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 XI. Chinese Insurrection

"Mortal! if life smile on thee, and thou find
All to thy mind,
Think, Who did once to earth from heaven descend
Thee to befriend;
So shalt thou dare forego, at His dear call,
Thy life, thine all."

THESE lines were most applicable to us during the year 1856. It was such rest and peace when our Bishop returned from Calcutta and soothed all the griefs and heartburnings we had suffered the four months he was away. Then ensued the performance of his new episcopal duties. Mr. Gomes was ordained priest in March. Confirmations took place, of our elder school-children, who were all baptized when they first came to us; also many Chinese Christians too, who had long attended the Bible classes at the mission-house and stood firm to their baptismal vows. In April we had another baby girl; and soon after, the Bishop went to Labuan, to arrange about a church being built there. [120/121] Unfortunately he caught fever at Labuan; which declared itself at Singapore on his return. We were both very ill, and glad of doctors' advice at Singapore; but Labuan fever returns again and again, though in a slighter form after a while, and was for years a constant trial to the Bishop's strength. When we returned to Sarawak in October, our party was increased. Mr. and Mrs. Crookshank had come out from England--she a bride, and quite a new element of youth and beauty for Sarawak. A lady friend and her child and nurse also came on a long visit to us, the air of Sarawak being considered quite a tonic compared to the sea-breeze at Singapore, which was at times visited by a hot wind from Java. Very pleasant days followed our return home. Mrs. Harvey and I, with our children, went for a month to "See-afar" Cottage on the hill of Serambo. I have already mentioned this little house, built by Sir James Brooke as a sanitarium after his attack of small-pox. The only objection to it was, that it was built in the region of clouds: had the hill been five hundred feet higher we should have had the clouds below us, as they are on Penang Hill. The path up the mountain--if path it can be called--is almost a staircase of tumbled rocks, and requires both strength and agility to climb. It was quite beyond me; but I was carried on a man's back, sitting on a bit of plank, with a strip of cloth fastened round my waist and across the man's forehead, my back to his back. The Dyaks are famous mountaineers, [121/122] their bare feet cling to the stones, or notched trunks of trees thrown from one rock to another. I never felt unsafe on my Dyak friend's back, and he used to laugh when I proposed his setting me down and taking a rest, and say, "You are not as heavy as a basket of durian fruit." These Dyaks have beautiful groves of fruit-trees, and make a good purse in the fruit season by bringing down durians, mangosteen and lansat fruit to sell at Kuching. They also carry all their harvest of paddy up the mountain to their rice-stores in the villages, so they are used to heavy weights.

We took a stock of provisions up with us, fowls and ducks, a goat and her kid, etc., and all the bedding we wanted, for of course there was not much furniture in the cottage. Our first night was unfortunate. We had settled ourselves in the rooms, had our supper, and were about to go to bed, when the servants ran out of the cook-house, which was a stone's-throw from the cottage, crying out, "Fire!" and in a few minutes we saw it wrapped in flames. Of course a house built of sticks and leaves does not take long to burn down to the ground, but we were distressed to hear the bleatings of the little kid which could not be got out in time. The ducks, too, were still in the long basket coop in which they were carried up, and were literally roasted in their feathers before anybody remembered them. A large party of Dyaks were on the spot directly they saw the flames, and they did good service by throwing water on the roof of the cottage, and [122/123] watching lest the thatch should catch. In the morning they discovered the burnt ducks, and ate them up with much relish, for a Dyak likes the flavour of burnt feathers. The next day the cookhouse was rebuilt. These native huts look so clean and fresh when first put up, the straw-coloured attap [Palm leaf.] walls and green leaf roofs are so agreeable to the eye. They quickly turn hay colour and then get discoloured by the wood smoke. Except that we were at times rather short of food, we enjoyed our mountain retreat very much. The bath was a remarkable feature--a natural stone basin, under the shadow of a great rock, fed by the clearest streamlet and sheltered from view by a heavy bit of curtain, was our bathing-place. We carried a little leaf bucket and our towels in our hands, and while we poured the fresh water over our heads we could now and then stop to look at the great expanse of plain and forest, with silver rivers winding amidst them, and blue smoke stealing up here and there to mark a Dyak village. There was, however, a particular rock on the spur of the mountain from whence we always watched the sun set; there was a much wider view from thence. The sea lay on the horizon, and the pointed mountain of Santubong stood on the plain, with other ranges of hills far away. I fear we did little else but watch the glories of earth and sky at that time, and look after our children, who could not be trusted alone a minute on those steep paths.

[124] Meanwhile the Bishop was paying a visit to Lundu in his new life-boat, a boat of about twenty-eight feet, with a little covered house in it, and water-tight compartments in the bow and stern to keep her afloat. She was well named, for even in this first voyage she saved the lives of her passengers. From the coast at Santubong you see blue hills far away to the west, which lie in the Lundu country. The sea runs very high, in the north-east monsoon, between the mouths of these two rivers, the Sarawak and Lundu; and on this occasion the waves on their return from Lundu were fearful. Seven great waves like green hills advanced one after another. The Malay crew prayed aloud with terror. Stahl and the Bishop steered the boat and held their breaths. It looked like rushing into the jaws of death, but the life-boat mounted the big waves one after another, sometimes shuddering with the strain, but buoyant and stiff. The danger past, the crew praised Allah and the good boat; and they, as well as Stahl who had behaved so well at the time of danger, fell into a fit of ague from the nervous shock. We knew on the top of the hill that a fearful storm was raging, but we did not see the white boat flying like a bird over the seven great rollers, or there would have been no sleep for us that night. The crew never forgot it, nor the calm pluck of their steersman the Bishop. I must confess that an attack of fever was the result of all this exertion when he joined us on the hill.

[125] The rest of the year 1856 passed away quietly. We were all looking forward to an event which was to improve the English society of the place very much. The Rajah's nephew, Captain Brooke, was bringing out a bride; and her brother, Mr. Charles Grant, another. These four young people were expected in the early spring of 1857, and the Rajah was refurnishing his bungalow to receive these additions to his family. A new piano had arrived, and all sorts of pretty things, to brighten up the cool dark rooms of Government House. Mr. and Mrs. Crookshank were preparing a house for themselves also; and all their boxes, which had remained unopened while they lived with the Rajah, were moved up to their bungalow. Little did we think that all these treasures would be burnt before they were even unpacked!

The Chinese gold-workers of Bau and Seniawan had long given more or less trouble to the Sarawak Government. They were governed by their own self-elected kunsi (magistrates), and recognized their fealty to Sarawak only by the payment of a small tax on the gold they washed from the soil. They sent the gold away to China, and habitually cheated as to the quantity obtained. They also smuggled opium from the Dutch settlement of Sambas, thus defrauding Government of revenue. Worse than all this, they introduced secret societies, or hui, among themselves, and threatened to rebel if any of their kunsi were punished for breaking the laws of the country. At Christmas, 1856, they [125/126] boasted they could demolish Kuching in one night, if they chose; and that a new Joss House they were building there should furnish them with a pretext to gather by hundreds to set the Joss in his temple, and possess themselves of the place and the Europeans who lived there. These uncomfortable rumours seemed to have some foundation when a new road was discovered which the Chinese had made between Bau and Seniawan, another settlement nearer to Kuching. Mr. Crookshank, who was in charge of the Government, sent word to Mr. Johnson, who immediately came from Sakarran with a fleet of Dyaks, delighted to have a chance of fighting the Chinese, and carrying plenty of heads back to their homes. At the same time a gun-boat was stationed on the river to prevent any communication between Bau and Kuching. Upon this the kunsi came very humbly and begged pardon, declared the whole story was a fabrication, and that they never intended mischief. We only half believed them, but the Dyaks were dismissed, and unfortunately the gun-boat no longer kept watch on the river. Our Christian Chinese teacher "Sing-Song," was of the Kay tribe, the same as the Bau people, and once a month he went there to teach his countrymen. There were a few Christians among them. One, a goldsmith, did his best to let us know that danger was impending, but the kunsi suspected him, and put him in prison; we were therefore quite unprepared for what took place. On the 17th of February, three Chinese kunsi were flogged by [126/127] order of the court at Kuching, for taking the law into their own hands, and seizing a runaway prisoner, as well as the captain of the boat in which she absconded, although he was not guilty of hiding her. This seems to have put the finishing touch to the factious state of feeling at Bau. The Rajah and the Bishop had determined to take a trip together on the 18th, in the life-boat, to Sadong, and from thence to Linga and Sakarran. The Rajah had been ailing for some time, and we hoped this little voyage would do him good. We prepared all the provisions for this trip: bread and rusks were made, salt meat was cooked, and everything was ready packed in the provision baskets (this was of great importance to us afterwards). That evening we all met out walking, on the only riding-road there was in those days. Rajah spoke to the school-children, and we all amused ourselves with the little Middletons, boys of four and five, strutting along with turbaned hats and long walking-sticks. It was a dull evening, and we all felt unaccountably gloomy. We fancied it was because Rajah was not well enough to come and dine with us, as he had purposed in the morning; but during dinner I remembered afterwards that the Bishop said, "If any sudden alarm were to take place tonight it would rouse him and make him all right." We certainly went to bed without expecting anything to happen, but, about twelve o'clock, we were roused by shouts and screams, and the firing of guns. We got up and looked out. The Rajah's [127/128] bungalow was in flames across the river. On our side the Middletons' house was burning, and Mr. Crookshank's new house, a little way up the road, was soon after on fire. The most horrid noises filled the air, there was evidently fighting going on at the two forts at either end of the town by the river's side. We knew there were very few defenders at either of these two forts, and that they would soon be taken; for by this time we were sure it must be the Chinese miners who had fulfilled their threat to take the town. We thought, "When the forts are taken they will come to us." Presently the brothers, William and John Channon, who lived near us, came to our house, bringing their wives and children for shelter. They brought news that the fort near their houses was taken and burnt, and they dare not stay in their own cottages, as they were Government servants, and would be obnoxious to the rebels.

We took our children out of bed and dressed them, and then we all went down to the school-house, from whence we could see the burning houses and hear what was going on in the town. A Chinaman came up from the bazaar, begging us not to go to them for shelter, for they had been warned by the kunsi not to harbour any English people, and they dared not take us in. Poor creatures, they were in terror for themselves, as they were not of the same tribe of Chinese as the Bau people. What should we do?

We were so large a party, and had so many [128/129] children amongst us, that we did not venture to hide in the jungle: the night was quite dark and we might lose one another. Then the Bishop said, "We cannot make any resistance: we will hide away the guns we have in the house, and unite in prayer to God." So we all knelt round him while he commended us to the mercy of our Heavenly Father, and prayed for all our dear friends who were exposed to the fury of the Chinese. Then we sat and waited. Miss Woolley, who had only been three months in Sarawak, read aloud a psalm from time to time to comfort us; but the hours seemed very long. At five o'clock in the morning the kunsi, having possessed themselves of the Chinese town, sent us word that they did not mean to harm us--"the Bishop was a good man and cared for the Chinese," but he must go down to the hospital and attend to their wounded. Then came the welcome news that the Rajah had escaped, and Mr. Crook-shank and Middleton--the three people whom the Chinese most desired to kill, for the one was chief constable and the other police magistrate, who carried out the Rajah's sentence on the kunsi. A price was set on their heads, but the Malays' love of their English Rajah made that only an idle threat. We were told that Mrs. Crookshank was dead, and the little Middletons, as wrell as Mr. Wellington, who lodged in their house, and Mr. Nicholetts, who was staying at the Rajah's house. Mrs. Crookshank, however, was not dead, but lying wounded in a ditch near the ashes of her house. When the [129/130] Bishop knew this he demanded her of the kunsi. They said no, at first, for they were angry that her husband had escaped; but Bishop refused to attend to the wounded unless they gave her up, so at last they gave leave to have her carried to our house.

It was about ten o'clock when she was brought in--a pitiful sight, her dress covered with blood, her hair matted with grass and dust, her fingers bleeding. It did not seem possible she could live after remaining all night in this dreadful state. She told us that she and her husband did not awake until the house was full of men. They had only time to jump up and run down their bath-room stairs, he catching up a spear for their defence. Opening the bath-room door it creaked, and a man came running round the house shouting, "Assie Moy," the name of the woman-prisoner they had seized. He struck down Mrs. Crookshank with a sword he had in his hand, and Mr. Crookshank attacked him with the spear. They struggled together till the Chinaman cut his right arm to the bone, and the spear fell from his hand; then, seeing his wife lying dead, as he thought, in the grass, he managed to get away to the edge of the jungle, and sitting down, faint with loss of blood, saw his house burn to the ground. As morning dawned he found his way to the Datu Bandar's house, where the Rajah had already arrived, and Middleton. Meanwhile the Chinese, chasing the fowls from the burning fowl-house, came upon Mrs. Crookshank lying on her face, and one of them, seizing her by her hair, [130/131] desired her to follow him. She could not walk a step, so he carried her in his arms; but when she groaned with the pain, he laid her in a ditch near the road. Many Chinese came and stood by her: they covered her with their jackets, one held an umbrella over her head, another offered her some tobacco, but they would not let any of our people touch her until an order came from the kunsi. We had sent our eldest school-boy to reassure her, and he stood beside her until our servants could bring her away safely. As soon as the Bishop had dressed the wounded in the town, he came home for some breakfast. When I saw him I called out, for his pith hat was covered with blood. "It is only fowl's blood," said he, "don't be frightened: they killed a chicken over my head as a sign of friendship." The Middletons' servants came to us early in the morning, and said that they did not know what had become of their mistress, but the two little boys were killed by the Chinese, their heads cut off, and their bodies thrown into the burning. Later on, we heard that Mrs. Middleton, after seeing Mr. Wellington killed in trying to defend her, had escaped into the bath-room and hidden herself in one of the big water-jars; but, the door being open, she had seen her children murdered, and then had got out of the jar and run into the jungle, where she concealed herself in a little pool of water, much hidden by overhanging boughs. There this poor mother remained for some hours, until a Chinaman from the town came to the spring, carrying a drawn [131/132] sword in his hand. "Oh, sir, pray don't kill me!" she called out. "Oh no!" answered the man, "I am a friend of Mr. Peter" (her husband), "and will take care of you." So he took her to his house, and dressed her in Chinese clothes. It was almost a wonder to me that this poor young woman lived through that dreadful time. As the day wore on, Mr. Ruppell, the banker of the place, and a great friend of the Chinese, came and took up his abode with us. Then he, the Bishop, and Mr. Helms, the manager of the English Merchant Company, were ordered to meet the kunsi at the court-house; also the Datu Bandar, the chief Malay magistrate. There a very trying scene took place. The kunsi sat in the seats of the magistrates, smoking, their principal in the Rajah's own chair. They stated that they did not wish to make war with the English, or the Malays, only with the Rajah's government, and they desired those present to assist them in the government of the country. This they had drawn up in writing, and desired the English and Datu Bandar to sign. The Bishop pointed out to them that the best thing they could do would be to return to Bau and defend their town; that the Dyaks would certainly come in fleets of boats directly they heard of what had happened at Kuching, and they would as certainly be killed if they remained in the place. This was true enough, but they were afraid of the Malays attacking them on the water. The Chinese are bad boatmen. They could not therefore make up their minds to go, and much fierce discussion [132/133] arose. The thieves and rogues of the place, being under no restraint, robbed all the houses, on this afternoon, whose inmates had taken refuge at the mission-house. The Christian Chinese, being afraid of their countrymen, rushed into our house, carrying all sorts of goods and chattels, and caused me much distress on Mrs. Crookshank's account, who was very sensitive to fresh alarms. However, we settled our Chinese friends in some of the lower rooms. The Channons and their babies were in the attics. Night came at last, and a dead silence fell upon the town and the crowded mission-house. Not even the usual sounds in the bazaar or on the river were heard; only an occasional gun broke the stillness of the night. Friends and foes were alike weary. We did not venture to undress, but lay down all ready for flight if necessary, with our hats and little bundles beside us. The Bishop and Mr. Ruppell watched all night in the porch. Friday morning the Chinese, continually urged by the Bishop, determined to return to Bau. Later on they heard a rumour that the Malays would attack them on the river; then they made the Datu Bandar sign a promise not to follow them. Still they felt no confidence that he would not, so they said they would take Mr. Helms with them as a hostage for the Datu's good faith. Poor Mr. Helms did not like this idea at all, and having a fast boat lying in the creek near his house, he slipped away early in the afternoon, down the river, and hid himself in the jungle. No one [133/134] in Sarawak could imagine what had become of him.

About midday the Bishop told me he wished me, Miss Woolley, and the children, including Alan Grant, to go to Singapore in a trading schooner which Mr. Ruppell had detained at the mouth of the river in case of emergency.

Mrs. Stahl and Miss Coomes were to remain and nurse Mrs. Crookshank, but it would be a great relief to him to think of us in safety. The Chinese kunsi also wished us to go, "that the people at Singapore might see that they did not desire our death." It seemed very hard to me to leave my husband in such danger, for that morning the kunsi had flourished swords in his face and threatened him, knowing very well that he wished to bring the Rajah back. Still I knew he could more easily provide for the safety of those left behind if we were already out of the way. So I packed up some clothes and provisions for the voyage. While I was doing this a Chinaman came from the Good Luck schooner to say I must only take one box for our party, as the schooner was very full of Chinese passengers, fleeing for fear of the kunsi. With this we had to be content. At three o'clock we went to the shop of Amoo, the Chinese owner of the Good Luck. There I found my husband writing to Mr. Johnson at Linga, to tell him what had happened. Then Datu Bandar came in to say that the kunsi had gone up the river, and had taken some of the fort guns [134/135] with them; that they were very crowded in the boats, and that he should follow after them with a Malay force at night. They did nothing, however, when the time came; for until the Malays had got their families safe out of the place they were not willing to fight. They were brave enough when the women and children were moved to Samarahan on Saturday. There were many Chinese women collected at Amoo's, belonging to the shopkeepers in the bazaar. The wife of the court scribe, whom I knew, told me in a whisper that she managed to get some bread to the Rajah and his party, and had told Mr. Crookshank that his wife was alive and with us. At last the life-boat was ready. Stahl went with us to steer, and said there were plenty of Chinese to row the boat. When we got down to it, we found it not only fully manned by Chinese, but full of their women, children, and boxes, so that we could scarcely find room to squeeze ourselves into the stern, and we were so heavily laden that we made very slow progress. It was no use protesting, however: we were only English folk, and the Chinese had it all their own way in those days. About eight o'clock we got down to the mouth of the Morotabas, where the schooner lay. Pitch dark and very wet it was, but it was a relief when all the Chinese passengers climbed up the schooner ladder, and the men hauled the boxes up one after another, last of all a very heavy one which it took six men to lift, full of dollars,--so no wonder we were overladen. Last [135/136] of all I climbed into the Good Luck, leaving the children still in the boat with Stahl and Kim-chack, one of our school-boys whose family were moving away in the schooner. I found the deck covered with Chinese, and when I said to the little Portuguese captain, "Where is the little cabin Mr. Ruppell promised me I should have?" he answered, "Oh, ma'am, pray go back to your boat. I have neither water nor fuel for the people who are already on board. The cabin is filled with the family and friends of the Chinese owner of the schooner, and I cannot give you even room to sit down anywhere." It was indeed true. My friend, the court scribe's wife, said, "Come and sit by me on the deck." "But the children, they cannot be exposed day and night on deck." "Oh well, there is no other place for them." So I jumped into the life-boat again, and reclaimed my treasures. "Rather," said Miss Woolley and I, "die on shore than in that horrid boat." Indeed we felt quite cheerful now we had the boat to ourselves; and Kimchack said he had already been two nights on board the Good Luck and had had no room to lie down. There we were, however, in the middle of the river, with no one to row the boat. Stahl could not move it by himself. At this moment a small boat pulled alongside, and Mr. Helms' face appeared in the darkness. How glad we were to see him! and he, faint and exhausted with wandering all day in the jungle, was glad of a glass of wine, which was soon got out of the provision basket. Then we [136/137] opened a tin of soup, and fed our tired and hungry children, who behaved all through those terrible days as if it was a picnic excursion got up for their amusement. They enjoyed everything, and were no trouble at all, either Alan or Mab. Edith was a baby, and suffered very much from want of proper food--but that was later on. Mr. Helms and his crew rowed our boat into Jernang Creek, where there were some Malay houses. In one of these he and Alan went to sleep, but he advised us to remain in the boat until the morning. We laid Mab and Edith on one of the seats; Miss Woolley lay on the other; and I sat at the bottom of the boat to prevent the children from falling off The mosquitoes were numerous on that mud bank, and I was very glad when the morning dawned. At six o'clock Mr. Helms came to say we could have an empty Malay house on shore for a few days, so we gladly mounted up the landing-place and found a kind and hospitable reception from our Malay friends. They had put up some mat partitions in a large room, that we might sleep in private, and presented us with a nice curry for breakfast. We then unpacked our box and dried the clothes in it, which were wet through from the overlading of the life-boat. About midday two Englishmen arrived from the Quop River, nearer to Kuching, where they had been with the Rajah. They only stayed a short time, but told us that the Kunsi Chinese had really gone to Bau, and that the Bishop was with the Rajah at Quop. Late at [137/138] night I had a note from my husband, saying he thought we might return to Sarawak, for all was quiet, and he hoped the Rajah would come back early on Sunday morning. The next morning, therefore, we prepared to set off again in the life-boat, but first I went to pay a visit to Inchi Bouyang the Malay writer, who lived in one of the houses near, and who was too stout to venture out of his own house into a less strongly built one. This seems absurd enough, but the Malay houses were certainly very slight; they seemed to sway in the mud of the creek, and the floors of the rooms were made of very open strips of nibong palm, so that you had to walk turning your feet well out in order not to slip through the lantiles. I found many Malays gathered in the writer's house, all to entreat me not to go to Kuching, because it was "not a lucky day." "If the Malays fight the Chinese to-day," they said, "they will be beaten." "What reason have you for saying so?" "No reason exactly, but the day is unlucky; it is like Friday to the English, they never go to sea on that day." "Oh," said I, "that was long ago: they often go to sea on Friday now they know better, and no sensible person thinks anything of lucky or unlucky days." "Well, we have told you what we think. If you must go, some of us will go with you, and we shall tell the Tuan Padre it was not our fault that you would not wait until to-morrow." So Lulut, a servant of the Rajah's, and another Malay got into the boat with us, and we set off up the river.

Project Canterbury