While North America had the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s, other people in the Victorian era were rushing to satisfy a scientific obsession – collecting natural specimens.
This obsession for new discoveries and adventure brought many collectors and explorers to Borneo’s door, including notable botanical artist Marianne North.
A life of travel
North was born in Hastings, England on Oct 24, 1830. Her father Frederick North was a member of parliament for Hastings and a deputy lieutenant as well as a Justice of the Peace.
After her mother Janet died in 1855, North travelled frequently with her father and sister. They visited Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, Greece and the Bosporus in Turkey.
She received her first lessons in oil painting from renowned Australian colonial artist Robert Hawker Dowling in 1867.
She had been painting throughout her life, starting with flower painting to cope with the grief after her mother’s death and again after her father’s death in 1869.
With a large inheritance North received, she started to travel from 1871 to 1885. She visited 17 countries, painting 800 illustrations of their native plants and flowers.
And she did all of this while travelling alone, reportedly in Victorian dress.
Thanks to her influential family, North was able to visit countries all over the world and was welcomed by their respective ambassadors, ministers and governors.
One of those government administrators who hosted her was Sarawak’s second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.
Marianne North’s visit to Sarawak
When she arrived in Sarawak in 1876, Charles was not in town to welcome her visit. His wife, Ranee Margaret stepped in to host this Victorian painter instead.
The Ranee wrote about her guest in “My Life in Sarawak”.
“One morning, as I was watching the arrival of the mail-steamer from my verandah at Kuching, I noticed the figure of a tall European lady standing on deck.
“A few moments after, a messenger brought me a letter from Singapore from the Governor’s wife, Lady Jervois, introducing a traveller to Sarawak, whose name was Marianne North.”
“The first evening of her stay in Kuching we went for a row on the river, and the sunset behind Matang was, as she said, a revelation. That land of forests, mountains, and water, the wonderful effects of sunshine and cloud, the sudden storms, the soft mists at evening, the perfumed air brought through miles and miles of frost by the night breezes, were an endless source of delight to her.”
Her views on the Dayaks
Despite being extensively travelled, North had a strong opinion of the Dayaks who were still practicing head-hunting at the time.
“(Marianne North) could not bear the thought of either Dyaks or Kayans. I could never eradicate from her mind the idea that they were savages. I used to try and interest her in these people, for I longed that she should accompany us in our journeys into the interior, but this she would never do.
“’Don’t talk to me of savages,’she would say; ‘I hate them.’ ‘But they are not savages,’ I would reply, ‘They are just like we are, only circumstances have made them different.’
‘They take heads; that is enough for me’, she would add severely.”
How Marianne North influenced the Ranee
North stayed with the Brookes for about six weeks.
During her short stay with the Ranee, North managed to open her eyes more to the beauty of Sarawak’s biodiversity.
Margaret stated, “… I felt that something new and delightful had come into my life, for she had not only introduced me to pitcher-plants, but to orchids, palms, ferns, and many other things of whose existence I had never dreamed. Miss North was the one person who made me realise the beauties of the world. She was noble, intelligent, and kind, and her friendship and the time we spent, together are amongst my happiest memories.”
The story of Nepenthes northiana
Nepenthes northiana is an endemic pitcher plant found in Borneo. The species was named after North who was the first one to illustrate the species.
During her stay, North made friends with Herbert Everett who was working for the Borneo Company then.
Everett went up to the mountainous area in Bau to get her this plant.
North wrote about the discovery for The Gardeners’ Chronicle:
“The specimens grew on the branches of a tree about 1000 feet above the sea on the limestone mountains of Sarawak. When I received them I tied them in festoons all around the verandah, and grumbled at having only one small half-sheet of paper left to paint them on.”
Regardless of the size of the painting, thanks to North’s illustration, Sarawak became known as a land of exotic plants in the late 19th century.
The painting of Nepenthes northiana is now on display at the Marianne North Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.