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Sir Hugh Low and his adventures in Malaysian Borneo

Malaysian history textbooks gave credits to Sir Hugh Low as the first successful British administrator in Malayan states during the late 19th century.

He was the fourth Resident of Perak in 1877. It was reported that he left Perak with a credit balance of 1.5 million Straits Dollars by the end of his retirement in 1889.

Low’s most acknowledged contribution to Malaysia was for introducing rubber plantations to the country.

He first planted the seeds in Kuala Kangsar in 1877 and subsequently created a model for rubber plantations in Malaya.

Before Low even arrived in Malaya, however, he first travelled Sarawak before making his way up to Sabah.

Hugh Low, a British Naturalist and Administrator. Credits: Public Domain.

Hugh Low and his accounts of Sarawak

Born in 1824 to a horticulturist father, Low started to show interest in botany at an early age while working at his family’s nursery.

At the young age 20, his father sent him to Southeast Asia to collect plants. Low was based in Singapore first before he made friends with Sarawak’s first White Rajah, James Brooke.

Brooke invited Low to Sarawak and together they travelled to the interior.

He spent about 30 months in Sarawak, long enough for him to pick up a little bit of conversational Malay.

He recorded his experience and published it in a book Sarawak, Its Inhabitants and Productions: Being Notes During a Residence in that Country with His Excellency Mr. Brooke in 1848.

The book not only provided the general survey of the kingdom, but also its natural resources and the indigenous peoples.

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He described the customs and traditions of Sarawak tribes he encountered during his stay. This included the Malays which he became acquainted with, Sea Dayaks, Land Dayaks, Melanau and Kayans.

Being a botanist, Low also detailed the significance of plants he collected during his adventure in his book.

Low’s book was considered one of the first detailed accounts on Sarawak.

Hugh Low and his exploration in Sabah

After writing his book about Sarawak in England, Low made his return to the island of Borneo.

Again thanks to his friendship with the Rajah, he became Brooke’s colonial secretary in Labuan.

This was when Brooke was appointed as the first governor of newly established British Colony, Labuan.

During his stay in Labuan, Low explored part of North Borneo. His notable exploration in the area is when he ascended to Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

Low made the first documented ascent of the mountain in March 1851. Then in 1858, he made another two ascents that year in April and July.

Although now the highest peak Low’s Peak is named after him, the truth is he never reached the highest point of the mountain. He described the peak as “inaccessible to any but winged animals.”

Nonetheless, a non-winged English explorer did actually reached the highest peak of the mountain. John Whitehead, a naturalist and zoologist made it to the top in 1888.

Hugh Low and a gully

Besides the highest peak of the mountain, the lowest point of the mountain was also named after the British administrator.

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Low was recorded as the first person who looked down into it in 1851. Low’s Gully is a 1,800m deep gorge on the north side of Mount Kinabalu.

To this day, the gully is dubbed one of the least explored places on Earth.

More than 100 years after Low looked down into the ravine, Low’s Gully made headlines across the world.

In March 1994, a British Army expedition of seven British and three inexperienced Hong Kong soldiers made a disastrous descent in to the gully.

Half of the party (two British and three Hong Kong soldiers) were trapped for 16 days before being rescued.

One British media reported the search and rescue as an embarrassing and expensive rescue operation.

Years later in 1998, a joint expedition by Malaysian and British team made the first successful complete descent of Low’s Gully.

The highest and lowest points of this mountain was named after Hugh Low. Credits: Pixabay.

Hugh Low’s Legacy

Besides Low’s Peak and Gully, there were numerous species named after him thanks to his contribution.

He discovered Nepenthes lowii, a tropical pitcher plant endemic to Borneo during his ascent to Mount Kinabalu.

There are also five species of orchids, a treeshrew, a squirrel, a beetle and two butterflies named after him.

Low made home in this part of the globe and even raised a family in Labuan. After his wife Catherine Napier died of fever in 1851, he buried her at the Government House which was locally known as Bumbung 12.

Low designed Bumbung 12 (twelve roofs in Malay) with a long and low structure and planting trees around it.

Unfortunately the house was completely destroyed during World War II and the only thing left was its water storage tank.

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Today the site is one of the island’s main attractions called the Labuan Botanical Garden.

Located behind Labuan’s old airport, some of the oldest trees in the garden are believed to be planted by Low.

All of the graves in the area were relocated to different parts of Labuan except for one, a grave which belonged to a foxhound named Jim.

Although the grave of Low’s wife was already relocated, urban legend has it her ghost was still roaming around in the area.

As for Low, he died on Apr 18, 1905 in Italy.

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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