On Sunday, March 8th, New Stages Theatre Company brings to life the relatively unknown strange Canadian tale of Esca Brooke-Daykin in Dave Carley’s 2018 play Canadian Rajah, the story of a displaced son of a royal line who lived in Madoc, Ontario.
For this one-night-only performance, New Stages brings together the two stars of the original 2019 Toronto production, Jon De Leon and Barbara Worthy, to recreate a story of real-life political intrigue and one man’s lifelong search for legitimacy.
Originally from Peterborough and currently based in Toronto, award-winning playwright Dave Carley spent nearly 20 years developing Canadian Rajah after discovering a book by Australian historian Cassandra Pybus about a displaced descendant of the White Rajahs, a dynastic monarchy of the British Brooke family that founded and ruled the Raj of Sarawak on the island of Borneo for almost 100 years.
After years of his own research, Dave premiered the show in January 2019 at Toronto’s Campbell House Museum to favouable reviews.
“We have so much history in Canada that we don’t tell,” Dave says in a phone interview. “We are so negligent that way. The story of Esca Brooke is another one of those bizarre stories. It was such a good story that, if it killed me, I was going to tell it.”
Esca Brooke-Daykin (1867-1953) was the first-born son of Charles Johnson Brooke, the second White Rajah of Sarawak. Located on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo (now a part of Malaysia), the Raj of Sarawak was an independent country with ties to the Britain that existed between 1841 to 1946.
Established after a series of land concessions acquired by British soldier and adventurer James Brooke from the Sultanate of Brunei, Sarawak received recognition as an independent state from the United States in 1850 and from the United Kingdom in 1864. After James Brooke, the first White Rajah, died in 1868, his nephew Charles Brooke succeeded him.
“Sarawak was an independent country for over a hundred years,” Dave says. “It wasn’t a proper British colony. There were agreements with Britain, in regards to protection and trade, but it was definitely an independent country. The second white Rajah, Charles Brooke, liked the local women, and he married one in a Muslim ceremony. They had this child, Esca.”.
However, upon taking over the title after his uncle’s death, Rajah Charles returned to England in a twist that would change the young boy’s fate forever.
“Rajah Charles ran out of money and he did what he had to do,” Dave explains. “He went back to England and found himself a new rich wife with a big dowry and he married her. Then he returned and hid his first wife away. So he came back with his white wife, but further up the river he still maintained his first wife.”
Charles’ second wife, Margaret Alice Lili de Windt, had six children, but only three sons who survived infancy. Aware that her husband had a first-born child with a local woman, the Rani (the term for the wife of a Rajah) sought to protect her own surviving first-born son’s claim to become the next Rajah. Thus, she concocted a plan to get rid of Esca.
“The second wife realized that any children she would have would technically not become Rajah, so they came up with a scheme to get rid of Esca,” Dave says. “Thankfully, they didn’t kill him — they sent him to England to be educated, where he was eventually adopted by a clergyman, Archdeacon William Daykin, who brought Esca to Ontario when he immigrated to Canada and settled in Madoc.”
Although by all accounts Esca Brooke-Daykin lived a successful and happy life in Canada, with little desire to go back and reclaim his title in faraway Sarawak, he spent the rest of his life trying to get recognition as the legitimate first-born son of Rajah Charles.
“Esca never had an urge to go back, but he spent his whole life trying to be recognized for who he was,” Dave says. “He lived a long life in Canada, and he lived a very good life. He was an executive in Hollinger Mines and had a beautiful house in Lawrence Park in Toronto, and he was fixture at his church. But he was haunted by the fact that nobody would admit who he was.”
In Canadian Rajah, Dave explores the life of Esca Brooke-Daykin through an imaginary dramatization of a confrontation between Esca and his father’s second wife, Rani Margaret Brooke. Although a meeting between the two never actually happened, the show is, in part, based on a historical meeting between the Rani and Esca’s wife, Edith Daykin.
“I had imagined what the confrontation between Esca and the Rani would be if he had gone to England to make his claim,” Dave says. “In reality, it was his wife who had gone to England and met the Rani and had the confrontation about his claim. For the rest of his life, Esca would send long letters to newspapers and the King of England and anybody he thought would listen, but nobody ever really did. The Brooke family never ever contacted him.”
For Canadian Rajah, producer Randy Read has brought together the two stars who played Esca and the Rani to life in the original Toronto production.
Toronto-based actor Jon de Leon takes the role of Esca Brooke-Daykin. An alumnus of the Stratford Festival, Jon is currently the writer, producer and star of the web series I am Not a Chef, and has appeared on both stage and screen, including roles on Star Trek: Discovery, Downsizing, Rookie Blue, and Lost Girl.
“The thing I wanted to get into the play was why did Esca care so much,” Dave says. “He had a perfect life here, but he wanted his father to recognize him. In those days, to be illegitimate was bad in a way we don’t understand anymore. In those days it would be a bar to many things, and would hurt his own children in getting married themselves. I think he really wanted to prove that he was legitimate.”
In the role of Rani Margaret Brooke is Barbara Worthy, who has been a performer with the Shaw Festival for 20 seasons. An educator at Brock University and Niagara College, Barbara brings to life a character as colourful as Esca himself.
“The Rani is a very interesting character,” Dave says of the show’s antagonist. “She wrote a couple of books in spinning her life. She eventually moved back to England and the nobility didn’t really know what to do with her. They didn’t know how to take a woman calling herself a Rani who was married to a Rajah. She had to explain her life, and one book she wrote portrayed herself as a brave explorer going to a savage land and having the time of her life — but no mention of Esca.”
In researching and writing Canadian Rajah, Dave was not only able to give the story of Esca Brooke-Daykin new interest and life, but it led him to the Esca’s descendants, including two still-living granddaughters who have memories of Esca. Through his efforts, he helped unify the family and fill in the gaps of a story that many of them didn’t know.
“I put on my website that I was doing a story on Esca Brooke, and one of his great granddaughters was googling the name one day and she contacted me,” Dave recalls. “I had no idea there were still grandchildren alive that knew him. But she told me that there were two granddaughters living in the Ottawa area, and before I knew it I was up there visiting with them.”
“I became aware of his very substantial number of descendents. Esca had four kids, and they all had kids who had kids, so it’s been amazing meeting them. Of course, they are all blown away by the story. All of them knew bits of it, but they didn’t know all of it.”
“Esca’s own kids didn’t talk much about it, and it was the grandkids that wanted to know more. Some of the descendents knew each other, but a lot of them didn’t. They are now all connected on their own Facebook group. A lot of them showed up to the original run of the play. It’s an amazing story and to see your own grandfather portrayed is an amazing thing.”
It should be noted that the New Stages presentation of Canadian Rajah is not a part of the theatre company’s popular staged reading series, but a full production. Dave will also be in attendance to take part in a question-and-answer period after the show.
This is an exciting one-night opportunity to see a Toronto theatre production on the Peterborough stage, and learn the incredible story of one of Canada’s most interesting but still relatively unknown figures. Hopefully as each audience member learns the story of Esca Brooke-Daykin, his legacy as the rightful Rajah of Sarawak will live on.
Canadian Rajah will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 8th at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre (140 Charlotte St. E, Peterborough). General admission tickets are $30 ($15 for students, art workers, and the underwaged), including all fees, and are available in person at the Market Hall Box Office or by phone at 705-749-1146 (12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday) or online anytime at markethall.org.