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 III. College Hill

WE stayed at the court-house a whole year, while our house on the hill was being prepared. The hill, and the ground beyond it, about forty acres in all, was given to the mission by Sir James Brooke. It was then some way out of the town, but as the Chinese population increased, the town grew quite to the foot of the hill--College Hill, as it was then called--and a blacksmith's quarter even invaded the mission land. At first, in order to cultivate the property, nutmegs and spice-trees were planted, but the soil was not good enough for them; when their roots pierced through the pit of earth in which they were planted, and reached the stiff clay of the hill, they died off. It was necessary to do something to keep the land clear of the coarse lalang grass, which grew wherever the jungle was cut down. So after a while a herd of cattle was collected, and they improved the poverty of the land, at the same time furnishing milk and a [21/22] little butter. I say a little, because even when seven cows were in milk, as they only gave two quarts a day each, and there were always plenty of children in and out of the mission to consume it, but little was left for butter-making. Cocoa-nut trees were planted in the low ground, and some few grew up; but wild pigs were great enemies to them, for they liked to eat the cabbage out of the heart of the young tree, which of course killed it. In that seething warmth of Sarawak you could almost see plants grow. If you scattered seeds in the ground, they sprouted above it on the third day. I planted some of those little coral-looking seeds, which are to be found in every box of Indian shells, the seed of the satin-wood, and they grew up into beautiful forest trees in twelve years' time. We used to make long strings of these coral seeds, and use them in Christmas decorations.

By degrees we had a very bright garden about the house. The Gardenia) with its strongly scented blossom and evergreen leaves, made a capital hedge. Great bushes of the Hybiscus, scarlet and buff, glowed in the sun--they were called shoe-flowers, for they were used instead of blacking to polish our shoes. The pink one-hundred-leaved rose grew freely, and blossomed all the year round. Shrubs of the golden Allamander were a great temptation to the cows, if they strayed into the garden. The Plumbago was one of the few pale-blue flowers which liked that blazing heat. Then we had a great variety of creepers--jessamine of many sorts, [22/23] the scarlet Ipomea, the blue Clitorea, and passionflowers, from the huge Grenadilla with its excellent fruit, to the little white one set in a calyx of moss. The Moon-flower, a large white convolvulus, tight-shut all day, unfolded itself at six o'clock, and looked lovely in the flower-vases in the evening. The Jessamine and Pergolaria odorotissima climbed up the porch, and in the forks of the trees opposite I had air-plants fastened, which flowered every three months, and looked like a flight of white butterflies on the wing. The great mountain of Matang stood in the distance, and when the sun sank behind it, which it always did in that invariable latitude about six o'clock, I sat in the porch to watch the glory of earth and sky. How dear a mountain becomes to you, is only known to those who live in hilly countries. One gets to think of it as a friend. It seems to carry a protest against the little frets of life, and, by its strength and invari-ableness, to be a visible image of Him who is "the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever." But I am running on too fast with the garden before the house is built.

The hill was first cleared of jungle, and flattened at the top, then the foundation was dug, and great sleepers were laid ready for the upright posts. A wooden house is joiner's work, and rather resembles a great bedstead. All the wood is first squared and cut, which takes a long time, because the balcan-wood is extremely hard, and consumes a great deal of labour; but once ready, the house rises from the [23/24] earth like magic, for every beam and post fits into its place.

We had brought a great box of carpenter's tools with us from England, among them valuable moulding-planes; we wished the carpenters to learn, in building the house, how to make the arches and ornamental mouldings for the church.

Happily for us, when the Mary Louisa was wrecked in the straits on her way home, the crew were all saved, and the ship-carpenter came over to Sarawak to see if my husband would employ him. As he was a capital joiner, he was set over a gang of workmen at once. All the plans for the house and church were made by Frank (my husband), and I was set to draw patterns of the doors and windows, the verandah railings, and the porch. Stahl was an intelligent German workman, and soon learnt Malay enough to direct the men. The Malays levelled the hill and dug the foundations; the Chinese were employed as carpenters, but they, too, could speak Malay. I remember making great friends with one of them, Johnny Jangot, John of the Beard, so called on account of a few long hairs at the tip of his chin, for the Chinese are a beardless race. Johnny used to eat his breakfast in the court-house to save himself trouble. What a set-out it was! Rice, of course; then three or four little basins with different messes--duck, fish, chicken, and plenty of soy-sauce; more basins with vegetables, all eaten with the help of chop-sticks; and a teapot snugly covered with a cosy. I asked one day to [24/25] taste the tea, and Johnny poured me out a tiny cup of hot, sweet, spirits and water! Samchoo is a spirit made from rice, and very strong, as our poor English sailors used to find to their cost when her Majesty's ships paid us a visit. The Chinese said that the English drank the samchoo cold and raw, and therefore it poisoned them, whereas they always qualified it with hot water. It did not taste strong, which made it all the more pernicious. Johnny drank real tea all day long, and smoked a good deal of tobacco--it seemed to me he did very little else; but he was not a bad workman, though of course it was not such a day's work as an Englishman can do.

In the East you must accept the customs of the country, and be content with the people: they are not given to change. Stahl made some wheelbarrows for the men to use instead of little baskets in which they carried earth, and which held nothing. But it was no use; they laughed at the wheelbarrows, and said "Eh yaw!" but went on with the baskets.

Every evening we used to walk up the hill to see how the building was getting on, all the children with us; then, as we sat on the timber, I used to draw the letters of the alphabet on the white sand, and the little ones learnt them. We went home through a piece of ground we called our garden. In it grew plenty of pine-apples and sugar-cane, and the gardener always supplied us with pieces of the latter to eat--very refreshing and [25/26] nice, but the juice ran all over your hands. As for pine-apples, we soon got tired of them; but they made good tarts, and, mixed with plantains and lime-juice, a very pleasant and useful jam.

In clearing the hill our workmen disturbed the haunts of many snakes. We were a good deal visited by cobras for some years. The natives said that the Adam and Eve of all the cobras lived in a cave under our hill.

One day we were having asphalte laid down in the printing-room, to keep away white ants. The room had been emptied to do this, and Stahl went in to inspect the work after the men had gone to their breakfast at eleven o'clock. He saw a large cobra at the end of the room, and hit it with a stick he had in his hand; but the stick broke in two, and the cobra reared itself up with inflated hood. Another minute must have seen Stahl a prey to the monster; but the Bishop, passing by, heard him exclaim when the stick broke, and going quickly in saw Stahl standing, white, fascinated, and motionless, before the cobra. Happily he had a stout walking-stick, and at once felled the reptile; but he took a good deal of killing. It was ten feet long.

This was Adam.

Eve was killed under the verandah of the house almost a year afterwards. She was eight feet long.

One night the Bishop had been reading the Rev. F. Robertson's sermon about St. Paul and [26/27] the viper. It was late, and being rather sleepy he carried the book in one hand and a candle in the other into his dressing-room, and was just going to set the candle down, when his eye fell on a cobra, coiled up on the chair on which he was about to seat himself. No stick was at hand, but he smote the snake with the book. Struck in the right place, they are not difficult to kill. So "St. Paul and the Viper" put an end to the cobra. That the bite of this snake is not, however, certain death we had a curious instance.

One of our servants, a very strict Mahometan, believed himself charmed against poisonous reptiles, and used to bring me centipedes and scorpions in his hands, saying they never hurt him. He left our service and was employed by the Borneo Company, about half a mile from our house. One day, while cutting rattans in a shed, a cobra bit his thumb. He thought nothing of it, but, putting away his work as usual, went home, cooked his rice and ate his supper. By this time, however, his arm began to swell and his head to swim. Instead of going to the doctor, who then lived close by, he must needs go to the Bishop to cure him; so just as we were sitting down to dinner, about seven o'clock, he reeled into the house. The Bishop cauterized the wound, although it seemed too late to be any use; he was getting cold and faint. However, by dint of being walked up and down between two men, and having two whole bottles of brandy administered to him, a glass at a time, besides sal volatile, [27/28] chloroform, and every stimulant we had, he got through the night. The Bishop sat up with him all night, and I could hear him, when at last I went to bed, calling out at intervals, "Oh, Allah! Oh, Lord Bishop!"--so terrible was the pain he suffered in his arm. His wife, who was my baby's ayah, appeared in the morning. "Come," said she, "make no more noise, keeping everybody awake, but take up your bed (mat) and let us go home." He meekly obeyed; but, poor man, he had abscesses under his arm, and fell into weak health afterwards; so it is evidently unwise to despise a cobra.

There were many other snakes besides cobras, some poisonous, but most of them harmless.

The Marquis Doria and Signor Becarri, two distinguished naturalists, who lived for some months at Sarawak, collecting bird-skins, insects, and plants, told me that the natives often represented a snake to be poisonous which was not so. However, we had the mata hari, sun-snake, black and coral colour, and a metallic green flat-headed creature, Fortrex trigonocephalus, which were venomous enough. I once had a little flower-snake for a pet. It was beautifully marked with green and lilac, and used to catch flies climbing about the room; but one day it mounted to the top of a high door, the wind blew the door to, and my pretty snake was thrown to the ground and broke its back.

The boa-constrictor--sawar, as the Malays called it--lived in the jungle and rice-swamps. Sometimes it attained an enormous size. An [28/29] Englishman told me that he and some Malays were exploring the jungle to find traces of antimony ore, and came to an opening in the wood, across which they saw the body of a sawar as thick as his own--he was not very stout--moving along; but they never saw either the head or tail of that snake, for, after watching its progress for a long time, they were seized with a panic at its enormous length, and fled.

A Malay whom we knew very well, Abong Hassan by name, and a mighty hunter, told us that once, when he was seeking deer in the forest, towards evening he sat down to rest, and cook his rice, on what he thought was a great fallen tree. While thus occupied, he felt his seat moving from under him, and, starting up, found he had been making use of a huge sawar lying inert and distended with food. He killed it, and found a full-grown deer in its stomach. These snakes must live to a great age, and grow always, to attain such a size.

Some people kept a small boa in their house to kill rats, but we found they were equally fond of chickens, and therefore not desirable inmates; for at Sarawak chickens were the principal animal food to be had, and it was necessary to keep a stock of them.

After some years we built up the lower story of the mission-house with bricks, to make it more substantial and cooler. The ground floor was at first wholly occupied with the school, the [29/30] dormitory on one side, the matron's and girls' room on the other, and a large schoolroom through the centre of the house. A similar room over it was our dining-room, and was used for divine service until the church was finished. The library and our bedroom were over the boys' dormitory, and bedrooms for missionaries on the other side. There were also three rooms in the roof, which made good bedrooms, but were too hot for use in the daytime. The roof was covered with shingles of balean-wood, which only grows harder and darker coloured from rain and use. They were blown off sometimes in the storms to which we were subject, but were otherwise more lasting than any other kind of roofing. We used to call this house Noah's Ark, from the variety of its occupants. A bell hung in the porch roof, and rung at different hours to call the workmen and regulate the school. The people in the town got so used to it that, when we discontinued it for a time, they sent a petition that it might begin again, for without it they never knew what o'clock it was. When the school outgrew this house we built another for the boys, their master, and the matron, close by; but I always kept the girls with us until Julia married, when they were sent to the Quop, in charge of the missionary's wife there.

Long before we left the court-house, Mr. and Mrs. Wright decided to give up the Sarawak mission, and went to Singapore, where Mr. Wright became master to the Raffles Institution for the [30/31] education of boys. We were therefore quite alone until February, 1851, when the Bishop of Calcutta paid us a visit to consecrate the church, and brought with him Mr. Fox from Bishop's College, to be catechist, with a view to his future ordination. Very soon after him came the Rev. Walter Chambers from England, and about the same time Mr. Nicholls also arrived from Bishop's College; but, as he only wished to stay for two years in the country, he had scarcely time to learn the language before he returned to Calcutta.

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