5 interesting Sarawak stories as recorded by Harrison W. Smith

Patricia Hului

About 100 years ago, an article was published in The National Geographic Magazine about Sarawak.

The article ‘Sarawak: Land of the White Rajahs’ was written by Harrison W. Smith and published in February 1919.

Smith basically described his experience in Sarawak mingling with the Iban, Bidayuh and Kayan peoples in the 58-page long article featuring a whopping 59 photographs taken by Smith himself.

It was written in a non-condescending and enlightening tone to introduce Sarawak to National Geographic readers.

The Sarawak Gazette even published a note on July 16, 1919 to comment about the article and the only problem they had about it was the use of an outdated map.

It stated, “The article gives an interesting account of Professor Smith’s experience in this country and is illustrated, as might be expected, by photographs, excellent in themselves and in their variety.

“The map for which Professor Smith denies all responsibility is another matter; in any paper it would be a matter for regret, but in a magazine whose professed object is ‘the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge’ it calls for both criticism and correction. This map, taken apparently from a thirty year old school atlas, shows near the whole of Borneo, about which the Sarawak boundary wanders in pleasing uncertainty. The whole of state of Brunei is included therein and Labuan disappears entirely.”

Nonetheless, here are five interesting Sarawak stories that Smith experienced when he was in Sarawak:

1.A phonograph in Sarawak

“A phonograph that I carried for the purpose of recording native songs was a source of great amusement. Many natives who had traveled to the government stations had heard the ordinary records, but none had ever heard their own language.

It was at times difficult to persuade any one to sing into the rather formidable looking trumpet, but when a song had been reproduced from a record made at another village there was usually no further difficulty in bringing forward of the artists of the house.

When they finally they heard their own voices issuing from the little box, their wonder and amusement knew no bounds. It is a pity no photograph could have been obtained of the bank of faces surrounding our little party, with the phonograph in the center, when they first realised that a box was talking their own language in the voice of one of their own number.”

2.Counting using fingers and toes

One of Smith’s companions was an Iban man named Changkok. On one occasion, Smith had to ask Changkok about a longhouse they about to visit.

“Having occasion to ask Changkok the size of a particular house that I planned to visit, he began counting on the fingers of his right hand, calling off the name of the head of each family. He continued counting on the fingers of his left hand, then on the toes of his right foot, then, beginning on the big toe of his left foot, he paused in thought, holding the second toe.

But the effort had been too much; he lost hold of the toe and had to count all over again.

Probably if the problem had required a computation above 20 Changkok, like many other natives, would have had to call in another man with more fingers and toes to count on.”

3.Sarawakians have heard about the Titanic a hundred years ago

Smith spent a great deal of time at Mulu area. One time, he was spending a night at the house of a Malay trader near Melinau river.

“The trader had fastened some logs together and moored them to the shore, forming a small landing stage with a little shed, where one could bathe without danger from crocodiles.

As the launch swung in toward the landing, the current caught the bow, and for a moment it seemed that we should strike the log with considerable force; whereupon a Malay on the landing cried out, ‘Don’t run into the iceberg.’ Thus the story of the Titanic, incredible to the tropical people, spread far into Borneo.”

Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on Apr 15, 1912.

4.The female Kayan leader of Long Palei

While female presidents fascinate people nowadays because they are rare, female Kayan chieftains were not something unusual even back in Smith’s day.

Even back then, a Kayan woman could rule a longhouse as long as she came from an aristocratic family (maren).

Smith had the opportunity to meet a woman Kayan chief named Ulau when he was visiting Long Palei (Long Palai), Baram.

“The dignified presence and stateliness of the old lady gave me one of the greatest surprises I ever experienced. She maintains rigid discipline, which is characteristic of the Kayan household, from the chief of the house to the head of the family, and the fruits of discipline are apparent in the good manners and recognition of authority that, more than anything else, astonish the visitor, who is not prepared to find such culture among Bornean ‘savages’”.

5.Trying to teach geography to a Kayan

Ulau had a stepson named Kebing who later became one of Smith’s companions during his journey.

While learning about the local culture, Smith in return taught the natives some knowledge of geography and a taste of astronomy and the sun’s orbit.

“In an effort to give Kebing some idea of geography, I told him it was possible to go to America by travelling either in the direction in which the sun rises or the direction in which it sets, and to explain this incredible statement I scratched a map on the surface of a green orange, telling him that the sun stands still and the earth turns around.

‘Once every day?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘Well, why does it turn?’ A rather difficult question.”