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 XIV. The Malay Plot

OUR cottage at Santubong was a source of much pleasure to many people. We often lent it to invalids, sometimes to newly married couples, who certainly had a good opportunity of studying each other's characters and tastes in that lonely solitude.

Sometimes we sent down all the children from the school, who wanted sea-air and a holiday. Indeed, when we were staying there, we always had relays of children to play on the sands and enjoy themselves. We had a place staked round with strong hurdles, where we could bathe in safety from sharks and alligators, who both infested the coast. I have often seen quantities of jelly-fish and octopus sticking on the outside of the hurdles: they sting dreadfully, so they were quite welcome to stay there.

During one of our visits to Santubong I remember a timber-ship lying off the mouth of the river, to lade planks from a saw-mill which was on [174/175] the other side. One day three sailors came ashore to fill a cask with fresh water; there was a spring among the rocks close to the water's edge. As they neared the shore, the three men jumped into the sea for a swim; but suddenly, one of them threw up his arms and disappeared. In vain his comrades searched for him, but the next day his body, partly devoured by a shark, was thrown upon the rocks. No doubt he was seized and dragged under water. His comrades were much distressed, for he was a favourite among the crew. Frank buried him, and helped the men to put a wooden cross on the grave.

In the north-west monsoon we sometimes went to Buntal, a bay on the other side of the mountain of Santubong. No soul resided there, but it was the resort of great flocks of wild-fowl at that season. We rowed into the bay while it was still high tide, then left the boat; and our men made little huts of boughs some distance from the shore, where we could sit without being perceived. As the tide ebbed the birds arrived--tall storks, fishing eagles, gulls, curlew, plover, godwits, and many others we did not know. They flew in long lines, till they seemed to vanish and reappear, circling round and round, then swooping down upon the sand where the receding waves were leaving their supper. I never saw a prettier sight. The tall storks seemed to act like sentinels, watching while the others fed. At a note of alarm they all rose in the air, flew about screaming, and [175/176] then settled again on the sands in long lines, the smaller birds together, the larger ones in ascending rows. At last, alas! a gun fired into their midst caused death and dismay. A few fell dead, and the rest fled to some happier shore, where no destroying man could mar their happiness. And there are many such spots in Borneo where no human foot ever trod, and where trees, flowers, and insects flourish exceedingly; where the birds sing songs of praise which are only heard by their Maker, and where the wild animals of the forest live and die unmolested. There is always something delightful to me in this idea. We are apt to think that this earth is made for man, but, after many ages, there are still some parts of his domain unconquered, some fair lands where the axe, the fire, and the plough arc still unknown.

While we were at Santubong, in 1859, we were distressed to hear that Mr. Fox and Mr. Steele, two Government officers in charge of a fort at Kcnowit, had been murdered by some Dyaks, whom they were judging in the court-house. We were very grieved for our friends, especially for Mr. Fox, who was for two years with us as catechist in the mission, and only left because he could not make up his mind to be ordained. However, he was most faithful in the performance of his duties at that lonely fort, and most blameless in his life; we could only regret the loss of so good a young man. We did not at that time connect this event with any general enmity to Englishmen among the [176/177] natives, but only thought that particular tribe of Kenowits were not to be trusted.

It was really a much more serious matter. Mr. Charles Johnson went up to Kenowit directly, taking the Bishop's yacht, the Sarawak Cross, as his floating fortress. He sent a thousand Dyaks to attack the fortified village of the Kenowits, who were engaged in the murders. These Dyaks were repulsed, but he led them on again himself with two hundred Sarawak Malays, good men and true. They took a brass gun overland to the village, and pounded them for a day; then the Malays and Dyaks attacked and fired the place, and took it.

There were many killed, but it was their own fault; for, before attacking, a flag of truce had been hoisted, and all who would were invited to submit, and promised their lives, but only a few women and children availed themselves of it and were saved. Tanee the brave was killed, and Hadji Mahomet. It was found that these traitors had spread a report that all the English at Sarawak and at Labuan, as well as at Bunjermassin, had been killed, and this was so thoroughly believed that the Kenowits thought they had only to kill Mr. Fox and Mr. Steele, in order to possess themselves of the arms and goods in the fort with impunity. It was true that the Malays at Bunjermassin had risen upon the Europeans there, and killed twenty Dutch officials and their families; also four of the German missionaries living among the Dyaks, and a Mr. Mattley, with his wife and three children, who used [177/178] to live at Labuan. The Dutch took summary vengeance for this massacre, but in spite of that the Malays at Coti killed the Europeans who lived there; so that neighbouring countries showed a bad example to our people, and we were afraid that religious fanaticism might have something to do with the hatred to Christians, whether Dutch or English.

In every country there are unfortunately some bad men, who are irreclaimable by kindness or severity. Such were the two who instigated a plot to murder all the English in the Sarawak territory, and take the Government to themselves. The oldest and most shameless of these men was the Datu Patinghi of Sarawak, and to tell his story I must go back to the early days of Sarawak. When Sir James Brooke first visited Mudah Hassim, the Malay Rajah, he found him endeavouring to put down a rebellion among his subjects. After a time Sir James Brooke helped him with the guns of his yacht and the services of his blue jackets. The enemy submitted, and then he begged their lives of Mudah Hassim. It was with very great difficulty this unprecedented favour was granted.

Gapoor and his followers were pardoned, and when Sarawak was given over to Sir James Brooke by the Sultan of Bruni, it was naturally supposed that this man who owed his life to the English Rajah would remain his faithful friend and follower. He was made the chief datu, or magistrate, of [178/179] whom there were three--the Datu Patinghi, the Tumangong, and the Bandhar. These Malay chiefs were members of the Council, and represented Home Department, War Office, and Treasury in the State. For some time all seemed to go well, but the Rajah soon found that the Datu Patinghi could not be restrained from oppressing the Dyaks under his charge, levying more than the proper tax, or obliging them to buy whatever he wished to sell, at exorbitant prices. His power over the Dyaks was therefore taken away, and a fixed income given him to preclude temptation. When the Rajah was in England, in 1851, this Datu intrigued with the Bruni Malays to upset the Government; he mounted yellow umbrellas, a sign of royalty, and arrogated power to himself which might have been mischievous had he been more popular with the natives. But he had many relations among the high Malays of the place, and it was a question whether they would resent his being publicly disgraced. Captain Brooke told them plainly that he must be exiled, but that it should be done in the most cautious way, and appearances should be saved. Datu Patinghi was therefore advised to go a pilgrimage to Mecca. Money and servants were supplied him, but he had no choice about it. We all hoped he would never return.

About a year afterwards Sir James Brooke said to me, "Did you ever feel pleasure at hearing of the death of an old friend?" Before I could consider this knotty question, he added Gapoor had [179/180] died of small-pox at Mecca. It was only a report, and proved untrue. Datu came back a hadji, but was desired to go and live at Malacca the rest of his days. In 1859 he begged to be allowed to return to Sarawak, and, as it was hoped he could not be ungrateful for so much kindness and forbearance, he was permitted; but he was only biding his time. After his return to Sarawak he married his daughter to Seriff Bujang, the brother of Seriff Messahore, whose rascality and bad faith were on a par with his own. Bujang was a quiet creature enough, drawn into the wicked plots of his brother and father-in-law, but they were bad to the core. A Seriff is supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Mahomet, at any rate he is an Arab, and Messahore was said to be invulnerable and sacred in his person. He was a fine, handsome creature, with insinuating manners, but there was nothing more to say in his favour. He was at the bottom of every disturbance in the country, but was cunning enough to keep himself in the background. Directly a plot miscarried, he came forward zealously to punish the wrong-doers.

He instigated the murder of Mr. Fox and Mr. Steele; nay, it was intended to be a general massacre of all the English in Sarawak territory; but by a mistake of the Kenowits these two unfortunates were killed prematurely. The day had not arrived, and this led to the discovery of the plot. When Mr. .C. Johnson went with an armed force to Kenowit, Seriff Messahore had already killed the [180/181] fort men, who had only executed his own orders. For some time he, the guilty one, escaped detection. At last some Christian Dyaks of Lundu and Banting disclosed to their missionaries that Malays had visited them to say they had better turn Mahometans, for soon there would be no English left in the country. These stories being communicated by the Bishop to Mr. Johnson, he consulted the Malay members of the council and other trustworthy native friends, and it was evident they knew there was good reason for anxiety, as they advised all the English to wear firearms, even the ladies.

At last the rumours of threats were traced to old Gapoor, the ex-Patinghi, and he was again banished the country by order of the council. Seriff's Messahore and Bujang, being connected with him by marriage, were also suspected. Messahore was warned that if he came to Kuching he would be treated as an enemy. Nevertheless he advanced up the river; his boat was greeted by a shower of balls, and he ignominiously fled. When the glamour was thus taken from him everybody was ready to divulge what they knew of the plot, and that a pension of six hundred rupees a year was promised to any one who would kill Mr. C. Johnson. The Rajah was in England, and known to be in bad health. Very few English men-of-war visited Sarawak at that time. Rumours were got up at Bruni that the Rajah was in disgrace with his own queen. This was the consequence of the commission of inquiry about piracy, which had [181/182] taken place in 1858, by order of the English Parliament; for though the results of that commission thoroughly exculpated Sir James Brooke from any blame, there was never any amende honourable made for subjecting him to such an indignity. It was never understood by the natives as anything but a slur on the Rajah's character, and was a terrible injury to his prestige for a time. Indeed, it was the seed of the Malay plot; and if we had all been killed, our own English Government would have been the remote cause of our death. It is no doubt difficult for Englishmen to understand the feelings of Malays and Dyaks. We are accustomed in England to find fault with our rulers, and submit to them all the same. But in the East it is different: no breath of blame must touch the Rajah, nor can he be arraigned before any court, except the throne of God.

Fatima, Seriff Bujang's wife, was an old friend of mine. She had always visited me from the time of our first arrival at Sarawak, and was then a very handsome girl, with a pale, clear complexion, and fine hair and eyes. We took a great interest in her marriage, and Seriff Bujang frequently came to our house. He was apparently fond of Mab, and liked to hear her tell fairy tales. Mab spoke Malay very well, and was always popular with the natives, to whom she would sing, dance, or relate Cinderella, the White Cat, or the Three Bears, etc. It was curious to see a grave-looking Malay sitting to listen to fairy stories; still more so when all the [182/183] time he was party to a plot for the destruction of the household he visited. He was more weak than wicked; and two years after that he died. I had occasion to visit some Malays in his kampong after his death, and found poor Fatima bereft of all her ornaments and gay dresses, and working as a drudge in the house. Widows are little accounted of in Eastern households.

To return to the events of October, 1859.

A timber-ship, the Planet, was lying in the river, and Mr. Johnson requested that the women and children of the mission should be sent on board until the panic passed away, and the old Datu was got safely out of the place. The fort and Government House were manned and armed, and the rest of the Europeans sheltered there. The Hacket family went down at once, and in the evening we sent Miss McKee and the two youngest children with her; but Mab was ill of fever, and could not be moved. So the Bishop and I stayed with her, and ten Chinamen guarded our house.

Mr. Chalmers had come from Merdang with news that some of those Dyaks had joined the Datu Hadji, and also some bad Lundus, who had been punished for sedition four years before. We all sat up that night; but I was too much occupied with my sick child to be nervous about anything else. The night passed over without any rising of the disaffected, and the next day Gapoor consented to leave the country quietly, finding no chief Malays would stand by him, and to be taken in a Government [183/184] gunboat to a brig just leaving the river. Thus, through God's mercy and the loyalty of the people, no harm came of this plot, except that Mr. and Mrs. Hacket decided to leave the mission, not being strong enough to stand such alarms. They went to Malacca, where he became Government chaplain, and died there of consumption, after some years' service.

The heat of Sarawak climate was so injurious to our child Mab, who had frequent attacks of fever, that as soon as the place was quiet again, we resolved to pay another visit to England. The Bishop's health was much shaken, and the doctors at Singapore ordered him home at once. But it was winter, and we were afraid of taking our children too quickly into the rigorous cold of England; therefore we took a passage in the Bahiana, a steamer which had brought out a telegraph cable to lay between Singapore and Batavia, and having accomplished her purpose, was returning empty to England. The Bishop went with us as far as Bombay, and then took P. and O. boat to England; whilst we called first at Mauritius, then at the Cape of Good Hope, staying some days at each place, and at the latter adding several passengers to our small party. We proceeded very happily until we were within a day's steam of the Island of St. Vincent, off the coast of Africa; then the great crank of the steam-engine snapped in two, and we had to sail. It took us ten days to beat up to the island, for a large screw [184/185] steamer was never intended to be propelled by sails.

We began to have gloomy forebodings of the time which must elapse before we could reach England, sailing at this rate, when we saw, lying in the roads at St. Vincent, a very large West Indian steamer on her way home. It was difficult to communicate with this ship, because she lay in quarantine, yellow flag flying; and we did not know whether she had yellow fever on board or not. Our captain, however, called us all together, and said, "I hoped to have found some provisions in this island, to add to our stores; but I find there is nothing." The island seemed just a bare rock, with one solitary palm-tree growing by the office door, and not a blade of grass. It was difficult to imagine what provisions there could be, except the coal left by ships to supply passing steamers. "It will be necessary," added Captain Grenfell, "that some of you should go home in the Magnolia, West Indian steamer, for we have not food on board for all, and cannot expect to be less than another month reaching England under sail: therefore you must each of you decide to-night what you will do; and if you choose to go home in the Magnolia, I will pay your passage. But I ought to tell you that probably there are cases of yellow fever on board that ship; for it is the time of year when it is rife at the South American stations."

Here was a problem to solve in the night! Should I take my children on board a ship where [185/186] there was probable infection, or should I subject my husband to harassing anxiety about us for a whole month? In the morning I decided to go home in the Magnolia; and I was rewarded when we climbed up into that great ship, with two hundred passengers on board, by finding that there was not a single case of yellow fever, or anything infectious. We had a delightful ten days' passage, stopping a few hours at Lisbon, but not allowed to land, and then straight to Southampton. My only regret was leaving Captain Grenfell, who had been so kind to the children all the way.

The Bahiana took just a month to get to England from St. Vincent.

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