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Robert Burns, the first European man who wrote about the Kayans in Sarawak

Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) may be the last person anybody would have thought had any links to Sarawak. He was considered the pioneer of Romanticism, an artistic movement which emphasises on emotion and individualism.

Burns’ connection to Sarawak comes through his alleged grandson – also named Robert Burns – who became the first European man who visited the Kayans in Borneo.

The journey of Robert Burns in Borneo

Burns left Glasgow for Singapore some time in 1846. There he worked with a Scots-owned trading company, Hamilton Gray.

One of the firm partners George Nicol sent him to Borneo in search of more business prospects.

He first set foot in Labuan where he sought his passage to Bintulu.

Accompanied by one European companion, Burns arrived in what the westerners called ‘Kayan country’ in Borneo. It is the vast area where Rajang and Baram rivers are located.

This was around 1847 when this area was still under the Brunei Sultanate. Burns spent several months among the Kayans, learning their customs and writing down their vocabulary.

He returned the second time in Bintulu about a year later. During this time, the first White Rajah of Sarawak James Brooke was holding the post as the first governor of Labuan.

Robert Burns burning a scandalous trail through Borneo

Not long after his stay in Borneo, Brooke received a letter from the Kayan chiefs in Baram that Burns was causing some problems. Burns had reportedly even posed as Brooke’s son to gain approval from the local chiefs.

The letter stated,

“Mr. Burns does very treacherously, he wishes to take persons’ wives whether they like it or not, he takes people’s wives. And also Mr. Burns ordered us to kill people who enter the River Baram, of whatever description or race they be; whoever enters it is good to kill them.”

Brooke replied letter telling the chiefs, “can act justly and rightly in support of their authority, and for the protection of their people.”

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The letter arrived in Bintulu via the East India Company’s steamer and returned to Singapore with Burns in it.

After his return to Singapore, Burns wrote a paper about the Kayan which was then published in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia in February, 1849.

The editorial note stated, “We have great pleasure in presenting to our readers the first authoritative account that has been given of the greatest aboriginal people of Borneo Proper- the Kayans. Mr. Burns is the first European who has ventured to explore the interior Borneo Proper.”

A European man having a discussion with the leaders of the Kayan people in Sarawak, circa 1900 to 1940. Credit: Creative Commons.

Robert Burns and his death

At the age of 29, Burns was clearly not done yet with his thrilling adventures. In 1851, Burns made his way again to Borneo, determined to explore its north-eastern coast.

He set sail in a schooner named Dolphin, commanded by Captain Robertson and a Portuguese cook, a 13-member crew as well as the captain’s love interest, a native woman.

The adventurer was looking for bird’s nests in Kinabatangan area which was sought after by the Chinese back then.

Before they departed Labuan, many warned him of the danger of Illanun piracy in that part of Borneo.

Owen Rutter wrote in The Pirate Wind that, “His experiences among the wild Kayans had perhaps made him over-confident of his ability to handle natives in all emergencies.”

Somewhere in Maladu Bay, a group of Illanun pirates led by Memadam sailed alongside the schooner.

On Sept 10, they boarded the schooner saying they had some tortoiseshell, camphor and pearls they wished to trade.

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Appearing to be harmless and without weapons, the pirates were even given rice and fish.

The following morning, the pirates boarded the schooner again and this time the pirates did not take any rice and fish but some heads instead.

Rutter detailed the incident in his book stating,

“Mr. Burns was bargaining with Memadam over the pearls when the Malay who had remained with the boats handed up some rolled mats. One of Memadam’s companions, Ibrahim, a Sulu, stepped to the side to take one of the mats and presented it to Mr. Burns, who put out his hands to receive it. At that instant Ibrahim snatched a naked sword which had been concealed in the mat, and with one blow severed Mr Burns’ head from his shoulder.”

His death was reported In December 1851 by the Singapore Straits Times.

Robert Burns and possible descendants in Borneo

In the book On the Trail Burns by John Cairney, the writer wrote about the how Burns’ descendants were found at this part of the world.

“Jenny’s Robert Burns the Second did well, no matter, and prospered as a merchant in London. His son, also called Robert, went to the East Indies and became a highly successful trader. Unfortunately, in 1851, his schooner, the Dolphin was captured by pirates off the coast of Borneo and he was murdered with all his crew. His descendants are to be found in the Far East to this day- a long way from that attic room in chilly Edinburgh’s St James’ Square.”

Another author and biochemist Alistair Renwick who wrote the book, The Burns Boys (2003) also agreed that there is a possibility of Burns’ surviving descendants in Borneo.

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In his interview to the The Scotsman in 2004, Renwick said “This seems to be fairly reliable although there is no proof other than a statement in a letter from Nicol.”

Nicol, the firm partner from Hamilton Gray, wrote to Burns that he was surprised to hear the news: “I thought it was a joke, but on sending for a Malay from Bintulu who came over on the Amelia he told me it was true that you had been married to the daughter of Akumlassa, the Kayan chief.”

The Tattooing of a Married Kayan Woman,” (c. 1896-98), photograph by William Henry Furness III. Credits: Creative Commons License.

Robert Burns and his legacy

Putting aside his questionable antics, Burns was still acknowledged for his work. Scottish diplomat and author John Crawfurd (1783-1868) believed Burns had written by far the best and most authentic account of Borneo that had ever been given to the public at that time.

Like Burns, Crawfurd also argued that the Kayans were actually the dominant tribe in Borneo. During that time, Brooke and his allies had the British public focusing on the savageness of Ibans from Saribas and Skrang.

Both Burns and Crawfurd believed that the Kayans were more superior because they mastered iron smithing while the Ibans had not done so.

Additionally, former Sarawak Museum Curator Tom Harrisson regarded Burns as the ‘first ethnologist and explorer of interior Sarawak’.

 

Patricia Hului
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 worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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