookemuseums.org and www.brooketrust.org.