Project Canterbury

Borneo: The Land of River and Palm

By Eda Green

[no place:] Borneo Mission Association, no date [c. 1909]

Chapter I. Borneo and Its Riches

ONE of the uttermost parts of the earth, 8,000 miles from England, a country as large as Germany and Poland together! Leaving Australia, as a continent, out of count, New Guinea, the home of the frizzy-headed Papuan, is the only island in the world of greater extent than BORNEO--this land of river and of palm, where dwells the sad-faced, smooth-haired Dyak.

To reach it you travel down the Channel, across the Bay of Biscay, through the Straits of Gibraltar, the whole length of the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, down the Indian Ocean to Ceylon, then across the Bay of Bengal and through the Malacca Straits to Singapore. There you would leave the large ocean liner, and tranship into a smaller vessel in which to cross the 417 miles of the South China Sea to Sarawak in Borneo.

The island covers now an area of some 900 by 700 miles. Long ago it was not so large, but many small islands fringed its coasts. As centuries rolled on the large rivers brought down to their mouths extensive alluvial deposits which spread to the outlying islands, and so many of them became incorporated with the mainland. In the Landak territory this extension of land has been so great that almost all the ground west of the Kandang Mountains has been formed in this way in the last four centuries. The coast of Borneo, especially on the west, is therefore much less irregular than that of most of the neighbouring countries. There are many rivers, which are of great importance as the only means of communication, but some have large sandbanks at the mouth and some have bores, or tidal waves, sometimes twelve feet high, so that they cannot be navigated by large vessels.

The map of Borneo shows that two-thirds of the country, that lying on the east and south, is under the rule of the Dutch, who have large industries, and carry on an important trade with other countries. With the Dutch part, however, we are not dealing in this book, but only with the remaining third, yet large enough, for it is nearly the size of the United Kingdom.

The westernmost point of the island is Cape Datu, and here the territory of the Rajah of Sarawak begins. The position of the stars in the constellation of Cassiopeia gives an idea of the coast-line as it trends northwards, jutting out at Cape Sink and again at Baram Point; the narrow strip of Sarawak is interrupted here, and there comes then a small wedge of country called Brunei, still nominally governed by its own Sultan. Beyond this the two rivers Limbang and Lawas belong to Sarawak, then the northern part of the island right across, like the apex of a pyramid, is under the rule of the British North Borneo Company, and is worked by them for exports of coal, manganese, tobacco, camphor, rubber and other commodities. This part alone is larger than Ireland. Thirty miles off the coast of this northern part lies Labuan, an island ten miles long by five miles broad, a Crown Colony, administered by the Governor of the Straits Settlements. Though so small in extent, it is important from its position, its good harbour, its valuable fields of coal, and from being a station of the Eastern Extension Cable Company; from it, too, the Diocese of Labuan takes its name.

The chief towns on the mainland are Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, with a population of about 1,000; Brunei, the city of the Sultan, which has been satirically called the Venice of the East, with 10,000 people; and Sandakan and Jesselton in British North Borneo.

As you approach Borneo you would find the sea very shallow, and you would look with delight towards the land which seems covered with fresh, green vegetation, and here and there are thickly wooded hills with a mountain range behind. This chief range runs from Cape Datu to the north-east; it forms the watershed and ends at its highest point in Mount Kini-balu in the north, 13,500 feet high. The rocks are limestone, slate, sandstone, conglomerate, and the highest points are of crystalline schist and granite. To-day there are no volcanoes, but old craters give evidence that these did exist ages ago. Some of the higher peaks are sharply conical and needle-shaped, like the formation of the Dolo mites.

Many rivers rise in this chain on the east the Sibuco, the Koti, the Sambas and Kipuas, the Kalabacking, the Sugut; on the west the Brunei, the Baram, Bintulu, Rejang, Krian, Sarebas, Batang Lupar, Sadong and Sarawak. The Rejang is navigable for 120 miles of its course; its delta covers 1,600 square miles and has a coast-line of 6o miles. The many rivers broaden in places into many lagoons, but there are no lakes.

The climate of Borneo in the lower country is damp and hot, trying to Europeans, but it is certainly not unhealthy; and on the higher ground it is much drier. The length of the day never varies, for the island lies just on the Equator, so the sun rises about 6 A.M. and sets about 6 P.M. all the year round with hardly any twilight. Nearly every day brings some rain, but even in the rainy season, from November to March, there is seldom a wholly wet day, though during those months there are often violent storms of rain with wind and thunder. The average temperature has no extremes, ranging from 74º to 93º Fahrenheit.

As you made closer acquaintance with the green vegetation which you saw on the coast you would find it to be chiefly coarse jungle grass, useless and unhealthy. but behind and among this rank grass are growing trees of wonderful beauty. If you were bound for Kuching you would enter the country by going up the Sarawak River. In a direct line Kuching is only five miles from the coast, but the river winds fully five times as much, so that you would travel twenty-five miles. What would you see as you made this journey? First, close down to the water's edge, the graceful mangroves, lit up at night by myriads of fireflies flit ting about like wandering stars in the darkness, then the short nipa-palm, with its leaves bending gently down, leaves used when dried to make the mat walls and the roofs of houses. Farther back grow the tall nibong-palms whose straight, strong stems form the posts of native dwellings and the piles on which they are raised. And in the forests farther back?

There is the bilian, the iron-wood, which must be used in building if churches, schools and houses are not to be "eaten down" by white ants. Then there is the mohor tree, eighty feet high, with timber strong and springy for boat-building, and the kaladang tree, reaching a height of a hundred feet, straight and tough for masts; of these woods, cargoes have been sent to our English dockyards. Ebony, too, grows here.

The cocoa-nut is one of the many palms, the betel-nut another. This has a tall, slender stem with a bunch of yellow-husked nuts hanging under its crown of leaves. Betel-chewing is one of the Malay fashions which is followed by the Dyaks and by many of the Chinese. They spread lime (got from burnt shells) on the leaf of a pepper vine called sirih, wrap it up with tobacco, with some of the scraped betel-nut and a little gambier, and chew it as a narcotic. An ornamental betel box or bag is carried about as one of their toilet accessories. The juice is bright red so their lips become stained that colour, and the teeth are stained an ugly dark brown. The effect of chewing is to produce giddiness at first, to burn the mouth and to deaden the sense of taste. Yet for all this the "fashion" has lasted for over two thousand years.

Another palm provides us with sago, and half the sago in the world comes from the palms grown on the banks of the Oya Mukah and other rivers in Borneo. The pith is the part used, and to obtain it the tree has to be cut down; the stem is then sawn into lengths, split open and the pith grated to a coarse powder; this is washed in many waters, the starchy deposit is allowed to settle and is forced through sieves, whence it drops as the round grains of pearl sago.

Yet another palm, a climbing one, is the rattan. We shall see that it is used by the Dyaks for bracelets and waist rings, but it is exported, too, in great quantities to make the cane seats for chairs and sofas.

Camphor is one of the most valuable exports. That from Borneo is known as hard camphor, and is bought by the Chinese for as much as fifty times the price of ordinary camphor. It is obtained by cutting down the tree and splitting it into small pieces, when the camphor is found in clear crystal blocks, hidden in hollows in the wood.

Sixty years ago an Indian doctor noticed that the Malays made curious handles to their knives; he discovered that they used the milky juice found between the wood and the bark of a tree, which dried into a solid and rather elastic mass. He introduced it into England for various uses in surgery, and for coating submarine telegraph wires. This is the gutta-percha of Borneo, but it is less used than formerly.

Rubber is one of the most valuable products in the world. Like gutta it consists of a sap, found in many plants, e.g., in the stem of a climber named Willoughbsia; the creamy liquid is collected, and, by the addition of nipa salt, congealed into rough balls.

But towering as a king above all the forest is the tapang tree, rising in one single stem often 100 feet high, before it branches under its dome of beautiful foliage. It spreads out so widely above the roots that from its buttresses planks large enough to make a billiard table can be cut, in colour like dark oak, and polishing well.

There are, besides, the bamboo, the sugar-cane, and many fruit trees: the bushowa, like an Orleans plum, with the taste of a mango; the durian, bearing a fruit the size of a man's head, covered outside with spikes like a hedgehog; the ten or twelve seeds are as large as pigeon's eggs, and the pulp round them is creamy and delicious, though its scent suggests a mixture of rotten eggs, sugar and onions. The mangosteen, the fruit of the East, is of a deep, rich red colour, and clear inside like an opal.

These are the names of only a few of the trees which form the marvellous forest vegetation. As you go through the forests you may meet an elephant or a rhinoceros; you will meet monkeys, the orang found only here and in Sumatra, as well as others; you may see wild boars, honey-bears, buffalo and deer, and squirrels will leap over your head. Darting among the trees you will see gorgeous butterflies, birds of wondrous plumage, parrots, pigeons, the sun bird, the argus, the buiwer, with an eagle or a vulture soaring up above, and if you are with Dyaks you will perforce hear as well as see, for their intense listening, for the voice of certain birds will make you listen too, though in your superior knowledge you scoff at the omens which keep your poor ignorant brother in bondage. When you need a rest you will see to it that you do not mistake a coiled-up snake for the inviting roots of a tree, and when, hot and dusty, you want to bathe in a river you will look out for the crocodiles which abound.

Then beneath the earth what store of wealth! Coal in extensive workings both in Labuan and in Sarawak; gold, diamonds, quicksilver, tin, iron of such quality, and smelted and worked so well, that the weapons made excel those of Europe in strength and fineness of edge. Antimony, a metal which neither tarnishes nor rusts, and is therefore of great value for printers' type and other articles. Much of the ore from which it is smelted used to be brought to England from Borneo.

Tortoiseshell, from the many turtles found on the shores, and beeswax, are two other valuable products. The bees make their homes on the top of the tapang tree, so high that they can see, as in a field below them, where the best flowers are; from these they cull the sweetness, and make, it is said, the best honey in the world and a great quantity of wax. Smoke from fires lit at the foot of the tree drives the bees away and then the Dyak boys climb up and take the wax and honey.

Out of the many other objects of commerce only three more can be mentioned, three bought by the Chinese alone. Birds'-nests, the edible nests of a swallow, are one of their greatest dainties; the best are transparent like woven isinglass, and are made into soup supposed to be specially strengthening and very delicious. They are found in the caves which honeycomb the limestone rocks in many parts of Borneo, and are taken three or four times a year by the natives who form nesting parties and reap in their gains. In Sarawak the profits are divided between the Government and the tribe in whose territory the caves are. The results of the first and third nest hunts go to the men who gather in the nests, those of the middle "take" to the Government. The birds are like the ordinary swallow in colour but about half as large. Some of the caves are of enormous extent, rising up into vaulted domes, which, as well as the sides, are covered by thousands of the nests firmly glued to the rock. Old nests are dark and mixed with feathers, so care is taken to seek out the clear, pale yellow ones. Frail-looking ladders and scaffoldings of rattan are put up inside the caves, and from these the Dyaks reach the nests by means of long poles, bearing at the end two prongs above a lighted candle; this enables them to see the nest in the darkness of the cave; one man having detached it from its foundation, it is taken off the prongs by another, standing below. In some cases the caves are in the face of the cliff and can only be reached by boys let down by ropes from the top.

The second object of desire of the Chinese we should like even less--trepang--a sea-slug, sold also for making soup. The third is blachan, a sort of caviare, made of shrimps and small fish, dried in the sun and pounded.

Few countries contribute so much as this far-off island to the wealth and comfort of European nations.

Think of it! The coal you burn perhaps abroad, the type of the newspaper you read, the gold in the ring you wear, the quicksilver in your thermometer, the cane of the chair you sit upon, the wax which polishes your floor, the camphor which preserves your furs, the sago and rice for your puddings, the pepper in your soup, the india-rubber of your galoshes, to say nothing of your coffee and tobacco, all this you may owe to the one island of Borneo.

You pay for them? Yes, but we are learning now, at last, that our conscience must go beyond the mere money exchange, and that we must ask how and by whom the things we use are made. We have a responsibility which current coin cannot discharge, a responsibility for human lives and souls.

The voice of the forest swayed by the breeze, the fragrance of flower and leaf borne up as incense on high, the fruit and the bud yielding its life to satisfy ours, bring us a vision of purpose fulfilled. God made them for use, for glory and for beauty, and surely in a land of growth so luxuriant He looks down and sees Nature fulfilling His will. "O let the earth bless the Lord, yea, let it praise Him and magnify Him for ever."

When we have sung of the sun and the moon, of the snow and the ice, of the seas and the floods, of all the powers of the universe praising the Lord; of the fishes, of the birds, of the beasts, then we call on the children of men. Do they praise Him? We have risen through the scale of creation to that which should be the highest praise. Where is this note which the Lord of all is listening for? Does He hear that from the forests of Borneo?

Who, then, are the children of men there for whose praise the Father waits? Let us see the many races.

I. The Malays, the old ruling class and the aristocracy of Borneo. They belong to the Mongolian family which came originally from the highlands of Asia. Those who settled in Sumatra and in Java, whence they crossed to Borneo, belong to the Indo Malay branch. For centuries they governed the island under the various Sultans, but this government consisted chiefly in extorting as much as possible from the people, and when Rajah Brooke took over Sarawak he found the natives were being mulcted on barter sometimes to the extent of no less than 2,000 per cent. An unregulated system of oppression and forced contributions, farmed out from the Sultans downwards, had resulted in a network of cruelty and corruption; we shall see that under enlightened rule these people have learnt much and are now trusted members of the Rajah's council.

The Malays are not a tall people, averaging but little over five feet in height, light brown in colour, with well-shaped heads, straight eyes, large and dark, rather flat noses and high cheek bones; their wrists and ankles are small and well formed; most of them have straight black hair, but there are a considerable number in whom Caucasian blood can be traced. These are taller and stronger, a lighter brown in colour, with brown wavy hair and symmetrical figures. All the Malays are Mohammedans, and their example influences the natives. Here is one of the great calls to us, if we believe that to us has been entrusted a higher faith to offer to the natives.

II. The Chinese.--The traders, farmers, and miners working with infinite patience in washing out gold and securing antimony. Besides these Chinese immigrants there are also the descendants of many Chinese who in past ages intermarried with Dyak women, and who form a large Dyak Chinese population. In Borneo, as in many other countries to which the Chinaman goes, the one aim for which he toils is that he may be able to return to end his days, and to be buried in his native land, to earn money, honestly and by patient industry, but to earn and to save enough to keep him "at home," where he probably has a Chinese wife, as well as his Dyak wife in Borneo. For this reason the conversion of the Chinese is of the utmost importance. Our opportunity is here, to help towards what has been said to be the only means by which the "Yellow Peril" may be averted, a "religious triumph," a "miraculous spread of Christianity in its best form". Every Chinaman to whom is brought the knowledge of Christ's love may become a centre of evangelisation to his own countrymen, not only in Borneo, but when he goes back to his fatherland. The constancy of the Chinese in the Boxer persecution has shown us that they are worth winning, and here we have the opportunity of many ready to hear. In Borneo. as elsewhere, the Chinese are awakening to the value of Western education. They will get knowledge, and if we fail, they will get mere learning alone with out the knowledge of God.

III. The Tamils.--Many Indians, chiefly from the Madras Presidency, have gone to Borneo to work as navvies and coolies. The slim figures and bright clothes of these so-called Klings, both men and women, make a picturesque sight as they work on the roads, the tiny children following close to their mothers. The police, too, are Indians, but these belong to the fine race of Sikhs.

IV. The Dyaks.--These aborigines are by far the most numerous, as well as the most interesting of the 6oo,000 people in the Diocese of Labuan and Sarawak. The name is used here (for convenience of division), as it is often, but wrongly, used, to denote all the native inhabitants, not Malay. Nearly one hundred and fifty different tribes have, however, been classified, to only fifty of whom the name Dyak is properly applied. The word is thought to be derived from daya, the generic term for man in the Land-Dyak language, which thus came into use as the designation of certain tribes. There are two chief branches of the Dyaks, the Land- and Sea-Dyaks. Probably the Land-Dyaks came first from the mainland, and, later, were driven back into the highlands by the more vigorous race of Sea-Dyaks who followed them from the same part.

The Land-Dyaks.--These occupy the south-west corner of Sarawak, inland from the fringe of Malay population which inhabits the coast. They are slightly built, rather taller, and rather redder in colour than the Malays, and with better features, though the flat-bridged nose, the wide nostrils and large mouth common to all Dyaks do not form a type of beauty in European eyes. Their hair is black and straight; hardly any have beards or whiskers, except in one village, where men with goat-like beards were met with. The lands of different tribes are generally bounded by rivers, and the villages are built not far from the banks; on the head-waters the people are usually peaceable agriculturists, but nearer the coast they used often to join the Malays in their sea-raids.

Just below the beautiful Santubong Mountain, at the mouth of the Sarawak River, curious gold ornaments and earthenware have been dug up which may be relics of a far-back colony of Peguans from Rangoon.

The Sea-Dyaks have the country north and east of the Land-Dyaks; they were pressed inland by the Malay invasion, but have always kept close to the rivers. Active life as pirates and seafarers has developed them into a stronger and more vigorous race, more broadly built, yet with light and graceful carriage. In colour they are yellower than the Land-Dyaks, but their hair is just as black and long.

North of these Sea-Dyaks, up to the border of the Sultanate of Brunei, come the Kayans and Kenniahs. They are said to number 10,000, and they stretch right across into Dutch territory; they are lighter in colour, stouter in build than the Dyaks, and their language is quite different. One tribe among them, the Punans, is thought by some writers to be the purest type of aborigines; they are strong and large and have better manners than any of the other peoples. They neither build houses nor plant paddy, and are the one tribe which has never practised head-hunting. The Ukits are probably allied to the Punans; they live in the hill country (whence their name, from Bukit, hill in Malay); they are tall and slim, with refined features and beautiful hands.

The Bisayans, handsome, fair and light-hearted, who go over to Labuan to work the coal, and then gamble away their wages, and the Milanaus, whose girls are as fair as any Europeans and the belles of Borneo, are only two more among the many peoples in Sarawak.

Passing on to North Borneo the tribes are fewer in number, and generally of a lower type.

The Bajaus, or Sea Gypsies, a race with low foreheads and pinched faces, come, tradition says, from Johore, where they lived always in boats; on one of their festivals all the boats were fastened astern of their prince's vessel, when a storm came and blew them all across to Borneo. In memory of this they keep the anniversary by a general bathing, and they still live in small covered boats, or in houses built out into the sea on piles.

The Muruts are in great numbers in North Borneo; they are the lowest type of native, coarse, dirty and ugly. In height, language and customs they are entirely different from the Dyaks, but where they have been brought into contact with civilisation and kindly treated they have shown themselves friendly and hospitable.

The Dusuns people great part of the interior of British North Borneo; near the coast they wear more clothing than most tribes, but the farther inland the fewer clothes, till at last all they wear is made from the bark of trees.

The Lanuns, supposed to have come from the Philippines, are Mohammedans and are dying out; they were one of the most aggressive tribes in their wild piracy, raiding not only the coasts, but stealing away the children of the Dusuns and Ida'an.

Peoples, beneath their wildness, docile, earnest, affectionate and very responsive to kindness, such are these children of the jungle, who appeal with attractive power to European hearts.

There are still vast tracts of land along the hills of Sarawak and in the interior of North Borneo unexplored, but English enterprise will some day develop the country, and doubtless these new regions will yield wealth equal to the old, yet those riches of commerce are not the greatest; the glory of the island waits for the greater riches of human life. What that life becomes depends on us.

"That our garners may be full and plenteous with all manner of store." Yes! all manner of store; it seems as though scarce any were lacking to contribute to the rich abundance. "That there be no leading into captivity and no complaining in our streets. Blessed are the people who are in such a case." The days of captivity and of slavery are over. The tribes, no longer hunted from place to place, can be approached in settled villages; freed from the constant outlook of defence, they have leisure for peaceful occupations; looking up to the white man who has brought them this security they wonder dumbly, has he no more to bring? They are blessed so far, but "Yea, blessed are the people who have the LORD FOR THEIR GOD".

Six thousand Christians out of a population of 600,000--one in every 100! Of these many are falling back for lack of shepherding.

The condition of many Christians is heart-rending, and it is all due to the neglect of the Church which has left them without missionaries--in some places for years and years. When shall the fulness of the Gentiles be brought in, and the praise of inanimate creation be crowned by the praise of the children of men?


i. What do you know of Labuan, its position, size and government; has it an importance out of proportion to its size, and why?

2. Are there any large towns in Borneo?

3. What do you know about the rivers, the trees, the wild animals?

4. What sort of climate has Borneo?

5. What articles in common use, domestic or other wise, are found there, and are there any minerals?

6. In what way is China commercially interested in Borneo?

7. What are the different races of inhabitants?

8. How many tribes may be roughly included in the general term "Dyak"?

9. Has civilisation introduced any, and, if so, all the possible, blessings?

10. We pay our debts, in current coin, for the imports we receive; does that discharge our responsibility?

11. Why should we be especially anxious that the Chinese in Borneo should become Christian?

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