Sylvia – Queen of the Headhunters (Part two)

Sylvia in 1917 via the National Portrait Gallery

Read part one here.

The start of the First World War saw Sylvia sign up as a nurse, but she could not stand the sight of blood, and she ended up in the pantry doing the dishes. At the end of the year, Vyner also returned to England just as his father arrived in Sarawak. Sylvia fell pregnant once more and gave birth to a third baby girl on 2 December 1915. She later wrote, “A girl, of course, it was a girl. I knew before Simmie (the obstetrician) told me when I saw him fling up his hands in despair. I was not destined to create a future Rajah.” The girl was named Valerie.

The following year, Sylvia left her daughters with her mother-in-law as she and Vyner returned to Borneo. They arrived on 21 May to a royal salute. Her father-in-law was now nearly 87 and was beginning to feel his age. The war had little effect on Sarawak and life continued there as before. At the end of September, Sylvia returned to England with Vyner accompanying her as far as Singapore. In 1917, just as Vyner was on his way back to England, his father died two weeks short of his 88th birthday, and Vyner hurried back to Sarawak. However, on the day that her husband was proclaimed Rajah, Sylvia was gravely ill. She was sick for months and eventually underwent an operation, after which she wrote, “The days of sons and heirs and inheritance are over.” She also began having symptoms of tuberculosis. In early 1918, she was finally well enough to travel, and she met up with her husband after 20 months apart. At the end of the year, just after the end of the First World War, Sylvia returned to her children in England. The following years she would spend travelling back and forth between Sarawak and England. It wasn’t until 1923 that their eldest daughter travelled with them to Sarawak.

Sylvia began to write and even dabbled in journalism in England. She then wanted to get into the movie business, and although it never quite took off, she did have her finger in several ventures. In addition, she became preoccupied with the succession. Vyner’s recognised heir was his brother Bertram as girls were excluded and Sylvia began to explore the possibility of changing the line of succession in favour of Leonora. It all came to nothing.

In July 1933, Leonora married Kenneth Mackay, 2nd Earl of Inchcape – 24 years her senior. In August 1935 her second daughter Elizabeth married Harry Roy, and she went on to star in several films with him. Valerie took advantage of her parents’ absence to announce her engagement to Robert Gregory, an American wrestler, despite her father’s threat of disinheritance. They married on 22 November 1937. They moved to California where they too went into the movie industry.

The increasing financial woes of the family probably prompted the announcement from Vyner to divest himself of absolute power and giving Sarawak a written constitution. Vyner wrote, “I have always been positive, as was my father, that it was never the intention of Sir James Brooke to establish a line of absolute rulers.” Once again, he confirmed Bertram as his heir. He would later briefly name his grandson Simon, son of Leonora, as his heir.

In 1941, there was suddenly an all too real threat of invasion by the Japanese. On 8 December 1941, news reached Sarawak that much of the American fleet had been destroyed at Pearl Habor and that the Japanese were now heading for the British and Dutch possessions in South East Asia. On 19 December, Kuching was bombed from the air, and by Boxing Day the city was in Japanese hands. At the time Sylvia was in New York, and Vyner was in Sydney. Vyner immediately planned to return and sent a cable, “I deeply regret not being with you in Sarawak to share this time of anxiety and trial through which you are now passing.” When he arrived, Kuching had already fallen. Sylvia wrote, “We all knew there was not a hope for Sarawak from the first. Fifty years of my husband’s life and about thirty-five tears of my work with him have been wiped out in only five days of fighting.” By May, the disillusioned Vyner was living in a flat in Melbourne while Sylvia returned to London where the recently widowed Leonora was throwing herself into war work.

As the end of the war neared, Vyner’s relationship with Bertram and his son Anthony approved. In July 1945, Allied troops entered Sarawak, but it soon became clear that Vyner would not be reinstated. Vyner himself proposed to cede Sarawak to the British Crown. He was probably persuaded by the huge amount of money needed to get the country back on its feet. The unstable relationship with his heirs must have also played a role. On their final day in Rejang, they inspected a collection of Japanese heads which had been smoked and hung. They returned to England in April 1946 with the monarchy officially being in July. Sylvia threw herself into writing novels. Sylvia was widowed on 9 May 1963.

Sylvia remained active and was often up at 6 a.m. to write or paint. Her autobiography titled “Queen of the Headhunters” was finally published in 1970. In the autumn of 1971, Sylvia travelled to Barbados where she fell down and broke her hip. During her treatment, she caught pneumonia and died on 11 November.

Today, the Kingdom of Sarawak is part of Malaysia.1

  1. Philip Eade, Sylvia, Queen Of The Headhunters: An Outrageous Englishwoman And Her Lost Kingdom (US & UK)

About Moniek 1802 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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