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The 1859 murder of Fox and Steele in Kanowit

Murders call up the same amount of emotions – horror, fear, rage, even intrigue – whether they happened in 1859 or 2019.

One could argue that for 19th century Sarawak where headhunting was still in practice, a double homicide might not be that all interesting…unless the murder victims were two European officers.

Who were Fox and Steele?

Charles James Fox and Henry Steele were two Brooke officers stationed in a fort in Kanowit.

Kanowit Bazaar

Although Fox was appointed as the Resident of Rejang and Steele as the commander of the fort, the second white Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke was not entirely convinced of the two’s capabilities in carrying out their jobs.

According to Cassandra Pybus in White Rajah: A Dynastic Intrigue, Fox was “an unsteady and inconsistent fellow, had come to Sarawak as a missionary and had been deflected from his calling by his desire for a dyak mistress” while Steele was “an imaginative bully who treated the dyaks with arrogant disregard”.

Meanwhile, Robert Payne in The White Rajahs of Sarawak described Fox as “brusque, efficient, easily excited”. As for Steele, he was a “former apprentice on a merchant ship, was more knowledgeable about the native ways, but hard on the Dyaks who worked under him.”

Whatever the reason, Fox and Steele were murdered on June 25, 1859.

Payne wrote that on the morning of the murder, Fox was calmly digging a trench in the garden attached to the fort.

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He had been unarmed when a local, whom Payne described as ‘a Kanowit’ came out from the forest and speared him in the back. He then pitched forward into the trench that he himself dug.

At the same time, another local attacked Steele. He was about to get the upper hand in that struggle when another local came up behind him with a sword and split his head.

Fox and Steele’s heads were cut off and the murderers fled.

The alleged killers of Fox and Steele

As the Tuan Muda, Charles was furious over the deaths of his two officers. He reportedly said he had “an intense thirst and concentrated desire to seek out and bathe hands in the blood of those who had murdered our much lamented friends.”

One theory had it that Syarif Masahor, a Malay leader from Sarikei was behind the murders as he was famous then among the locals for his rebellion against the Brooke administration.

Charles – who was still the Tuan Muda at this time – also believed that Masahor was behind it, but nobody had any proof.

Nonetheless, the Brooke government managed to name two suspects; Sawing and Sekalai (Pybus added a third suspect named Talip).

In some records, it was stated that these suspects fled to their Kayan relatives at upper Rajang river. Meanwhile, local historian Jayl Langub stated that they actually took refuge at the Kejaman Longhouse. This was located at Tuju Matahap just above the confluence of Belaga and Balui rivers (tributaries of Rajang river).

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Belaga bazaar.
Over a hundred native lives paid for the deaths of Fox and Steele

What followed after the double homicide was something that left a dark past along the Rajang river: The Great Kayan Expedition 1863.

It is uncertain that the murders of Fox and Steele were the sole reason for the punitive expedition mainly against the Kayan people.

However, Charles did send an expedition of 1,000 Dayak people to punish the murderers as well as those who harboured them.

For the Brooke administration, the first expedition was a failure although they were well-armed. The second one led by Charles himself was successful.

According to Payne, it was Charles’ first major engagement. So, you can imagine how excited he was.

“He felt he was completely fearless, showing himself in the open. Whenever he found one of his Dyaks wounded, he would rush up to him, pour some brandy between his lips and make him get up and walk. Apparently brandy and walking were a sufficient antidote against poisoned arrows,” he wrote.

There was no exact number of casualties but it was believed over hundreds lives were lost, including women and children.

But Charles did ‘bathe his hand in the blood of the murderers’; They were sentenced to death by having their throats cut.

As for his ‘much lamented friends’, Payne stated “No one had anything good to say about Fox or Steele, and it is possible that they deserved to die.”

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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