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Progress of the Borneo Mission

From The Colonial Church Chronicle, and Missionary Journal, Vol. IV (April, 1851), pages 361-370.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007


[WE are induced to give this prominence to the following letter by the interest which is generally felt in this Mission, and by its urgent wants.]

October, 1850.

SIR,--During the two years and a half that the Mission has been in operation here, it has pleased God to cause local events to work most favourably for the beginning and progress of the good work it has taken in hand. The most promising openings present themselves on all sides, and labourers only are wanting to occupy fields already white for the harvest. From this territory to Bruria, and as far inland as the sources of the great river, there is not an influential tribe that would not gladly receive Missionaries; and many of the chiefs, with whom I have had personal intercourse, have urged me to come to their countries, and teach them and their people. Daily occurring facts prove, what the state of the country two years ago would hardly have allowed us to hope, that Missionaries may hopefully labour amongst the wildest and remotest tribes we have heard of with safety, and confidence in the good disposition of the natives, and the general healthiness of the climate.

The population of Borneo has doubtless hitherto been much underrated. Taking the known number of inhabitants in the area of this and the countries around us as a rule for the rest of the island, we may calculate the population at from five to six millions, and this computation is probably under the mark, as it appears that the interior parts of the island are more densely inhabited than those countries near the coast and mouths of the rivers, from which the aboriginal people have been gradually driven inwards, either by the oppression and injustice of' Malayan rule, or by the constant attacks of predatory tribes. This [361/362] vast island is now, in the course of God's providence, thrown open to the missionary efforts of our Church, and to assist her in the work she has exerted in her favour all the great and rapidly increasing power and influence of our Christian Rajah, of whom it is but sober truth to say, that his deeds prove him to be willing to spend and be spent for the good, both spiritual and temporal, of his fellow-creatures, whom God has in so wonderful a manner committed to his charge.

With his help and countenance this Mission can now send its agents far and wide, with every prospect of success, into fields sufficiently interesting to arouse the energies and excite the zeal of the most apathetic--fields in which a Paul and a Xavier would have delighted to labour. Surely men have only to be rightly informed of the glorious openings offered them here, to make them desire to come forth and take their post in a work wherein they may so easily tread in the steps of the great and holy Missionaries of the past.

Hitherto the chief efforts of the Mission have been directed towards taking up a central position, and gaining the confidence and good-will of the natives, and this has to a great extent been done.

The schools of the Mission are regarded with favour, and the benefits imparted by the Dispensary have found their way far and wide to the hearts of many, who, having there received bodily ease, are now willing, even anxious, to learn the things that belong to their souls' peace. The population of Sarawak is now so large and rapidly increasing that the combined efforts of a body of men is necessary to carry on the work of the Mission even here, not to speak of the much larger fields around us. In the Mission Home School there are now twenty children, some orphans, and others given by their parents to be baptized and trained up as Christians. They are of all ages, from two years old to ten; seven already baptized have been with us for more than a year; the remainder have been lately taken, and their baptism is deferred until the opening of our church at Christmas, when we expect the Bishop of Calcutta to consecrate it. These last are the children of a most interesting race of people, the Dyako-Chinese of Pemangkat, from 4,000 to 5,000 of whom have lately emigrated hither. As little has as yet been made known of them, it will be as well to give here a brief summary of their history, as they will in all probability one day be a very important and powerful people, and occupy a considerable place in the future history of Borneo. They emigrated several generations back from the Kay country in China,--which, from their description, seems to be a mountainous region in the interior of the Fokien province,--and settled as gold workers at Montrado, [362/363] in the Sultan of Semba's territories. There they married Dyak women, and remained until about thirty years back, (the date they give is the time of the English occupying Singapore,) when, on account of differences with the Takong-kimsi, who originally emigrated with them from China, but are a much more numerous and powerful people, they left Montrado, and settled at Pemangkat, at the mouth of the Sambas river, where they became great rice-growers, and supplied the Sambas and the Montrado people with it. Lately there has been war between the Montrados and the Dutch on account of the opium farm, and the Pemangkat people sided with the Dutch and the Sultan against their countrymen, who attacked them in great force, drove them out of their country, and possessed themselves of their rice-grounds and gold works, which they still hold in spite of the Dutch, and are likely to do so, if a large force is not brought from Batavia to dislodge them, as it is said the Montrados are divided into seven kimsis, and each kimsi can furnish 10,000 fighting men. Nearly all the Pemangkat people who escaped fled here en masse, bringing their wives and children, and all the little property they could stow away in their boats. Several of these boats, crammed with people, many carrying from eighty to ninety, foundered at sea; and many of the refugees journeying over land perished of starvation by the way. The poor creatures who arrived were all in a state of destitution and terror; they were afraid lest their enemies should follow them, or lest we should not be able to protect and assist them. They all declared that they fled here instead of going to Pontionak, with the one hope of being allowed to settle, and received as the subjects of our Rajah, whom they knew to be such a good man, and so kind to his people; and happy, indeed, they seemed when told they might remain, and that the government would do all in its power to protect and relieve them. Full well has this promise been performed; lands, tools, and other implements for their houses have been given to every applicant, together with a monthly allowance of rice, and in many cases pecuniary assistance, to keep them until they can derive their own support from their gardens, paddy grounds, or gold works. They brought so many sick, wounded, and disabled, that medical aid was in constant request, and with the Rajah's assistance I have been enabled to open a small hospital, where the worst cases are now attended with some hope of success, and where already many lives and limbs have been saved, which without it must have been lost. The government allow medicines and rice, and I give each man a few pice daily from our offertory fund to procure other necessaries. At present we can only accommodate twelve in-patients, and have always more [363/364] applicants than can be taken in. I hope that means may be found in England to enable the Mission to carry out this very necessary and beneficial work on a more efficient scale, and thus assist the government, whose revenue is taxed to the very utmost, to carry out its benevolent and charitable measures for assisting not only these, but also the numerous emigrants from other neighbouring countries who are constantly coming in.

These Dyako-Chinese are a fine race, being an improvement on both the original Chinese and Dyak. Instead of the small oblique eye and sinister expression of the Chinaman, they have the large beaming eye and kindly look of the Dyak; while in statute and strength they do not seem to have degenerated from their Chinese progenitors. Their language seems peculiar, and they have great difficulty in communicating with the other Chinese here, but many of them understand the Chinese written character. They are orderly and industrious, and have already made large clearings for their farms and gardens, which are making great inroads into the jungle around us, and in other places both down and up the river. They seem to have little or no religion amongst them; their only name for a religious observance signifies a great eating, and those that I have been enabled to question are not able to give any reason for the forms they go through at their feasts. All they say of them is, that thus they keep away the "autus," i. e. evil spirits, and that they are the customs taught them by their fathers. At any rate they have no prejudice against, nor do they make any difficulty about their children being taught Christianity; and if means could be found, the Mission might have any number, instead of the few I have taken, to bring up entirely. It is a cause of great regret to have been obliged to refuse the little ones thus offered to us to bring up for Christ; but I feared to pledge the Mission beyond its means, as the expense of each child is three dollars a-month; and I also felt that, with the many other calls I have upon my time, it would be scarcely possible to do justice to the number we have, as with these little wild creatures everything requires the most careful superintendence. Their lessons require to be made amusements, and, again, their amusements lessons; and it is as necessary to instruct them in spinning a top or flying a kite, as it is to take care that they be not wearied and disgusted with instruction and discipline which is so new and unnatural to them. They are very intelligent, and I think affectionate. When they first came to us everything had to be done by signs; they are now picking up Malay rapidly from the other children, and can read words of three or four letters in English. They are taught Chinese writing likewise, and retain their national costume, as it is [364/365] advisable to do everything to keep up the interest of their own people in them, and show them, as well as the Malays and Dyaks, that Christianity does not require men to abjure any harmless national habits and customs; for an idea, I find, has got abroad among the natives, that if they become Christians they must change their clothes, manner of living, &c. The Dyaks often ask me if they are to wear a coat and trowsers like mine when they become Christians; but I always tell them they may become as good Christians in their chawats and bagus, as I in my trowsers and coat; that they may still chew sirik and tobacco, and eat wild pig and monkey-flesh too, if they like. With, this view of counteracting a false notion, which might hereafter prove a great impediment to us, I encourage a Malay Catechumen, who attends service, to keep his head-dress on in Church, but I make the Chinese take off their hats and let fall their tails, which is with them as much a sign of reverence and respect as it is for a Malay to keep his head covered. But, to return to our children; I feel sure, from their intelligence and tractability, that if it pleases God to enable us to bring them up rightly, they will one day prove the best Missionaries we could possibly have, and that from among them we may hope to have a body of men who, content with mere food and raiment, may be sent forth to proclaim the Gospel of peace throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Our little church, which, in beauty of outline and finish of workmanship, far surpasses what I thought at first we should be able to manage, will, I hope, be consecrated at Christmas. It is built of bolean, or iron-wood; the style is Early English, adapted to the climate by adding open aisles, which perform the office of verandahs. All the lights are filled with coloured glass, the central eastern light being a red and blue cross on a golden field, which is the Sarawak flag, and it pleases the natives much. The inner walls and roof are of a wood like cedar, and panelled; the mouldings are massive and well carved, and take a high polish. On the whole, we have spared no pains to make the first church in Borneo a handsome and durable one. The services of the Church are at present carried on in the Mission-house. On Sunday afternoons I say most of the prayers and read the second lesson in Malay, for the sake of our servants who attend service, and such Malays as may happen to be auditors. I am sure it would delight any Churchman's heart to hear the voices of our little ones so lately redeemed from Islamism and .Heathenism, joining audibly in the prayers, and making a loud treble to the tunes that we use for the Psalms and responses. Indeed, we have a very creditable choir; for my wife has managed to interest all our small congregation in it, and one night in the week they all come to practise for Sunday: they really take a pleasure in it.

[366] We have had here for some time an interesting Dyak from a long way in the interior, he says a fortnight's journey from this. He left his tribe on account of a skin disease, " which," he says, "gives him no peace, and puts him to shame in his tribe, as the other men have all clean skins." He heard I could cure it, and came to ask me to do so; but the case is too inveterate, I fear, for poor Koosoo ever to be cured. He is an intelligent fellow, and gives a most enchanting description of his country, in which, he says, there are large lakes and fine mountains, and which abound with wild cattle, deer, and other game, in great plenty. But his account of a race of Mayans, who border upon his tribe, is very remarkable, and forms the reason for mentioning him. These people are cannibals, and of all the anthropophagi I ever heard of they seem the worst. We may well assert of them what old Herodotus says of the cannibals of his time, that _________ _____ ______ ______ ____. They are perfect gluttons in human flesh, and prefer it to any other food. They all carry attached to their sword-scabbards a sharp skewer of about eighteen inches long, which, when they have killed a victim, man, woman, or child, they introduce into the flesh, and pass it along the bones of the extremities and spine, working it so as to divide all the muscular attachments from the bones. They then take off skin and flesh together, beginning at the soles of the feet, and carry on the operation from below upwards, doing it so rapidly that, in a few minutes, nothing but the bones and viscera are left. They take out the brain and cook it slightly in a particular kind of leaf, and consider it the great bonne bouche of their abominable feast. When they have cooked and eaten all they want, they cook and smoke the rest, as the Dyaks and Malay's do boar's or deer's flesh, and will eat no other flesh while it lasts. Koosoo says, when his tribe go to war some of these people always come to eat the bodies of the slain. They never kill their friends for food, but always eat an enemy when they can get one; eating all indiscriminately, men, women, and children. But, with the exception of this horrible taste, Koosoo describes them as very good people, and as more civilized and clever than the Dyaks. He has lived amongst them once and again, and has always found them kind and hospitable to strangers, and very honest in their trading transactions. He is quite sure they would not eat white men, but would be very glad to receive them as their friends, and would take great care of them. This narrative, which I quite believe, from the perfect simplicity and artlessness of the man, establishes the existence of cannibals here, a fact long disputed. These cannibals are a numerous and powerful nation, governed by a Rajah, but religion seems to be at a lower ebb amongst them than even amongst the Dyaks. I am trying to get a vocabulary [366/367] of his language from Koosoo; it is very different from that spoken by our land-Dyaks. Apropos to languages--I may as well state, that I have not yet been able to discover any dialect similar to the Dyak translation of the New Testament published at the Cape in 1846. It is not understood here. It seems to me a very corrupt Malay spelt in the Dutch manner, and may be the language of some of the Dutch tribes in Pontionak. I am informed that the Bible Society have made a grant for the translation of the Malayan Bible at Singapore, which I think rather a waste of their money, as the existing translation done by the Dutch is very correct, and evidently made by careful scholars. Mr. Marsden, speaking of it, says that it is a work "executed with singular accuracy and skill by the progressive labours of several learned men." It was originally printed in the Malayan character at Batavia, in 1758, and has now been so long in use, and so widely distributed in the eastern part of the Archipelago, as to have become quite a standard of the Malayan language in those countries. As regards the faithful translation of the text from the original languages, it must of necessity be more correct, and give the true meaning of Scripture better than a new translation made by those who, however well they may understand the vernacular Malay of the Straits, know absolutely nothing of Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, and are not over-well acquainted with the Queen's English, as certain publications I have seen clearly prove. In the July number of the Archipelago Journal Mr. Erle says, that "the immense number of Malayan Bibles that have been circulated, not only in Amboyna" (where there are 30,000 native Christians), but throughout the Moluccas, have produced an uniformity of idiom which greatly facilitates communication, not only between Europeans and natives, but between the natives of the different islands themselves. Indeed, the Malayan language here assumes an importance which is unknown to the other European settlements in the Archipelago." I think it is as well to mention this, as Malay is the language in which all Missionary operations of the Archipelago must be carried on, and it is important to preserve a uniform standard of it, which the existing translation furnishes.

We have now with us several influential chiefs from the neighbouring rivers, and amongst them the head men of the Sakarran Dyaks, who have come to ask the Rajah to take them under his care, and to send a European to govern them. Their principal, Orang Kaya, is an especially interesting old man; he has always been against piracy, and wished to put it down; and now that his people have agreed to give it up, he is quite happy, and seems perfectly delighted to mare our acquaintance, and constantly says how pleased he is to be friends with [367/368] the Rajah, and to have one heart with the white people. He is a very prepossessing looking old man, with such a mild expression, and so gentle, loving a look, that one wonders how it could ever have been possible for him to take heads, which doubtless he has in his day, though now he discountenances the practice as his conduct on a recent occasion plainly showed.

It has been the immemorial custom of the Sakarrans to reserve certain rich lands, which no man was allowed to cultivate until he had taken a head. Gassin, however, allowed the custom to be broken through, when a neighbouring chief resented the matter, and sent to Gassin to say that he would fight him for breaking through the customs of their fathers. Gassin replied, that it was a foolish custom, and he would not keep it any longer, but that if the other persisted he would fight him on the subject with swords and spears, in right earnest, and not with sticks only, with which they are accustomed to settle party fights among themselves, as the Irish do their faction fights with shillelahs. Upon this the other chief came with his followers, and Gassin, who was prepared to fight, argued the point with him, and they agreed that as now the Rajah and the English would not let them pirate, it would be very difficult to get heads, and there would not be qualified men enough to work the lands, and that therefore it would be better for them to give up the custom, as they could not keep it without throwing their lands out of cultivation. Thus this custom, which has been at the very root of their head-taking, has been done away of their own accord. Surely the cloud of thick darkness and barbarism that has so long enveloped them, is fast breaking away; their day of light is dawning, and it is for this Mission to impart to them the true light of the Sun of Righteousness, and not let them be content with the false and deadening glare of Islamism, or the sickly light of Romanism. Dear old Gassin, my heart quite yearns to see him a Christian. He wants me to go back to Sakarran with him; "I will make you a house," he says, "and give you all you want, and you shall teach us, and make my heart glad, and my people's heart glad." He has no small people under him, as the tribes on the Sakarran and Batong Lupor are a population of about 100,000; so at least it would appear from a recent account taken of the quantity of salt they consume, and from the number of war-boats which Gassin says they can man. When well governed they will be a powerful and happy people. I pray that our Church may have the honour of bringing them into Christ's flock.

It would take little persuasion to gain Gassin over. He came to us the other morning, as we were going to prayers, and asked if he might come in and hear u pray; of course I consented, [368/369] and prayed for him too. He was very attentive, and after prayers said, "Well! I like your praying." I asked whether he would like to learn to pray as we do? "Oh, yes, if you will come to Sakarran, I will learn, and tell my people to learn." Would that I could go back with him now; but I am doubly and trebly tied to this place, by work which grows and requires my constant presence more and more, and yet nothing can be done effectually with these tribes until we can place Missionaries among them.

There is a great work to be carried out in these countries, but it can only be done by a body of men well prepared, and willing to devote themselves heart and soul to their Master's service; and when they are obtained, means must be taken to carry out the whole of the Church's system and discipline, which can alone preserve order and unity and singleness of purpose among the various labourers that may be employed in the Mission. The first steps taken should be to convert the Mission School into a College, so that we could train up our present boys and other native youths for our future supply of Missionaries and Catechists; [Footnote: (1) At Penang the Romanists have such a college, where they educate 150 youths, who supply their Cochin Chinese Missions; it is exceedingly well conducted, and would in many respects furnish a good model; it is self-supporting, the revenues derived from their nutmeg and other plantations, chiefly cultivated by the students, being sufficient to keep it up on its present scale.] and if a hospital were attached, which, with the assistance of the Government, could be done at a trifling expense, a practical knowledge of medicine and surgery could be imparted to them, which will be always found a most powerful auxiliary to all Missionaries in these parts. I really think, if the immense opportunities this Mission offers for carrying on the work of evangelization so hopefully, without personal risk to those employed, and at such comparatively small expense, were known to our faithful brethren, both lay and clerical, at home, that neither men nor means would long be wanting to us. We cannot be so far behind the Romanists in zeal and energy. If the Rajah would give them leave, they would swarm here to-morrow, and already, in spite of us, they have sent over Christian Chinese agents to work amongst our Chinese. I do not know them when I see them, but I know that they are here, from the French captain of the trader who brought them over, and who is a Romanist, and very intimate with the members of the Jesuit mission at Singapore; and I fear that to prevent them taking the work out of our hands, my unaided efforts will be of little avail.

In a Mission like this no single man can do more than lay the very first foundations for others to work upon with him; and [369/370] when that is done, if he be not speedily assisted by fellow-labourers, his efforts will be next to useless; he may be ever so zealous, ever so hopeful, he will find his calls to labour grow faster than his power to meet them; he will soon have raised expectations that cannot be realized, and hopes that cannot be fulfilled, among the people around him; and then his toil and anxiety to meet them wear him out, his own powers wither, and he is obliged to leave the scene of his labours vacant, or it may be to die in it; and thus all his work, the knowledge and experience he has gained, are lost; for he has had no one to impart them to, and he can leave no one behind to carry out what perhaps has been well begun.

I pray God to stir up the wills of his faithful people at home to listen to the calls made upon the Church to establish this Mission in an efficient manner. A work has been begun by her, and I trust that she will carry it out, and not delay till God calls other labourers to accomplish that which she might have done for the honour and praise of his Holy Name.

To any of my brethren who may feel inclined to join this Mission I can say with truth that I do not know a more pleasant sphere of labour; the people are most interesting, the country beautiful, and the climate delicious, and very healthy for a tropical one. You may travel through the jungle in perfect security from dangerous animals; you may even sleep out in most places at night without dreading that mephitic exhalation which begets the deadly fevers of Africa and India. Even agues here are slight; and I have not seen a jungle fever amongst any of the Europeans that has not been brought on by culpable carelessness and reckless exposure. A consumptive man might prolong his life here, and undergo exertion and exposure that he could not attempt in any European climate, even in those recommended to people with thoracic affections. Many a young Fellow of a college, or others after their ordination who from weakness of chest cannot undertake clerical duty, or even live in England, might here employ themselves usefully and actively, and at the same time be effecting their cure much more effectually than by going to Madeira, or the South of Europe. I have had two cases under my own eye since I have been here; both would in all probability have died before this in England, where they were always ailing and useless, and both are now in strong health, never think of their chests, and even exert themselves with pleasure.

Your faithful Servant,


P. S. Our church has neither organ nor bells; perhaps some who read this could help us to obtain these desiderata.

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