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 XIII. Events of 1857

WHEN we were once more at home we found it would be better to go to Singapore, and from thence to Penang, for a little quiet. We were both ill, the Bishop seriously so. We wanted for everything, and the bazaar in Sarawak could not supply us: besides, ours was the only English dwelling-house left in the place, except the Borneo Company's premises. Captain Brooke and Mr. Grant with their brides were immediately expected, and must be housed at the mission while a bungalow was being built across the water. We left Miss Woollcy to take care of the expected visitors, the children and I went to Singapore in the Sir James Brooke steamer, and Sir William Hoste gave a passage in H.M.S. Spartan to the Bishop and Alan Grant.

I was glad of an opportunity to get my baby vaccinated, which could only happen at Singapore in those days. We were two months away, and the cool quiet of Penang Hill was a great [157/158] refreshment. The first news I heard there was that Miss Woolley was to be married to Mr. Chambers. This wedding took place immediately on our return home, the end of July. It was a great benefit to the Banting Dyaks, for Mrs. Chambers devoted herself to the women and young girls, and was a true friend to them. She taught them to sew, and instructed them in morals and religion. When I went to Banting some years afterwards, I found a set of modest young women who were much pleased with gifts of needles, thread, and thimbles; they also enjoyed a game of croquet after the lessons were done, and it was wonderful to see what smart taps of the mallet were fearlessly given under their bare feet; for of course the Dyaks do not wear shoes.

About a month after our return to Sarawak, Captain Brooke's baby boy was born. No one can tell what a care and anxiety this event was, in a place where there was no doctor except the Bishop. The well-being of so important a person as the Rajah mudah's wife, and the birth of the heir of Sarawak, called forth much sympathy from everybody. Thank God, all went well; but we said it ought never to happen again--there should be a medical man whose sole duty it was to care for the bodies of the community, while the Bishop was free to minister to their spiritual wants. Soon after there was a public baptism of this boy Basil Brooke, and his cousin Blanche Grant, in the church, which was full of Malays as well as English to [158/159] witness the ceremony. This was the day before the Rajah set off for England.

There were many happy days during the next few months, for there were several English ladies in the place and we were all friends. In October the Bishop went to Labuan, and while he was away the cholera made its first appearance at Sarawak, among the Malays. The Rajah muda and I consulted together what physic should be made ready for those who would take it. A short time before, a little pamphlet had been sent to us about the virtues of camphor, and especially its value in cholera. We made a saturated solution of camphor in brandy, and gave a teaspoonful of it on moist sugar for a dose, adding three drops of Kayu Puteh oil, extracted from a Borneon wood and called cajeput oil in England, a very strong aromatic medicine. This mixture proved itself very useful. If the patients applied in good time it invariably gave relief to the cramp and pain in the stomach; if the disease had gone on to sickness it was more difficult to administer. Sometimes we followed it up with laudanum and castor oil.

The Malays suffered very much from this epidemic. Constant funerals were to be seen on the river, and there was much praying at the mosque. Then the Chinese were attacked, but not so fatally. Two dead men were, however, found on our premises; they were strangers to us, but we supposed they came late at night to the mission for medicine, and, lying down in the stable or [159/160] cow-house, died without reaching the house. It was an anxious time. I used to hang little bags of camphor round the children's necks, and was very careful of the diet for the household. Thank God, we had no case either in the school or the house.

Seven years afterwards the cholera returned much more violently. An English gun-boat, lying off the town, lost several of her crew; and at last the Bishop advised them to go to sea and let the sea air blow through the ship, to carry off the infection. He went on board himself to see them off, and while they were going down the river two more men were seized with cholera, and died in half an hour.

This time the cholera was very fatal among the Dyaks up some of the rivers. The poor creatures were so terrified that they left their houses, as in small-pox, and scarcely dared bury their dead. In one instance they paid a very strong man to carry the dead on his back to a steep hill, and throw them into the ravine at the bottom. The food enjoyed by the Dyaks, rotten fish and vegetables, no doubt inclined them to get cholera. The first time of its visitation was after a great fruit season when durian, that rich and luscious fruit, had been particularly abundant. A durian is somewhat larger than a cocoa-nut in its inner husk; it has a hard prickly rind, but inside lie the seeds, enclosed in a pulp which might be made of cream, garlic, sugar, and green almonds. It is very [160/161] heating to the blood, for when there are plenty of durians the people always suffer more from boils and skin disease than usual. We never permitted them to enter our house, for we could not bear the smell of them. But many English people liked them; and they were so much esteemed by the Dyaks, that when the fruit was ripe they encamped for the night under the trees. When a durian fell to the ground with a great thud, they all jumped up to look for it, as the fallen fruit belongs to the finder, and they loved it so that they willingly sacrificed their sleep for it. Woe be to the man, however, on whose head the fruit falls, for it is so hard and heavy it may kill him. [The Dyaks believe tliere is a special place in the other world, after death, for those who are killed by the fall of a durian.]

In February three new missionaries came from England--Mr. Hacket, Mr. Glover, and Mr. Chalmers. The two last came straight to Sarawak on their arrival at Singapore, Mr. Hacket and his wife about a month afterwards. They were all from St. Augustine's College, Canterbury, thoroughly good people, and a great happiness to us. Mr. Chalmers was settled among the Land Dyaks at Peninjauh, afterwards at the Quop. Mr. Glover went to Banting, to work among the Balows. The Hackets stayed at Sarawak: indeed they all remained with us until Easter, when their ordination took place. The Easter services that year, 1858, were very delightful. All these missionaries were more or less musical, and Mr. Hacket adorned the church as [161/162] it had never been decked before. Flowers and ferns, and lycopodium moss, were always to be had in abundance; and the polished wooden walls were brightened by some beautiful scroll texts, printed by a friend in England. We had full choral service on Easter Sunday, and the school-children sang their part beautifully; indeed, our new comers were astonished to find such good material for a choir in little native boys.

I had been fully occupied with preparations for these missionaries while the bishop was at Labuan; some additions to the comfort of the house for the Hackets; a new cook-house and servants' rooms near, to build; and the church to reroof. The balean attaps were as good as ever, but the strips of wood on which they hung were attacked by white ants, and had to be renewed or the shingles would have fallen through. Such responsibilities fell to my share when the Bishop was away, and heavy cares they were when money was not abundant. The prospect of three new missionaries was, however, worth any trouble. They came to teach the Dyaks, who had so long waited for teachers, and we hoped they would settle themselves among them for many years. In this hope we were to be disappointed. Mr. Glover fell ill of dysentery at Banting, and before two years had passed away was obliged to remove to a cold climate. He went to Australia, and has been doing good work there ever since. Mr. Chalmers was a very valuable missionary, and his labours among [162/163] the Quop and Merdang Dyaks bore much fruit in after years; but he also fell ill from the climate, and the food which was attainable up country. In i860, he also made up his mind to follow Mr. Glover to Australia. There are no doubt many difficulties for Englishmen living in Sarawak jungles. Some become acclimatized to them, others cannot bear the low diet, the loneliness, the apathy and indifference of the Dyaks. The Bishop was once accused, by a person who ought to have known better, that he was too apt to gather his clergy at Sarawak and keep them from their Dyak parishes: but it was a necessary part of the Bishop's work to keep a home where the missionaries could come for change and refreshment; where they could enjoy a more generous diet, and the society of English friends; where they could consult a medical man, and get some hints how to treat the maladies of the Dyaks--for they expected all the missionaries to know the art of healing, having had more or less experience of the Bishop's skill. Mr. Hacket was consumptive, but Sarawak is the best climate in the world for that disease: he got much stronger with us, and might have lived many years there, but he was too nervous for so unsettled a country. We were often subjected to panics for many months after the Chinese insurrection, and though we old inhabitants took it very easily, Mr. Hacket always thought his wife and child in danger. I remember, one day a Malay was being tried in the court-house, when he, by a sudden [163/164] spring, escaped from the police, and snatching a sword from a bystander, ran amuck through the bazaar, wounding two or three people he met. The hue and cry in the town fired the imaginations of the timid. People came running to the house for shelter, bringing their goods and chattels, and all sorts of tales--"The Chinese were coming from Sambas," and all sorts of nonsense. Then, Mrs. Hacket fainting on the sofa, and the servants all leaving their work to listen, and look out of the verandah, provoked us extremely: we administered sal volatile and a good scolding, and sent everybody off to their business again. But those scenes were very trying to the nerves. That a Malay should run amuck (amok, in Malay) with anger or jealousy, or a fit of madness arising from both these passions, was an occasional event all through our Sarawak life, but it was no more alarming in 1858 than in former years. It was the breach in the general feeling of security under the Sarawak Government, which for a time magnified every little disturbance of the peace into a public danger.

Our school was enriched this year by, first, seven new Chinese boys, then four more and four girls, the captives of the Lundu Dyaks, ransomed by Captain Brooke. Those children were, some of them, miserable objects, covered with sores from neglect. One boy had been set to carry red wood which blisters the skin, another was badly burnt. Mrs. Stahl took them in hand, dressed their wounds, nursed them, clothed them, and soon they looked [164/165] quite nice, sitting on a bench at the end of the church with a monitor to take charge of them, for they were still unbaptized--they were old enough to be instructed first, except two of the little girls who were immediately received into the Church. About this time a little Dyak boy, Nigo by name, was paying a visit to the school, and was baptized in church, answering for himself. He was about six years old, and as he stood at the font his face was lit up with so sweet a smile it touched us all. Mab begged him to stay at Sarawak; but the Dyaks never part with their children, and in this case it was not necessary, for Nigo's father was a Christian. It was a great happiness to us that none of our boys were killed in the insurrection; three got away to Sambas, the rest came back to the school one by one, having all escaped the Dyaks. The Christian goldsmith, too, who was put in prison by the kunsi for trying to warn us of the attack on the 18th of February, got to Sambas safe, and afterwards returned to us at Sarawak.

This summer a doctor came out to Sarawak with his family. I heard of their proposed arrival some months before, and wrote to Mrs. C------ to beg they would leave their elder children in England, and only bring the babies with them, for the little ones thrive well enough at Sarawak. I also gave a plain unvarnished account of the place. But Mr. C------, having made up his mind to bring all his family out, put the letter in his pocket; and we were very sorry when they arrived, a party of nine, [165/166] having lost one child at Singapore. They only stayed one month; the lady was so disgusted with the place--"no shops, no amusements, always hot weather, and food so dear!"--that she persuaded her husband to take advantage of some difference he had with the Government, and return in the same steamer by which they came out. I, however, gained by their departure, for they brought a sweet young girl with them as governess, and as she did not wish to return so soon, she remained with me, and became Mab's governess and friend. We liked her very much, and I cannot help mentioning an incident of her spirit and courage. One of our children being ill, I had taken her down to Santubong, where we had a seaside cottage; but as the house was full of clergy preparing for ordination, I left Miss McKee to do the housekeeping and take care of our guests for a few days. She slept at the top of the house, and little Edith in a cot beside her. It was late at night, and the moon shining into Miss McKee's room, when she woke and saw a Chinaman standing at the foot of her bed with a great knife in his hand. She felt under her pillow if the keys were safe, for the box of silver was put in her room while I was absent; then she jumped up, shouting "Thieves!" with all her might. The man ran and she after him, down a long passage, down the staircase, out of the house, by which time her cries had roused the gentlemen--the Bishop was nursing a sick man in fever, and was not in the house that night. They looked out of their doors, [166/167] asking what was the matter? However, Miss McKee had by this time made up her mind that the thief was our own cook; she had seen enough of him by her courageous pursuit to be sure of it. No doubt he thought she would be fast asleep, and he should carry off the silver and the keys without discovery. Only a servant of the house would have known where they were kept. This young lady afterwards married Mr. Koch, one of the missionaries. He came from Ceylon, and eventually returned to his native country, where I hope they are still.

Now we were again without a doctor, and in the autumn Mrs. Brooke expected her second confinement. This brings me to what we always called the sad, dark time at Sarawak. The weather was rainy beyond any former experience. We always had heavy rains in November, but this year they began in October, and the sky scarcely seemed to clear. In October, God gave us a little son, and in a usual way I should have been quite well at the end of three weeks, and across the water to see Mrs. Brooke many times before her confinement. But a long influenza cold kept me at home, and the weather being always wet, there was no prospect of getting over in a boat without a drenching, so only notes passed between us.

On November 15th, Mrs. Brooke had another boy, and though there was some anxiety at the time, she seemed pretty well until the fourth day, when inflammation set in with puerperal fever, and at the end of ten days our much-loved friend was [167/168] gone to her home in heaven, leaving her husband and children desolate. It seemed so impossible that so bright a creature should pass away from us, that to the last day we believed she would recover. That afternoon she called her husband and brothers and sisters to her bedside, and said, "I have tried hard to live for your sakes, but I cannot;" then she calmly and sweetly bade them good-bye, and no earthly cares touched her afterwards. Very sad hearts were left behind, but her example remained to us and called us upwards. Her short life had been continual self-sacrifice. She gave up her beautiful home in Scotland for love, and the prospect of doing good to Sarawak. On her arrival there the most rigid economy was practised, on account of the losses in the Chinese insurrection. A mat house, called "The Refuge," neither airy nor comfortable, was her only home; but it was always bright with Annie's good taste and cheerful spirits. Then came the last sacrifice, her husband and children. These, too, she laid at her Lord's feet with a willing heart. Everybody went into mourning; for in so small a place it was quite a calamity to lose the head of our little society. But to the Bishop this event was a great trial. He had spent most of his time, day and night, striving to save this precious life. He was very fond of her; he ministered to her as her priest; from his hands she received the Blessed Sacrament a few hours before she died, and he heard her say with almost her last breath, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit;" but he had also to [168/169] witness agony which he could not relieve, and no effort could prolong her life. It made him quite ill for some time, and all the happy holiday days-passed away with Annie Brooke. Government House was never again, in our time, a bright and cheerful home: it returned to its bachelor ways; and business, not social pleasure, presided there. On Christmas Day, exactly a month after Mrs. Brooke died and was laid in the churchyard, we placed a bouquet of flowers from her garden on the altar, but there could be no festivities. The Chinese Christians had their feast, and the schoolchildren; but we who had lost our companion and friend could not rejoice. It was sad enough to go over the water and sec Annie's empty room, kept just as she had left it, and no sound in the house except the wails of the motherless baby, who we feared would soon follow his mother to the grave. Captain Brooke was obliged to go to England very soon after his wife's death; the Rajah was struck with paralysis, and it was at first doubtful whether he would recover. In the midst of all this sorrow I had the trouble of losing my faithful servant, Mrs. Stahl, who took all the care of the school-children off my hands. Her husband had found more lucrative work at Singapore, and sent for her to join him. It was a grief to both of us, and a great addition to my responsibilities. Mrs. William Channon, then a widow, was installed matron of the school, but she had neither knowledge nor experience. She did as well as she could, with [169/170] continual supervision. The sick children now came to me to be doctored early every morning. I also had a large sewing-class of boys, and a tailor to teach us how to cut out and make their peculiar-shaped clothes: however, we soon learnt to do without the tailor. Mrs. Hacket taught the little ones to sew, and I had the elder ones from seven to ten every morning. Sometimes I gave a music lesson between whiles; sometimes I had to leave them for a while, first to see what the cook had brought from the bazaar for their day's food, and to give out the rice which was kept in my store-room; also the cocoa-nut oil, which trimmed the lamps of both house and school. Sometimes I read aloud to my boys, stories from history. They could understand English quite well.

While our spirits were at their lowest ebb, and the rain still pouring with little intermission, we had a visit from H.M.S. Esk, Sir Robert J. McClure captain. He did his best to cheer us. How kind and bright he was I shall never forget, nor how he used to sit patiently under a tree in the rain to be photographed, simply to amuse us. There are certainly some people who have more of the wine of life than others, and who arc a wonderful refreshment to their friends. It was during this year, 1858, that we built our seaside cottage at San-tubong--Sandrock Cottage, as we called it, which sounds rather cockney; but as it stood on the sand, with great boulders of granite rock scattered about, it seemed the most appropriate name. Santubong [170/171] is the most beautiful of the two mouths of the Sarawak River, but not as safe as the Morotabas for ships to enter. The Bishop had a mission yacht this year; consequently he was away, visiting the mission stations. The next year he sailed the Sarawak Cross to Labuan. The voyage took only one week either way, whereas in other years he had to go to Singapore, more than four hundred miles off, in order to get to Labuan by P. and O. steamer, or any man-of-war chancing to go there. Months instead of weeks were consumed by this means.

Our cottage took three weeks to build. We sent three men down with a thousand palm-leaf attaps for the outside walls and roof, and thirty mats to make inner walls. The men went into the jungle and felled wood for posts and rafters, then nibong palms were split into strips for the floors. The whole building was tied together with rattans, like all Malay houses. There were three rooms, twelve feet by fifteen each, and two little bath-rooms. A verandah ran along the whole length of the front, and this was planked to prevent little feet from slipping through. But the rooms were covered with thick mats, and the floor was so springy it danced as you moved. We put very little furniture into these rooms, and the inside walls were only eight feet high, so that though you could not see into the next room, you could hear all that went on in all three rooms. The cook-house and servants' room were separate.

[172] As early as the year 1848, the Rajah had a little Dyak house built on high poles, under the mountain of Santubong. It was an inconvenient little place, into which you climbed up a steep ladder--only one room, in fact, with a verandah; but we spent some happy days there, for the beauty of that shore made the house a secondary consideration. A small Malay village nestled in cocoa-nut palms at the foot of Santubong; in front lay a smooth stretch of sand, and a belt of casuarina-trees always whispering, without any apparent wind to move their slender spines. The deer in those days stole out of the jungle at night to eat the sea-foam which lay in flakes along the sand, and wild pigs could often be shot in a moonlight stroll under the trees. In the morning, we used to set off as soon as it was light to a fresh spring in the jungle, where we took our bath. Dawdling along the edge of the waves, then quite warm to our bare feet, with towels and leaf buckets in our hands, we reached the little stream, running under the shade of tall trees in which the wood-pigeons were cooing. How delicious and fresh that water was! and every sense was charmed at the same time, unless some stinging ants walked over our feet, which was not uncommon.

Then we trudged home again, with the wet towels folded on our heads to shield us from the sun, who by that time was an enemy to be shunned.

A little colony of Chinese were settled here in [172/173] 1852, but they never took to the place; the soil was perhaps not good enough for their gardens. In 1857 the Malays fell upon them and killed them all, because they were of the same tribe as the rebels, although they had nothing whatever to do with the insurrection. When we were building our cottage on the sands two Chinese skulls were dug up. We were all indignant at this wanton cruelty, but unable to resent it, except by the expression of our opinion, for the English were a mere handful of individuals in Sarawak.

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