Frank Marryat, the man who gave us the early drawings of Borneo

There were many adventurers who came to Borneo during the 19th century.

While most of them jotted down their experiences in writing, only a few talented ones managed to capture it in drawings.

One of them was Frank Marryat (1826-1855), an English sailor, author and artist. His father, Captain Frederick Marryat was a Royal Navy officer and a novelist.

Captain Marryat is widely known today as an early pioneer of the sea story.

Life of Frank Marryat

Following in his father’s footsteps, Marryat joined the Royal Navy at the young age of 14.

During Marryat’s service on board of HMS Samarang, he drew the places he visited and the people he met.

At first, he planned to publish his drawings without any writing. Eventually, he added some text of his own and from his colleagues’ journals, publishing his first book in 1848.

The book was entitled Borneo and the Indian Archipelago. In the book, Marryat described his life as a sailor from witnessing a piece of history such as the Treaty of Labuan and collecting turtle’s eggs at Talang-talang islands.

Here are some of his notable drawings of Borneo and Marryatt’s description of it:

Frank Marryat 1
“The town of Kuchin is built on the left-hand side of the river Sarawak going up; and, from the windings of the river, you have to pull twenty-five miles up the river to arrive at it, whereas it is only five miles from the coast as the crow flies. It consists of about 800 houses, built on piles driven into the ground, the sides and roofs being enclosed with dried palm leaves. Strips of bamboo are laid across, which serve as a floor.” (Frank Marryat, 1848)
James Brooke’s house
Frank Marryat 2
“The residence of Mr. Brooke is on the side of the river opposite to the town, as, for the most part, are all the houses of the Europeans. In structure it somewhat resembles a Swiss cottage, and is erected upon a green mound, which slopes down to the river’s bank, where there is a landing-place for boats. At the back of the house is a garden, containing almost every tree peculiar to the climate; and it was a novelty to us to see collected together the cotton-tree, the areca, sago, palm, &c., with every variety of the Camellia japonica in a state of most luxurious wildness.” (Frank Marryat,1848)
Mount Kinabalu
Frank Maryatt 4
Borneo has but small elevation for so large an island; in the immediate vicinity of Keeney Ballu the country is hilly, but by far the greatest portion of Borneo is but a few feet above the level of the sea. Keeney Ballu is the highest mountain in the island,—its height is estimated at 14,000 feet or more,—and it can be seen at 150 miles distant on a very clear day. It is very singular that there should be a mountain of so great a height rising from an island of otherwise low land. (Frank Marryat, 1848)

Frank Marryat’s Life After Borneo

He returned to England after his adventure in Borneo then proceeded to California in 1850.

Then in 1853, Marryat returned to England and got married. In the same year, he wanted to return to California with his new wife.

Unfortunately, he had contracted yellow fever on board ship.

This forced him to cut the trip short and return to England.

He died shortly before his book Mountains and Molehills or Memoirs of a Burnt Journal (1855). Marryat was just 29 years old.

The notice of Frank Marryat’s death

An unnamed writer wrote Marryat’s obituary and it was published in Life and Letters of Captain Marryatt (1872), a book about his father. The notice summarised his life perfectly.

“It is with the most sincere regret that we announce of the decease Mr Marryat, author of ‘Borneo and the Eastern Archipelago’ and of ‘Mountains and Molehills’, the latter of a work published at the commencement of this year, which has been most favourably received by the reading public.

Mr Marryat died at his residence, Mercer Lodge, Kensington on Thursday, the 12th instant, at noon, after a severe illness of more than six months’ duration.

He was the fourth son of the late Captain Marryat, the eminent novelist, and was born on the 3rd of April, 1826.

Like his elder brother he early displayed an invincible longing for the sea, and was consequently entered a midshipman at the age of fourteen.

Previously to this, he had received as large education as possible- first at Paris, afterwards in a school at Wimbledon.

Happily, in these days, the young midshipman’s education is still carried on, even in matters not strictly professional, and this was the case with young Marryat on board the Vanguard, Captain Sir David Dunn.

In the Vanguard he cruised principally in the Mediterranean, and was afterwards entered in the Samarang, Captain Sir Edward Belcher, ordered on a surveying expedition in the Indian Archipelago.

In his work on Borneo, Mr Marryat has given a very agreeable and instructive account of his four years’ cruise in the Samarang, 1843-1847.

On his return home, he resided for some time at Langham, in Norfolk, with his father, who lost his eldest son in the Avenger.

Captain Marryatt himself died in August, 1848 and his son, by no means tried of a roving life, now resolved to seek fresh adventures.

The field he chose was California, with reference to which he penned his work ‘Mountains and Molehills’, to our mind one of the most delightful books of travel ever written.

He was described as “his manners were most agreeable, and his conversation showed that delicate kind of humour as well as keen observation of mankind.”

Thanks to Marryat’s observation, we roughly have a glimpse of how Borneo looked like in the 1840s.

You can read Borneo and the Indian Archipelago online for free thanks to The Project Gutenberg.

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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