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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 VI. The Girls

Having said so much about the schoolboys, it would be unfair not to mention the girls. Mary, Julia, and Phoebe, the half-caste children, grew up beside us, and so did Polly, who was a Dyak baby brought to me after the pirate expedition of 1849. Her mother fled, and dropped her baby in the long grass, where it was found by an English sailor, who carried it to the boats and gave it to one of the women captives to bring to me--a poor little, skinny thing, with long yellow hair, like a fairy changeling. I got a wet nurse for her and fed her with baby food, but she got thinner and more elfish-looking. One day her nurse was standing by whiie the other children were eating their dinner, and Polly stretched out her arms to the rice and salt fish, and began to cry. "Oh," said I, "perhaps she can eat;" and from that day the little one ate her rice and discarded the nurse, growing fat and merry like the rest.

[59] Polly had a great talent for languages. Of course she learnt English and Malay at once, hearing both languages from her earliest years. But how she learnt Chinese as well used to surprise me. In 1866 I took Polly to Hongkong. She was then nurse to our youngest child. The lady of the house where we were staying accosted Polly in the pigeon English of the place--a jargon mysterious to unaccustomed ears. It must be allowed that Polly was not unlike a Chinese in appearance. She stared at the lady, and then at me, upon hearing directions she could not understand. I laughed. "Speak to Polly in English," I said, "and she will understand what you mean." "Impossible," answered Mrs. M------; "my servants tell me she must be Chinese, for she can talk in two dialects."

Polly married a Christian Chinaman afterwards, so her taste lay in that direction. When I last heard of her, she was teaching in the day-schools at Sarawak.

Mary married the schoolmaster, Mr. Owen. We brought Julia home with us in 1869, and put her into a training-school for teachers in Dublin, where she was much beloved. When we returned to Sarawak, in 1861, she became the schoolmistress to the girls I then had in the house, and others who came as day-scholars. She was a thoroughly good girl, and a great comfort to me, but of course she married, a young man employed as mate in the Rainbow, a Government vessel running between [59/60] Sarawak and Singapore. Some years afterwards Forrest died, and Julia married again, an older man very well off. I have no doubt she is bringing up her family in the fear of God, but I have not heard of her lately. I had many trials with the girls, more than I like to recount. All the first little family of Chinese girls we received in 18 50 belonged to the tribe who rebelled in 1857, and their relations carried them off when we were driven from the mission-house. They were taken to Bau where their relations lived, but what became of them in the terrible flight to the Dutch country, when many were killed, and still more died of the privations of the jungle, we never could hear.

Sarah and Fanny came to us in 1856. They were little orphans, half Chinese, half Dyak, whom, with two more girls and four boys, the Government had redeemed from slavery and gave to the mission. Some of these children stayed at Lundu with Mr. Gomez and his family; some came to me--Sarah, Fanny, and Betsy, a baby whom I gave out to nurse. Poor little Sarah had a very scarred face from a burn, but she was a bright, clever child. Fanny was better-looking, but more heavy and less impressible. These two girls married native catechists in course of time. I trust they are doing some good among their own people.

In the year 1862 some little captives fell into the hands of Captain Brooke, then ruling at Sarawak. They came from Sarebas, and one of them had been wounded by a spear, though he was only a tiny [60/61] boy of four years old. Captain Brooke wrote to me to know if I would take this family of children into the school--two girls, Limo and Ambat, and two boys, Esau and Nigo. If I could not take them, he said, they must be sent back to their own country immediately, as there was a boat departing the next day. The Bishop was away from Sarawak, so I had to decide; nor would there have been any doubt in my mind about it, but Esau the eldest boy was covered with kurap, from head to foot. This is a skin disease to which Dyaks are subject, and which suggests the leprosy of the Old Testament, for the outer skin peels off in flakes, and gives almost a "white as snow" appearance to the surface. I doubted whether I ought to take a pupil so afflicted, for it is decidedly catching. I found that Ambat and Nigo had both patches of it here and there from contact with Esau, whereas Limo, who was older, more clothed, and who slept apart, was quite free.

Still, the alternative was nothing less than sending these four children to their heathen relations, and to a place at that time beyond the reach of Christ's gospel--a terrible idea which could not be entertained for a moment. So at last I sent for them, resolving to keep them in our house, and not allow them to go down to the school until the Bishop returned. Shortly afterwards a Chinese doctor came to the Bishop, and said, "If you will give me fifteen dollars I will cure that boy of kurap. I have a wonderful medicine for it, made at [61/62] the Natunas Islands." So he had the money on condition of the cure. The medicine was an ointment as black as pitch--indeed, I believe there was a good portion of tar in it. With this the doctor smeared Esau all over. He was to wear no clothes, and not to be washed or touched. I used to see him, poor child, skipping about exactly like the little black imps depicted in Punch.

The ointment did not hurt him, but every third day the doctor came and washed it all off with hot water: this was rather a painful operation, but it was worth while undergoing some discomfort, for at the end of a month the disease had vanished, and "his skin came again like the flesh of a child." Esau grew up to be a good man and catechist to his own countrymen, so it was well I ventured to keep him at Sarawak. The other children soon got well when separated from him. Kurap arises, I believe, from poor food and exposure to weather. A Dyak wears no clothes except a long sash wound round him and the ends hanging down before and behind; and when we consider the hot sun and frequent rains which beat upon him, for he lives mostly out of doors, it is no wonder his skin suffers. Limo and Ambat were clever children. In a letter, written about a year after they came to us, I find this passage: "I have only four girls who can read English and understand it. My two little Dyaks, Limo and Ambat, are very fond of learning English hymns, and say them in such a plaintive, touching voice, pronouncing each syllable [62/63] so clearly, but they don't understand it until it has been explained to them in Malay. Limo's brother and uncle came this week from Sarebas--two fine, tall men, with only chawats and earrings by way of clothes. [A chawat is a long strip of cotton or bark cloth wound round the body.] Limo was delighted; she would have gone away with them in their great boat if I had allowed her. No doubt they told her how much they would do for her at Sarebas. However, I drew a little picture of the women setting her to draw large bamboos full of water, and to beat out the paddy with a long pole--very hard work, and always done by the young girls,--a more truthful and less delightful view of things; so Limo said she would stay with me until she was grown up. I gave her a pair of trousers for each of the men, a present generally much esteemed. But these two were very wild folk; they laughed very much at the trousers, and carried them away over their shoulders.

I must not forget to tell the story of my dear child Nietfong, although it is a very sad one. She was the daughter of the Chinese baker who lived in the lane which led from our garden to the town. I used to befriend her mother, a delicate little woman, very roughly treated by her husband. She twice ran to me for shelter when her husband beat her, and though of course I always had to give her up to him when he came begging for her the next day, he knew what I thought of him, and had a sort [63/64] of respect for me in consequence. This poor woman died young, and left one little girl about four years old. Nietfong used to come up to day-school when she was old enough, and in 1858, when I was so happy as to have an English governess for my Mab, I took the little Chinese girl to live with us and join Mab in her lessons. She was quite a little lady, so gentle, teachable, and well mannered. In i860 we took our children to England: Mab was six years old, and could not with any safety remain longer in a hot climate. Little Nietfong went home, for her father would not allow her to go to the school in my absence. We returned in 1861, leaving three children in England, and brought a baby girl out with us. As I walked up the lane to the mission-house, Nietfong stood watching for me at the gate. "Take me home with you; oh, I am so glad you are come back!" So I took her home, and Nietfong told me that her father had married again, and that her step-mother was unkind to her, and beat her when she said the prayers I had taught her night and morning; "but," said the child, "I always prayed, nevertheless." She lived with us till she was about thirteen, perhaps not so much; then her father came to the Bishop and said he had sold Nietfong for a good sum of money to a man in China, and must send her there to stay with her grandmother.

In vain I entreated Acheck not to be so wicked. "Tell me how much you would get for your daughter," I said, "and we will give you the money." [64/65] He laughed, and said I could not afford it, mentioning a large sum, but I do not remember what it was; so I had to break the sad news to Nietfong. We wept and prayed together that she might remain steadfast in her Christian faith. As she then knew English very well, I gave her an English Prayer-book, which she promised to use. Soon after, Acheck himself took her to China; and when he came back, he would only say, "Oh yes, of course she is happy--she is married and well off." I have always felt sure that this dear girl was kept by God's grace from sin and evil, for I believe she truly loved and desired to serve God. There was something especially pure about her. Nietfong was never wilfully naughty; she was one of those blameless ones who seem untouched by the evil around them. We shall not know the sequel of her history until by God's mercy we meet her in the heavenly home.

As I have spoken about the Dyak kurap, I may as well here mention the real leprosy of the East, which was a terrible but not frequent scourge among the Chinese. The Rajah had a small house built out of the town for any men who were so afflicted, and they were fed by Government. The Bishop or his chaplain used to go and teach these poor creatures, but there were not more than three or four of them at a time. We knew one Chinese woman who had leprosy. She became a Christian, and liked to have a cottage lecture at her house. I often went to sec her. Her toes gradually dropped [65/66] off, and her fingers. I never heard her complain. One day I went to see her and found her very ill, constantly sick. She said she had been poisoned; and it seemed probable, for no medicine gave her any relief, and in a few hours she died. The natives have such a horror of leprosy that they do not like to touch the body of any one who has died of it, so the Bishop and Owen, the schoolmaster, laid poor Acheen in her coffin; and this charitable act they performed for any unfortunate who died of this terrible disease.

Acheen had adopted a little boy, Sifok by name. She must have been very kind to the child, for he seemed wild with grief when she died, and was very anxious that whoever had poisoned his mother, as he called her, should be punished. But the case was not clear, and no one was punished. We took Sifok into the school, and I taught him to play the harmonium, which at last he accomplished very fairly.

Amongst our schoolboys was one particularly steady and religious. Tung Fa was so good a Malay and Chinese scholar that he could interpret at the Chinese Bible class, and also the sermon at the Chinese service at church on Sunday. I think he knew his Bible almost by heart. He was never very strong in health; then his feet began to swell, and leprosy declared itself. For a long time he was carried to and from the church in a chair, but at last he was so diseased that he was removed from the school-house, and a little hut was built for [66/67] him close to us. The boys brought him his food, and of course he had anything he fancied from our kitchen. I think the servants were very kind to him, and he exhibited a beautiful example of patience and resignation until the disease affected his brain; even then he was quite gentle, only he was always begging to be baptized over again that he might die free from sin. This mistake arose entirely from his illness. We were quite thankful when one morning he was found dead in his bed. What a blissful waking, after so much suffering!

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