Life as a prisoner in Sarawak back in the olden days

Have you ever thought about it felt like to be a prison inmate? What was life like for a prisoner in Sarawak more than a century ago?

So here are five things you should know about being a prisoner in Sarawak back more than a century ago:

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Credit: Pixabay

1.They did labour work as part of their prison time

When Arthur Bartlett Ward was appointed a Cadet in the Sarawak service on May 5, 1899, his first posting was to Simanggang.

Ward explained in his 1966 memoir ‘Rajah’s Servant’ that his duty as a Cadet was “to do everything the Resident and Assistant did not do”.

And of those things was to oversee the prisoners.

“In the mornings I saw the prisoners gangs off to work; they did all the road work and kept the cleared grounds in order. The female prisoners – there were rarely more than two or three – occupied their time sewing prison garments,” Ward wrote in his memoir.

Meanwhile, another Sarawak civil servant under Brooke-era Kenelm Hubert Digby first came to Sarawak as a district officer in 1934 and was posted to different places including Miri, Simanggang and Serian.

About his experience in Simanggang, Digby wrote in his 1980 memoir ‘Lawyer in the Wilderness’: “We had forty prisoners in Simanggang, whose crimes ranged from murder to failure to pay a Native Court fine. One or two were employed within the gaol, but all the others who were not sick worked outside. A few had individual jobs, such as working as gardeners for European officers, but the majority worked in gangs of which we usually ran two or three. At least one gang and often two, was employed on cutting the grass on the golf-course behind the Residency.”

Having a prisoner to work as a personal gardener as part of the sentence is something we never heard of these days and we do not expect to see it happen in the future.

2.In the olden days, some might be boastful about their prison time.

According to Digby, being locked behind bars was considered ‘glorious’ for some of the natives.

He stated, “Natives never considered it any degradation to be confined in a House of Correction, the euphemistic term for an outstation jail, they seemed to glory in it. When long-term prisoners had completed their time, they used to come up to the fort to take farewell of us with a warm handshake, and ever afterwards they would talk with gusto of the period they spent in ‘government employ’. Sometimes an upriver Dyak would find the restraint and daily routine getting irksome and make a break for freedom, but he never got very far; somebody, generally his own relations, invariably brought him back again.”

3.How long-term prisoners in Sarawak were treated during the Brooke era

Second White Rajah Charles Brooke came up with some regulations on how to deal with long-term prisoners in Sarawak and there are quite interesting.

If they had good characters, these long-term prisoners could be selected to become mandors or warders.
Here are some points of the Regulations on terms of Imprisonment that was published in the Sarawak Gazette on Oct 6, 1875 written by the Rajah.

Should a prisoner conform to all the rules of prison discipline, and bear a high character during the time of his incarceration, then after a term of two years, he will receive wages not exceeding $2 a month, which will be increased, should his character remain unexceptionally good, at the rate of $2 every two years, to a maximum pay of $6 a month, exclusive of prison fare.
Should be no employment for a prisoner entitled under the rule above to be made a mandore he will, after a term of five years, provided his conduct remain good, receive $1/- a month, the same to be increased at the rate of $1/- every two years to a maximum of $4/- a month exclusive of prison fare.
After the term of ten years of good character, he will be entitled to a ticket of leave for six months at the end of which time he will report himself and return to his duties under prison restraint: his scale of wages to continue after his return, and to increase, if under maximum as before mentioned.

4.Life as a prisoner in Sarawak was not that bad… some prisoners even refused to leave.

With decent pay, fixed meal times and a roof over one’s head, could you blame the prisoners if they refused to leave?

Digby shared one of the cases he had encountered in which the prisoner refused to leave.

The prisoner was an Iban woman who had been sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for failing to pay a Native Court fine.

“Every day she requested permission to visit the bazaar and every day this request was refused. At that time prisoners were released at five o’clock in the evening. The day for this lady’s departure duly arrived, and I signed her discharge certificate shortly before leaving the office. Next morning the Head Warder reported that she was still in gaol. She had returned about a couple of hours after her release and explained that, as she had now satisfied her desire to visit the shops, she was ready to be locked up again. When the Head Warder demurred she pointed out that she had nowhere else to go, and that after three months the prison had become a home to her, provided that she was permitted the small amount of liberty which she required. I have forgotten how we settled that one but I am pretty sure that she did not spend another night in gaol.”

5.The news about Sarawak prisoners were always reported in the Sarawak Gazette.

Many years ago, the numbers of prisoners in every division was reported in the Sarawak Gazette.

On top of that, the names of prisoners who had escaped or died in the correctional institutions were also published.

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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