Sylvia Leonora, Lady Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak
, born The Hon. Sylvia Leonora Brett
, (25 February 1885
- 11 November 1971
), was the consort
to Vyner of Sarawak
, last of the White Rajahs
Sylvia was born at at No. 1, Tilney Street, Park Lane
,, Central London
, the second daughter of Reginald Baliol Brett
, the 2nd Viscount Esher
. Her mother Eleanor was the third daughter of the Belgian
politician and revolutionary Sylvain Van de Weyer
and his wife Elizabeth, who was the only child
of the great financier Joshua Bates
of Barings Bank
. Sylvia's paternal grandmother, Eugenie Meyer
, was thought to be an illegitimate daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte
Sylvia's early life was somewhat troubled; by the age of 12 she had made two attempts at suicide, the first by eating rotten sardines, and the second by lying naked in the snow.
Ranee of Sarawak
She married His Highness Rajah Vyner of Sarawak at St Peter's Church, Cranborne
, just before her 26th birthday on 21 February 1911. They first met in 1909 when she joined an all-female choral orchestra, established by Vyner's mother. She first visited Sarawak in 1912, where her husband (from 1917) ruled a 40,000 square mile jungle kingdom on the northern side of Borneo
with a population of 500,000, an ethnic mix of Chinese
, and the headhunting Dyak
. Sylvia was invested with the title of Ranee
of Sarawak 24th May 1917, Grand Master of The Most Illustrious Order of the Star of Sarawak (1 August 1941
). Rajah Vyner died in 1963.
Sylvia was distraught that her daughter, Leonora, under Islamic law, could not take the throne; as a result she hatched various plots to blacken the name of the heir apparent, Anthony, the Rajah Muda.
Richard Halliburton, the celebrated adventurer, met her as he circumnavigated the globe in 1932 with his pilot, Moye Stephens. She became the first woman in Sarawak to fly when the pair gave her a flight in their biplane, the Flying Carpet. Halliburton narrates the visit in his book of the same name.
She was described by her brother as "a female Iago", and by the Colonial Office as "a dangerous woman, full of Machiavellian schemes to alter the succession, and spectacularly vulgar in her behaviour". She died in Tuffett Cottage, Sandy Lane, St James, Barbados.
She was the author of eleven books, including "Sylvia of Sarawak" and "Queen of the Head-Hunters" (1970).
She was survived by three daughters:
- Dayang Leonora Margaret, Countess of Inchcape, wife of 2nd Earl of Inchcape (by whom she had a son, Lord Tanlaw, and a daughter), and later wife of Colonel Francis Parker Tompkins (by whom she had a son).
- Dayang Elizabeth, a RADA educated singer and actress, wife of firstly Harry Roy (with whom she had a son and daughter), secondly, Richard Vidmer until her death.
- Dayang Nancy Valerie, married, firstly, Robert Gregory, an American wrestler, secondly, Senor José Pepi Cabarro, a Spanish businessman, thirdly, Scot, Andrew Aitken Macnair, and fourthly, Memery Whyatt. She died in Florida and had one son, Stewart Macnair (b. 1952) .
Sylvia's elder sister Dorothy Brett, also known as Brett (1883-1977), went to the Slade School of Art
in 1910 and became friends with painter Mark Gertler
(1891-1939), and then of salon hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell
(1873-1938), living for a while at Garsington Manor
Some of Sylvia Brett's ancestors
| Headhunter Sylvie
||2nd Viscount Esher (1852-1930)
1st Viscount Esher (1815-99)
Rev. Joseph Brett LLB (1790-1852)
Dora, daughter of George Best of Chilston, Lenham, Kent
Eugenie Mayer (Lyons 1814-1904)
Fanny, Mrs Mayer
|Eleanor van de Weyer, DJSt.J, (d.1940)
Jean-Sylvain van de Weyer
Josse-Alexandre van de Weyer (1769-1838)
Joshua Bates (1788-1864)
Lucretia Augusta Sturgis
- Maurice V. Brett (ed.), Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher, Vol I: 1870-1903, London, 1934.
- Margaret Brooke, My Life in Sarawak, 1913.
- Sylvia of Sarawak: an autobiography, 1936.
- Sylvia, Lady Brooke, Queen of the Headhunters, 1970.
- Philip Eade, Sylvia, Queen Of The Headhunters: An Outrageous Englishwoman And Her Lost Kingdom, (352 pages), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
- Sean Hignett, Brett: From Bloomsbury to New Mexico, A Biography, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1984.
- R.H.W. Reece, The Name of Brooke: The End of White Rajah Rule in Sarawak, 1993.
- S. Runciman, The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, Cambridge University Press, 1960