Bringing home two Orang Ulu parangs: An international story of a 100-year journey

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Dr Louise Macul

WHEN we visit the Sarawak Museum, we learn many things about the objects we see, but have you ever wondered how things end up in museums? Were they purchased or collected by the museum or taken against their will and put in the museum?

Recently, two parangs were added to the Sarawak Museum collection and the international route they took to get there is as interesting as they are. They were not purchased, collected or stolen—they were kindly donated.

The two parangs have been described as having scabbards and hilts highly carved of bone and wood with udo and scroll motifs, panels of fine beadwork and wrapped wirework, coloured hair tufts and with attached sheaths for a small knife with plaited rattan carrying straps. Like all the objects in the Sarawak Museum, these parangs have a human story behind them. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about who made them, but we do know where they went and how they came home to Sarawak—through the hands and help of five nationalities.

Fig 1: The two donated parangs [photo by Digna Cruzem Ryan]
Almost 100 years ago, the two parangs were obtained by a Brooke administrative officer, Duncan Shimwell McDougal, who lived in Sarawak from 1924 to 1927. McDougal started out as a Cadet in 1924 in Sibu and quickly became a Court Magistrate in the 2nd Division.

In 1925, he was transferred to Lundu and was the DO of Upper Sarawak (Padawan Area). At this time, the Sarawak Gazette mentions a company called McDougall & Robertson, Ltd that exported derris root (Derris elliptica) to England for use as an insecticide. Apparently, there were some court cases involving this company and local suppliers who failed to deliver their goods on time.

In 1927, McDougal resigned from his government post and returned to England and there is no more mention of him or his business in Sarawak. But we know he brought two parangs with him back to England in 1927.

As McDougal had been stationed in Sibu, it is most likely that is the region where the parangs originated from. Their fine bone and wood carvings as well as the tiny beadwork are clues that they are from one of the upriver Orang Ulu groups. It is likely the parangs were gifted to McDougal as was common in those days in appreciation for work with the local communities. McDougal took the parangs to England and there they remained for 67 years, until they appeared at auction at Christies Auction House in 1994, most likely as part of an estate sale.

Fig 2: Christie’s catalogue featuring the parangs, 1994.

It is 1994, now 67 years after the parangs left Sarawak and here enters J. B. Lim, from Penang, a collector of Borneo ‘tribal art’ who was in London at the time, and quite keen on the two parangs he saw in Christies Auction House catalogue. There were several bidders which were narrowed down to three: The former Commonwealth Institute (, a well-known Belgian collector, and Lim.

“I was a greenhorn at the auction and did not have a ‘stop limit’. Hence, I out-bid the other two,” Lim recalled. The two parangs were bought by Lim and came to Penang where they stayed for 29 years.

Now enter more nationalities: a Filipino and an American. Lim is a friend of Filipino Digna Cruzem Ryan, curator of an exhibit of her and her husband’s collection “Golden Realm of Myanmar” at the Penang Straits and Oriental Museum in November 2022. Digna, and her Australian husband Neil, are long-time friends of an American, Dr Louise Macul, living in Kuching. At the exhibition opening, Lim and Macul were introduced to one another by their mutual friends.

When Lim learnt that Macul lived in Kuching and is a member of Friends of Sarawak Museum, he was delighted that she could help him to donate the parangs to the Sarawak Museum. However, part of the process of adding objects to a museum collection is documentation which had to be created on the parangs, and on McDougal to confirm who the collector was and that the parangs are authentic objects from Sarawak.

Documentation includes not only a description of the object, where it came from, its original use as well as any cultural significance, but also who collected it and how.

To determine how the parangs came to leave Sarawak, an English historian was consulted. Dr Jennifer Morris, who specialises in the history of collecting in Sarawak was able to investigate who exactly McDougal was. Now we have: Malaysian, Filipino, Australian, American and English all involved in the two parangs finding their way into the Sarawak Museum collection.

Morris shared how McDougal came to be in Sarawak from 1924-1927 as written above. She also discovered that McDougal had two rather well-known family members. One was Isaac McDougal, a founding member of the Sarawak Association founded in 1924 ( Another family member was William McDougall who accompanied Alfred Haddon on the Cambridge Expedition to Borneo of 1898-1899, and also co-authored The Pagan Tribes of Borneo with Brooke government officer Charles Hose in 1912 (

Fig 3: Museum staff inspecting the parangs. At left is Celine Sheoman and at right is Hasma Wasli. [photo by Neil Ryan]
Fig 4: Museum staff Celine Sheoman (left) and Hasma Wasli (right) carefully wrap the donated parangs for transport to Kuching. [photo by Neil Ryan]
The two parangs were officially handed over to Sarawak Museum staff in August 2023 in Penang. They were carefully wrapped and the documentation prepared—signed, sealed, and delivered to their new home in the Sarawak Museum.

When asked why he donated the parangs, Lim simply said with a smile: “I want them to be in the public domain.”

We hope to see them soon as part of an exhibit in one of the many projects being created by the Museum. They are significant, not only because they are most likely well over 100 years of age and fine examples of craftsmanship, but because their international travel is part of the heritage of Sarawak. They represent the history of the Brooke state and an example of how many such objects ended up in museums as gifts from local communities to colonial administrators. How objects end up in museums is a noteworthy part of an object’s biography and often a part of history.

Fig 5: Donor JB Lim (left), and museum staff Celine Sheoman (centre) and Hasma Wasli (right) with the signed donation documentation [photo by Digna Cruzem Ryan]
Since the founding of the Sarawak Museum in 1886, donations have always been welcome. When the Museum was built in 1891 the Rajah made an appeal in his opening speech for help in increasing the collection (Sarawak Gazette 1891 p. 129). In 1951, Museum Curator Tom Harrisson wrote in the Gazette: “A museum like ours wants practically anything it can get.” Today the Sarawak Museum Department has a new secure, state-of-the-art conservation and storage facility. Following a long-held tradition, the Museum welcomes donations from the public and private collectors. Email Director Puan Nancy Jolhi for more information at

Fig 6: Seen are (from left) Hasma Wasli, Digna Cruzem Ryan, Dr Louise Macul, JB Lim, and Celine Sheoman. [photo by Neil Ryan]
Fig 7: Donated parangs with accompanying small knives [photo by Digna Cruzem Ryan]
Fig 8: Note the fine carving and tiny beadwork typical of Orang Ulu parangs. [photo by Neil Ryan]
Dr Louise Macul is a museologist and founding member of FoSM.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.