Thomas Forrest~ “A Voyage to New Guinea and the Moluccas” (1969) visited Brunei which he described as “Venice of the East” in 1776. He describes not only the villages, government and trade when Brunei was still at its peak of feudal power, but also the inter-relationship of the Sultanate with the Chinese and Sulu.
John Dalton~An English merchant, visited the Sultanate of Kutei on the Mahakam River in 1827-28. Dalton was detained by the Sultan, robbed of his trade goods, and threatened with death. He eventually was freed at the behest of several Bugis merchants who wished to ingratiate the English in Singapore. Earlier Dutch and subsequent British traders, such as Erskine Murray, met far worse fates. Dalton’s description of the region was printed in a series in the Singapore Chronicle, and later in J.H. Moor’s Notices of the Indian Archipelago (1837).
James Brooke~ The first “white Rajah” and founder of an independent Sarawak, Brooke was a controversial figure in his own time and today. His friends and heirs, as well as his own writings portray him as an idealistic figure devoted to civilize and protect disempowered indigenous people, end slavery and piracy. His opponents attempted to color him as a blood-thirsty tyrant motivated by greed and imperialism. Brooke’s diaries of his first journeys and establishment of Sarawak were edited by Rodney Mundy (1848) Narrative of Events in Borneo and Celebes…From the Journals of James Brooke. Esq., Rajah of Sarawak, and Governor of Labuan [John Murray, London].
There is a veritable library of works by and about the Brooke Dynasty. His nephew Charles Brooke Ten Years in Sarawak –Vedwin olume I (2006, facsimile reprint of 1866) is a portrait of his years, first as a fighter and administrator on the frontier of Sarawak, then as the heir apparent (Rajah Mudah) after his brothers fall from grace, and finally as Rajah himself. Ranee Margaret Brooke My Life in Sarawak (1913) is the autobiography of the wife of Charles Brooke. Queen of the Head Hunters (1972). Is an autobiography by Ranee Sylvia Brooke, the wife of the third and final ajah, the distracted playboy Vyner Brooke, as the dynasty attempts the transition to self-rule, only to be prematurely stymied by byzantine wrangling and the imminent Japanese invasion. The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 (1992) bySteven Runciman and Bob Reece’s The White Rajahs of Sarawak: a Borneo Dynasty (2004) are excellent scholarly overviews of the period.
Henry Keppel~ The Expedition to Borneo of the HMS Dido [1846; republ. 1991 Oxford Univ. Press, Singapore] Assigned to suppress the piracy of the Illanun and Balangingi clans from Mindanao, Keppel was persuaded by Brooke to attack the raiding “Sea Dayak” tribes along the Skrang and Batang Lupar rivers. This suppressed one of the key hindrances to Brooke’s authority and allowed him to extend his Rajahnate eastward.
The St. John’s –a family of diplomats and men-of-letters that were closely associated with Sarawak and the Brookes. The father, James Augustus St John (born the son of a shoe-maker as James John; 1830-1888) was a Welsh radical who took over from Richard Carlile as publisher of the banned journal “The Republican. He wrote Views in The Eastern Archipelago in 1847, which was a beautifully illustrated table-book promoting Brooke and the establishment of Sarawak. One son, Horace Stebbing
Roscoe St. John explored the same ground in (1853) “The Indian Archipelago: Its History and Present State.”
James introduced his third son Spenser St. John to James Brooke in 1848 and this resulted in him being appointed the Rajah’s private secretary. Spenser was appointed to be British Consul in Siam in 1850, and then to Borneo (serving in Labuan and Brunei) in 1855. In 1858 he accompanied Hugh Low to become the second European to reach the summit of Mt. Kinabalu. Life in the Forests of the Far East (1862) is an account of his experiences and explorations in the region
Hugh Low was sent to the Far East in 1844 by his horticultural father to collect rare orchids and other plants. Low spent several years accompanying James Brooke in Sarawak and was appointed Colonial Secretary after Brooke became Governor of Labuan. The beautifully illustrated Sarawak: Its Inhabitants and Productions Being Notes during a Residence in that Country with His Excellency Mr. James Brooke(1848) was the first scientifically oriented work covering the region. Low remained at Labuan until 1876 under St. John and other Governors and, as he defended British policies that protected the Brunei Sultanate, became estranged with the Brookes. He was the first European to ascend Mt. Kinabalu, arriving just short of the summit, in 1851. After his reputation was besmirched in Labuan, he served as the British Resident in Perak (1876-1889) where he developed experimental plantations that introduced rubber, coffee, pepper and tea to the region. He was key in founding the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and its Journal. His knowledge of Malay culture enabled him to negotiate British Protectorate status over Brunei in 1888. His son, Hugh “Hugo” Brooke Low, (1849-1887) joined the Sarawak Service in and while on his many expeditions in the Rejang and Batang Lupar tributaries collected the nucleus of the initial ethnographic collections in the Sarawak Museum. Brooke Low was intent on producing a major work on the peoples of North Borneo and his notes (many taken from other sources) were compiled by the ethnologist H. Ling Roth to produce the massive 2 volume The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo (1896).
Robert Burns (1849) – Burns (who claimed to be the grandson of the Scottish poet) was an agent of a Singapore trading house that was in rivalry to Rajah Brooke, and was one of the first Europeans to explore the interior of the Rejang River and describe the mineral resources he found there. Tom Harrisson called him the “first anthropologist in Borneo” because he left a vocabulary and sympathetic description of the Kayan people in The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and East Asia (1849: III: 138-152). Burns was murdered by Sulu and Illunun pirates after his Schooner, The Dolphin, ran aground on a reef off Marudu, Sabah.
Harriette McDougall Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak (1882) is a memoire of this Missionaries life as the wife of the Bishop of Kuching and Labuan during the tumultuous two decades from 1847-1867. She bore 10 children and only four survived the diseases and climate. She and her husband, Frank, also left an important record of the Chinese Gold-Miners Rebellion of 1856 which left most of Kuching looted and in flames and many in the European community killed. Rajah Brooke escaped by swimming down the Sarawak River. After contacting his nephews who were manning outposts on other rivers and recruiting his local Malay and Dayak allies, he was able to rout the Chinese rebels.
Rev. Edwin H. Gomes was the son of Rev. W. H. Gomes (an Indian Missionary under Bishop McDougall) and served himself under Bishop Hose in Sarawak for nearly two decades. He produced three works covering much the same ground, and these are somewhat marred by his use of material taken verbatim from earlier authors (such as earlier missionaries Horsburgh and Chambers) without credit. Many of the rituals which he describes had long fallen into decline by the years of his service.
The Sea-Dyaks of Borneo “(1907), Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo (1911) and The Children of Borneo (1907) the latter written for children and containing some beautiful watercolors.
Eda Green Borneo: The Land of River and Palm (1909) was intended to inspire support for missionary activities in Sarawak but contains much useful information. Green apparently made full use of the records of the Borneo Missionary Society in her production of the book. Like the Gomes works it draws from earlier missionary writers without giving them credit, and is somewhat out of date in terms of describing the “pagan” life of the groups described. It has, however, an excellent discussion of the history and expansion of missionary activities which is difficult to locate in other sources.
Ludvig Victor Helms~Pioneering in the Far East and Journeys to California in 1849 and the White Sea in 1878 (W.H. Allen, London 1882) A Danish merchant, Helms was one of the few to describe Bali and Lombok prior to Dutch occupation, with subsequent travels around the Pacific rim. In 1852 he started shipping antimony from Sarawak, and in 1856 was appointed the first manager of the Borneo Company, where he remained until 1872. His description of the Malay and upriver Dayak villages, natural resources and events during and subsequent to the Chinese Insurrection provide a third perspective to that of Harriette MacDougall and Rajah Brooke.
Ida Pfeiffer~ A Lady’s Second Journey ‘round the World (1855 Longman, Brown, Green & Longman: London) In 1852, an intrepid female explorer undertook an amazing cross island journey with only her Malay servant, a cook and a boatman. Pfeiffer’s travelled from Kuching, up the Batang Lupar (where headhunting and raiding still occurred unabated), and then into the watershed of the Kapuas River in the Dutch portion of the island. This was the first overland journey across the island by any European.
Lady Annie Brassey~ The Last Voyage To India And Australia, In The ‘Sunbeam’ Lady Brassey (1839-1887; wife of Thomas Brassey, Earl Hastings) was an English author best known for her four accounts of ocean journeys undertaken with her family. This volume, published posthumously in 1889, contains Brassey’s account of her family’s steam yacht voyage to India, Ceylon, Borneo and Australia, describing exotic locations and domestic life on board. She died off of Australia, after weeks of a severe fever (probably recurrent malaria, but some think it was leptosporosis caught from the bats in Gomontong Cave)
Frank Hatton North Borneo: Explorations and Adventures on the Equator (1886: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington; London) Hatton was a young geologist hired by the North Borneo Company to explore the minerals that might be exploited in the recently acquired territory. Hatton’s journals of 1881-83 are filled with descriptions of upriver areas that were previously unknown to Europeans. While Hatton encountered suspicious and sometimes hostile Dusun and Murut groups his death came when his rifle accidently discharged when he stumbled in the jungle while hunting an aggressive elephant.
K.G. Tregonning Under Chartered Company Rule: A History of Modern Sabah (North Borneo 1881-1963) (1965) An extended description of life under the rule of the North Borneo Company.
Tom Harrisson World Within (1959) Based upon his short undergraduate experience in Sarawak as part of the Oxford University Expedition, anthropologist Harrisson became part of a Special Services guerrilla campaign that parachuted into Central Borneo and the Kelabit tribe during WWII. This is his personal account of the “secret war”against the Japanese that he helped organize, the lifting of the ban on headhunting, and the rescue of Allied airmen shot down over the jungles. Harrisson later helped organize fighters in Lundu to resist the Brunei Rebellion. Harrisson was always outspoken, opinionated and controversial and remains so to this day.
Judith M Heimann (1999) in her biography The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life uncovers all the warts and attractions of one of the major figures of the period between the decline of the Brooke Raj and Merdeka (Independence). From 1950-196 he was Director of the Sarawak Museum and he and his wife, Barbara, initiated the Niah Cave excavations, helped found Sarawaks’ first National Parks, explored caves, began the first projects to rehabilitate orangutans, revitalized the Sarawak Museum Journal and trained the first corps of Sabahan anthropologists and zoologists.
James Ritchie Bruno Manser: The Inside Story (1994). Ritchie is a Malaysian newspaperman and this is a somewhat pro-government view of the involvement of the Swiss activist in the struggle of the Penan hunter-gatherers against the logging industry. Glossed over by Ritchie is the fact that Manser was not on the scene when the protests began, didn’t organize them, and merely carried their message and concerns outside of Malaysia. Nevertheless, Ritchie helped create a myth, and then found it easy to bash it down. He appears remarkably unaware of the culture of the Penan, their concept of land use, and quotes a single government-paid Anthropologist who argues that the Penan are “primitives” who must assimilate into Malay culture in the face of government extraction of lumber and palm oil plantations.
Alfred Russel Wallace The Malay Archipelago It’s hard to believe that the two most popular travel books of the 19th Century were written by the co-discoverers of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, but Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago hit the best-sellers lists that reached popular audiences. Wallace’s work covers the whole region of insular SE Asia during his 1854-1862 explorations, but several chapters deal with his stay in Sarawak and his collecting orangutans and insects along the Sadong River, at Rajah James Brooks bungalow at Peninjuah, and his overland journey through Bidayuh country.
Odoardo Beccari Wanderings in the Great Forest of Borneo (1904, reprinted in for example 1990) – In 1865-67 Beccari accompanied his patron, the Marquise G. Doria in a collecting expedition for the Genoa Museum. He collected ferns in the Matang area, explored Wind Cave near Bau, and followed the trail previously taken by Wallace on the Sadong River to shoot orangutans.
William T. Hornaday~ Two Years In The Jungle (1885; reprinted OUP 1993) A taxidermist for Hornaday undertook a specimen-collecting expedition to India, Ceylon, and Borneo in 1876-79. He later became the chief taxidermist for the Smithsonian and collected live individuals for the National Zoo and NY Zoo, but also became a supporter of wildlife preservation.
B.F.S. Baden-Powell was an important aviator, balloonist and military innovator who supported the use of aircraft in WWI. He created man-lifting kites, and prototypes to hang-gliders. He assisted his brother, Robert, in introducing aeronautics in the Boy Scouts. He travelled to South Africa, Sudan, Egypt, India, New Guinea, Borneo, Australia, Polynesia and elsewhere. In Savage Isles and Settled Lands (Richard Bently & Son, London 1892)
Marianne North~ A Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North (Webb & Bower 1980) North was a landscape artist but began specializing on botanical subjects after she was encouraged by Darwin to travel to the tropics. Like Ida Pfeiffer two decades earlier, she often travelled to areas where the locals were astounded that a European woman would attempt. Her paintings in nature were one of the few means to accurately illustrate rare and fragile plants like orchids, the Nepenthes pitcher plant, and many ferns in a period prior to color photography. She described many new species, some like Nepenthes northiana that were only collected much later. Her paintings, many of them reproduced
Robert W.C. Shelford~ A Naturalist In Borneo (1917) Shelford was born in Singapore in 1872 and educated at Cambridge. From 1897 to 1904 he was the curator of the Sarawak Museum, Kuching.
Ivor H.N. Evans~ After spending only a year (1910) as an official in the North Borneo Service, Evans returned to Britain take a degree in Anthropology at Cambridge. In 1912 he took a post as Curator and Ethnographer at the Perak Museum and studied the local cultures. His writings range from the Negritos of the Malay Peninsula to the Dusun and Bajau of North Borneo with Among Primitive Peoples in Borneo(1922). He was imprisoned by the Japanese and his field notes destroyed. His consequently was not published until 1953.
The Head Hunters of Borneo: A Narrative of Travel Up the Mahakkam and Down the Barito; Also, Journeyings in Sumatra (1882) In 1879 Carl Bock, Norwegian naturalist and explorer, spent a half year travelling up the Mahakam river and down the Barito in what is today Indonesian Kalimantan. Although his purpose was scientific research he allowed his book to be influenced by the popular prejudice of his day with sensationalized tales of bloodthirsty Dayaks and cannibalism, as well as his obsessive efforts to locate a tribe of men with tails, of whom he had heard. Despite these defects it contains a wealth of information on Dayak life and custom. The twenty-eight beautiful color plates illustrate Dayak tattoo and costume, their houses and artifacts.
Carl Lumholtz Through Central Borneo: An Account f Two Years’ Travel In The Land Of The Head-Hunters in The Years Between 1913 And 1917 (1920) Lumhotz was yet another one of a long line of great Norwegian explorers/ethnographers and travelled through the Australian outback, Mexico, and in his last expedition, Central Borneo.
William Krohn In Borneo Jungles (1927) was an American pathologist sent by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to collect ethnological specimens in Borneo. He travelled up the Mahakam River of Kalimantan on steamships and government launches in staterooms. Still he did travel far enough off the river to experience Dayak home life, and collect a wealth of information on their spiritual world, sports and pastimes, music, arts and crafts, marriage, feasts and ceremonials–and persistent cases of head-hunting.
Charles Hose and William McDougall~ The Pagan Tribes of Borneo (1912) Hose joined the Sarawak Service in 1884. Hose interests in biology, expanded to include ethnography, as he rose to become Resident Officer of the vast Baram River district of Sarawak and as Supreme Court Judge. Retiring in 1907, he returned several times to Borneo and wrote several excellent works on his experiences. He was also important in publicizing and encouraging the development of the oil deposits near Miri. Hose was an excellent photographer and his photos document many groups who had little contact with beyond the colonial outposts. Hose wrote several works on his adventures after his retirement includingNatural Man: A Record from Borneo (1926), Fifty Years of Romance and Research – Or a Jungle-Wallah at Large (1927) and The Field Book of a Jungle-Wallah: Being a Description of Shore, River and Forest Life in Sarawak (1929)
Frederick Boyle and Ashmore Russan The Orchid Seekers: A Story of Adventure in Borneo (Reprinted Natural History Productions KK) Serialized in Boys’ Own Paper (1892), and published as a novel in (1893) this children’s novel is fantastic tale of adventure, bravado and a liberal dose of colonial paternalism in search of a legendary ‘blue orchid’ by a German horticulturalist, Mr. Hertz, and his two boy assistants. The boys become involved in rescuing a Chinese girl who rescues Kuching from a plot to destroy it by mutinous opium-crazed gangs. Frederick Boyle briefly served in Sarawak under the Brooke Rajahnate in 1863 and had a passion for orchids. Boyle also wrote Adventures among the Dyaks of Borneo (1865; Reprinted 2007 Opus/NHP; KK)
William M. Crocker and Chester Skipwith Chapman Waiting For The Tide; or Scraps and Scrawls From Sarawak
This small illustrated volume, may be the first non-fiction to emerge from Sarawak, and is believed to be the first book actually printed in Kuching, is a series of short stories written by various Junior Officers of the Rajah’s government service. The “tall tales” are told as the officers wait around a camp-fire waiting for the tide to turn so they can proceed onward up the Sarawak River. The authors are given pseudonyms “A Pirate Story” by W. Fraser (actually Crocker, Police Magistrate and was Governor of North Borneo between1887-88), “A Jungle Heroine” by A. Perry (i.e. Alfred Robert Houghton, District Officer of the Sadong District 1863-1881); “Men With Tails” by T. Skipwith (i.e. Chapman Officer in Kalaka District 1864-76 and later in Perak); “To The Rescue” by O. C. Vane (i.e. Oliver Cromwell Vane St. John, Officer in Charge Paku, Upper Sarawak; Treasurer; and Sarawak’s First Postmaster 1860-84 ; nephew of Spenser St. John); “Adventure With An Alligator”, by H. Roscoe (probably O. C. St. John, but he used his father’s name); “Don’s Story” by W. H. Don (i.e. W.H. Rodway, Resident of Muka). Chapman and H.H. Everett provided the illustrations, which were lithographed in Singapore.
James Barclay~ A Stroll Through Borneo (1982) Barclay was an oil worker in Miri who spent 5 months walking in the upriver areas of the Rejang and Baram rivers with Kayan, Kenyah and Punan guides. He returned in 1991 and was deported after he allegedly filmed a Penan blockade for a Canadian production company. He then wrote an article for the Guardian “Penan’s last stand against timber industry pirates.” Officially changing his name and obtaining a new passport he was detained again for two months in 1992 as a “prohibited immigrant”. He claims he was told, however, that he would be charged with drug trafficking (which carries a mandatory death penalty), was kept in poor conditions, denied food and water for two days, and physically abused.
Anthony Burgess – Burgess spent half a decade in Malaya and Borneo during the period of the “Insurgency” – when both communist and nationalist forces were attempting to wrest the region from waning British colonial rule. Burgess was a teacher in Perak and Kelantan when he penned his more famous and semi-autobiographical “Malayan Trilogy” (Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East), later published as one volume as The Long Day Wanes.
Devil of a State is a 1961 novel by Anthony Burgess based on his experience living and working in Bandar Seri Begawan in the Southeast Asian sultanate of Brunei, on the island of Borneo, in 1958-59. Fearing libel suits, his publisher suggested he disguise the country (originally called Naraka – meaning “hell”) and characters and thus the setting shifted to a fictional East African nation called Dunia (meaning “world”). While in Brunei, Burgess became friends with the anti-monarchist, opposition politician Dr. A.M. Azahari, leader of the Brunei People’s Party, which opposed the formation of Malaysia and preferred a North Borneo Union of Sarawak, Brunei, and Sabah that would either be independent or in equal status with the Peninsula. Despite winning almost all the elective seats in the Brunei legislature, Azahari and some elements of the BPP attempted a failed guerilla revolt with the support of Indonesia.
Eric Hansen~ Stranger in the Forest In 1982 Hansen developed an obsession to walk across Borneo from North to South. He hired some local Penan guides and illegally walked from Marudi, across the border between Sarawak and Kalimantan near Bario, to Long Pia and by boat nearly to the coast and then, amazingly, returned, just short of his goal, fearful that he might be imprisoned in Indonesia without a visa and with an expired passport. Bartering shotgun shells for food his appearance prompts local panics of anthropophagous ghosts, resentments from Western missionaries, and curiosity from everyone he encounters along the way. Whether he actually crossed Borneo, or did so twice, is less important than the road traveled.
Eric Hansen~ Orchid Fever (A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy) Hansen explores another obsession in this novel. The sometimes illicit desire to possess rare orchids is explored from the collections at Kew Gardens, into Minnesotan bogs, and Orinoco forests back to the jungles of Kalimantan and Sarawak.
Joseph Conrad Perhaps the most famous author associated with Borneo, Conrad was an officer on trading vessels that operated on the Eastern shore of Borneo where he made four visits. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895) is a tale of a Dutch merchant obsessed with finding mythical gold deposits, his mixed caste daughters’ love for a tribal warrior, and her struggle with identity. William Charles Olmeijer was an actual merchant in Berau. He followed this the next year with the short story “Lagoon” of Europeans lost in the Bornean rainforest. Perhaps the most famous of Conrad’s “Eastern” novels was Lord Jim, which is loosely based on the heroic tale of Rajah James Brooke, though with a less successful outcome. Norman Sherry’s followed in the slipstream of the author to write Conrad’s Eastern World.
C.S. Godshalk Kalimantaan (Little, Brown & Co. London, 1998) Fusing elements of the events that occurred during the reigns of the first two White Rajahs, Godshalk creates a narrative that focuses upon the participants on the periphery of the events…the wives, mistresses and their Eurasian children, female bomohs (shamans), Chinese cooks, and young European officers set into a confusing and violent environment.
Agnes Keith~ Her first novel Land Beneath the Wind was the exuberant and humorous experiences of an American and her Canadian forester husband set down in the odd class-conscious and paternalistic British colony of North Borneo. Her sympathetic portrayals of the non-Europeans along with her endearing caricatures of the people and wildlife won her the Atlantic Monthly Non-Fiction Award. Three Came Home is Keith’s second novel based upon notes hidden away in latrines and within her sons’ teddy bear detailing her three years in a WW2 Japanese prison camp on the outskirts of Kuching. The book was made into a feature film starring Claudette Colbert. White Man Returns is the last of the series and encompasses the Keith’s return to Sabah in the aftermath of the destruction of WW2 when almost all buildings in the cities were flattened by Allied bombing and the people demoralized and starving as a result of years of Japanese occupation. It’s a more melancholy tale of reconnection with old friends and the realization that many have died during the war on the eve of Sabah’s independence and unification with Malaysia. The Keith’s ironwood bungalow Newlands was, like almost every structure in North Borneo, destroyed by bombing and fire during the war. It was rebuilt on the original plan when they returned and it is now restored as a Museum overlooking Sandakan Bay in Sabah.
Andro Linklater Wild People Sent on a mission by Time/Life books to chronicle the “primitive people” of Borneo Scottish author Linklater tears down the myth of the Iban people running about in chawats (loin-cloths) and living a life free of outside influences. He compels his photographer into an “arranged marriage” in order to obtain images of a wedding ceremony that ultimately drains his bank account. Linklater explores the modern Iban poised between tradition and modernity, while mocking the modern publishing industry.
W. Somerset Maugham catches the isolated malaise, murder and insanity of British colonial officers, plantation managers and their wives in post-Victorian Borneo and Malaya. Most of these stories were written prior to the end of Colonialism and in separate works but have been compiled in Borneo Stories (1976). Virtue relates an affair between and older wife of a pathologist and a newly arrived District Officer which destroys the lives of all three when it is disclosed in an act of honesty. Neil MacAdam is the tale of a Russian courtesan who falls in love with a British curator of orchids. Her demise comes at the mandibles of ants in the jungle. Along several rivers in Sarawak there are powerful tsunami-like tidal bores that rush up the rivers during full moons. The Yellow Streak is the tale of a man vilified as a coward who heroically responds to the capsizing of the boat carrying the man and his bullies. The Outstation examines the conflict between a racist newcomer, a seasoned District officer and the explosive events that leads to a murder. In Flotsam and Jetsam an anthropologist stricken with malaria is trapped in the bungalow with a manically-depressed former actress and the husband that murdered her lover.
Redmond O’Hanlon Into The Heart of Borneo A year after Eric Hansen walked across Borneo, naturalist O’Hanlon and poet James Fenton attempt an expedition to Batu in Sarawak with Iban guides seeking the rare Bornean Rhinoceros. Snarky and self-deprecating, the narrative theme is driven by the interactions of the prematurely balding Fenton, overweight O’Hanlon and his birding, and their guides efforts to keep them from accidently killing themselves.
Folktales and Local Writers
In the 1960’s and 70’s the government-sponsored Borneo Literature Bureau was the principal supporter of local writing. An excellent academic summary of this area of writing and the role of the BLB can be found in “The Cultural Landscape in Sarawakian Literature (Yeoh, Temizi and Sivagurunathan, 2012) http://www.ijalel.org/pdf/81.pdf Since the demise of the BLB the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) has provided a means of publication of traditional writing.
Sarawakian writers have primarily taken up the effort to preserve traditional folktales rather than to create their own literature. Former Director of the Sarawak Museum Benedict Sandin (and Harrisson protégé) collected many Iban and other tales in the pages of the Sarawak Museum Journal and later made them more widely accessible in The Living Legends: Borneans Telling Their Tales (1980). Jimmy Donald’s Keling of the Raised World (1991) also explores the Iban genre. Expatriate Heidi Munan has compiled a whole series of Kenyah and other tales in Sarawak Stories (1998) and a triptych collection of works in 2005: Melanau Stories, Iban Stories, and Bidayuh Stories. Jayi Langub has edited a collection Suket: Penan Folk Tales (2001). Robert Silas Ridu and others compiled King Siliman and other Bidayuh Folk Tales (2001)
Many of the Sarawakian writers exploring modern themes are of Chinese descent and emphasize perspectives of urban Chinese-Sarawakian and traditions. Angela Yong’s One Good Thing But Not Both (1998), Different Lives, Different Fates (2000) Green Beans and Talking Babies(2003) are good examples of this. Cecelia Ong’s Short Stories from Sarawak: Death of a Longhouse and Other Stories (2006) reaches further and many of her tales explore the lives of other ethnicities in the country. Both writers explore the admixture of cultures and intermarriages that is occurring in Kuching and other larger cities. An edited collection of short stories by Ng Kui Choo and Judy Wee Double-Boiled Ginseng For The Mind”(2004) and like Yong and Ong are primarily works by female authors (and Chinese-Sarawakian) and keen on communicating the social context of the lives of modern Sarawak women.
Interestingly the two major poets in the area are male and both dwell upon the onslaught of modernity and the solace of nature and the forest. James Wong who authored A Special Breed and Shimmering Moonbeams is also Chinese-Sarawakian. Given that there is a long tradition of pantun poetry and recitation by both men and women in the Sarawak’s Malay community the lack of publication or original works in this area is puzzling. One exception to this paucity is Malay poet Abang Yusef Putih who has compiled two collections of poetry: A Rose Garden In My Heart and Another Day Wakes Up.
Riska Orpa Sari (edited by Linda Spaulding) Riska – Memories of a Dayak Girlhood (1999) There are few works on Kalimantan written from the perspective of the indigenous peoples and this is the only one actually written by a woman. Riska Sari describes growing up in Kudangan in South Kalimantan and the increasing changes in the culture of her family, people and the environment as modernity and palm plantations come rushing in.