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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 XIX. The Island of Borneo

BORNEO is so little known that a short account of it may be interesting. If any one will examine a map of Borneo they will see that it is a large island, in shape something like a box with the lid open. The interior of the square part of it presents almost a blank on the map, for the coasts only are known to the civilized world. Its greatest length is eight hundred miles, and its greatest breadth six hundred and twenty-five miles. Ranges of mountains through the centre of the island provide the sources of many fine rivers which are the highways of the country.

The Dutch claim the south and south-west of the island. They have settlements at Sambas, at Pontianak, and at Banjermassin; and forts on the rivers, inhabited by Dutch residents, or Malay chiefs in their pay: but they have never won the hearts of the aborigines, for the Dutch maxim is always to get as much money as possible out of [239/240] native subjects, consequently they are every now and then obliged to send European troops to enforce the obedience of the Chinese and Dyaks to their rule. On the west of Borneo lies the little kingdom of Sarawak, about three hundred miles of coast line from Cape Datu to Point Kiderong.

The Sultan of Bruni, who was the nominal ruler of all the north-west of Borneo, gave up this province to Sir James Brooke in 1841, "to him and his heirs for ever," on condition a small sum of money was paid him annually. The province consisted originally of "about sixty miles of coast, from Cape Datu to the entrance of the Samarahan River, with an average breadth of fifty miles inland;" [Letter of Sir J. Brooke to J. Gardner, Esq.] but from time to time the Sultan entreated Sir James Brooke to take the rule of one river after another beyond this province towards Borneo Proper, for, owing to his own weakness, and the rapacity of his nobles who governed in his name, no revenue came to him from those rivers, nor could he protect native trade, or secure the lives of his subjects from the extortions and covetousness of their Malay chiefs. So Sarawak grew, and peace, and justice, and free trade flourished where before there were only poverty and oppression. The country is traversed by fine rivers. The Rejang, four fathoms deep two hundred miles from the mouth, the Batang Lupar, and the Sarawak are the largest, and the great highways of the country; along the banks of which are [240/241] cultivated clearings and Dyak villages, but beyond these extend dense jungle which even clothes the sides of the mountains. Besides the before-mentioned rivers are many smaller ones which are still noble streams--the Sarebas, Samarahan, Sadong, Lundu, etc. It is indeed a well-watered country, and only requires the industry of man to develop its riches.

There are great mountain ranges to the northwest and through the interior of the island, and the natives speak of lakes of vast extent, with Dyak villages on their shores. But this is only tradition. There is a lake commonly reported only two days' journey from the foot of Kini Balu, a high mountain on the north-west, but no Englishman has yet trod its shores. The difficulties of exploring such dense jungles and mountain precipices as bar the way across Borneo are almost insuperable. I quote from Mr. Hornaday's recent lecture at Rochester. He says, "Owing to the peculiar and almost impassable nature of the country, Borneo has never been crossed by the white man. Travelling over some of the mountains seems to be an absolute impossibility. Many of them consist almost wholly of huge blocks of basalt, soft, moist, and too slippery to walk upon. I would rather attempt to cross the continent of Africa than the island of Borneo. The explorer must carry with him provisions enough to last both going and returning. The jungle affords nothing fit for human sustenance, and there are no [241/242] inhabitants to supply the explorer with food. Fame awaits the man who will thoroughly explore the interior of the island." [Mr. Hornaday's lecture before the Young Men's Christian Association.]

Sir Spencer St. John, who has had more experience of Borneo jungles than any other Englishman hitherto, says, "As I have now made many journeys in Borneo, and seen much of forest walking, I can speak of it with something like certainty. I have ever found, in recording progress, that we can seldom allow more than a mile an hour under ordinary circumstances. Sometimes, when extremely difficult or winding, we do not make half a mile an hour. On certain occasions, when very hard pressed, I have seen the men manage a mile and a half; but, with all our exertions, I have never yet recorded more than ten miles' progress in a day, through thick pathless forests, and that was after ten hours of hard work. It requires great experience not to judge distance by the fatigue we feel." [St. John's Limbong Journal.]

It seems that the Sultan of Bruni has found out that the best way he can govern his subjects and gain a revenue without trouble, is by ceding parts of his territory to others. He has given over the whole of the north of the island to an English company, on condition they pay twelve thousand five hundred dollars for it annually. This country, embracing an area of twenty thousand square [242/243] miles, has fine harbours on its coasts very suitable for a commercial settlement. The great mountain of Kini Balu, nearly fourteen thousand feet high, with its range of lesser mountains, stands on the north-west, and between it and the sea lies a very fertile country, thus described some years ago by Sir Spencer St. John, in his "Forests of the Far East:" We rode over towards Pandusan in search of plants. From the summit of the first low hill we had a beautiful view of the lovely plain of Tampusak, extending from the sea far into the interior. Groves of cocoanuts were interspersed among the rice-grounds which extended, intermixed with grassy fields, to the sea-shore, bounded by a long line of Casuarina trees. Little hamlets lie scattered in all directions, some distinctly visible, other nearly hidden by the rich green foliage of fruit-trees. The prospect was bounded on the west by low sandstone hills, whose red colour occasionally showing through the lately burnt grass, afforded a varied tint in the otherwise verdant landscape. In the south Kini Balu and its attendant ranges were hidden by clouds."

Here is another description after a day's journey towards the mountain:--

"While reclining under the shade of cocoanut palms, we had a beautiful view of the country beyond. The river Tampusak flowed past us, bubbling and breaking over its uneven bed, here shallower and therefore broader than usual. To the left the country was open almost to the base [243/244] of the great mountain, to the right the land was more hilly, and Saduk Saduk showed itself as a high peak, but dwarfed by the neighbourhood of Kini Balu, whose rocky precipices looked a deep purple colour. The summit was beautifully clear. The people in this part of the country are called Idaan. They seem industrious and good agriculturists, even using a rough plough, and cultivating the whole valley; a rich black soil produces good crops of rice, and Killadis, an arum root used for food. They also grow tobacco."

These people live too far from Bruni to be robbed by the Sultan and his nobles. The Lanuns who inhabit the north coasts are very warlike, and have always been pirates within the memory of man. They will not be easy subjects to deal with, nor will the Sooloos on the east coast, but if they can be reclaimed they may become an enterprising and fine people, like the Sarebas pirates of Sarawak.

I hope the Company will have patience with the natives of this vast territory. They will probably not work for wages. Chinese labour must be depended upon, and as they are the most industrious people on the face of the earth, and will do anything for money, they are always available'. But they require a firm government, and great care must be taken that they do not infringe on the rights of the natives or there will be quarrels and bloodshed. Tradition says that there was once a Chinese kingdom at the north of Borneo, whose chiefs married into the families of the principal [244/245] Dyak chiefs; but it is the misfortune of the Chinese character to be both boastful and cowardly, and when they had irritated the Malays by their big words, they stood no chance of prevailing against them in war. If their enemies did not run away after the first attack and discharge of firearms, they were pretty sure to show them an example by doing so themselves. I speak of the Chinese fifty years ago; since they have had wars with Europeans they have learnt better to stand to their arms. But they were gradually exterminated by the Malays in these petty wars, and now all that remains of them is a trace of Celestial physiognomy in their Dyak descendants, and the knowledge of agriculture which they still retain.

The Bruni Government protects no one. It is wonderful that any Chinese should still trade at a place where riches, however moderate, are sure to excite the cupidity of the Malay nobles, and to be transferred, under some pretext or another, to their own pockets. I rejoice to think that English rule and justice is now to be offered to the inhabitants of the North of Borneo. They expect an Englishman to be just and generous, brave and firm, and they ground this expectation on their knowledge and experience of Labuan and Sarawak, and the lessons which her Majesty's ships of war have from time to time impressed on the corrupt and faithless Bruni people. I trust this experience will never be reversed by unworthy agents or settlers. The climate is too tropical for [245/246] colonization, no families of emigrants can be reared in such heat. There are, no doubt, more decided seasons in the north of the island than in the centre: it is hotter at one part of the year, and colder at another, than in the lands bordering on the equator, which are the rain nurseries of the world. A less fierce heat, but rain almost every day in the year, was our lot at Sarawak; and though it was very healthy for English men and women, it was not so good for crops: pepper and coffee prefer a drier climate.

There will be one difficulty in the North Borneo settlement which will require wise handling. I mean the slaves which are the possession of every petty chief and every Malay family in the country. All pirates bring home fresh slaves from every expedition. This can be put an end to at once. But it will be as impolitic as impossible to put a sudden end to the state of slavery in which so large a proportion of the inhabitants will be found. In this respect I hope the North Borneo Company will take a leaf out of Sarawak experience. Sir James Brooke, as long ago as 1841, appealed to the English Government "to assist him to put down piracy and the slave trade, which," he said, "are openly carried on within a short distance of three European settlements, on a scale and system revolting to humanity."

The exertions of Sir James Brooke and his nephews, aided occasionally by her Majesty's ships, have indeed nearly put a stop to piracy, and therefore to the kidnapping of slaves. Still [246/247] the descendants of Dyak slaves remain the property of their masters. Besides these, there are slave debtors, whole families who have sold themselves to pay the accumulations arising from taxes or impositions of the Malays which they had no hope of repaying. Usury, which was the fountain of this evil, has been forbidden at Sarawak, and many are the slave debtors whom the Rajah's purse has freed.

"Slavery in the East," says Mr. Low, "has always been of a more mild and gentle character than that which in the West so disgusted the intelligent natives of Europe. ["Sarawak, its Inhabitants and Productions," by Hugh Low.] The slaves in Borneo are generally Dyaks and their descendants, who have been captured by the rulers of the country to swell the number of their personal attendants. Their duties consist in helping their master, who always works with them, in his house or boat building operations, accompanying him in his trading expeditions, assisting in the navigation of his boats, etc. Their masters generally allot them wives from amongst their female domestics, and many of them acquire the affection and confidence of their superiors. The price of a slave in Sarawak is from thirty to sixty dollars, but as the trade is being as quickly repressed as possible, without too much shocking the prejudices of the inhabitants, they have of late become very scarce, and difficult to be bought. The price of a girl varies from thirty to one hundred dollars, but at [247/248] Sarawak they arc even more difficult than men to obtain." Thus wrote Mr. Low in the year 1848. By this time, 1882, slavery is almost nominal at Sarawak. I read, in a Sarawak Gazette, six months ago, that Rajah Brooke had proposed to his Supreme Council, which consists of four Malays and two Englishmen, that slavery should be by law abolished in Sarawak territory. He had proposed this, he said, six months previously, and the Malay councillors present assented heartily as far as themselves and the people of Kuching were concerned, but they thought it would be desirable to give six months' notice to the outlying rivers and coasts, where the people were not as advanced in civilization as those at the capital. Now the six months had passed away, were they prepared to assent to the law? They again expressed their cordial approval of the abolition of slavery, but recommended three months more delay before it was enforced on the out-stations. In the same Gazette I noticed a letter from the Resident at Bintulu, one of the farthest stations from Kuching, in which he speaks of a Malay noble, warmly attached to the Sarawak Government, who claimed all the inhabitants of a large district as his slaves. It was merely a nominal claim, as they did no work for him, but he said they belonged to him. Still, when he was assured by Mr. De Crespigny [The Resident] that such a claim would not be allowed by the Rajah, he submitted without complaint. We may hope [248/249] that such will be the universal acceptance of the new law, but it is easy to see that forty years of past repression and discountenance, and the strong influence of English opinion on the subject of slavery, has effected what would doubtless have caused strong opposition and estrangement if attempted hastily.

I have just received a Sarawak Gazette, dated July 1st, which contains an account of a further cession of territory from the Sultan of Bruni to Rajah Brooke of Sarawak.

This is the passage:

"On Saturday, the 10th June, his Highness the Sultan signified his willingness to cede to the Rajah of Sarawak, and his heirs, all the country and rivers that lie between Points Kadurong and Barram, including about three miles of coast on the east side of Barram Point. Negotiations about the sum to be paid for this hundred miles of coast continued for three days, when the deed of cession was finally sealed and delivered. This deed of cession, sealed with the respective seals of his Highness the Sultan of Bruni and the Rajah of Sarawak, was read out in full court on the 19th June. After which his Highness the Rajah addressed a few words to the people, telling them that he intended going to the river Barram towards the end of this moon, for the purpose of choosing a site whereon to erect a fort, and establishing a government there, to be a nucleus of trade. He added that all those who wished to trade there might now do so without fear."

[250] This is an important addition to the country of Sarawak.

The time may indeed not be far distant when the country of Bruni, now wedged in between Sarawak and the territory of British North Borneo, may disappear altogether, and with it the misrule and oppression of that corrupt Eastern court. Then English people will be responsible for the whole of the north and north-west of the island of Borneo, and a new era of peace and happiness will dawn upon its inhabitants.


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