Early explorers and travelers in Sarawak

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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Robert Basiuk

EXPERIENTIAL travel is the new buzzword for those seeking enriching experiences and new destinations. While the phrase might be new, Sarawak is certainly no stranger to this type of travel. In fact, it could be argued that Sarawak was one of the original experiential travel destinations. This brief outline of early travel to Sarawak looks at the people who travelled here, their motives and how their travel influenced others.

It started with trade

In the 1800s Sarawak was not as well known as other major trading area like Melaka and Manila. Nonetheless, Sarawak was a place that attracted traders, adventurers, explorers and those with an adventurous spirit. In the words of Charles Hose (Hose, 1926), Borneo “…possesses the double advantage that what is known is fascinating and what might be known, and is not yet known, appeals to all that is best in man.” He would have done well to add “and woman” to that passage because Sarawak also attracted some very intrepid women explorers.

Tall tales

Sarawak has always been a place that inspired wonder and even stretched the imagination. A verdant land of rivers and rainforests where snakes and frogs flew and plants ate insects. A place with wildlife such as the orang utan and the proboscis monkey, giant crocodiles and clouds of bats that would blacken the sky. On top of this, a history that read like an adventure novel with Rajahs, Sultans, tribal chieftains and adventurers.

Sir James Brooke (1847). Portrait by Francis Grant.

Previously, travel had been the realm of those who were working as traders, company officials or sailors on ships. The age of discovery meant that museums and private collectors wanted specimens for their collections and the public wanted stories to feed their interests. These demands provided opportunities for a new breed of traveler—collectors like Alfred Russel Wallace and travel writers like Ida Pfieffer and others.

The fact that Sir James Brooke (editor’s note: the first Rajah of Sarawak) also encouraged and welcomed visitors placed him the role of what today would be termed a national tourism ambassador. He welcomed collectors and scientists and travelers alike and they in turn wrote and reported back about Sarawak—feeding the growing appetite for these fantastic stories. The images and specimens sent back to museums became the early marketing tools for tourism to Sarawak.

The Sarawak Circuit

Early visitors to Sarawak, were usually sent on what could be called the “Sarawak Circuit”—essentially areas that had been opened as mines or for other commercial purposes. Travel was by boat, or (when the rivers became too shallow or a hill was to be crossed) on foot, assisted in some cases by horses. Then, as now, there was a particular interest in visiting the local communities, with those in the vicinity of Siniawan being among the first to be visited.

The key areas making up this “Sarawak Circuit” included:

  • Around Kuching – Siol, Santubong, and Samarahan;
  • Up the Sarawak River to Siniawan, Paku and Buso;
  • The Rajah’s cottages at Serumbu, Santubong, and (later) Matang; and
  • The mine works at Buso and Tegora.

Early Visitors

The numbers of visitors to Sarawak was small, but there were enough to indicate that Sarawak was a desirable place to visit. By 1874, the former Resident of Kuching, Noel Denisen had seen enough visitors to prompt this comment:

“I have often regretted that no visitor’s book has been kept at the (Serumbu) bungalow, for it would have register some distinguished as well as notorious names such as, for instance, Sir James Brooke, Keppel, Wallace, Ida Pfeiffer, and Theresa Longworth, alias Lady Avonmore, etc. etc.” (Denison, 1879).

The list of visitors he includes is as intriguing as it is varied, especially as he includes two women in his recollection. Some of these characters and the year they visited follow.

Ida Pfieffer (1851)

Born in Vienna in 1797, this intrepid traveler did not come from a particularly wealthy background. She financed her travel through writing, arriving in Sarawak in 1851, (her second world journey) already a well-known author at 55-years-old. Her travels are chronicled in the aptly named book “Lady’s Second Journey around The World” written in 1856 (Pfieffer, 1856).

Ida Pfeiffer. Lithograph by Adolf Dauthage.

Renown as an undaunted and adventurous traveler, she was invited by James Brooke to visit Sarawak. Not only did she visit the Sarawak circuit, she also embarked on trips that scared off even the men in the Rajah’s service. In January 1852, she departed Kuching and headed up the Lupar River, continuing up the Ai River and then overland to the Kapuas River and downriver to Pontianak. This was at a time when even the bits in Sarawak were still beyond the control of James Brooke. Her descriptions of being present in a longhouse when a newly taken head was brought in provides not only a description of the area, but a measure of this woman’s fortitude.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1854)

This extraordinary collector and his extensive travels throughout Southeast Asia have been the subject of much review and Sarawak undoubtedly had a great impact on him. Beyond the “Sarawak Circuit” Wallace also visited the areas along the Sadong River as far as what is now the border with Kalimantan. Sarawak was his base for two of the eight years he spent in the region. Orang utans and insects were a particular focus during his time in the country and he collected at least 29 of the former and thousands of the latter (with over 1,000 collected in Serumbu alone). One of the most dramatic (insects), the Rajah Brooke Birdwing was a butterfly he collected and named after James Brooke.

Alfred Russel Wallace. “Alfred-Russel-Wallace-c1895-540px” by The Public Domain Review is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0//?ref=openverse.

Wallace’s descriptions of the communities he visited reveal that he was not only a keen and perceptive observer but also a participant. Whether attending ceremonies, engaging in conversation or entertaining kids with shadow silhouettes in the evening (even if they had never seen a rabbit before). He had a marketer’s gift for description; for example, his take on durian: “…the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience.” (Wallace, 1869). Who would not want to follow in his footsteps and experience all he had described.

Odoardo Beccari (1865–1867)

This exceptional man spent time at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to familiarise himself with the tropical plant life. While there he met James Brooke, who invited him to Sarawak assuring him of support and access to the country.

Beccari was a man completely dedicated to his vocation, spending long periods of time in simple jungle camps, collecting, cataloging specimens and writing. Had it not been for ill health (malaria and other infections), he probably would have stayed longer and traveled more.

Beccari’s impressions of Sarawak during his two-year stay are documented in his book Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo (Beccari, 1904), written some 40 years after his initial visit. The descriptions of the wonders he saw during his ‘wanderings’ continued for many years to provide inspiration for those who followed seeking adventure in Sarawak.

Marianne North (1876 and 1880)

Born in 1830 to a prosperous English family, she originally trained as a vocalist, but when her voice failed devoted herself to painting. She concentrated mainly on painting flowers and landscapes eventually focusing on the flora of distant countries.

Rebelling against the belief that women shouldn’t travel alone without a husband or male chaperone, she travelled extensively between 1871 and 1885, almost always on her own. From Brazil, to Jamaica, to Japan and India, she visited 15 countries in 14 years, painting the people, places and plants that she saw.

Marianne North

She was famous for her plant paintings, set within natural settings, often including animals, temples and people. Unlike the traditional botanical illustrations of the day, her style gave the viewer a sense of the habitats in which different plants grow. The descriptions she provided of the people and the landscapes were as vivid as the paintings she made.

She visited Sarawak on two occasions—1876 and 1880—taking excursions to Matang, Lundu and the mines at Buso, Jambusan and Tegora. She reveled in the remoteness of these places and made light of any difficulties there might have been in the travel. She preferred to walk or to ride in an open canoe so she could take in the surroundings. Her paintings adorn a special gallery at Kew Gardens in London and within the collection are many scenes of Sarawak, Sarawak plants, Tegora and the pitcher plant named after this remarkable lady.

Theresa Longworth (Yelverton) (1871)

Described as one of the ‘notorious’ visitors to Serambu, Theresa Longworth was born around 1830, the daughter of a Manchester silk merchant. Her notoriety stemmed from a prolonged and very public court battle over her marriage to a Major William Charles Yelverton.

After this excitement, she began to travel, supporting herself with her writing. Her book, Teresina Peregrina (Yelverton, 1874) provides some fascinating descriptions of the places she visited, including Sarawak, which she visited around 1871. As a woman “travelling on her own responsibility” her chapter titled, Advice Gratis outlines her disdain of the unsolicited advice that the men of the era felt necessary to give her.

In Sarawak she made full use of the Rajah’s yacht ‘Sri Ranee’, traveling to Sibu, Kanowit, Mukah, Oya and Bintulu before returning to Kuching. She then embarked on excursions to Busu, Tegora mines and spent several nights at the Rajah’s bungalow on Serambu (a challenging climb even today). Her attention to the details of what people wore and her surroundings provide an interesting glimpse into how she viewed the world.

B.F.S. Baden-Powell (1889)

Another of the early Sarawak travelers was Baden Fletcher Smyth (BFS) Baden-Powell, the brother of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts movement. He arrived in Sarawak in 1889, having been invited by the Rajah to visit.

His somewhat sensationally titled book —In Savage Isles and Settled Lands; Malaysia, Australasia, and Polynesia (Baden-Powell, 1892)—leaves it to the reader to distinguish between settled and savage. The book is nonetheless an interesting perspective, illustrated by the author’s sketches.

During his stay, in addition to Kuching, BFS also visited Buso, Paku, Sadong, Santubong and Matang, staying in the Rajah’s bungalow (Vallombrosa). In Kuching, he was entertained with a cultural dance show by Iban dancers dressed in ‘traditional dress’ just as visitors do today. The imagery provided in his narratives and his sketches captures the core elements of what we today promote as our tourism attractions.

Tourism in the present day

Sarawak has always been an experiential travel destination attracting visitors past and present with its fascinating natural heritage and cultural diversity. Its spectacular nature has always been at the core of what attracts visitors to the State and fittingly, continues to be the core attraction. Complimenting the natural environment is the diverse cultural environment represented by the mosaic of indigenous groups that is Sarawak. While much has changed over the years, there remains a laid-back charm and the opportunity for adventure.

Robert Basiuk can be reached c/o Borneo Adventure, 55 Main Bazaar, 93000 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily