Project Canterbury

Borneo: The Land of River and Palm

By Eda Green

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

Chapter VII. Position of the Church in Borneo Now

THE fourth Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, Dr. Mounsey, was consecrated in Lambeth Palace Chapel on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1909. He had been led by God's Providence through spheres of work specially adapted to pre pare him for the work to which he was now called. After being ordained in England he had had seven years' experience of work in Australia, and then had lived among the savages of New Guinea. Brought back to England to further the home work for that diocese, he had gained valuable experience on the Standing Committee of S.P.G. and on the Bishop of London's Evangelistic Council, of which he had been Honorary Secretary--had not only gained, but given, from his own knowledge of mission work, and had become known and valued by those in authority, who now, with full confidence in his wisdom and devotion, called him to go forth to this forlorn outpost of the Church. What was the position in which he found it?

There were only two English clergy in the whole of Borneo, Archdeacon Sharp at Kuching, and in British North Borneo, the Rev. W. H. Elton at Sandakan.

The Rev. W. Howell, educated at St. Augustine's College, Canterbury, was at Sabu, on the Undop. The Rev. Chung Ah Luk, the first Chinaman baptised by Dr. McDougall, who had been tested by ten years' service as a lay-reader, and then ordained deacon in 1874 and priest in 1904, was at Quop, and a Chinese deacon, Fong Han Gong, at Kudat. There were also twenty-six native teachers and fifteen lay-readers.

The late Bishop, as we have seen, had been consecrated in 1881 with the title of Bishop of Singapore, Labuan and Sarawak, with jurisdiction over the Straits Settlements. For this utterly unwieldy diocese Singapore was the headquarters; the Bishop had to spend six months there and six in Borneo, an arrangement which added to the cares and difficulties of the enormous area, by cutting him off for half the year from any personal dealing with the problems which were sure to arise in the other part of the diocese from that in which he was then resident. Now that it was divided, and Singapore and the Straits were to be made into a separate diocese, the Bishop would make his centre of work at Kuching.

Here Archdeacon Sharp was responsible for all ministrations to the European residents. Daily services were held with a good choir of Dyaks and Chinese; these were in English, but services were also held in Chinese, Malay and Sea-Dyak. There was a boys' school where the boarders--Chinese, Eurasians, Land- and Sea-Dyaks--were all either Christians or receiving Christian instruction. The girls' school, under Miss Caroline Sharp, was hampered by the inadequacy of its buildings. It was absolutely necessary that a new school should be provided for the sixty pupils. There was the Dyak Rest-house, where, until she was obliged to come home ill, Miss Mary Sharp had nursed cases of slight illness, more serious cases being treated at the Government Hospital. A large Christian Dyak population had to be cared for; at the great festivals Sea-Dyaks came from great distances in their boats, sheltered by their palm-leaf awnings, to make their communion at the pro-Cathedral, and, literally, in the old words which we have sung and grown weary of because we did not realise their truth, "from many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain," these natives were continually coming to beg that teachers might be sent to them. At Merdang, twenty miles away up the Quop branch of the Sarawak River, there had been a congregation of a hundred people, but owing to Archdeacon Mesney's illness they had been left, and many had fallen back into heathenism.

Archdeacon Sharp took up this work again; two men of influence became mission workers, and the people built a substantial church. When this was completed they set to work on a school; ten boys were already sleeping in a loft belonging to Buda, the native catechist, and more wanted to come, so a schoolhouse was built, where the boys are taught industrial work as well as reading and writing; they have a poultry-farm and ground for planting paddy, pepper and vegetables, the sale of which helps to support the school.

Besides all this work and many other out-stations under Archdeacon Sharp's charge, there was a large Chinese population of planters and miners in and around Kuching, to be ministered to in four different dialects. Ten years before a hundred Chinese Hakkas, who had been converted in China, were brought in by the Sarawak Government to intro duce new methods of rice planting. The Tiaochews and Foochows were asking to be taught, and for the large Hokien tribe only lately had even a catechist been found. A Chinese institute had just been built in the Mission grounds, where large numbers of Chinese were being brought into contact with their Christian teachers.

The Sebuyan Dyaks, on the Sarawak River, had been without a resident European missionary for years. Again and yet again petitions came from villages on more distant rivers for a teacher, and none could be sent. How could the one man at Kuching do more?

Banting had been the district of one of the worst head-hunting tribes; it was here that Bishop Chambers began his work with so great success: the number of converts increased largely, and several of them became evangelists to their own people. Archdeacon Perham had spent nineteen years in the jungle, working at Sebetan on the Krian River and at Banting. In his time there was an enthusiasm of religion at the latter place, and when he revisited Sarawak in 1907, after an absence of twenty years, he had received an extraordinarily warm welcome from his old friends on the Batang Lupar.

In 1904 the Rev. G. Dexter Allen had been appointed to Banting, with his wife, a qualified doctor. A boarding-school for boys was reopened and there were soon twenty scholars. Medical work had been begun, and in 1906 a small hospital was built. It is said that one doctor in the mission field creates work for at least one evangelistic missionary, and certainly here the medical work proved a means of winning the confidence of the people and brought up-river Dyaks to the Mission hill whom otherwise the padre would not have had the opportunity of teaching.

Here the church and mission houses stand on the top of a very steep hill; the path leads up by steps cut in the earth or rock, and in one place a ladder forty feet high against the face of a cliff must be mounted. Long ago the Dyaks used to live on the top of this hill for safety; they could see their enemies coming far away, and they beat gongs to warn their own people and to call them up the hill from the paddy fields below; then, if the enemy landed from their boats and tried to get up to them, they could throw them down, and their stronghold was never taken. Now that they are safe from fear of attack the houses are built near the river, but the church and the pretty parsonage still stand as a beacon in the old place.

This, the largest settlement of Sea-Dyaks in existence, was without a missionary in charge, as Mr. and Mrs. Dexter Allen were at home when the Bishop went out.

For want of men another station had had to be left in Mr. Allen's charge. That on the Krian River is three days' journey away from Banting, and it must be remembered that all these journeys have to be made in rowing boats. At Sebetan, once an important centre on this river, the church and mission lodge were in ruins, destroyed by white ants, be cause for so long there was no one to see to their care, One of the people when being asked about relapses into heathen practices said: "What can you expect after leaving us all these years without a shepherd. We do not want to lapse into the old ways, and if a padre will come and help us we will follow him. Is there no one in all your great country who will come and help us?"

It is easy to say that these people once taught should know better, but these Dyaks are one of the child-races of the world. The Chinese have had centuries of civilisation and of learning, which gives them a certain inherited stability of character, but a child-race needs to be led and guided step by step.

"Is there no one in all your great country who will come and help us?" say these children, and yet we pass by on the other side, and leave the wounded souls among thieves.

Lundu had been left for some time. Mr. Leggatt had to be called away when Mr. Elton went on furlough, and then he himself had to come home. His Dyaks, too, are not strong enough to be left, and there ought not to be the necessity. It was here that the first missionary offered to pay the Sebuyan tribe for a house they had built for him. They brought the money back, and one of the chief men, taking in his hand the translation of the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments, said: "This is worth more than any wages he can give us. Has anybody hitherto come to teach us the truths which now for the first time we are taught by him? Did not our former masters come to us only to plunder and tyrannise over us? Rather than look for remuneration we ought to be thankful that he comes to us at all, and to remember that the wish to have a house here is itself a proof of his affection for us."

The work in this district is consecrated by the labours during thirty-two years of Mr. Zehnder. Practically never having taken furlough, he was at last, by ill-health, compelled to resign in 1892, but his work and his life were to be given up together, and he did not live to see the steamer which was to have borne him home. Shall we let the fruits of his devotion pass away?

Sabu, on the Undop River, Skerang and Sarebas were under Mr. Howell. By incessant travelling and by opening little churches in villages where a few people had become Christians, and could bring others in, and also by means of two Rest-houses, where cases of illness were treated by him, and cared for, during his absence, by his wife, he had sown much seed, but as he wrote pathetically, "he could not do justice to his own district when he had to consider the claims of two others which were without European missionaries". In Skerang, one of these, the people, as in other places, had fallen away when they were left for years without a padre. The other, on the Sarebas, was one of the most promising places in Sarawak, but for lack of a man to take charge it had never become an independent mission. In the school at Sabu Mr. Howell could only take eighteen boys because he had no funds for more, and was obliged to close his ears to the applications from all sides that he would receive boys.

The Rev. Chung Ah Luk was in charge of Quop and its out-station. The Dyaks in this district are singularly musical, and without any organ take the whole choral service, singing in parts.

In British North Borneo, a district larger than Ireland, Mr. Elton was all alone. There was a governor and a considerable English population brought in by the British North Borneo Company, who needed the Church's ministrations, and who not only valued them for themselves, but helped liberally towards work among the heathen.

Mr. Elton's headquarters were at Sandakan, where, when there was no chaplain on board, he acted as such to the English and American war ships which put in, and to the large number of merchant vessels visiting the port. By his exertions in raising funds and in training Chinese workmen, a beautiful stone church, the first in Borneo, had been built, and many settlers, Dutch and German, as well as English, living up the rivers, far away from the coast, looked to Mr. Elton for the only spiritual ministrations they could get.

Services for a considerable body of Chinese Christians here were held by a native catechist, partly supported by themselves. Malays, Chinese, Eurasians, Sulus, Muruts, and other natives, Christian boys, and those wishing to become Christians, were received as boarders into a school, under Mr. Elton's son, and a girls' school, under Miss Butcher, was doing such invaluable work among the girls, that it needed to be at once enlarged. The importance of training up Christian girls so that boys baptised in the schools may not have to marry heathen wives is too well recognised in all mission work to need insisting on.

At the northern point of the island is Kudat where there lives an English Resident and other Europeans. The Mission held here five acres of ground, on which stood a church, parsonage, Chinese deacon's house, mission house, boys' and girls' schools, all completed and paid for. The Chinese deacon, Fong Han Gong, was there. The Rev. R. Richards, their former pastor, visited them from Singapore, and Mr. Elton went when he could.

Here the Chinese had been left so long with no resident priest that the German Basel Mission had sent their missionaries, and though all our buildings were there, paid for in great part by the people themselves, we are, by our neglect, driving them out from us. As long as Mr. Richards was living among them, the whole population came to church, and all the adults were communicants, but though Fong Han Gong is a man of great power and entire devotion to his flock, he had been unable to cope with the work single-handed.

On the west coast Jesselton had its parsonage and school and a considerable sum of money in hand for a church. Thirty white people lived here and a goodly number of Christian Chinese who begged for a priest.

The climate is beautiful, the people keen, and work abounding. For twenty years Mr. Elton had been writing home of the needs of British North Borneo and still no one had gone.

It seems a mockery that Labuan, for sixty years a Crown Colony, and the island which gives its name to the diocese, should have no clergyman for its forty white residents, and its population of miners and others, though here, too, church and schools were ready

In the hills, almost in the centre of British North Borneo, there was a tribe of some 10,000 Muruts to whom Mr. Edney and Mr. Perry went. The mission house and school which the people built were empty, for Kaningau had had no missionary for seven years. For some time the first Christian prayer in Murut went up from those black boys led by their teacher, "Lord Jesus, give us help, teach us," and now those voices are dumb; not that the Lord of the harvest did not hear, but that the hearts through which He would work were deaf.

In a book dealing with mission work in Borneo it would be unfair to omit reference to the work other than that of our own Church.

The Roman Catholic Missions, which are under the auspices of St. Joseph's College at Mill Hill, have a large staff, including some seventeen sisters. In Kuching they have large buildings, and a large estate which they are developing on keen commercial lines. They seem to have almost unlimited funds, and so are able to give a good education to their pupils at a price quite impossible for the Church of England, which cannot provide either teachers or material for the purpose in such a poor, starved diocese as that of Labuan.

It may be a cause of wonder sometimes that the Roman Catholics have not accomplished a great deal more than appears, considering the advantages they have had over the Church.

The work of the "R.C. Mission," as it is generally called, is often praised by Europeans in Sarawak to the discredit of the "S.P.G. Mission," even by those who are at least nominally Anglicans, and who seem to be unconscious of the fact that they have any responsibility in the matter. This is part of the general apathy of the Church of England, which is the cause of so much failure and the despair of keen men. If our own people would hut loyally support the work of the Church in England and in the mission field, they would have less reason for the invidious comparisons they too often make.

The American Methodist Episcopal Mission has a station on the river Rejang, where their work is amongst immigrant Chinese who were already under their influence in China.

We have noticed above the work of the Basel Missionary Society at Kudat, in British North Borneo, chiefly confined to Chinese. If we had had a sufficient staff this work would never have been begun, and the whole congregation would have belonged to the Church. When we neglected them they sought help from those they had known in China.

The Church of England in Borneo, or as it may be more aptly called "Eklisia Borneo," had been at work in Sarawak thirty years before any Christian work was seriously undertaken by others. If the Church at home had nursed this infant daughter with care she might have been a strong healthy child to-day, whereas she has been so neglected and so left without help that one almost despairs of her life.

It may be imagined that some of the expressions used above are exaggerated, and that we have painted the picture in too lurid colours; but this is not so by any means. It is impossible to exaggerate, and if our readers could but go and see for themselves they would readily admit this. Not that this implies any reflection on those who have gone before. The work done by the three first bishops is simply falling to pieces because there are no men to keep it going.

The first Synod of the diocese met under Bishop McDougall at Kuching in 1864. Since that date the meetings have been continued at intervals. To day there are practically no clergy to summon to a Synod.

We may quote the words of the present Bishop:

"Thirty years ago, when the area of operations covered by the Mission was about half what it is now, there were twice as many clergy".

Those who have worked on through the weary years have done their best, fighting against terrible odds. The fault is not with them, but with the Church at home, which has left them "overweighted, undermanned and fit to founder".

These are but bare facts concerning that fertile island, rich in its wondrous wealth of produce above ground and below, brought by a marvellous Providence under English influence, contributing for us so many articles of commerce and of luxury, and yielding to England so much wealth. Have we no care? Is the Church at home still going to leave the men there to fight against overpowering odds, because each man is trying to do the work of three? Is she still going to send a general without an army, and with but scant supplies? or will she at last realise their needs, realise her privilege? Will she, ere it be too late, rise to her responsibility? Shall the Church of our northern land stretch forth her hands to that far-off southern isle, so close to the Equator, where she should be so close to God, under the light of the Southern Cross, yet with so many hundreds of thousands of her people unknowing of the light of the Cross of Christ? Shall not the North and the South join hands, that so, by prayer and help, to us may be vouchsafed some share in bringing in the glory of those many tribes, that they may be His in that day when the Lord makes up His jewels?


1. Who is the present Bishop, and has he special fitness for his task?

2. Mention what you know of the work on which he has already been engaged.

3. How many clergy are working (a) in Sarawak, b) in British North Borneo?

4. Do the natives show any response to the efforts made on their behalf?

5. How does the missionary visit the several missions in his care?

6. What has been the chief cause of the weakness of the Church's work?

7. When was the first Synod held? Why can one not be held now?

8. What is the impression left upon us after reading this story of the crying needs and miserable response?

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