1872 - Margaret Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak
Arrival at Kuching
Sarawak, Kalimantan, Malaysia
After a few days spent in Singapore, we embarked in the Rajah's yachts, the Heartsease: She was a wooden gunboat of 250 tons, and her admirers told me she was as lively as a duck in the water. This behaviour on her part was exceedingly annoying to me during the passage to Kuching, a journey which took two days. It was on board the Heartsease that I had my first experience of cockroaches and rats, and these kept me in a perpetual state of terror at night. Cockroaches are like black beetles, only much larger, flatter, and tawny brown in colour. At the approach of rain they are particularly lively, and as rain falls daily in this region, their habits are offensive to human beings. They fly or spring from great distances, and alight on their victims. I remember how they startled me by jumping on to my face, arms and hands, as I lay in my bunk trying to get to sleep. The tiny prick of their spiky, spindly legs was a hateful experience.
Every one must be familiar with rats more or less at a distance, but the Heartsease's rats were disconcertingly friendly. They glided up and down the floor of my cabin, sometimes scratching at my pillow, which did not add to my comfort.
It was on the third morning after leaving Singapore, that I suddenly felt the ship moving in absolutely smooth waters. This encouraged me to crawl up on deck, and look around me at the scenery. It was the most beautiful I had ever seen. The tide was on the turn, and the morning mist was still hanging about the watery forests on the banks and about the high mountains of the interior, and as it swept across the river it brought with it that curious, sweet, indefinable smell, half-aromatic and half sickly, making one think unaccountably of malaria. I remember that I felt very cold, for everything I touched was dripping with dew. I could see the high mountain of Santubong, a great green cliff rising almost out of the water to a height of about three thousand feet, covered to its summit with luxuriant forests. At the foot of the mountain was a great expanse of sand, over which enormous brown boulders were scattered, as though giants had been disturbed at a game of ninepins. At the back of the sandy shore grew groves of Casuarina trees (the natives call them "talking trees," from the sound they make when a breeze stirs their lace-like branches), looking as though the slightest puff might blow them all away in clouds of dark green smoke.
Brown huts, made of dried palm leaves and built on poles, dotted the beach, and small canoes tethered to the shore held little brown naked children, playing and baling out the water. Women were washing clothes on the river-banks. They were clothed in one long, clinging garment, folded and tucked under their armpits, and their straight, long, black hair was drawn into huge knots at the nape of their necks. All this I saw as in a vision; the people were too far off for me to distinguish their features, and the incoming tide was carrying us up the river at a swift pace.
Here and there, on our way up, we met Chinamen standing in the stern of swift, small, narrow canoes, propelling their boats gondolier fashion, with cargoes of fish for the Kuching market. We passed boats of all sorts and sizes, from the small sampan scooped out of a single tree trunk, with its solitary paddler, to the larger house-boats belonging to Malays, filled with women and children. These were roofed in to shelter their inmates from the rain or sun, and were usually propelled by old men sitting in the bows cross-legged, wearing dirty white cotton drawers and jauntily placed conical hats, which sometimes allowed the folds of turbans to be seen, these showing that the wearers had been to Mecca. My attention was attracted by one very small canoe, for I saw, sitting amidships, an old woman huddled up in a cotton scarf. A tiny boy, perfectly naked, was bravely paddling her along, whilst he shouted insults to his poor old lady passenger as our steamer passed by.
It was on this morning also, that I made the acquaintance of the Malay crew of our yacht. Like all people suddenly finding themselves for the first time in the midst of an alien race, I thought the sailors all looked alike. I elicited from the Rajah that some were young and some were old, but whether aged eighteen or fifty, I could see no difference in them at all. They all had the same almost bridgeless noses, wide nostrils, thick lips, dark restless eyes, and the lanky hair belonging to their Mongolian race. I tried to make up to them in a feeble way; I looked at them and smiled as they went to and fro, but they only bent double as they passed, paying no more attention to my friendly advances than they did to my cane chair. They were the gentlest moving things I had ever seen; yet apparently, their work did not suffer, for I was told that they were as efficient as any ordinary European crew.
The Rajah was accompanied on the occasion by one of his officers who had come to meet us at Singapore. As we three sat on deck, I thought they were the most silent pair I had ever come across. I wanted to know about the country, and asked questions, but no satisfactory answer could be obtained, and I was gently made to understand that I had better find things out for myself. I wanted to know about the mangroves which grew in the mud, and which at high tide stand "knee-deep in the flood." I wanted to know about those great forests of nipa palms, like gigantic hearse plumes, fringing the river-banks, and from which I had been told in Singapore that sixteen different and most useful products to commerce could be obtained. I wanted to know the names of long, slender palms towering over the other vegetation farther inland, whose glossy fronds swaying in the morning breeze looked like green and graceful diadems. Then I saw great things like logs of wood lying on the mud, and when these moved, and went with a sickening flop into the water, I had to find out for myself that they were the first crocodiles of my acquaintance. I saw the black and mobile faces of monkeys peering at us from between the branches overhanging the water, grimacing like angry old men at our intrusion into their solitude, and to my inquiry as to what kind of monkeys they were, the usual indifferent answer was given. I remember trying to make friends with the English officer from Sarawak, with the object of eliciting from him some facts about the place, but my questions did not meet with any very interesting responses, and I soon found out that I should have to make my own discoveries about the country, and from that moment I simply panted to understand the Malay language and make friends with the people belonging to the place.
Although here and there we met a few boats coming up the river, some of the reaches were deserted and silent as the grave. I was exceedingly lonely, and felt as though I had fallen into a phantom land, in the midst of a lost and silent world. But even in such out-of-the-way places people have to be fed, and I remember my first meal in Sarawak, brought to me by the Chinese steward. There were captain's biscuits, lumps of tinned butter slipping about the plate like oil, one boiled egg which had seen its best days, and the cup of Chinese tea, innocent of milk, which the Rajah and his friend seemed to enjoy, but which I thought extremely nasty. The quiet, matter-of-fact way in which they participated in this unpalatable meal surprised me, but I thought that perhaps I, too, might in time look upon such things as mere trifles.
At last, after steaming in silence for about two and a half hours up the Sarawak River, I heard the booming of guns - the salute fired to the Rajah on his return from England - and rounding the last reach leading up to Kuching, the capital, I saw the Fort on the right-hand bank on a hill covered with closely cropped grass. I also saw the flagstaff from which was flying the Sarawak flag. On the opposite bank to where the Fort was situated stood a bungalow, rather a homely looking house, with gables and green-and-white blinds, the sight of which comforted me. I was told that this was the house of the agent of the Borneo Company, Ltd. This gives me an opportunity of acknowledging, at the outset of my book, the loyal, and at the same time civilizing influence which this group of Scotchmen, members of the firm, have always exerted in their dealings with Sarawak and its people. This house once out of sight, we steamed on past the Bazaar on the river's edge, containing the principal shops of the town, and, a little farther on, the same side as the Fort, I saw the Astana (Malay word meaning palace), composed of three long low bungalows, roofed with wooden shingles, built on brick pillars with a castellated tower forming the entrance.
On the steps of the landing-stage at the bottom of the garden a great many people were standing. These were the officials, English and native, and the principal merchants of the place come to meet the Rajah on his return. I saw four Malay chiefs, and was told that they were prominent members in the Rajah's Government. They wore turbans twisted in great folds round their heads, long flowing robes of black or dark-coloured cloth opening on to white robes embroidered with gold. Their feet were shod with sandals, and they carried long staves tipped with great golden knobs. Then I saw Chinamen, traders in the town, with their long pigtails, almond-shaped eyes, fat, comfortable-looking faces, all smiles, dressed in blue silk jackets and wide black trousers. There were also a few Dyak chiefs of neighbouring rivers, with beads and bangles on their legs and arms, and gaily coloured waistcloths of red and yellow and white. I saw about eight or ten Europeans in white uniforms and helmets, and two ladies, also dressed in white, the only European ladies then resident in the place.
As the Heartsease's anchor was dropped, a large green barge (the barge was presented by the King of Siam to the late Rajah in 1851), used on State occasions, covered with an awning and manned by about twenty Malays and Dyaks in white uniforms faced with black, their paddles painted in the Sarawak colours -yellow, black, and red - came to the companion-Iadder to take us on shore. I remember the rhythmical noise made by their paddles as they rowed us the short distance to the landing-stage. When we stepped on land, all the people came forward and shook hands with the Rajah, who presented them to me. lt took about ten to fifteen minutes to shake hands with them all.
Then a strange thing happened, for which I was not prepared. A very picturesque old man, rather taller than the other Malays, dressed in a jacket embroidered with gold, black trousers with a gold band, his head enveloped in a handkerchief tied in a jaunty fashion, with two ends standing up over his left ear, came forward with a large yellow satin umbrella, fringed all round, which he opened with great solemnity and held over the Rajah's head. His name was Subu, and, as I learned, he occupied a great position in Sarawak: that of Umbrella Bearer to the Rajah and Executioner to the State. The Rajah trudged forward, the umbrella held over him, up the steps from the landing-place, and across the broad gravel path, lined with a guard of honour, leading to the house. At the entrance the umbrella was folded up with great reverence by Subu, who carried IT back to ITS home the other side of the river. I followed with the principal European officer present, and the other people who had met us came after us, up the path, and on to the verandah of the Astana. There we seated ourselves on cane chairs prepared for the occasion: the Rajah and myself in the middle of the company. For some minutes we all looked at one another in dead silence: then the oldest Malay chief present, the Datu Bandar, leaning forward with his head on one side and an intent expression, inquired, "Tuan Rajah baik?" (Rajah well?). The Rajah nodded assent. Then more silence: suddenly, the Rajah jumped up and held out his hand as a signal of dismissal. Every one took the hint, got up, shook hands with the Rajah, then with me, and departed down the steps and garden path to the boats waiting to convey them to their homes.
I stood on the verandah and watched them go, the Rajah standing by me. I turned to him. "Where are the women?" I said. "What women?" he answered. "The only English ladies staying in the place came to meet you." "Oh," I replied, "they do not matter. I mean the women of the place, where are they? The chiefs' wives and the Malay women, why have they not come to meet me?" "Malay women," replied the Rajah, "never accompany the men on public occasions. lt is not their custom." "But," I said, "you are their Rajah. What is the use of my coming here if I am not to see the women of the place?" " Well,"said the Rajah, with a smile, "we shall see; things may be different by and by."
Brooke, Margaret (The Ranee of Sarawak)
My Life in Sarawak
London 1913/Oxford 1986