A few months ago I wrote a post about an Irishman who became a Buddhist monk in Burma in the early twentieth century, and who was known as U Dhammaloka. Recently I posted about a documentary that is being made about this man.
One of the things that is fascinating about the story of U Dhammaloka is the fact that he was more or less unknown by scholars until recently. Another thing that is interesting, however, is that it has now become quite easy to find (some of the limited) information about this person given that so many books and newspapers have been digitized.
Today I realized that there are probably other figures that are as fascinating as U Dhammaloka that many of us are not aware of, such as Gerald MacBryan.
MacBryan was born in Somerset, England. He joined the civil service in Sarawak in 1920, converted to Islam, married a Malay woman and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
By the time World War II broke out, MacBryan had become a personal secretary for the Rajah of Sarawak, Vyner Brooke. MacBryan fled to Australia with Brooke when the Japanese occupied Sarawak, but then he tried to return, and this caused problems for him.
I came across a file about MacBryan in the Australian National Archives. This file contains a letter from Vyner Brooke in which Brooke pleads with the Australian authorities to clear MacBryan’s name.
The same file also contains a sort of biography of MacBryan in which it states that “He is described as tall, thin, shifty and unscrupulous, unwilling to look a person in the eye, and is said to be of such unstable character that it would not be fantastic to assume that he might have designs on being appointed by the Japanese as a quisling Rajah of Sarawak.”
It is difficult to determine if this is true, but several authors have claimed that MacBryan did want to create a caliphate based at Sarawak, with himself as caliph.
Meanwhile, The Straits Times (from Singapore) carried an article in 1937 about MacBryan’s Malay wife when she arrived in Singapore after spending a year in England. Apparently there was a novel that was published in 1937 about MacBryan’s pilgrimage to Mecca called Triumphant Pilgrimage: An English Muslim’s Journey from Sarawak to Mecca, so MacBryan and his wife were “famous” at that time, and The Straits Times referred to MacBryan’s wife by the name she was known by in the novel – “Munirah.”
The article claimed that “‘Munirah’s’ former shyness has disappeared. During the interview she spoke freely of her impressions, and without hesitation posed for the cameraman.
“Hair bobbed, wearing a two-peace costume, a white crepe-de-chine blouse, a small gold kris brooch, its only decoration, and a grey tweed skirt. Mrs. MacBryan declared enthusiastically, ‘I like England much better than Sarawak.’”
Ok, so in the 1930s there was an Englishman in Sarawak who converted to Islam, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and had dreams of creating a caliphate in the region, while his Muslim Malay wife got the latest British hairstyle and preferred England over Sarawak. . . that’s amazing!!