Descriptions of some races and towns in Sarawak according to Harry de Windt

Sarawakians might not be familiar with Captain Harry de Windt but his sister should be more familiar.

His sister Margaret was the wife of second White Rajah Charles Brooke.

Best known as a travel writer and explorer, de Windt at one point did work as the aide-de-camp for his brother in-law when he was only 16.

As for his writing career, de Windt’s first book On the Equator (1882) featured his travel stories in Sarawak, Dutch East Indies and Spain.

He shared his own perspectives and views of the people and the places he visited such as Santubong, Batang Sadong, Sibu, Kanowit and Kapit in 1880.

Harry de Windt
Harry de Windt pictured in his From Paris to New York by Land (Copyright expired-Public Domain).

Here is how Harry de Windt described some of the towns and races he encountered in his book On the Equator (1882):


Harry de Windt 1
The Astana from the book On the Equator.

“Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, although smaller than Pontianak and other Dutch settlements on the coast of Borneo, is generally acknowledged to be the first town in Borneo so far as civilisation and comfort are concerned, and is renowned for its Bazaar, which is the best-built and cleanest in the island. There are two good roads extending at right angles from the town to a distance of seven miles each, at which point they are united by a third. These form a pleasant drive or ride, an amusement unknown in most Bornean townships, where the jungle and undergrowth are usually so dense as to defy any attempts at walking, to say nothing of riding or driving.
The number of Europeans in Kuching, although limited, and consisting of but some twenty in all (five of whom are ladies), form a pleasant little coterie, and there is a marked absence of the scandal and squabbling which generally seems inseparable from any place wherein a limited number of our countrymen and women are assembled. The occasional presence of an English or Dutch man-of-war, also, breaks the monotony of life, and enlivens matters considerably.

The Club, a comfortable stone building, was founded by the Government a few years ago, and contains bedrooms for the use of out-station officers when on a visit to Kuching. A lawn-tennis ground and bowling alley are attached to it, and serve to kill the time, which, however, rarely hung heavily on our hands in this cheerful little place.
Riding and driving are but still in their infancy, and Kuching boasted of only some dozen horses and four carriages—including a sporting little tandem of Deli (Sumatra) ponies, owned by the Resident. The Deli pony is a rare-shaped little animal, standing from 13 hands to 13.2, with immense strength, and very fast. They would be worth their weight in gold in Europe, and an enterprising Dutch merchant lately shipped a cargo of them to Amsterdam from Singapore, via the Suez Canal, with what result I never ascertained. A new road was being cut when we were there from Kuching to Penrisen, a mountain some thirty miles off, which, when completed, may bring a few more horses here; but Borneo (except far north) can never become a riding or driving country.”

The Club de Windt referred to here is The Sarawak Club which was established in 1876, four years before the writer arrived in Kuching.

2.Sibu town

“Sibu is a clean-looking Malay town of some 30,000 inhabitants. All Malays living here are exempt from taxation on condition that they are liable to be called out by Government in the event of any disturbance among the up-river tribes. The Fort and Bazaar stand on an island in the centre of the river, which is here about one and a half miles broad, and are connected with the town on the right bank by a wooden bridge. “Fort Brooke,” as it is styled, is built in a pentagon of solid bilian (belian) planks, about 12 feet high; a sloping wooden roof reaching down to within 2½ feet of the plank wall. This interval is guarded by a strong trellis-work, so that when the fort door is shut the building is rendered perfectly secure against any native attack. The Resident’s and fortmen’s quarters are reached by a ladder inside the fort about eight feet high, while the ground floor is used as a kitchen, rice-store, &c. Fort Brooke is garrisoned by sixteen Malays, and armed with six nine-pounders. All forts in Sarawak are built of the same materials and on the same model as the above, excepting that at Kuching, which is of stone, and much larger.”

Fort Brooke was built in 1862, and believed to be located at present day Jalan Channel.
Unfortunately, the fort was demolished in 1936.

3.The Iban People

“The Sea Dyaks are so called from their inhabiting the sea-coast east of the Sadong district, as far as the Rejang river, though some are to be occasionally met with far inland. These, who are the most numerous of any Dyaks, are at the same time the bravest and most warlike, and in former days were greatly addicted to piracy and head hunting. They are of a dark copper colour, and although not tall men are wonderfully strong and well-built, and will endure a great amount of fatigue. They are also endowed with great courage, and are very skilful in the use of weapons, especially the Parang ilang and spear. This tribe has been found by missionaries to possess some small amount of religion, inasmuch as they believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, Batara (petara), who made this earth and now governs it. They believe, also, in good and evil spirits, who dwell in the jungles and mountains. Sickness, death, and every kind of misfortune, are attributed to the latter, while Batara is the accredited author of every blessing.”

Harry de Windt 2
Batang Sadong from de Windt’s book.

4.The Kanowit People

“The Kanowits are a small tribe, numbering about 500, and are quite distinct and totally unlike any other race in Borneo. They have not unpleasant features, are of lighter complexion than the Dyaks, and, though not so warlike, are fine, strongly-built men. Nearly all were tattooed from head to foot with most intricate patterns, and others representing birds, beasts, fishes, &c., while round the face and throat the marks were made in imitation of a beard, an ornament which none of the tribes yet met with in Borneo possess.

“These (Kanowit) women were fair specimens, as we were afterwards informed, of the tribe, and were, like the men, tattooed from head to foot. But for the disgusting habit (which I shall mention anon) of blackening their teeth and disfiguring the lobes of their ears, they would not have been bad-looking. They wore a light brown petticoat of cloth woven by themselves, and reaching from the waist to just above the knee. Their hair was not left to fall loose, but tied tightly into a knot at the back of their heads, very much as it is worn in Europe at the present time. A few brass rings round their waists and arms completed their attire. Strangely enough, the Kanowit women are, as a rule, darker than the men.”

Today, the Kanowit people are mostly known as the Melanau Kanowit or Rejang people.

5.The Ukit People

“The Ukits are generally supposed to be the wildest specimens of the human race yet et with in Borneo. This tribe (which is the only one living at the head of Rejang not tattooed) has been occasionally but seldom seen in these regions by Europeans, as they shrink from all intercourse with mankind, and fly at the approach of any but their own race. They are described as being of a much lighter colour than the Poonans, possess no dwellings, and are totally unclothed..”

6.The Kayan People

“The Kayans, on the other hand, are the finest and most civilised aboriginal race in the island. Their men, who are of a splendid physique and considerably taller than any other tribe in Sarawak, are of a light copper colour. Their dress is nearly identical with the Kanowits, excepting that they wear many more ornaments, but no turbans. Their long, coarse, black hair streamed in some cases far below the waist, and they were not a little proud of this appendage, which was cut square over the forehead. The Kayans were not at all given to joking like the Kanowits, but all wore an appearance of suspicion and distrust on their faces, which even the genial influence of square face (“Hollands”) failed to banish, but which originated perhaps more from shyness than ill-temper. Their women wore more clothes than any other tribe, being clothed in a long and flowing “sarong,” a species of petticoat, reaching from the waist to the feet, and a white linen jacket.”

So what do you think about de Windt’s descriptions on Sarawak towns or its people? Let us know in the comment box.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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