‘Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’, the first book ever printed in Sarawak

Imagine being sent to a company function with your fellow colleagues and ended up stuck at the airport due to a flight delay, what would you do?

While you may strike a conversation or two with your colleagues, most of us would definitely find some solace through our phones.

Now, imagine it is the year 1874 having stuck with your colleagues on a river, unable to reach your destination because of the low tide, what would you do?

For a group of outstation Brooke officers who were supposed to be in Kuching but stuck somewhere along the Sarawak River, they came up with a book.

To kill time, these men shared and made up stories among themselves so enthusiastically until one of them raised an idea to publish a book together.

‘Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’

The book is befittingly entitled ‘Waiting for the Tide, or Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’.

On the preface, they go,

“We start this annual with fear and trembling, as we are aware it has no pretensions to be skilled literary production, but simply what it is entitled – Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak life, which is in itself strange, wild and romantic. Written by men whose jungle life more or less unfits them for literary pursuits, the pictures being lithographed in Singapore, and the work printed by a Chinese boy educated in the Mission School here, we trust these facts may be taken into consideration, and that the sharp blasts of criticism may be tempered to this our first-born.

There was an established rule which originated in the time of Sir James Brooke, that all officers who could leave their stations should keep up the old English custom of meeting to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in Kuching.

A party of outstation officers happened to meet on a Christmas eve in one of the small streams which intersect the two branches of the Sarawak river, which is generally used as a short cut; being detained by the failing tide, they were unable to reach the capital that night, and to beguile the time these stories were sketched out whilst ‘Waiting for the tide’.”

Fraser’s story is about his encounter with pirate while A. Perry tells the story of a jungle heroine named Pya.

Meanwhile, T. Skipwith shares the story of men with tells and O.C. Vane narrates a story of rescuing a Dayak from a Monster. H. Roscoe and W.H. Don tells stories of their encounters with an alligator and wolves respectively.

But here is the thing; all of the six stories in the book were contributed under assumed names.

Optimistic Fiddler and ‘Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’

Fortunately about 75 years later, a Sarawak Gazette writer under the pen name ‘Optimistic Fiddler’ figured out all the identities of these authors…or did he?

Optimistic Fiddler, was actually John Beville Archer. He held several posts in Sarawak service including as the Chief Secretary in 1939.

In an article which was published on the Sarawak Gazette on March 1, 1948, Archer shared that he came across the book more than 25 years earlier in the Officers’ Mess at Fort Alice, Simanggang.

Fort Alice

According to Archer, as far as he knew, it was the only copy in existence.

When Archer returned to Simanggang a decade later, however, the rare book had disappeared.

After World War II, he found the book in a cupboard in the Sarawak Museum Offices.

“From the gist of the first story it seems that the two boats, one containing three, and the other two, officer meet in the mosquito ridden ‘trusan’ near Kuching just as the tide turned against them and night fell. This would be probably be up the Santubong entrance. The party, who came from outstations decided to go back to the fire and spend the night there, and from the descriptions in the tales I think we may take it that Santubong was the camp of the story-teller; the picture on the outside cover supports this.”

There is no spoiler here on what these short stories about but our curiosity as well as Archer’s remain on who were the authors behind ‘Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’.

A Pirate Story by W. Fraser

Archer believed that W. Fraser was William Maunder Crocker. He was the father of Harold Brooke Crocker.

Harold worked in Sarawak for almost 40 years since he joined the service in 1900, holding various positions including, Superintendent of Lands and Surveys, Director of Agriculture, Food Control Officer, residents, judge and Chief Secretary.

Meanwhile, Crocker worked in the Sarawak service from 1864 to 1880 except for a period of four years when he according to Archer, ‘engaged in mercantile pursuits’.

Crocker brought Chinese pepper and gambier planters into Sarawak and made one of the first few reliable maps of the state.

In 1887, he became the Acting Governor of British North Borneo but only for a year. Crocker Range in Sabah that separates west and east coast of Sabah was named after him.

Here in Sarawak, the remnant of Crocker’s work can be found in Mukah.

The old brick chimney in Mukah town is all that remains of a sago factory Crocker started there (when he was trying to be a merchant in that four years).

A Jungle Heroine by A. Perry

As for the writer of the second story ‘A Jungle Heroine’, Archer guessed it is written by Alfred Robert Houghton.

When Houghton first came to Sarawak in 1862 as Treasurer, he was paid $70 per month.

He held that appointment until August 1866 when he became the Magistrate of Upper Sarawak.

Houghton then subsequently became the Resident of Bintulu. When the first Council Negri was held at Bintulu on Sept 8, 1867, he was there as an appointed member of the council.

After that, he was promoted to Resident Second Class in charge of Sadong and transferred there on June 1, 1873. Then in July 1875, Houghton was appointed Resident Rejang District.

Archer was correct with the timeline of Houghton’s career as he stated, “At the time he appears to have been in charge of Sadong district.”

The youngest son of a physician in London Dr James R. Houghton, he studied for the Bar and also the medical profession before coming to Sarawak.

At some point of his career before Sarawak, Houghton was also a newspaper correspondent.

One of the highlights of his service in the state was when he accompanied Rajah Charles Brooke on the first Mujong Expedition of 1880.

After the expedition, Houghton fell sick and had to return to Kuching. He died somewhere in the Red Sea on the way home on Mar 20, 1881 at the age of 43.

Men with tails by T. Skipwith

Archer wrote, “’Men with Tails’ is no doubt Thomas Skipwith Chapman, 1864-96 who did all his service in the Kalaka district. He was a spirited artist and most of the illustrations are his.”

Chapman took part in a punitive expedition at upper Batang Lupar in 1875 under the command of Rajah Charles alongside 300 Malays and 6000 Dayaks.

Beside ‘Waiting for the Tide, or Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’, Chaoman also published another book of his illustrations “A Short Trip to Sarawak and The Dayaks”

On top of that, he was one of Brooke officers along with Houghton who attended the first Council Negri meeting in Bintulu.

To the Rescue by O.C. Vane

“O.C. Vane who writes ‘To the Rescue’ is Oliver St. John 1860-84. He has the distinction of being the first Postmaster in Sarawak,” Archer stated.

However, that was not his first job in Sarawak.

According to Sarawak Gazette archivist Loh Chee Yin, Oliver Cromwell Vane St. John first joined the Sarawak Service on Aug 17, 1860 as Midshipman.

He was then appointed first clerk in the Treasury on May 1, 1861.

St. John became the first postmaster on New Year’s day 1864.

In fact, his post as the postmaster was in addition of his Treasury duties.

He was the Resident of Upper Sarawak from 1872 until his retirement in 1884. The former postmaster died in Mexico in 1898.

Adventure with an Alligator by H. Roscoe

The ‘Adventure with an Alligator is the fifth story in the book and whose author Archer did not confirm.

In the Sarawak Gazette, Archer wrote, “This may be Oliver St. John too, but that is merely a guess and I do not know enough yet to say who it is.”

It is understandable why Archer guessed so, H. Roscoe might be a pseudonym in reference to Oliver’s  uncle.

That particular uncle was Horace Stebbing Roscoe St John but Oliver had another more famous paternal uncle.

Oliver’s father, Percy St. John was the son of English journalist James Augustus St. John.

Three of James’s sons; Percy, Bayle and Horace all became journalists and authors.

James also introduced one of his sons, Spenser St. John to James Brooke.

Spenser came to Sarawak in 1848 as the first Rajah’s private secretary. He then became the British Consul General in Brunei. During his tenure in Brunei, he made two ascents of Mount Kinabalu with Hugh Low.

One of the peaks of Mount Kinabalu, ‘St. John’s Peak’ is named after him.

However, there is one problem with Archer’s assumption that H. Roscoe is Oliver St. John.

In the introduction of the book as the authors narrating how the book came about, it is stated Vane and Roscoe are two people.

After arriving at the stream where they were unable to move on, ‘Perry’ heard another boat was coming and he said he even heard ‘Skipwith’ singing ‘The Hardy Norsman’.

To that ‘Don’ replied, “I wonder if they have dined? If not, we had better join mess, there must be ‘Vane’ and ‘Roscoe’ with him, as I know they intended coming round together. Here they come.”

Another theory is H. Roscoe was Horace’s son and Oliver’s cousin but there is no record found that Horace had a son who worked in Sarawak.

Nonetheless, the mystery remains who is H. Roscoe?

Don’s Story by W.H. Don

Finally, the last story is believed to be written by William Henry Rodway. Yes, Jalan Rodway in Kuching was named after him.

We understand from the book that it was Don who suggested the idea to have each of them to tell a story that would keep them awake.

He was the first Commandant of the Sarawak Rangers, a para-military force founded in 1862.

Rodway died on Jan 11, 1924 in Torquay, England and according to his obituary, he joined the Sarawak Civil Service in 1862 and retired on pension in 1883.

Apart from the role of the commandant, he had also worked as the Resident of the First Division as well as the President of the Committee of Administration.

Is ‘Waiting for the Tide or Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’ the first book published in Sarawak?

The book clearly stated it was edited, printed and published in Kuching and the year of publication on the book is 1875.

Unless there is any other book that was published here earlier than this, it is safe to say that ‘Waiting for the Tide or Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak’ is the first illustrated book printed in Sarawak.

Since it is a fictional book, perhaps it is also one of the firsts if not the first fiction that came out from the state.

Nearly 150 years have passed since the book was published, is the book worth your read?

Well, we leave you with the words of one of its readers who perhaps read it at least dozen times when entertainment was scarce in Simanggang.

“I recommend this book to readers, especially to newcomers to Sarawak. It has no great literary merit but it has considerable charm. As an insight into old Sarawak it is well worth reading and digesting with care.”

The book is available through Pustaka Sarawak and Singapore National Library Board.

KajoReaders, do you agree on the real identities of the authors or do you have any thoughts especially who is H. Roscoe? Let us know in the comment section.  

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 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 Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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