The Man who Mistook his Capital for a Cat

20 Jul

Astana, the fortress-like state residence of the Governor of Sarawak, illuminated at night, reflecting in the Sarawak River. Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia.[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]This is Astana, the little place which James Brooke, the first “White Rajah” of Sarawak, built for himself in his capital, Kuching (“Cat”).

A Victorian adventurer somewhat in the mould of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, James Brooke spent his inheritance on a schooner, The Royalist. He stuffed it with cannons; crewed it with sailors who didn’t think he was insane (or weren’t that fussy); and headed to Borneo to remake the fortune he’d spent on the boat.

Portrait of Sir James Brooke, hand on hip, another on desk, in full colonial mode. By Sir Francis Grant.Once there, he, erm, “pacified” a succession of head-hunters, pirates, Hakka goldminers and Malay princelings; cut a deal with the sultan of Brunei; fought off an assassination attempt by his evil uncle; and landed up Rajah of Sarawak, although he preferred the “less formal” Malay title, “Great One”.

Brooke’s heirs would rule from Astana for an entire century, until rudely, not to say, brutally, interrupted by the Japanese, who took a little over a week to overrun their kingdom. Today, the state Governor uses it as his official residence.

And, not to be outdone, the State Assembly has some pretty beautiful digs, too.
The space age State Assembly building in Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, its golden, tented top illuminated by night.

Now, this sort of light and splendour (not to mention A-grade roads) is not, exactly, what one would expect from Borneo, one of the world’s last great wildernesses. (Travel in the interior is mainly by small plane, boat, or along uncharted logging tracks of dubious legality.)

Kuching is, in fact, delightful. A lovely blend of nineteenth century forts and shophouses with bold, modern architecture, manicured lawns with vine-clad ironwood, marble malls with little sampans, and the Sarawak river slipping through it all, smooth as silk.

So when I stumbled on the world’s kitschest roundabout amid all this oil-fuelled splendour, I was, erm, surprised.

This thing has a family of cats on it. Not bronze cats. Not marble cats. Not leopards, or tigers. But the sort of ropily moulded tabbies one finds on fridge magnets in cheap gift shops, coffee cups owned by schoolteachers of the Notes on a Scandal variety, or birthday cards from elderly relatives.

What’s with the cats? Well…

Kuching, allegedly, shares with Mexico’s Yucatan the honour of being named for a misunderstanding. When the Spaniards arrived in Yucatan, they asked what the place was called. Their interlocutor replied, “I don’t understand you.”

Or “Yucatan”. A name which the region retains to this day.

So too with Kuching. When the mighty Brooke arrived at the little settlement, he asked a local “What’s that?” and pointed.

At the settlement. But also, more relevantly, at a cat.

The helpful local replied, “Kuching.” Or “cat”.

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4 Responses to “The Man who Mistook his Capital for a Cat”

  1. Helen July 21, 2010 at 6:02 am #

    Fabulous photo of Kuching at night. Blog gets better and better. When do we hear from Sir?

    • MummyT July 21, 2010 at 9:47 pm #

      Well. He has written a postcard or two, besides the email to Mark Thompson, of course. Blogwise, I am going to kick him up the butt tomorrow once he has recovered from his leech trauma.


  1. The Big Race « Travels with a Nine Year Old - July 29, 2010

    […] white-washed, wooden fort, where one of my all-time heroes James Brooke, and his officers would sit, forlornly, watching war parties return upriver, carrying […]

  2. Dodgeblogium » CoTVing while I think of a clever title to put here… - August 5, 2010

    […] presents The Man who Mistook his Capital for a Cat posted at Travels with a Nine Year Old, saying, “On James Brooke, the first White Rajah of […]

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