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Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak

By Harriette McDougall

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882.
New York: E. & J. B. Young, 1882.

Chapter I. Introductory

NEARLY thirty years ago I published a little book of "Letters from Sarawak, addressed to a Child." This book is now out of print, and, on looking it over with a view to republication, I think it will be better to extend the story over the twenty years that Sarawak was our home, which will give some idea of the gradual progress of the mission.

This progress was often unavoidably impeded by the struggles of the infant State; for war drowns the voice of the missionary, and though the Sarawak Government always discouraged the Dyak practice of taking the heads of their enemies, still it could not at once be checked, and every [7/8] expedition against lawless tribes, however righteous in its object, excited the old superstitions of those wild people. When their warriors returned from an expedition, the women of the tribe met them with dance and song, receiving the heads they brought with ancient ceremonies--"fondling the heads," as it was called; and for months afterwards keeping up, by frequent feasts, in which these heads were the chief attraction, the heathen customs which it was the object of the missionary to discourage.

I dare say, when we first settled at Sarawak, we thought that twenty years would plant Christian communities, and build Christian churches all over the country: but it is as well that we cannot overlook the future; and perhaps, considering the many difficulties which arose from time to time, from the missionaries themselves, and the unsettled country in which they laboured, we ought not to expect more results than have appeared. At any rate we have much to be thankful for, and as every year makes Sarawak a more important State, consolidates its Government, and extends civilization to its subjects, we may look for more success for the missionaries, who can now point to the peace and prosperity of the people, and say, "This is the fruit of Christianity and Christian rulers."

In giving a short account of our life in Borneo, I shall avoid alike all political questions, or, as much as possible, individual histories among the English community. It is already so long ago [8/9] since we lived in that lovely place, that events, trials, joys, and the usual vicissitudes of life, are wrapt in that mellowing haze of the past, which, while it dims the vividness of feeling, throws a robe of charity over all, and perhaps causes actors and actions to assume a more true proportion to one another than when we walked amongst them. I have, however, not depended on memory alone for the records of twenty years, but have journals and letters to refer to, which my friends in England have been good enough to keep for me. Some parts of "Letters from Sarawak" I shall incorporate into the present little book, for as it treats of the first six years avc lived there, and was written at that time, it is sure to be tolerably correct.

In those days, from 1847 to 1853, Sir James Brooke was very popular in England. The story of his first occupation of Sarawak, published in his journals, and the cruizes of her Majesty's ships in those eastern seas--the Dido and the Samarang--were read with avidity, and furnished the English public with a romance which had all the charm of novelty. However difficult and inconvenient it might be for the English Government to recognize a native State under an English rajah, who was at the same time a subject of the Queen of Great Britain, this question had not then arisen; and all classes, high and low, could applaud a brave and noble man, who had stepped out of the beaten track to spend his fortune and expose his life in the cause of savages. There were many fluctuations of [9/10] sympathy and opinion in after years towards Sir James Brooke; but, through evil report and good report, through difficulty and danger, Sarawak has still advanced, and is as worthy of the interest of the best and wisest of mankind as it was in 1847. At this time, indeed, it seems to me to furnish a lesson in the management of native races which might be useful in our own colonies. English governors always set out with good intentions towards the natives of savage countries, but how is it that war almost always follows their occupation? Surely it is because the settlers go there, not in the interest of the native race, but their own, and the two interests are sure to clash in the long-run.

It requires great patience and forbearance to educate natives up to a rule of justice and righteous laws; but that it may be done, and carry the co-operation of the people themselves, is evident at Sarawak, where the Malays and Dyaks are associated in the Government, and have always stood by their English rajah, even when it was necessary to punish or exile some of their own chiefs. I am aware that an English colony cannot be governed in this way; nevertheless, the spectacle of wild natives, rising by the influence of a few good Englishmen from lawless misrule to a settled government, where vice is punished without partiality, is very beautiful to philanthropists, and makes one think better of human nature and its capabilities. I wish I could portray the hilly and thorny road by which this has been attained! It would, [10/11] methinks, create a new interest in Sarawak, if the past and the present could be fairly set before the discerning world; we should again hear of missionaries longing to help in the improvement of people who have shown themselves so open to good influences. I have said that I would not touch upon politics, but Church and State are so naturally bound together in the task of civilization, that it is difficult to relate the history of the mission without mentioning the Government. Of course they do not stand in the same relation to one another in a Mahometan country, where the English Church is but a tolerated sect, as they do in a Christian land; still the Christian Church strengthens the Christian ruler, and he in his turn protects the Church by good government, although he may not favour it except by individual preference. For my own part, I have always thought it an advantage to our Dyak Christians that no favour was shown them on account of their faith; at any rate, it was for no worldly interest that they became Christians.

Although our life in Sarawak extended over a period of twenty years, it might naturally be divided into three parts--of six, five, and six years respectively, the intervals being spent in visits to England. These visits, although absolutely necessary, were a drawback to the mission work. When the head of a family is absent, the responsibility is apt to fall upon the younger members, and is sometimes too much for them. However, they always [11/12] did their best, and always welcomed us home most warmly. It was a joyful sight, on our return, to find the missionaries and school-children waiting for us at the wharf below our houses, the children's dear little faces glad with smiles, and a warm welcome for any baby we brought home. The second time, it was our daughter Mab; and in 1862, our last baby, Mildred,--Mab, Edith, and Herbert being left in England, for no English child can thrive in that unchangeable climate after it is six years old.

The first chapters of this little book will describe the first six years of our stay at Sarawak; but, in speaking of subjects of interest, I shall not stop short at the end of those years, but carry on the subject to the end of our Sarawak experience. It is perhaps necessary to say this to prevent confusion.

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