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‘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.

Waiting for the Tide or Scraps and Scrawls from Sarawak

‘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.

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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.  

How little we know about Joseph Middleton, Sarawak’s first police officer

Joseph Middleton might be an unfamiliar name to Sarawakians today, but he was actually the first police officer of Sarawak.

He was one of the two boys who departed England with James Brooke on the Royalist in 1838.

Unfortunately, there is a little we know about Middleton during his first arrival to Sarawak.

However, we do know that he was referred to in 1852 as ‘Constable’.

It is also known that he married a local woman. One record showed that he had a son named Peter who was baptised in Kuching on Dec 3, 1848.

Apart from this, we know that he was almost killed during the Bau rebellion.

Joseph Middleton was one of the three targets of the Bau Rebellion

On Feb 18, 1857, some 600 Chinese came down through the Sarawak River to attack the White Rajah in Kuching.

By the time the group had reached Kuching, Brooke already fled from his home.

This did not stop the rebels from burning down properties including Brooke’s house.

According to The Gospel Missionary issued in June 1884, the Chinese announced they did not want to make war on the English or the Malays, only on the Rajah’s government.

The report stated, “It did seem as if it was chiefly a rebellion of revenge, for the only three people they had been anxious to kill were the Rajah himself, and Mr Crookshank, and Mr Middleton, who were the chief constable and the magistrate who had sentenced the offending Kunsi and actually done the flogging. If they could kill these three they did not seem to care how many others they killed.”

Joseph Middleton during the Bau Rebellion

Bau rebellion
Illustration depicting the Chinese Insurrection from Harriette McDougall’s Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak. Credit: Public Domain.

The rebels certainly did not care how many they killed that fateful night as in the end, they took the lives of Middleton’s two young children.

The Sarawak Gazette revisited the event in an article published on Mar 1, 1929.

It stated, “Two little boys, John and Charles Middleton, aged six and four years, were killed and ‘the fiends kicked the little heads with loud laughter from one to another’. Richard Wellington, a clerk in the Borneo Company, lost his life in gallantly attempting to defend Mrs Middleton and her children.”

So where was Middleton when his house was attacked?

According to Brooke who published his own narrative of the event in the Wellington Independent on Sept 5, 1857, Middleton’s house was one of the earliest places where the attack took place.

The Rajah wrote, “He (Middleton) escaped with difficulty. His poor little wife hid in a bakery till the burning rafters fell about her, and from her concealment saw the assailants kicking about the head of her eldest child. The mother was paralyzed; she wished, she said, to rush out but could not move. The youngest child was murdered and thrown into the flames.”

Joseph Middleton and the second class Europeans in Sarawak

Other than the Middleton family’s tragic fate during the rebellion, there was no significant information about the constable.

According to archivist Loh Chee Yin who wrote for the Sarawak Gazette in 1960-70s, Middleton presumably still held the roll of Constable until his death in Kuching in 1866.

Middleton is unlike some of Brooke’s early officers whose names are immortalised through street names in Kuching such as Crookshank.

Hence, it is easy to forget there was a man named Middleton who came to Sarawak from England as a boy and lived here till his death.

Perhaps it was because Middleton was considered a “second-class European” in Sarawak at that time.

During the resistance led by Syarif Masahor in 1857, Bishop Francis McDougall wrote a letter to his brother in-law.

McDougall narrated in the letter, “I hear that there has been a regular panic at Sarawak among the wives of the second-class Europeans, who all packed up and wanted to start for Singapore, but their fears have been allayed, and only Mrs Middleton, who suffered so much in the insurrection, persists in going.”

The so-called ‘caste system’ among the Europeans in Sarawak is believed to have started due to the different systems of salutes during Brooke time.

At that time, there were three forms of salutes given. The first class was full arms salute, the second class was arm across body to rifle butt, and third class was simply attention.

Those who were entitled for the first class salute included the Bishop, the Commandant of Sarawak Rangers, the Treasurer and the Principal Medical Officer.

Posts such as Magistrates, Superintendent of Works and Surveys Department, Medical Officers, Inspector of Police and Prisons were given the second class salute.

Finally, the third class salute was given to the junior officers and cadets.

The Sarawak Gazette reported, “It is said that this system of salutes caused a sort of caste system among the Europeans since the local people began to refer to them as first, second and third class Europeans instead of officials.”

Middleton, who was sometimes referred to as the Police Inspector, fell into the second-class European category.

Regardless, as Loh pointed out, Middleton had “the distinction of being the first police officer in Sarawak.”

What you didn’t know you needed to know about Sarawak’s first ice machine

An ice machine, ice maker or ice generator is an appliance to make ice. Today, you can find a refrigerator in every household in Sarawak to store food and make ice cubes.

However in the olden days, an ice machine was even rarer than an endangered animal.

Have you ever thought who bought the first ice machine in Sarawak?

Here are five things you need to know about Sarawak’s first ice machine according to archivist Loh Chee Yin:

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1.The second White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke was the first one to make an enquiry of an ice machine.

Charles wrote to the Borneo Company Limited London asking them to make an enquiry about an ice machine while he was in Singapore.

Here is the content of the letter which dated on May 27, 1897:

Dear Sirs,
I should be much obliged if you would make inquiry about an ice making machine for Sarawak capable of making from half a tonne to one tonne a day. Should Mr Ellis the Civil Engineer not have left, he might give you an opinion about such a machine and examine and see one in action, and have explanations how to work it from the makers.

I have long contemplated setting up such a machine to supply ice to the community at as cheap a rate as possible, and as the government have control over water, land, and also have competent engineers, we can do it more reasonably than any other party.

Three days later after writing this letter, Charles wrote another letter to his London agent, The Woodhead & Co.

He wrote, “Would you find out what kind of ice machine would us in Kuching to supply from half to one ton of ice a day. Mr Ellis, if he meets our terms could look out for the best kind and could information about working it, and also could information about working it, also could see it worked. If the Sarawak Government purchase, it would be under his superintendence. Please send a telegraph price etc.”

2.The Brooke government even announced the purchase of ice machine in The Sarawak Gazette.

Apparently, buying an ice machine in the 19th century was such a big deal that it had to be announced in the paper.

This was what was written in the announcement which was published in October 1897:

“The Government have ordered an ice machine from England, which will produce a ton of crystal ice per diem. This machine, which will be a great boon to the community, should be in working order by the end of this year.”

3.Sarawak’s first ice machine finally arrived about A YEAR after it was ordered.

Again, the Sarawak Gazette reported in September 1898 the arrival of the ice machine.

“The long expected Ice Machine arrived on the 26th June and the first tonne of ice was turned out on the 18th August.

The temperature of the brine was 30o at 9.30am on the 18th and 1½ tonnes of ice were made by the same time on the 19th. The machine was running for 28 hours to obtain this result, which must be considered very satisfactory in view of the fact that it was the first run and that, in consequence, several stoppages had to be made for adjusting the machinery. The lowest temperature reached on this occasion 19o or 13o of frost, but, we understand, that later observations show that a temperature of 11o or 21o of frost, was obtained.

Everyone in the country is to be congratulated upon this acquisition, not only for the comfort of having always iced drinks but far more for its invaluable aid in sickness and accident.

This came home to all when its value was seen in the most unfortunate accident which occurred to Mr Gibson, when ice was at once applied to the fractured part and the inflammation and pain of a broken limb very much reduced.”

4.Who maintained the ice machine?

In the beginning, the Public Works and Survey Department was in-charge of the ice machine’s maintenance.

As years passed, there was an increase in demand for ice in Sarawak.

Then, a new four-tonne ice machine was ordered in 1926 and started operations in 1927.

On the Jan 1, 1937, Sarawak Electricity Supply bought the ice plant for $30,000 and took over the ice production.

5.How much did the ice cost?

Ice was sold to the contractor at $1.00 per 100 lbs. In 1933, the figure was increased to $1.05 and again to $1.10 in 1934.

In 1935, the price was $1.13 and $1.19 in 1936. In the meantime, the sale price to the public remained at $1.25 per 100 lbs.

The selling of ice provided for a decent amount for the Brooke government in those days. For example from 1929 to 1933, the government earned $24,296.76 in profit for selling ice.

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Refrigerators for home domestic use were first invented in 1913. However, the world only saw the mass production of refrigerators after World War II. As technology had become more advanced and Sarawakians, including services such as eateries and hospitals, began to afford their own refrigerators, there was no need to have a government-operated ice machine anymore.

Early records of inoculation and smallpox vaccination in Sarawak

If you are not familiar with inoculation or variolation (deliberately introducing the pathogen into an uninfected person), it is the method first used to immunize an individual against smallpox with material taken from a patient or a recently variolated individual, in the hopes that a mild, but protective infection would result.

The procedure was most commonly carried out by rubbing powdered smallpox scabs of fluid pustules (an inflamed blister containing pus) into superficial scratches made on the skin.

Then the patient would develop pustules identical to those caused by naturally occurring smallpox. This would lead them to develop a less severe disease than naturally acquired smallpox.

Slowly after two to four weeks, these symptoms would slow down indicating successful recovery and immunity.

According to historian Loh Chee Yin, vaccination against smallpox was introduced into Sarawak in the 1960s. However, inoculation was already practiced in the 1850s.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1555–1576), showing Nahuas of conquest-era central Mexico with smallpox. Credit: Creative Common

Early records of smallpox inoculation in Sarawak

One of the early records of inoculation in Sarawak was recorded by Brooke Hugh Low in 1876. At that time, he was holding the post of Assistant Resident of Sibu. When he was travelling up the Baram river which was still under Brunei territory (Baram was ceded to Sarawak in June 1882).

He recorded about a smallpox epidemic which decimated the Kayan population in the area.

“I next proceeded up the Baram as far as Long Lusan, where Oyong Ngau now lives. He abandoned Batu Gadin on account of the smallpox which carried of 200 persons in his own house; 1,333 Kayans are estimated to have fallen victims to this epidemic, and 3000 Kenyahs. Although I did not ascend the river above this point I met several of the upriver chiefs, both Kayans and Kenyahs, and among the latter, Paran Libut’s brother, Tama Peng Wang, who assured me that his tribe had been decimated and that the Upper Baram, which before was populous, is now a mere waste. Houses which a year ago could boast of 100 fighting men can now scarcely muster 10. Fortunately for the Kayans there was a Selimbu Malay, one Haji Unus, at Batu Gadin who understood inoculation and inoculated some 3,600 persons of both sexes, and though many died, many also were saved.”

A record of Ibans practicing inoculation

Bishop Walter Chambers once wrote in 1857 about how inoculation saved a community of Ibans in Lingga.

“The smallpox attacked six months ago (1856) the people up the main river, the Batang Lupar. In some of the Dyak houses it made frightful ravages, chiefly through the panic fear into which it threw the occupants, who in some cases, fled into the jungles, abandoning their sick friends and carrying the infection in their own bodies. It is said there are longhouses, whose occupants having thus rushed away, not one of them has since made his appearance.

The Dyaks regard the smallpox as an evil spirit, with the notion which induced our English peasantry to use the same caution to fairies- they never venture to name the smallpox, but designate it politely by the titles Rajah and Buah-kagu. I heard an old woman yesterday, telling how that, during the time she was nursing her grandson, she was continually begging, ‘Rajah have compassion on him, and on me, and spare his life- my only child.’

In the neighbourhood of Sakarran, the Malays inoculated with success both their own people and the Dyaks. By inoculation the disease was gradually drawing near to Lingga.

I wished the Dyaks not to inoculate until the appearance of the disease in the country, but they had an idea that the ‘Rajah’ was more mild to those who thus made submission to him. Out of hundreds who have been inoculated, only three have died under the operations.”

The Kayans’ knowledge of smallpox

Loh believed that the Kayans in those days were aware of the infectious nature of smallpox long before the introduction of inoculation and vaccination. They knew that immunity could be secured by complete isolation from affected villages.

He cited an example from Charles Hose’s The Pagan Tribes of Borneo (1912). This is what Hose wrote:

“With this object the people of tributary stream will fell trees across its mouth or lower reaches so as to block it completely to the passage of boats, or a less drastic measure, will stretch a rope of rattan from a bank as a sign that no one may enter. Such a sign is generally respected by the inhabitants of other parts of the river basin. They are aware also of the risk of infection that attends the handling of a corpse of one who has died of epidemic disease, and they attempt to minimise it by throwing a rope aorund it and dragging it to the graveyard, and there burying it in a shallow grave in the earth, without touching it with the hands.”

As for the Ibans, it was a normal practice for the unaffected members of a longhouse to run away into the jungle to avoid smallpox infection.

Here is an example of how the Ibans who refused to be inoculated reacted to the epidemic according to Spenser St. John:

“When the smallpox was committing sad havoc among those Sea Dyak villagers who would not allow themselves to be inoculated, they ran into the jungle in every direction, caring for no one but themselves, leaving the house empty, and dwelling far away in the most silent spots, in parties of two and three, and sheltered only by a few leaves. When these calamities come upon them, they utterly lose all command over themselves, and become as almost timid children. Those seized with the complaint are abandoned; all they do is to take care that a bundle of firewood, a cooking pot, and some rice, are placed within their reach. On account of this practice, few recover, as in the delirium they roll on the ground and die.

When the fugitives become short of provisions, a few of the old men who have already had the complaint creep back to the houses at night and take a supply of rice. In the daytime, they do not dare to stir or to speak above a whisper for fear the spirits should see or hear them. They do not call the smallpox by its name, but are in the habit of saying, “Has he yet left you? At other times, they call it jungle leaves or fruits; and at other places the datu or the chief. Those tribes who inoculate suffer very little.”

Other records of inoculations and vaccination in Sarawak

In those days when a smallpox epidemic attacked Sarawak, the news was usually reported in the Sarawak Gazette.

In 1868 for example, Sibu had a mild attack of smallpox. The gazette reported as the people failed to receive vaccine from Kuching, they were inoculating themselves.

On Apr 29, 1874, the gazette reported a smallpox epidemic was raging along the Batang Lupar and Rajang rivers.

The then principal medical officer-in-charge Dr. E. P. Houghton investigated the epidemic in person and found the disease to be measles and chickenpox.

Dr Houghton wrote in his report, “I vaccinated some children at Simanggang, which was successful and left a public vaccinator there to carry on the vaccination. I also started vaccination at Sibu in Rajang which was successful, and left two public vaccinators to vaccinate the people.”

Two years later in June 1876, Dr Houghton wrote this in the Sarawak Gazette; “Smallpox occasionally visits us but only in a sporadic form, and since vaccination has been so successfully carried on, there is every reason to hope this scourge will eventually be stamped out.”

Looking back at Sarawak history, smallpox epidemica appeared periodically affecting selected communities in the state.

These epidemics not only affected the Sarawak populations back in those days, it also caused the early migration of Sarawakians leading them to move from one place to another to flee from the disease.

If you’re freaking out about smallpox on top of your fears of the Covid-19 outbreak, don’t worry; smallpox was eradicated globally in 1980.

Sarawak once exported over 60 tonnes of pangolin scales in the 1950s


Did you know that it was legal to export pangolin scales in Sarawak back in the 1950s?

Pangolin (Manis javanica) was hunted for its scales and then exported through Kuching.

This unique animal has large, protective scales covering their skin. It is the only know mammal to have this feature.

They live in hollow trees or burrows. Pangolins are nocturnal and tend to be solitary. They only meet to mate. Their diet consists of mainly ants and termites, which they capture using their long tongues.

According to a report by Tom Harrisson and Loh Chee Yin, from 1958 to 1964 Sarawak exported more than 60 tonnes of pangolin scales.

Harrisson and Loh found in their study that each pangolin’s exportable scales average about 3 catty (1.8kg).

Here comes the sad part; since the maturity of the animals does not effect the value of their scales, so the traders back then even exported scales from younger pangolins.

The researchers calculated based on the weight of the pangolin scales that there over 50,000 pangolins were hunted for their scales in just seven years!

Where did these pangolin scales came from

Harrisson and Loh wrote, “Ninety-nine per cent of the scales exported from Sarawak came from Indonesian Borneo.

“They were being smuggled over mainly to the border towns of Krokong in the First Division and Lubok Antu in the Second Divison, while shops in Tebakang, Serian and Simanggang also bought any amount offered to them for sale by local people or by Indonesians, in quantities ranging from 50 to 500 katis.”

The pangolin scales that came to the dealers in pieces packed in gunny sacks.

For scales that came in with the skin attached usually fetched a poorer prices. This is because they need to boil them first to extract the scales.

“As they reach the shops, they are checked to make sure they are dry, and genuine and then repacked for export to Singapore or Hong Kong, where they are probably cleaned and sorted for re-export to mainlain China,” Harrisson and Loh stated.

The purpose of pangolin scales trades

Pangolin scales were wanted for their so-called medicinal values. They believed it had anti-septic values, stimulated blood veins and sped up the chemical reaction of any medicine.

There were two methods of application.

Firstly, raw pieces of scales were used for scratching itchy skin. It was believed that this would prevent further infection which usually follows if the affected part is scratched by fingernails.

Secondly, pangolin scales were ground into powder and then mixed in with other herbs boiled in water for the patient to drink.

Back then, dealers paid from $200 to $300 per picul or 100 kati for scales or $70 to $90 per pikul for scales still attached to the skin.

These prices also depended on the demand from China.

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The price of pangolin scales depended on demand from China. Credits: Pixabay.
Protecting the pangolin in present day Sarawak

In October 2019, Sarawak Forestry Corporation announced its plan to have the pangolin upgraded to the “totally protected” category.

Totally protected species in Sarawak may not be kept as pets, hunted, captured, killed, sold, imported or exported or disturbed in any way, nor may anyone be in possession of any recognizable part of these animals.

To this day, the pangolin population is still threatened by deforestation and poaching for its flesh and scales.

According to World Conservation Society, pangolin scales are made of keratin which is the same thing that makes our human fingernails and hair.

Hence, eating pangolin scales has no medicinal value whatsoever as it is like eating your own fingernails or hair.

Read more:

Sarawakians were once encouraged to catch shark commercially

How the Bornean Rhinoceros was hunted into extinction in Sarawak

The history of illegal gambling and chap ji kee in Sarawak

More than a hundred years ago, chap ji kee or chap jee ki was a famous gambling game in Sarawak. Today, you can be thrown in jail for playing the illegal gambling game of chap ji kee.

What is chap ji kee

It is believed this game started in Johor in the early 1890s before spreading to Singapore, Malaya and eventually Sarawak.

Based on the 12 game pieces from Chinese chess, each piece was assigned a number.

The gamblers then lay bets on a combination of two numbers from 1 to 12. Hence, there were 144 possible combinations.

The numbers could also be replaced with other characters such as animals or Chinese characters.

There were few ways to bet; firstly one could bet on the combination of numbers in a particular order. Winners could earn winnings up to 100 times their bets.

Secondly, the gamblers could bet two numbers to appear in either order. Win this and you get paid up to 50 times the stake.

Or gamblers could bet on one single number from either draw and get paid 20 times their stakes.

Another popular form of playing chap ji kee involved gamblers placing their bets on gaming tables and using Chinese playing cards. This version was known as chap ji kee pangjang or long chap ji kee.

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The longer version of chap ji kee used Chinese playing cards in their bets. Photo by Pixabay.

At first, chap ji kee was played on a board or table with gamblers staking their bets in person.

Slowly, the game evolved into collecting bets from gamblers at their homes or on the street. This was to avoid detection of authorities who prohibited the game.

In Singapore, the game was called the “housewives’ opium”. Bored housewives turned to the game as a way of bringing more excitement into their lives and provide some distraction from their daily responsibilities.

Although the women in general did not play for high stakes, the little winnings they had was satisfactory enough to buy something nice for themselves or their children.

Chap ji kee in Sarawak

In Sarawak, gambling was legalised by the Brooke government since it provided a large revenue to the state.

Some historians believed that the Brooke government could hardly do without opium and gambling.

Apart from needing the money, it was also a way for the government to keep the activities under their radar.

Back then, the Brooke government would not have had enough resources to enforce any anti-gambling laws.

At first, these gambling dens, just like the opium farms, were run by the government.

On July 1, 1885 under the issue of the Farms Order, the government opened a tender to private contractors for periods of three years.

The first company to receive the tender was Ong Ewe Hai & Co. It had the exclusive rights to open and keep gambling houses. Furthermore, they were allowed to license the opening and keeping of gambling houses within the district from Tanjung Datu to the Sadong river.

Back then, the government even assigned two policemen to keep the peace at these gambling houses in Kuching.

At first, there was no restriction on the opening hours of these gambling houses or the age of gamblers.

So young and old were welcomed to throw in their money at any given time of the day.

Restrictions on gambling

By the late 1920s, Kuching Chinese community leaders started to petition the government to put tighter rules on gambling.

Finally, the government announced their tighter restrictions in a notice which was published in the Gazette on December 1928.

The notice stated that from 1st January, 1929, public gaming would only be permitted in the following streets in Kuching; Carpenter Street, India Street, Bishopsgate Street and China Street.

On top of that, chap ji kee and those under 16 years of age were not allowed to gamble in Kuching and throughout the first division.

1929 was also the year when public gambling in Kuching would only be allowed from 4pm to 6am.

By 1930, the prohibition of chap ji kee and of gambling by those under the age of 16 was extended to the whole of Sarawak.

If gambling was legal, why was chap ji kee illegal?

According to The Sarawak Gazette writer Loh Chee Yin, it was not surprising that chap ji kee was prohibited as it caused the greatest misery among the people.

“There is no skill in the game and the dividend is high – a $1 bet will give you a return of $10, and $10 will yield $100 and so on if you are lucky,” Loh wrote.

He continued, “I remember the scene of a Chap Jee Kee den operated at a shophouse along Wayang Street during Japanese occupation period. Twelve Chinese characters were painted on a table measuring about 5 feet by 8 feet.

“The banker sat on one side of the table with two assistants standing around. Twelve similar characters were carved on ‘chips’, which were kept in a sack made of thick cloth. The banker placed his hand inside the sack and selected the character he wanted by feeling with his finger, similar to the Braille used by the blind! The chip was then hidden inside a wooden box about the size of a match box, then placed on top of the table. Each better started to put his bet on the character that he thought was in the box. Finally the banker revealed his chips and paid accordingly. The result was written on a small blackboard hung up in front of the shop. One session took about fifteen minutes.”

Chap ji kee back then and today

Loh also shared stories of gamblers sleeping in the graves of their relatives in the hopes that the dead would reveal a favourable word or a result of a chap ji kee game.

“All dreams during the night were closely examined to see whether they had any relations to the twelve characters. The bankers in their turn, made offerings to their gods, asking for protection against the spirits which might reveal the secret of his words. In short; hell of a mess,” he shared.

While chap ji kee is still a form of illegal gambling to this day, the variation of this game might be still played in private and isolated circles today.

Brothels and sex workers in Sarawak under Brooke rule

Did you know that when Sarawak was under the reign of the Brooke family (1841-1946), there were regulations to keep the local sex industry in check?

Here are 10 things you need to know about prostitution in Sarawak during Brooke time.
1.The back alleys of Kuching’s Carpenter Street was known for its brothels.

Besides brothels, the street was once known for opium dens and gambling houses.

There are no other records found of possible brothels in Kuching or other parts of Sarawak.

2.There is no proper record on the number of brothels or of prostitutes in the country.

Actually, there is no proper record found on prostitution in Sarawak back then.

According to archivist Loh Chee Yin in The Sarawak Gazette on May 31, 1965, the revenue and expenditure reports over the period concerned do not indicate under which headings the licence fees from brothel keepers and prostitutes are classed.

He further stated, “The annual reports of the Medical Department of the same period do not even mention the number of prostitutes examined over the year, though they give detailed reports on lunatics and lepers.”

3.The first order referring to prostitution was issued on Sept 30, 1867.

If there was no record of legal prostitution, how do we know such activities exist in the first place?

When the first White Rajah had already left Sarawak and his nephew Charles was acting Rajah, there was a royal order referring to prostitution issued in 1867.

With the heading of ‘Contagious Diseases’, the order however was not directed towards the prostitutes but the Dayak fortmen instead.

It read, “Should any Dyak fortment wish to return to their homes on leave of absence, or on discharge, if suspected of having venereal disease they must be taken to the Medical Officer for examination, and should it be the case that any such disease has been contracted they are to be detained until cured.

“Strict attention is to be paid to this order; the necessary information as to the health of the men can be obtained from non-commissioned officers.”

4.In April 1886, more regulations were implemented to control the spread of venereal diseases.

Here are the summary of the regulations:

A)Any woman suffering from a venereal disease would not be permitted to practice as a prostitute and any man having the same disease would be forbidden to have connection with any woman.
B)A prostitute found at the usual fortnightly examination to be suffering from a venereal disease would be placed under treatment until cured. She had to pay the following fees – $1 for first consultation; 50 cent for every subsequent consultation plus charges for medicines.

5.Six years later in 1892, the fortnightly compulsory medical examination for prostitutes became voluntary.

Nonetheless, the Brooke government imposed heavier penalties ($50 fine or six months imprisonment) on brothel keepers and prostitutes for spreading sexual transmitted disease.

Furthermore, prostitutes from abroad had to undergo medical examination before the government allowed them entry permits.

6.Who were the migrant prostitutes back then?

Since there was no record, it is impossible to know who they were and where they came from.

However, there were records of Japanese immigrants coming in since 1915. Reportedly, some Japanese women were working in the red-light district of Kuching. The red-light districts could be referring to the back alley of Carpenter street.

7.In 1898, the Contagious Diseases Order was further amended.

These are the amendment made on the order:

A)Dayak fortmen on transfer to outstations were to be medically examined before leaving.
B)Medical examination of prostitutes was again compulsory. Additionally, it was to be done once a week instead of fortnightly.
C)Prostitutes found to have venereal diseases were to be detained until cured.
D)All brothels were to be registered at the police station and duly licensed.
E)Every brothel keeper had to supply to the police a list of the names and nationalities of the women in his brothel.
F)The inspector of police had right of entry to any brothel for purpose of checking.

8.Charles Brooke was scared that the Dayak girls in Kuching mission schools would turn to prostitution upon graduation.

He once wrote in a letter, “I ask, what is it to be their future when they are grown-up? One thing very certain is they will never be able to live in their own country again or marry their own race nor be able to farm or do the work of Dyak women in their own land – separated from their own people -they will become waifs – to be prostitutes.

I should be sorry to think that this is what our Dyak girls will come to but it is in my opinion almost a certainty if they are educated in Kuching away from they own people to country.”

Charles then cited examples from the mission schools of Singapore and Penang where school girls were the occupants of the brothels or who ever were enticed there at night time.

Consequently, the second White Rajah ordered that the handful of Dayak girls in the Anglican and Roman Catholic schools in Kuching be sent home.

9.In 1927, the Women and Girls’ Protection Order was enacted.

The order was to make provision for the protection of women and girls. Plus, it made provision for the suppression of abuse in connection with prostitutes.

In addition to that, the government issued protection tickets to the prostitutes. On this ticket stated, “Whenever a prostitute has any grievance, she may come to the Protectorate, District Office, or Police Office, and complain. Anyone daring to prevent her will be arrested and punished. These tickets are to be always kept by you on the person.”

Who would have thought prostitutes during Brooke reign had their rights protected more than a lot of people these days?

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Do you think brothels in the olden days had a sign similar to this? Credits: Pixabay.
10.There were notices posted in brothels informing prostitutes of their rights back then.

“Women and girls! If any of you have been kidnapped, purchased, seduced, deceived, or pledged for money; or have been forced to swear before entering the brothel that you will act as prostitutes for a certain term of year- understand clearly that anyone who has committed any of these offences against you, and is detaining you in a brothel against your wishes, is acting in contravention of the Orders of the State will, if detected, be punished.

If therefore you have any grievance, do not be afraid to tell the Protector on his visit of inspection or come in person to this office or go to the police station and report the matter at any time you please. If you want to leave the brothel the government will certainly let you do what you like and will not allow you to be detained against your will. All persons residing in the State of Sarawak are free agents and cannot be kept under the restraint of others. Be all of you then watchful! Be not deceived by anyone! Observe this notice!

Office of Protector.”

Do you anymore information about prostitution in Sarawak during Brooke time? Share with us in the comment box.