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 XVIII. Last Years at Sarawak

Mr. Chalmers' Merdang Dyaks once said to him, "See how many races of people there are: Dyaks, Malays, Klings, Chinese, English. They have all different religions: this is proper, for God has given to each the religion suited to them."

I remembered this ingenious remark when I was reading Mr. Helms's interesting book, just published, "Pioneering in the Far East." He says: "Like most barbarous and savage nations, the Dyak identifies his gods and spirits with the great phenomena of nature, and assigns them abodes on the lofty mountains. Though, in his opinion, all spirits are not equally malignant, all are more or less to be dreaded. The silent surroundings of primaeval forests in which the Dyak spends most of his time, the mountains, the gloomy caves, often looming mysteriously through cloud and mist, predispose him to identify them with supernatural influences, which in his imagination take the form of monsters [228/229] and genii. With no better guide than the untutored imagination of a mind which in religious matters is a blank, who shall wonder that this is so? I have myself often felt the influences of such surroundings, when dark clouds deepened the forest gloom, and the approaching storm set the trees whispering: if, at such a moment, the shaggy red-haired and goblin form of the orangoutang, with which some of the Dyaks identify their genii, should appear among the branches, it requires little imagination to people the mystic gloom with unearthly beings."

Mr. Helms is quite right--the religion which springs from circumstance and surrounding nature is always one of fear; evil is so close to the heart of man that the very elements and mysteries of nature seem his enemies, so long as he is ignorant of the love of God. The great creating Spirit, whose existence is acknowledged by all Dyaks, inspires them with neither love nor trust; it is only malign spirits who are active, who concern themselves with his affairs, and threaten his happiness and prosperity, and who must therefore be propitiated. What a different aspect his native woods must present to the Christian Dyak, who can look around without fear, and believe that his Heavenly Father made all these things! You would imagine that Christianity would be welcomed as a deliverance from such superstition; but here the apathy of long habit raises a barrier. The Dyak who professed to think his dismal religion was given [230/231] him by God, was probably too intellectually idle to think at all. "What you say is most likely true, but we have received our belief from our forefathers, and it is good enough for us," is the common remark of the Land Dyak. This listlessness was perhaps originally caused by oppression and misery, a hard life and cruel masters. In the days we knew these people they had a sad and patient expression in their faces, as if they could not forget the time when they were ground down by Malay extortion, and despoiled by stronger, more warlike tribes. The present generation may have more spirit, more independence, and the blessings of peace and liberty may leave their minds more open to the light of truth. It is, however, interesting to note how different races of men develop different religious beliefs, and how these Dyaks intuitively perceive spirit through matter, and are governed, however blindly and ignorantly, by the powers of the unseen world.

The orang-outang, or wild man, in not very commonly met in the j'ungle. I have seen the trees alive with monkeys, but never met an orang-outang at liberty. The Dyaks may well be afraid of them if it is true, as they say, that if one of these monsters attacks a man, he picks his flesh off his bones like a cook plucking a chicken. They are immensely powerful, but once caged are gentle enough. Their one desire in confinement is clothing, why I cannot tell; large-sized monkeys always wrapped themselves in any bit of cloth they [230/231] could find, partly in imitation of their keepers, and perhaps also because they are very chilly creatures, and, deprived of their usual violent gymnastics, suffered from cold. A Chinaman had a female orang in his shop while we were at Sarawak, who took a violent liking to the Bishop, and always expected to be noticed when he passed the shop. Then she would kiss and fondle his hand; but if he forgot to speak to "Jemima," she went into a passion, screamed, and dashed about her cage.

I never allowed any kind of monkey to be kept at the mission-house. We had too many children on the premises, and they are jealous and uncertain in their behaviour to children. Indeed I always regretted their being either shot or caged--they enjoy life so intensely in the jungle, and are so amusing, swinging themselves from the branches of tall trees, leaping, flying almost, in pursuit of one another for mere fun, that it was sad to put them in prison, where they never lived long, and where they only exhibited a ludicrous and humiliating parody on the habits of mankind.

There was a race of monkeys at Sarawak called by the natives "Unkah," from the noise they made, but which we called Noseys, for they had long noses which fell over their mouths, so that the large males had to lift their noses with one hand, while they put food into their mouths with the other. When we first lived in the country, and were anxious to send specimens of every new and curious thing to England, my husband shot one of [231/232] these large monkeys for the sake of his skin, but he was so distressed at the look the beast gave him when he felt himself hit, he was so like his own uncle in England, who had rather a red face and long nose, that he resolved never again to shoot a monkey. This ape was clothed in long brown fur, while his legs were encased in much shorter hair of a tan colour, which gave the idea of leather breeches. I once saw a monkey's nest in a high tree. The tree was very bare of leaf or the nest might have escaped notice. It was formed of big sticks laid in a strong fork of the branches; and whether it was lined with anything softer could not be seen from below, but the sticks stuck out, covering a large space, which had no appearance of comfort or snugness.

The one monkey I liked, and that at a distance, was the wa-wa, whose voice was very sweet and melodious, like the soft bubbling of water; but it was a very melancholy animal, and never seemed to possess the fun and trickishness of the more common sorts of ape. They are all delicate and difficult to rear, and invariably die of over-eating, or rather eating what is unwholesome for them, if they have a chance. It seems as if, in approaching the form of man, they lost the instinct of the brute. It was a great addition to the pleasures of life in Sarawak that there were no wild beasts to be feared in the jungles. When we were once staying at Malacca, and, for the sake of a natural hot spring, inhabited a little bungalow in the country, [232/233] we were always liable to encounter a tiger in our walks; on Penang Hill, also, there was a large tiger staying in the woods. During one of our visits, we tracked his footsteps in a cave on the hill; and he carried off a calf from a gentleman's cow-house near us--at another time a pony from a neighbour's stable. Tigers do not, however, live at Penang: they occasionally swim over the strait from Johore, opposite the island, if driven by hunger. The natives made deep pits to catch them, with bamboo spears at the bottom to transfix them when they fall in. On one occasion a French Roman Catholic missionary fell into one of these tiger-pits, and remained there, starved and wounded, for three days before he was discovered. He was a very good man, and gave a wonderful account of his happiness, his visions of heavenly bliss while dying in that slow torture, for he was too far gone to be restored. He died rejoicing that he had known what it was to suffer with Christ.

The last two years of our life at Sarawak, the Bishop's health failed and caused me much anxiety. The long jungle walks, which were so necessary in getting about from one mission to another, became more and more difficult to him. Often he had to stop and lie down under a tree till the palpitation of his heart abated; repeated attacks of Labuan fever affected his liver; and our friends often warned us that we ought to go home to save his life. The interest of the different missions increased so much at this time, that it seemed hard [233/234] to give up a post in which many trials and disappointments had been lived through, just as success seemed about to reward the years of patient labour. The peace and harmony of the mission was greatly promoted, the last three years of our stay, by an annual meeting of the clergy with their bishop. They came from their different rivers to spend a week at the mission-house, and for certain hours of each day met in the church to discuss missionary operations, Church discipline, religious terms, translations, etc. It was very desirable there should be no diversity of opinion in these matters, but that the different missions should have the same plans, uses, and customs. And these meetings, besides the importance of the subjects discussed, knit the missionaries to one another and all to the Bishop, promoting also that esprit de corps which strengthens any institution, be it school, college, or Church in a heathen country.

A curious adventure happened to the Bishop in 1865. It was the rainy season, and the roads were saturated with water and full of holes, especially a new bit of road towards Pedungan, where sleepers of wood had been laid down, to steady what would otherwise have been a bog; but holes here and there could not be avoided. The Bishop always took a ride early in the morning, before seven o'clock service in church. That morning I had asked him to go to a house down that road, to inquire about a servant. He came home late, and covered with mud all down one side. "Papa has fallen," said [234/235] little Mildred, playing in the garden. At her voice her father seemed to wake up out of a deep sleep, and gradually he became conscious of a severe bruise on his face and pain in his head; but he could give no account of the matter, which was, however, explained by a Malay in the course of the day. This man was walking on the road to Pedungan, when he met the Bishop returning home. He saw the horse put his foot into a deep hole and come down, the Bishop also. He did not, however, at once fall off, not until the horse in his efforts to rise had inflicted a blow with his head on his rider's face. The Malay helped the horse up, which was not hurt, and the Bishop on his back; and seeing he v/as much stunned, he followed them for some way lest the Bishop should need assistance: but when they reached the town and seemed all right, he went back. All this time, however, the Bishop was perfectly unconscious; the horse carried him as he chose, over a ditch, up a steep bank, under low-hanging trees, and quite safely until he stopped at our own door. A headache and some stiffness were the only results of what might have been a fatal accident. We were very thankful to God for having sent His angel to guard steps as unconscious and heedless as any little child's could have been. No memory of what had happened ever came back to the Bishop.

In 1866 the Rifleman, her Majesty's surveying ship, gave us a passage to Labuan, where the Bishop [235/236] wanted to hold a confirmation. This ship was going to Manilla, and from thence to Hong Kong, before she returned to Singapore, and, through the kindness of Captain Reed, we accompanied her. At Labuan I caught the fever of the country, but it did not come out for ten days, by which time we were at Manilla. We anchored off Manilla on Christmas-day evening: it had been a very wet day, but cleared up at night, and we sat on deck watching the lights on shore, and listening to the constant chimes of the numerous church bells, whilst the sailors sang songs and did their best to amuse us. It seemed so strange to be in a Christian country again.

They have some customs at Manilla which I could not help admiring. When the Vesper bell rings at six o'clock, all business and pleasure is suspended for a few minutes, and all the world, man, woman, and child, say a prayer. The coachmen on the carriages stop their horses, the pedestrians stand still, friends engaging in animated conversation are suddenly silent. The setting sun is a signal for the heart to rise to God; it is a public recognition of His protecting care, and an act of thanksgiving. When it is over, the children ask their parents' blessing for the night. This was told me by a native of Manilla, an educated gentleman, who gave his children every advantage of learning and travel. The Vesper custom I saw for myself every time I took an evening drive. We witnessed a very gorgeous procession on the feast of the Epiphany. [236/237] All the city functionaries, the military, the priests, bands of music, and a masquerade of the three kings on horseback, surrounded by troops of children beautifully dressed in white and scattering flowers, passed through the streets to a church, into which they all poured, the three horses riding in too, to attend high mass. I saw but little of Manilla, being ill nearly all the time. It is a place shaken to pieces by earthquakes. When we were there the great square, where the Government offices once stood, was a heap of ruins, and the treasury was too poor even to clear them away. The bridges were all broken in the middle, and patched up somehow; and all the rooms in the houses were crooked, the timbers of the walls being joined loosely together to admit of the frequent trembling, heaving, and subsidence of the ground, without their cracking. I believe the country all round was lovely, but I only took one drive when I was convalescent, and then we steamed away to Hong Kong. I shall say nothing about Hong Kong, for all the world knows what a beautiful place it is in winter--how bright and sparkling the blue sea, how clean and trim the streets, and how stately the buildings; also what a dream of loveliness is the one drive out of the town to the Happy Valley, where many an Englishman lies buried in the cemetery. I had a second bout of fever at Hong Kong. Happily for us, we found kind relatives both at Manilla and Hong Kong, who nursed me, and who were very good to us. We found it very cold there after stewing for [237/238] six years in Borneo, and the Bishop caught a chill which made him ill all the rest of the way home. Had we thought when we left Sarawak in '66 that we should never return there, it would have been a great trial to bid adieu to our old home, but we had no such intention. We were only taking Mildred to England, and seeking a necessary change for the Bishop's failing health. The knowledge that he would not be able to resume his work in the East dawned upon us by degrees. It was a great disappointment, but we were thankful that an English vicarage was found for us, where we could make a home for our children, and where the duties and pleasures of an English parish remained to us. It is, however, very pleasant, on a foggy day in November or February, to return in fancy to that land of sunshine and flowers; to imagine one's self again sitting in the porch of the mission-house, gazing at the mountain of Matang, lit up with sunset glories of purple and gold. Then, when the last gleam of colour has faded, to find the Chinaman lighting the lamps in the verandah, and little dusky faces peeping out, to know if you will sing with them "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," or the hymn about the "Purple-headed mountain and river running by," which must have surely been written for Sarawak children.

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