Lest We Forget

DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH BORNEO BULLETIN ARCHIVES

Compiled by Faruq Bostaman

End of an era for ‘grand old lady’ Rajah Brooke

DECEMBER 29, 1979 – That elegant and grand old lady of the sea, the Rajah Brooke, is making its last voyage between Muara and Singapore this weekend.

Conceived in Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Indonesia and born In Dundee in 1946, the stylish vessel is a familiar sight throughout Borneo.

Its comfortable and well-finished cabins, with “windows” instead of the more modern port-holes, have provided thousands of passengers with luxurious accommodation over the years.

The Rajah Brooke was the brainchild of two British ship designers who were captured by the Japanese during the war and interned in the notorious Palembang camp on Sumatra.

They were F G Ritchie and S A Anderson, who kept their minds occupied during their imprisonment by designing a new cargo and passenger vessel for Borneo waters.

The Rajah Brooke… its future looks like being the scrapyard
The quiet ‘Native Hut’ on the Rajah Brooke

The two men came up with a revolutionary design by putting the accommodation and engines aft, with the bulky midships sections reserved for cargo.

This not only enabled the 2,312 tonne ship to be shorter than would otherwise have been necessary, but also reduced building costs.

The design also allowed for both hatches to be worked simultaneously when the ship was alongside small quays, which was a major factor in the old days when Borneo’s ports were tiny.

When the two men were released at the end of the war they took their plans, which they had kept carefully hidden during their internment, to London.

Their design was accepted and work on the Rajah Brooke started in Dundee in 1946.

Two years later Captain W Ludkin took it on the maiden voyage from Britain to Kuching, where it was to trade for the Sarawak Steamship Company.

At that time Sarawak had just become a Crown Colony amid furious controversy and the beloved White Rajah had never returned.

When word spread that the Rajah Brooke was approaching Kuching there was intense excitement among the population, particularly the Dayaks and Ibans, as they thought the new ship was bringing back the White Rajah.

This was what they desperately wanted and the ship was followed upriver from Pending by hundreds of Dayak boats.

K G Tregonning, in his history of the Straits Steamship Company called Home Port Singapore describes the scene vividly, “When the vessel tied up at Kuching the whole ship swarmed with lion clothed tattooed braves.

“There was no Rajah for them to see, but they went everywhere out of curiousity.

“Dining-room silver was examined, the contents of life boats, the engine room, individual cabins; but not a thing was removed, not even a teaspoon.”

For nearly 20 years the Rajah Brooke continued to call at Kuching as it plied between Borneo’s ports.

In 1964, following bleak years for the Sarawak Steamships Company, the Rajah Brooke and two other vessels were sold to the Singapore-based Straits Steamship Company.

The Rajah Brooke then plied her trade between Singapore and Kuching and the Rajang River ports of Sarikei, Binatang and Sibu.

In more recent years the stately old lady has been carrying passengers and cargo between Singapore and the Brunei port of Muara.

It used to have 40 cabins and a licence to carry 150 deck and cabin passengers.

But with the decline in passenger demand, the number of cabins was reduced to 12 last year.

“And unfortunately we haven’t been able to fill these very often,” said a spokesman for the agents, Harrisons and Crosfield.

Its last voyage will be a particularly nostalgic occasion for the Brunei Ports Adviser Ian Faraker, who sailed on it as first officer in 1961 when he was with the Straits Steamship Company.

Now the Rajah Brooke’s future is still uncertain, but unless a buyer comes up with a good prove it is almost certain to be scrapped.

Shipping officials have pointed out, however, that it would make an ideal floating restaurant with very little alterations needed.

Its replacement on the Singapore-Brunei run will have none of the Rajah Brooke’s olde worlde grace.

It is a 2,993-tonne vessel built in Spain in 1961 with no facilities to carry passengers.

This ship, which is yet to be renamed by the Straits Steamship Company, will carry a crew of 24 and has an average speed of 14 knots. When it arrives at Muara for the first time next week there will be many who will mourn the more graceful lines of the old Rajah Brooke.