by Dave Carley
I have long been a Globe and Mail subscriber, but have recently switched to the online edition. I’ve noticed that this immediately changed how I read the paper, and not in a good way. Now, I tend to only open the stories that already interest me. What I often miss are those unexpected features and smaller items that catch the eye, intrigue, surprise – and even obsess.
A case in point: About twenty years ago I was leafing through the books section of the Globe and saw a review of a history text entitled The White Rajahs of Sarawak: A Dynastic Intrigue and the Forgotten Canadian Heir. If that review had been online, I likely wouldn’t have seen or read it. But what I found that day – in the hard copy corner of an old-fashioned broadsheet – has sent me on a twenty year playwriting adventure…
I learned from that Globe book review that a young man named Esca Brooke had been exiled in the late 1800s from Sarawak – at that time a small nation in Southeast Asia. He had washed up in the eastern Ontario village of Madoc, of all places. The dramatic juxtaposition of those two locales – tropical Sarawak and the tip of the Canadian Shield – kept me reading the review – which in turn led me to buy the book.
The author was Cassandra Pybus, a noted Australian historian. Dr. Pybus has ‘a nose for a story’. She first heard about Esca Brooke while writing a history of the Brooke family – known as the “White Rajahs of Sarawak”. The Brooke dynasty actually owned Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) and ruled it for a century.
Pybus had heard rumours that the second Rajah, Charles Brooke, had fathered a son named Esca with a Malay woman. By chance she met someone who told her he’d actually met a Canadian grandson of that child. This was enough to send the intrepid Professor sleuthing across Canada, uncovering the story of Esca. It was an act of detective scholarship for which I’ll be forever grateful.
Sarawak, on the northern portion of the island of Borneo, is now a state in the nation of Malaysia. The capital today – as it was under the Brookes – is Kuching, on its south-western tip.
Rajah Charles Brooke had indeed married a woman named Dayang Mastiah, a daughter of Malay nobility. And the rumours Pybus had heard were also true – Charles had fathered a son with her. These facts had been dutifully recorded in government and church records in Sarawak, including Esca’s baptism. Pybus also learned about Charles Brooke’s profligacy with the state treasury. Shortly after Esca’s birth, he went bankrupt. To save his country, Charles returned to England and obtained a wife, one with a juicy dowry. Sarawak was saved for the Brooke dynasty. In addition to her wealth, the new English wife – Ranee Ghita – proved remarkably fertile, quickly producing an heir and a spare (and a daughter, for good measure.)
But there remained that inconvenient first-born son and the equally problematic first wife. Charles Brooke possibly divorced his Malay wife at some point but Esca remained on the scene, a biracial threat to the Brooke lineage. At the new Ranee’s request, Esca was farmed out to an English clergyman who, in turn, washed up in a parish in far-off Canada with an allowance to cover the care and feeding of his adopted son.
That’s where my play begins. Esca and his father, Archdeacon William Daykin, are standing outside Madoc, Ontario, both of them wondering what on earth they’d let themselves in for.
In the father’s case, Madoc proved a village too far. Reverend Daykin was high church and Madoc was very low. Daykin’s candles, bells and incense did not amuse the villagers. He also hated trekking out of the village to the rough and tumble missions scattered in the Shield.
The young Esca, likely taken at the time of his enrollment at Trinity College School. This and other photos are courtesy of his granddaughters, Joan Brown and Shirley Cooke.
Esca, by contrast, prospered. He loved running through the forests; joyfully communing with the lakes and wildlife. He adapted quickly to the people as well. It helped that he was young, of course. And Lady Luck shone on him. He received a scholarship to Trinity College School in Port Hope. He also met a young man named David Dunlap – they became best buddies and Dunlap went on to discover silver. Lots of it. Esca married a well-bred Ottawa woman, and had four children. He moved to Toronto, where he worked as the right-hand man of (now) Sir David Dunlap in the latter’s venture: Hollinger Mines. Esca was active in his church, became an award-winning gardener and, always, lived in harmony with nature. He built a cottage on Big Rideau Lake and spent happy summers there, fishing and canoeing with his children and grandchildren, until his death in 1953.
Esca and his wife Edith Daykin, likely shortly after they were married in 1897.
Flash forward to 2010. I am waiting a bit nervously in a parking lot outside a Stittsville, Ontario restaurant. After much emailing and letter writing, I’m finally meeting Esca’s last living grandchildren, Joan Brown and Shirley Cooke. I had slowly been making contact with some of his descendants, but had never met with anyone who had actually spoken with Esca.
Shirley and Joan finally pulled up in the parking lot and, with wide smiles, greeted me. They were laden with photo albums and envelopes of written material – the hard copy proof of Esca Brooke’s existence…
Dramatizing Esca came with its own set of advantages and disadvantage. At first glance, the story is a writer’s dream. It spans continents, centuries, and carries with it themes of colonialism, racism, dysfunctional families, and sexual obsession. To name just four. The Brookes were involved in massacres, both as perpetrators and preventers. They fought against – and with – head-hunters. The White Rajahs had hyperactive and creative libidos. The family feuded, even as they pursued wealth and nobility and hung out with the Victorian and Edwardian glitterati. The Brooke saga even featured a cameo from Oscar Wilde.
The disadvantage? There was too much I could write about. So many “gifts” to the playwright. Way too much to jam into a play. The Brookes are a family desperately in need of a BBC mini-series.
As it turned out, that wealth of story was irrelevant. I kept coming back to the image of young Esca from Sarawak standing on a hill outside Madoc, torn from his roots, about to start a new life. Another Canadian success story, at least on the surface.
But, as Esca aged, the worm of obsession turned. He began to crave recognition of his true identity. That quest began to consume him. He petitioned the Brookes. He wrote to politicians. The media. Even the King of England. No one replied. He had been effectively erased.
“Ghosted” as we now say.
I felt strongly that this quest for recognition was the part of Esca’s life that I wanted to dramatize. I have distilled it down into one showdown with the Ranee. One tragic trip back to England to ask Rajah Charles’ widow – the woman who had sent him from Sarawak – to acknowledge his existence. That quest was the dramatic fulcrum of Esca’s life, the cloud on his happiness, the motor that drove him, and a moment of high drama.
I had one more hurdle. Why. Why did he even care? Esca had made a good life for himself in Canada. He had a great job. A lovely home in tony Lawrence Park. An idyllic cottage on Big Rideau Lake. Most important, he had a good marriage, a loving wife, three daughters and a son. Why couldn’t he have just focused on them?
On the surface, at least, Esca “had it all”. Sir David Dunlap gave him this house on St. Leonard’s Avenue in Lawrence Park, and Esca’s garden there won awards.
Esca never revealed his motives, so no one will ever know for sure. His granddaughters have shared their theories but they remain that – theories. It fell to me to guess at what drove that life-long quest for recognition. Was it something to do with unresolved father-figure issues – after all, he’d had one who gave him up and a second who took money to keep him away from the first. Was it about race? Did he somehow think that establishing his paternity could help shield his family from its sting? Esca seems to have sailed through life in Edwardian Toronto, but at least one of his children suffered the vicious smack of bigotry. Or, as one granddaughter suggested, was it all about morality? There were whispers about Esca’s birth legitimacy and, in that post-Victorian era, the moral sins of the grandfathers were pasted on the children.
With the help of Esca’s granddaughters, I believe I have come up with a satisfactory explanation for Esca’s obsession and how it plays out in his meeting with Ranee Brooke.
As mentioned, Esca’s dealings with the Brooke family didn’t go well. They had thoroughly washed their hands of him; they still do. Esca’s existence is not mentioned on their Foundation’s website.
Neverthless, Esca has been vindicated somewhat. Although he never returned to Sarawak, two of his daughters did. They were received with enthusiasm. His Canadian descendants are now proudly sharing information about him on Facebook. Ten of them came to a reading of Canadian Rajah in Port Hope and more are planning to come to the February 2019 production in Toronto.
We are all struggling to make sense of this world. I have spent a long time trying to make sense of just one life. Esca Brooke began, for me, as an intriguing figure in a newspaper review. That has deepened into a determination that the erased life of Esca Brooke might find its way to its proper place in both his adopted country, and that of his birth.
Canadian Rajah by Dave Carley opens at Campbell House Museum in Toronto on January 29. It runs to February 17. For more information or tickets, go to http://www.canadianrajah.com.