The Sarawak Museum curator who became a cockroach specialist

Back in the early days of Sarawak Museum, many of its curators became prominent zoologists, anthropologists and archaeologists.

Being posted here in Sarawak when it was almost unknown to the Western world allowed these curators to be among the first to discover a new plant or animal or formally write about unheard of cultures.

Many of them continued to have successful careers after their service in Sarawak. Interestingly, one of them became specialised in cockroaches.

Early life of Robert Shelford

Robert Walter Campbell Shelford was appointed as the Sarawak Museum curator from July 22, 1897 to Feb 2, 1905.

A British subject, he was the son of a merchant, born in Singapore Aug 3, 1872.

Shelford studied at King’s College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

After finishing his degree, Shelford first worked as a Demonstrator in Biology at the Yorkshire College in 1895.

Two years later, he left Europe to come to Borneo.

Since he was born in Singapore and spent most of his childhood there, Shelford was no stranger to the tropical climate.

However, according to his friend and colleague Edward Poulton, he was diagnosed with hip-joint tuberculosis at the age of 3. Hence, his disease limited physical activities.

“Prevented by a tubercular hip joint from taking part in the games and ordinary outdoor pursuits of a boy and young man, his active mind turned to observation, and he became a naturalist.”

Poulton also pointed out that his seven-year tenure in Sarawak gave Shelford the biggest opportunity to study topical insects and anthropology.

While in Sarawak, Shelford made several expeditions to different parts of the Kingdom. He visited Mount Penrissen (May 1899), Trusan (1902) and Sadong-Tebekang (1903). Shelford also frequented Matang mountain range and Mount Santubong.

He collected many specimens of insects in Sarawak and most of them were sent to his old university at Cambridge.

Robert Shelford and the study of mimicry and anthropology

Shelford did more than just collect these insects, he also used them to study insect mimicry. Mimicry is an evolved resemblance between an organism and another object, often an organism of another species.

Poulton wrote, “He found Borneo a very rich and imperfectly explored field for the study of this subject (mimicry), and before long he entered into a regular correspondence with me, sending large consignments of insects for investigation and determination.”

Shelford even wrote a paper on insects and mimicry which was published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.

Additionally, his works in Sarawak was not limited to insects. Shelford was also interested in anthropology.

Together with Dr Charles Hose, he contributed some insights on Sarawak tattoos which later published in Hose’s book Pagan Tribes of Borneo.

Robert Shelford’s life after Sarawak

When his tenure in Sarawak was about to end, Shelford started to find jobs back in England.

His love and interest for insects remained so he was eyeing for a job in the Hope Department at Oxford.

The Hope Department was a huge collection of insects in the university founded by Frederick William Hope.

He even wrote to Poulton that if the university was unable to pay him, he was even willing to work for free.

Fortunately, Oxford was able to offer him the post as an assistant curator which he gladly accepted.

After leaving Kuching for good, Shelton made his way home to Europe via Japan, Canada and the United States.

Before that, he managed to visit many islands in the Malay Archipelago where he collected insects.

Robert Shelford in Oxford

It was during his time in Oxford that this former Sarawak Museum curator became specialised in cockroaches.

Poulton stated, “It was also a special delight to him to show the high interest and in many species the extreme beauty of the universally despised cockroaches.”

Altogether, he had described 44 new genera and 326 new species of cockroaches.

He also described five new species of Phasmida (stick insects) and published a catalogue of Central American phasmid species.

Many of the phasmid specimens in both Oxford and Cambridge universities were collected by Shelford when he was in Sarawak.

Thanks to his works in entomology, he had a long list of species named after him. These include 17 species of cockroaches, two genera of cockroaches, one mantis and one phasmid.

Portrait Robert W C Shelford
Robert W C Shelford, British Entomolgist and Naturalist. Credits: Public Domain.
Robert Shelford’s death

Shelford’s promising career in entomology was cut short too quickly. In April 1909, he accidentally slipped causing his tubercular disease to return.

The disease limited his work for the next three years. However, he did not give up as he continued to help the Hope Department whenever he could.

Shelford once write, “I am so pleased to think that I can do something at any rate, even of small, for the Hope Department.”

He spent the last few moments of his life in Margate with hope the fresh air there would restore his health.

Sadly, Shelford never regained his health and died on June 22, 1912 at the age of 39.

1103px Autolyca riveti affinis Shelford 1913
Illustrations of the stick insects Autolyca riveti Shelford, 1913 & Autolyca affinis Shelford, 1913. Credits: Public Domain.
Robert Shelford’s A Naturalist in Borneo

Before his untimely death, Shelford was working on a book based on his seven years’ experience in Sarawak.

Poulton suggested him to write it while he was battling his illness and as he was longing for a job to do.

As the pain grew stronger, Shelford was unable to finish his manuscript. Poulton stepped in to help finishing the book after his death. What he found that the manuscript was very far from ready for publication.

“Many references had been left blank or incomplete, many names of species omitted,” Poulton wrote.

In Shelford’s unfinished introduction chapter of the book, he commented about Sarawak saying, “This independent state is quietly prosperous, and, since it is very much off the track of the globe trotting tourist, it is never much in the public eye. The annual revenue now amounts to over 1,000,000 Straits dollars.”

Nonetheless, with the help of some friends and scholars, Poulton managed to have the manuscript published entitled A Naturalist in Borneo (1916).

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 or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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