Project Canterbury

Borneo: The Land of River and Palm

By Eda Green

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

Chapter VI. Sixty Years of Missions

WE have seen that in 1839, Sir James Brooke first landed in Sarawak. His rule, wise and strong, did very much for the country, but, as his diary tells, he felt that a higher teaching than that of civil rule alone was needed, and, during a visit to England in 1847 he appealed to the church at home to help him in establishing a mission. Neither the S.P.G. nor C.M.S. saw their way to undertake the work, so a personal friend of the Rajah's, the Rev. A. D. Brereton, organised a committee, of which the Earl of Ellesmere was President, Admiral Sir H. Keppel, Admiral C. D. Bethune, Canon Rylewood, and Mr. Brereton were the other members, with the Rev. I. F. Stooks as Hon. Secretary. Their object was to collect and administer funds to support a mission in Sarawak under the Rajah's protection, with the hope of spreading Christianity throughout the island of Borneo, and the adjacent countries. Funds soon came in, the Queen Dowager headed the list and S.P.G. gave £50 a year.

In June, 1847, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London appointed the Rev. F. McDougall of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, as head of the mission. The Rev. W. Wright, and the Rev. S. Montgomery were chosen to work with him. Mr. Montgomery died of fever caught whilst visiting in his English parish, so only Mr. McDougall and Mr. Wright with their wives and children sailed for Borneo in November 1847. They did not reach Kuching until June, 1848. They were warmly welcomed by the English residents, and by the Rajah's arrangement were housed in a large building erected by a German Missionary who had been recalled, and of which the lower part was now used as a court-house, In the rooms above, the two missionaries and their families lived for some months. In one small room Mr. McDougall opened a dispensary where he received patients for two or three hours each day: in this way he made friends with many of the people, and also learned a good deal of the Malay language. For part of the day this same room was used as a school for a few adults who wanted to learn more English.

As soon as he arrived, Mr. McDougall had decided on the ground he would like for the church and mission house, and when the Rajah, who was absent for a time, came back, he generously made a grant of forty acres of land for mission purposes. This land contained two small hills, one ofwhich was to be crowned by the church, the other by the mission house. The top of the second hill was cleared from jungle and soon levelled, Malays being employed for the work, as the Chinese who began it resolutely refused to give up the slow procedure of using their small baskets and hoes, instead of the wheelbarrows and shovels provided for them. The ground floor of the house was devoted to school work; a large schoolroom ran through the centre, with, on one side, the dormitories, and on the other the matron's and girls' rooms. Above the school room was the McDougalls' dining room, on one side of it was their bedroom and library and on the other were rooms for missionaries. A third storey gave three rooms in the roof. The house was built of the hard bilian wood, and the roof was covered with shingles of the same. Later another house was built close by for a boys' school. The mission house was finished in about a year, and the Mc Dougalls were thankful to move into it from their abode beneath which the river ran: they were now alone, for before this Mr. Wright had given up the work and gone to Singapore.

The next work, the church, was now to be begun. As Mr. McDougall wrote, he had to be not only architect, but head joiner, carpenter and blacksmith, and had to make working models for everything; he and Mrs. McDougall prepared the plans, and on 28th August, 1850, the first "stone" was laid and the Rajah in full uniform as governor of Labuan, with a yellow umbrella held over him by a Malay, lowered the great block of wood into its place. The beams, rafters and posts were all squared and made ready in bilian wood like the house; the arches and mouldings were carefully finished in bilian, nibong and miraboo and highly polished in side, and the walls were lined with cedar planks. Some ornamental pillars of nibong palm were put up, but had to be replaced, for the white ants ate them through. The pulpit, lectern, reading desk and chairs, were carved in Singapore, and there too was made the east window, representing in the centre light the Sarawak cross, red and black on a golden ground. For the font a large clam shell was treated with acid till it became a beautiful pearly white, and mounted on an ebony pedestal. The bell was made from broken gongs, cast by a Javanese work man. "Gloria in Excelsis," reads on it, with the names of Sir James Brooke and Mr. McDougall on either side. The building was consecrated on 22nd January, 1851.

For more than two years Mr. McDougall had been working quite alone. At Kuching he had superintended the building of the church and mission house, he had held English, Malay and Chinese services, continued his medical work, established a school into which he took at one time no fewer than thirty children from a large body of Dyak-Chinese who took refuge at Kuching from another Dyak-Chinese tribe. Besides this he had visited among the Dyak tribes, and seen where work should be begun, if ever workers came. The Chinese work was very successful, an educated Chinese who came to Kuching, was engaged as translator and interpreter, and soon this Sing Sang came as a learner himself and after some years was ordained: the Chinese congregation increased greatly and the sincerity of the converts was shown in one way at least, by their keeping Sunday as a day of worship, when all their heathen countrymen around were working. When Mr. Horsburgh, a missionary who had worked in China, came to help Mr. McDougall, he was astonished at the success of his work among the Chinese compared with what he had seen in their own country. This work, so varied in kind, must have been overwhelming for one man, single-handed, yet no one came until, in 1851, Bishop Wilson of Calcutta crossed to Sarawak to consecrate the church dedicated to St. Thomas, and brought with him Mr. Fox to take charge of the native school. Mr. Nicholls, another student from Bishop's College, Calcutta, and the Rev. Walter. Chambers came soon afterwards. In Bishop McDougall's memoirs he thus describes their life:

"School begins at seven A.M.: we meet for church at eight: at nine o'clock we have breakfast: from ten o'clock to twelve o'clock I am employed with Fox and Nicholls at the Hospital and Dispensary, showing them practically what I can, and giving a daily lecture on the principles of medicine and surgery. Between noon and two P.M. 4 give them all three, Chambers included, a Malay lesson, and at three o'clock they take another lesson from a native till chapel time again at five o'clock, after which we walk or ride till seven o'clock and are all pretty well ready for bed at nine o'clock."

Mr. Nicholls did not stay long, and began the sad tale of the missionary roll of resignation and illness, illness not due necessarily to the climate, for some of the heroes of this outpost have laboured there for over thirty years.

At this time the funds of the Home Organisation failed; hearts had grown cold, and hands had grown weary. The Committee wrote that no more money was to be spent upon the Church, for which two outside aisles, to be used as Chinese and Malay schools, had been designed, and they refused to support the Chinese school: the children in it had all been baptised and were being regularly taught in the Faith; moreover, Mr. McDougall had promised to keep them for ten years: he asked, "How can I send my little Christians back to heathen homes when I have pledged myself to support them?" The Rajah and the Bishop of Calcutta both gave some help, and Mr. McDougall made himself responsible for the charge of eighteen of the children.

This crisis in affairs, his own illness, and a serious affection of the knee which failed to yield to any treatment obtainable within reach, and also the question of creating a bishopric for the Mission, made it advisable for the McDougalls to come to England in 1852. During their four years in Borneo they had lost three baby children as well as the little boy of two whom they took out, and the mother's heart must have yearned to see her one boy left in England, though she little thought how soon he too was to be taken from them. Be fore they arrived steps had been taken at home which resulted in the work of the Borneo Church Mission being handed over to S. P. G. From that time, until on his consecration in 1909, Dr. Mounsey established the "Borneo Mission Association in connection with S.P.G.," as a special fund, the whole cost of the Mission has been borne by the old society, except for one sum invested for the Episcopal Endowment, of which the interest provides £270 per annum towards the bishop's stipend.

The question of the bishopric was delayed by many technical difficulties, for it was then thought impossible to appoint a missionary Bishop outside the Dominion of the Crown. After long debate it was decided that the title might be taken from the only spot of land near Sarawak under the control of the Colonial Office, the island of Labuan. There was no doubt that Dr. McDougall should be chosen as the bishop, but still further delay arose in getting the commission for his consecration. At last he decided to return to Sarawak, and when the formalities were completed he went back to Calcutta, and there, on St. Luke's Day, 1855, took place the first consecration of an English bishop out of England. The Rajah declined to recognise in his territory any rights of a Bishop of Labuan, but this difficulty was got over by his giving Dr. McDougall jurisdiction as also Bishop of Sarawak.

There were now three clergy working there. Mr. Chalmers had been sent to open a mission to the Sea Dyaks at Banting, on the Lingga River, a tributary of the Batang Lupar. Mr. Horsburgh, suited for Chinese work, had been left in charge at Kuching during Dr. McDougall's absence in Eng land: the climate however proved too trying and after three years he left. Mr. Gomes, from Ceylon, went to the natives of the Sibuyow and Balau tribes at Lundu, sixty miles west of Kuching. The Malay Mohammedan influence was strong there, but after two years and a half, eight converts were baptized, and in 1855, a church, the second in Sarawak territory, was opened.

In that year two students from Bishop's College, Calcutta, and a clergyman from England arrived: two of them soon left, Mr. Koch remained. Not for three years did any more recruits appear--then Mr. Chalmers, Mr. Glover and Mr. Hacket came. At the end of 1859, Dr. McDougall was ordered home, and in the following year these three clergy gave up the work, two of them on account of the climate went to Australia, and the third became alarmed for the safety of his wife and child in the Chinese and native outbreaks.

In 1861, four men were sent out from England, and in June of that year the Bishop ordained Mr. Crosland and Mr. Mesney (from St. Augustine's College) and Mr. Abe and Mr. Zehnder, deacons; of these Archdeacon Mesney worked there for thirty-six years and Mr. Zehnder for thirty-two.

In 1864, the Bishop called his clergy together in synod to discuss matters relating to the discipline and temporalities of the church, and questions of order and ritual in the native missions. This first synod began with a declaration that the church in Sarawak was an integral portion of the Anglican Church, and in his last charge, delivered in 1866, the Bishop said, "I feel persuaded that we can only maintain our position in this country by true unswerving allegiance to our English mother; we are purely a missionary church, militant in a heathen and Mohammedan country--the church in Borneo, not the church of Borneo--wholly unable to stand alone, and dependent for its support upon the alms of the church at home administered by the S.P.G.

The two synods which followed, 1865 and 1866, were occupied with the important matter of settling how theological terms should be translated in the Malay, Land and Sea languages. Two years after his arrival the Bishop had translated the catechism into Malay, and in 1857 had completed the Translation of the Prayer Book which was published by S.P.C.K. Years of fever and rheumatism had undermined his health, and after the last synod he was taken ill with heart trouble; at the end of the year he had to return to England, and in the spring of 1868, finding there was little chance of his being able again to live in Sarawak, he resigned.

Bishop McDougall had laid firm and wise foundations of episcopal and missionary work. As one of his successors wrote, "In his selection of the chief centres of operation, a great matter in a new country, he made no mistakes. We are occupying them still and in no case regret the selection, though the operations of the mission have naturally extended much further since his departure, and in all our work we are going on in the old lines which he laid down, sometimes getting back to them after they had been abandoned for a while. In fact, as I have often said, we are reaping in these days the harvest which was sown at the beginning of the mission, and the present generation thankfully acknowledges the debt they owe to the pioneer Bishop and his fellow workers."

Mrs. McDougall had been a true help-meet to her husband. From the first much of the care of the Chinese school devolved on her: catering for the big household, teaching the children to sing, having them often with her in their walks and play-time, and, when the great influx of Chinese children came, helping to provide clothes for them; we have seen too how her talent for drawing was requisitioned in preparing sketches and plans for the building of the church.

When the Chinese insurrection came in 1857, Mrs. McDougall went through terrible experiences. After they had spent two nights of awful suspense in Kuching where the rebel Chinese miners were burning and pillaging houses, and killing the English, men, women and children, the Bishop insisted that she and her three children, with Miss Woolley, a lady who had gone out to work in the mission, should go on board a vessel for Singapore. Any woman would a thousand times rather have stayed by her husband in danger, but with true courage she consented, knowing that it would lesson his anxiety to feel that they were in safety. In a night of pitch darkness and heavy rain they were rowed down the river in a boat crammed full of Chinese women, children and boxes. When they reached the schooner waiting at the mouth of the Sarawak, and climbed on board, they found the only cabin occupied by Chinese, and that there was no place for them but the open deck. Mrs. McDougall could not expose her children to the wet all night, so there was nothing but to get back into the boat. One faithful man was with them, but the boat was too heavy for him to move alone. As they were stranded, cold, wet and miserable in mid-stream, the face of an English friend appeared in the darkness in a boat alongside theirs. With his crew he rowed them up to some Malay houses where he and the boy slept, while Miss Woolley and the two little girls lay down on the thwarts of the boat, and Mrs. McDougall sat in the bottom to watch lest the children fell off. We can well believe she had no inclination to go to sleep. In the morning they were taken in and hospitably cared for by the Malays. In the evening a message from the Bishop said he thought they might safely return to Kuching. Joyfully the little party of women and children set out, but on their way smoke was seen rising above the trees. What did it mean? Boats with fugitives met them; an Englishwoman, who had been left for dead the first night, then rescued and taken to the McDougalls' house, children, English and Chinese, and one of the Missionaries were coming away. From them they learnt that the rebels, furious at the Bishop's support of the Rajah, had tried to kill him, and had then again set fire to and ransacked the town. Again the little party had to return to their Malay quarters and to wait anxious hours till the Bishop joined them. After that they all went to the fort at Lingga, some distance up the Batang Lupar River, where they were in safety, but there was little food, and some of the children became so ill that a move had to be made to some place where they could get more than rice and gourds.

Mr. Chambers received them at Banting, and they stayed there safely until it was possible to return to Kuching. It was at Banting that the gruesome feast happened which Mrs. McDougall describes so graphically. "One day we were invited to a feast in one of the long houses. I said, 'I hope we shall see no heads,' and was told I need not see any; so taking Mab in my hand I went with Mr. Chambers and we climbed up into the long verandah room where all the work goes on. This long house was surrounded with fruit trees and very comfortable. There were plenty of pigs under the house, and fowls perching in every direction. About thirty families lived in the house; the married people having each their little room to themselves, and the long room I spoke of, being used for cooking, mat-making, paddy-beating, and all the usual occupations of their lives. We were seated on white mats and welcomed by the chief present. The feast was laid on a raised platform along the side of the room. There were a good many ornaments of the betel-nut palm plaited into ingenious shapes standing about the table so that I did not at first remark anything else. As we English folks could not eat fowls roasted in their feathers, nor cakes fried in cocoa-nut oil, they brought us fine joints of bamboo filled with pulut rice, which turns to a jelly in cooking, and is fragrant with the scent of the young cane. I was just going to eat this delicacy when my eyes fell upon three human heads standing on a large dish, freshly killed, and slightly smoked, with food and sirih leaves in their mouths. Had I known them when alive I must have recognised them for they looked quite natural. I looked with alarm at Mab, lest she should see them too, then we made our retreat as soon as possible. But I dared say nothing. These Dyaks had killed our enemies and were only following their own customs by rejoicing over their dead victims. But the. fact seemed to part them from us by centuries of feeling--our disgust and their complacency. . . . This was my first and last visit to a Dyak feast".

When Bishop McDougall resigned, Archdeacon Chambers was at once chosen as his successor, and consecrated in 1869; the Straits Settlement being afterwards added to the Diocese. Since 1851 this devoted missionary had been working most zealously at Banting; he had mastered the Sea-Dyak language and reduced it to writing. A substantial church had been consecrated in 1859, and here and at Lundu many Dyaks had been baptised, and six became catechists. But Mr. Chambers' influence had reached much further than his own district. One Dyak staying for a time in Banting came for instruction and was baptised; he became head of his village far inland, and for ten years, entirely alone, he taught his people, gathering them together regularly for prayer in the church which they built. Another, the son of a pirate, was also taught and baptised; some months afterwards he brought his wife and daughter for instruction, and when, four years later, Mr. Chambers visited his tribe, he found, after thorough examination, that no fewer than 180 of them had been so carefully taught that he had no hesitation in baptising them at once. At the time of his consecration there were about 1,000 Dyaks and 200 Chinese Christians, and four churches and three chapels had been built. It had been impossible even to attempt work in the interior or in North Borneo, and Labuan had only very occasional visits from the Bishop.

Bishop Chambers carried on the work with the same devotion which he had shown at Banting, but without more clergy great progress could not be made. In 1879 he was obliged to resign, and returned to England paralysed, to end his days, the wreck of a strong man.

He was succeeded by Dr. Hose, who had been Colonial Chaplain to the Straits and was consecrated as Bishop of Singapore, Labuan and Sarawak in the chapel at Lambeth Palace on Ascension Day, 1881. In the first seven years of his Episcopate he confirmed over 1,000 people and there were 1,700 baptisms: the number of native Christians rose to 3,800, and since that has increased to 6,000. The Dyaks proved their earnestness by building at least 18 little prayer-houses at their own cost, where native catechists taught them what they could. One day a Dyak from the Saribas, one of the parts from which pirates once came, begged Archdeacon Sharp at Kuching to ask for a "Surah Sambeyang," Prayer Book, meaning one on religion: to the Archdeacon's surprise he found that he wanted one of the Gospels and that he could read it. The touching explanation was brought out that some years ago, a boy from their tribe who was taught at the Kuching school, had gone home. "And when he told us about God and the Christian religion it seemed very good to us, and we made him teach us all he could. Next we asked him to teach us to read, and when some of us had learnt we taught the others. And now there are many of us in our country who believe in God and in Jesus Christ al though no missionary lives amongst us." It was found that those people used to get books to take on their gutta-percha expeditions into the forests, and teach each other during the long evenings, and this is by no means an isolated instance.

One of the first claims upon Dr. Hose's attention after his arrival in Sarawak in January, 1882, was the necessity of providing a new and more commodious school. The raising of the funds for this purpose took some years; in 1886, however, a firm solid brick building was erected on the Mission ground. In it 250 boys are now being taught, of whom 70 are boarded in the house. Bishop Mc Dougall's old school was then repaired and adapted to be the girls' school of the Mission, but the time has come for it to be replaced by a larger and better edifice. It is now in a most ruinous and unsatisfactory condition, overcrowded and insanitary.

Other new buildings in the years that followed were two houses for the printer, and for the Chinese catechist, the latter building being large enough to be used as a guest-house for Christian Chinese coming in from the country districts to worship.

A house was also built where Dyak visitors could be received and Dyak patients nursed; this was placed near the girls' school, so that its occupants might have the ministrations of 'Sister Mary' (Miss Sharp).

Lastly a large club was erected where old school boys residing in the town might meet, and both amuse and inform themselves, while keeping in touch with their old teachers.

This does not profess to be a complete history of the Mission. In such a work there would be much to tell of the labours of Mr. (afterwards Archdeacon) Mesney in Banting and at Kuching; how in Banting he sallied out into the forest with his faith ful Dyaks, and selected and superintended the felling and bringing home of the great bilian trees which are the pillars of the great church there, and how strenuously he worked in all departments of the Mission till, after twenty-six years, failing health sent him home.

There would be much to say too of Mr. Perham's work among the Krian people and the Balaus for twenty years before he was selected for the larger work of Colonial Chaplain and Archdeacon of Singapore. And of Mr. Gomes at Lundu for fifteen years, and of Mr. Leggatt at Skerang and elsewhere.

But the burden of any such history would have to be the sad fact that the mission has always been under-manned. Men have gone out, stayed a few years, in some cases only a few months, and then have been disheartened and have left for other scenes, or for some other reason have had to go.

Yet the hopefulness of the enterprise is abundantly manifest. It is to be seen in the steady, the large increase in numbers of the members of the church, in their conspicuous steadfastness in the faith, and in their loyal and affectionate attachment to the few pastors who have stayed with them.

Bishop Hose was assisted in his long years of labour by a devoted wife, whose quiet and beautiful life was an example and help to many, and the remembrance of whose words and works will ever remain an inspiration to those who knew her.

We must be content with the bare mention of the work done by other women workers, who have done so much and done it so well.

In 1908, Bishop Hose resigned and it was decided to divide the huge Diocese, to make Singapore and the Straits Settlements a separate Diocese again, and to give Borneo a Bishop of its own, with the original title of the See, Labuan and Sarawak.


1. What were the first steps taken at home in response to the Rajah's appeal for a missionary?

2. How was missionary work begun in Borneo? Where was the first church built, and when?

3. Show the many-sided character of Dr. McDougall work.

4. Home interest and zeal began to flag. When and how was the work affected by this diminution of interest?

5. What difficulties had to be overcome before a Bishop could be appointed?

6. When was the first synod held, and what memorable declaration was made thereat by the Bishop?

7. Is there any testimony to the value of Bishop McDougall's work, to his far-reaching forethought, and his grasp of the situation and of the future needs?

8. Show how great was the difficulty of persuading the Dyak to give up his savage customs.

9. Mention some events which have happened since Bishop McDougall's resignation. What Bishops succeeded him?

10. Is there any evidence that the natives value Christianity?

11. What has been the saddest feature of mission work in Borneo?

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