3 things we learn from W.H. Treacher’s British Borneo: Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan and North Borneo (1891)

Patricia Hului

Sir William Hood Treacher (1849-1919) was a British colonial administrator in Borneo and the Straits Settlements.

In Selangor, he was at the Anglo Chinese School in Klang on Mar 10, 1893.

His career in Borneo started in 1871 when he arrived in Labuan to be the acting Police Magistrate.

In 1873, Treacher became Colonial Secretary of Labuan before going on to be the first Governor of North Borneo (1881-1887).

Based on his career in Borneo, Treacher wrote a book ‘British Borneo: Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan and North Borneo’.

His writings circled around his own experience as a colonial officer as well as the books and research that had been previously written about Borneo.

However, Treacher’s spellings for Malay words might take a second or two to understand.

For example, ‘chukei basoh batis’ is actually ‘cukai basuh betis’ or ‘the tax of washing feet’. Similarly, ‘mantri’ is menteri (minister).

Here are three things we learn from British Borneo: Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan and North Borneo (1891) by William Hood Treacher:

1.The important role of Chinese immigrants in British Borneo

In 1881, the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) ran a census on North Borneo and found the native population was considered to be unsuited to meet the requirements of modern development.

They estimated the number of indigenous people to be 60,000 to 100,000.

In order to increase the population, the government realised they needed to push on immigration, particularly from China.

Noting the importance of Chinese immigrants, Treacher stated,

“The frugal, patient, industrious, go-ahead, money-making Chinaman is undoubtedly the colonist for the sparsely inhabited islands of the Malay archipelago. Where, as in Java, there is a large native population and the struggle for existence has compelled the natives to adopt habits of industry, the presence of the Chinaman is not a necessity, but in a country like Borneo, where the inhabitants, from time immemorial, except during unusual periods of drought or epidemic sickness, have never found the problem of existence bear hard upon them, it is impossible to impress upon the natives that they ought to have “wants,” whether they feel them or not, and that the pursuit of the dollar for the sake of mere possession is an ennobling object, differentiating the simple savage from the complicated product of the higher civilization.

[…]“The Chinaman, too, in addition to his valuable properties as a keen trader and a man of business, collecting from the natives the products of the country, which he passes on to the European merchant, from whom he obtains the European fabrics and American “notions” to barter with the natives, is also a good agriculturist, whether on a large or small scale; he is muscular and can endure both heat and cold, and so is, at any rate in the tropics, far and away a superior animal to the white labourer, whether for agricultural or mining work, as an artizan, or as a hewer of wood and drawer of water, as a cook, a housemaid or a washerwoman.

“He can learn any trade that a white man can teach him, from ship-building to watchmaking, and he does not drink and requires scarcely any holidays or Sundays, occasionally only a day to worship his ancestors.

2.How famous Hugh Low was among the locals

Sir Hugh Low (1824-1905) was another British colonial administrator and naturalist.

From 1848-1850, he was the Colonial Secretary of Labuan.

Then in 1851, Low made the first documented ascent of Mount Kinabalu.

For Treacher, being associated with Low was a life-saving thing.

“His (Sir Hugh Low) name was known far and wide in Northern Borneo and in the Sulu Archipelago. As an instance, I was once proceeding up a river in the island of Basilan, to the North of Sulu, with Captain C. E. Buckle, in two boats of H. M. S. Frolic, when the natives, whom we could not see, opened fire on us from the banks.

I at once jumped up and shouted out that we were Mr. Low’s friends from Labuan, and in a very short time we were on friendly terms with the natives, who conducted us to their village.

They had thought we might be Spaniards, and did not think it worth while to enquire before tiring.”

Read about Hugh Low here.

3.The origin of the name ‘Sabah’?

How the name ‘Sabah’ remains uncertain to this day. Some believe it came from a type of banana called ‘pisang saba’.

Treacher may not provide the definitive answer either, but he worked hard to explore the possibilities.

“Some explanation of the term “Sabah” as applied to the territory—a term which appears in the Prayer Book version of the 72nd Psalm, verse 10, “The kings of Arabia and Sabah shall bring gifts”—seems called for, but I regret to say I have not been able to obtain a satisfactory one from the Brunai people, who use it in connection only with a small portion of the West Coast of Borneo, North of the Brunai river.

“Perhaps the following note, which I take from Mr. W. E. Maxwell’s “Manual of the Malay Language,” may have some slight bearing on the point:—”Sawa, Jawa, Saba, Jaba, Zaba, etc., has evidently in all times been the capital local name in Indonesia. The whole archipelago was pressed into an island of that name by the Hindus and Romans.

Even in the time of Marco Polo we have only a Java Major and a Java Minor. The Bugis apply the name of Jawa, jawaka (comp. the Polynesian Sawaiki, Ceramese Sawai) to the Moluccas. One of the principal divisions of Battaland in Sumatra is called Tanah Jawa. 

Ptolomy has both Jaba and Saba.”—”Logan, Journ. Ind. Arch., iv, 338.”

“In the Brunai use of the term, there is always some idea of a Northerly direction; for instance, I have heard a Brunai man who was passing from the South to the Northern side of his river, say he was going Saba.

“When the Company’s Government was first inaugurated, the territory was, in official documents, mentioned as Sabah, a name which is still current amongst the natives, to whom the now officially accepted designation of North Borneo is meaningless and difficult of pronunciation.”