Project Canterbury

Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak

By Harriette McDougall

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

Chapter II. The Court-House

WHILE Sir James Brooke was in England, in 1847, he asked his friends to help him in his efforts to civilize the Dyaks, by sending a mission to live at Sarawak.

Lord Ellesmere, Admiral Sir H. Keppel, Admiral C. D. Bethune, Canon Ryle Wood, and the Rev. C. Brereton, formed themselves into a committee, with the Rev. I. F. Stooks for their honorary secretary, and soon collected funds for the purpose. The Rev. F. McDougall was chosen as the head of the mission, and with him were associated the Rev. S. Montgomery and the Rev. W. Wright; but Mr. Montgomery died very suddenly, of fever caught when ministering to the poor of his parish, before the time came for us to embark, so the party was reduced to two clergymen and their wives, two babies and two nurses. We sailed from London in the barque Mary Louisa, four hundred tons, the end of December; Mr. Parr, [13/14] a nephew of Mrs. Wright's, being also one of the passengers. I had all my life loved the sea, and longed to take such a voyage as should carry us out of sight of land, and give us all the experiences which wait on those "who go down to the sea in ships;" but I little thought how we should all long for land before we saw it again.

The barque was a poor sailer; we thought it a good run if she made eight knots an hour, so no wonder we did not reach Singapore till May 23, 1848. It was a long monotonous voyage, but we were well occupied, and I do not remember ever finding it dull. The sea was all I ever fancied by way of a companion, and, like all one's best friends, made me happy or unhappy, but was never stupid. Then we had to learn Malay and its Arabic characters, with the help of Marsden's grammar and dictionary, and the Bible translated into that language by the Dutch. We lived by rule, apportioning the hours to certain duties, and every one knows how fast time passes under those conditions. The two clergymen busied themselves with teaching the sailors, and several of them presented themselves at Holy Communion in consequence, the last Sunday before we landed. The most trying time we passed was on the coast of Java, becalmed under a broiling sun, the very sea dead and slimy with all sorts of creatures creeping over it. As for ourselves, we were gasping with thirst, for we had already been on short rations of water for six weeks, one of the tanks having leaked out. One [14/15] quart of water a day for each adult, and none for the babies, so of course they had the lion's share of their parents' allowance. Our one cup of tea in the evening was looked forward to for hours; and what a wonderful colour it was, after all!--but that was the iron of the tank.

On the 23rd of May we landed at Singapore, and had to wait there for four weeks before the schooner Julia, then running between that place and Sarawak, came to fetch us. We reached Sarawak June 29th, entering the Morotabas mouth of the river, which is twenty-four miles from the town of Kuching, whither we were bound. The sail up the river, our first sight of the country and the people, was indeed exciting, and filled us with delight. The river winds continually, and every new reach had its interest: a village of palm-leaf houses built close to the water, women and children standing on the steps with their long bamboo jars, or peeping out of the slits of windows at the schooner; boats of all sizes near the houses, fishing-nets hanging up to dry, wicked alligators lying basking on the mud; trees of many varieties--the nibong palm which furnishes the posts of the houses, the nipa which makes their mat walls, and close by the water the light and graceful mangroves, which at night arc all alive and glittering with fire-flies. On the boughs of some larger trees hanging over the stream, parties of monkeys might be seen eating the fruits, chattering, jumping, flying almost, from bough to bough. We afterwards made nearer acquaintance with these droll creatures.

[16] At last we reached the Fort, a long white building manned by Malays, and with cannon showing at the port-holes. The Julia was not challenged, however, but gladly welcomed, as she carried not only the missionaries but the mail, and stores for the bazaar; for at that time there were not many native trading-vessels--the fear of pirates was great, and there was good reason to fear!

The town of Kuching consisted in those days of a Chinese bazaar and a Kling bazaar, both very small, and where it was scarcely possible to find anything an English man or woman could buy. Beyond was the court of justice, the mosques, and a few native houses. Higher up the river lay the Malay town, divided into Kampongs, or clusters of houses belonging to the different chiefs or principal merchants of the place. Opposite the bazaar, on the other side of the river, stood the rajah's bungalow, as well as two or three others belonging to Europeans, embosomed in trees, cocoa-nuts and betel-nut palms, and other fruit-trees. Behind the rajah's house rose the beautiful mountain of Santu-bong, wooded to its summit nearly 3000 feet, with a rock cropping out here and there. At this bungalow we landed, and were hospitably entertained for a few days until the upper part of the court-house could be made ready for our party.

Shall I ever forget my first impressions of the rajah's bungalow? A peculiar scent pervaded it. You looked about for the cause till your eyes fell on two saucers, one filled with green blossoms, the [16/17] other with deep golden ones, much the same shape--the kenanga and the chimpaka, flowering trees, which grew near the house. Their flowers were picked every day for the rooms, as the rajah loved the scent, and so did the Malays. The ladies steeped the blossoms in cocoa-nut oil and anointed themselves, placing them also in their long black hair, with wreaths of jessamine flowers threaded on a string. These perfumes were rather overpowering at first, but I learnt to like them after I had been some time in Sarawak. The large, bare, cool rooms were very refreshing after the little cabins of the Julia. And then the library! a treasure indeed in the jungle; books on all sorts of subjects, bound in enticing covers, always inviting you to bodily repose and mental activity or amusement, as you might prefer. This library, so dear to us all because we were all allowed to share it, was burnt in 1857 by the Chinese rebels. It took two days to burn. I watched it from our library over the water, and saw the mass of books glowing dull red like a furnace, long after the flames had consumed the wooden house. It made one's heart ache to see it. An old gentleman of our English society watched it too, and I wondered why his head shook continually as he sat with his eyes fixed on those sad ruins; but I found afterwards that the sight, and doubtless its cause, had palsied him from that day. But I must not linger too long in the rajah's bungalow, though the white pigeons seem to call to me from the verandahs; we must take boat [17/18] again (for there are no bridges over the Sarawak river), and cross to the court-house.

This square wooden house, with latticed verandahs like a big cage, was built by a German missionary, who purposed having a school on the ground floor and living in the upper story; but as soon as he had built his house he was recalled to Germany, and the only trace of him that remained was a box full of torn Bibles and tracts, which, I am sorry to say, had been used as waste paper in the bazaar for tying up parcels since he left, but as the tracts were not in any language the people could understand they were scarcely to blame. Rajah turned the house into a court of justice, and we settled ourselves in the upper rooms, which were divided from one another by mat walls. The river flowed under this house at spring tides, and then nests of ants would swarm into it: the rapidity with which these little creatures would carry all their eggs up the posts and settle the whole family under a box in your bedroom was marvellous; but as they were not pleasant companions there, a kettle of hot water had to put an end to the colony.

These little black ants did not sting, but there was a large red ant, half an inch long, who was most pugnacious; he stood up on his hind legs and fought you with amazing courage, and his jaws were formidable. We made our first acquaintance with white ants while we lived in the court-house. On unpacking a box of books, which had been our solace during the voyage, we found them almost [18/19] glued together by the secretion of these creatures. The box had been standing on the ground floor of the hotel. The white ants had eaten through and through the books, and picked all the surface off the bindings; they were disgusting to look at and to smell. Some years afterwards, one of our missionaries had a box of clothes sent her from Singapore. It was necessary clothing, for she had lost her effects, like the rest of us, during the Chinese rebellion. I warned Miss Coomes that she must unpack the box directly, on account of the white ants; but she put it off till the next day, and at night these wretches ate through the bottom of the box, and munched up the new linen and stockings. We soon learnt to guard against their attacks by using no wood except balean, or iron-wood, which is too hard for them to bite. English oak seemed like a slice of cake to white ants.

No sooner were we settled at the court-house, than we had visits from all the principal Malays, and also some Dyaks who happened to be at Sarawak. My husband opened a dispensary in a little room behind the store-room, and had plenty of patients. I used to hear continual talking and laughing going on there, and by this means Mr. McDougall learnt to talk the Malay language, which he only knew from books when he first arrived. The pure Malay of books is very different from the colloquial patois of Kuching. To my sorrow, I learnt this some time after, when I was trying to prepare two women for baptism: they [19/20] listened to me for some time, and then one said to the other, "She talks like a book," which I fear meant that they only half understood me.

Soon after this we took four little half-caste children to bring up. They were running about in the bazaar, and their native mothers were willing to part with them; so Mary, Julia, Peter, and Tommy were housed in a cottage close by, under the care of a Portuguese Christian woman, the wife of our cook. Every day I used to spend some hours with them, that we might become friends. The eldest of these children was only six years old, Tommy, the youngest, but two and a half; so they wanted a nurse. They were baptized on Advent Sunday, 1848, and were the beginning of our native school.

Project Canterbury