The strange death of British explorer Frank Hatton in North Borneo

Nineteenth century Borneo was as exotic as one could imagine. For the outside world, especially Westerners, hardly anything was known about the island except maybe that it was home for headhunters.

It’s no surprise then that many adventurous and curious explorers found their ways to the island in order to be the first among themselves to discover something new, be it a new plant, new animal or a new source of valuable mineral.

One of those who arrived upon the shores of Borneo back then was Frank Hatton, an English geologist and explorer.

Born in 1861, Frank was the son of journalist Joseph Hatton (1839-1907) and a graduate of the Royal School of Mines in London.

Being the son of a journalist gave Frank an advantage as his father’s connections made it easier for him to publish his writings.

Frank Hatton
Frank Hatton, engraving based on a photo by Vandeweyde (1885) . Credit: Public Domain.
Frank Hatton’s career in British North Borneo Company

Driven and motivated, Frank joined the British North Borneo Company as a mineral explorer, leaving London in August 1881.

According to W.H Treacher, the British Governor of Labuan at the time, “Frank Hatton joined the Company’s service with the object of investigating the mineral resources of the country and in the course of his work travelled over a great portion of the Territory, prosecuting his journeys from both the West and East coasts, and undergoing the hardship incidental to travel in a roadless, tropical country with such ability, pluck and success as surprised me in one so young and slight and previously untrained and inexperienced in rough pioneering work.”

Treacher added, “He more than once found himself in critical positions with inland tribes, who had never seen or heard of a white man, but his calmness and intrepidity carried him safely through such difficulties, and with several chiefs he became sworn brother, going through the peculiar ceremonies customary on such occasions.”

For Frank, however, Borneo was far from what he had originally hoped for. In his diary, Frank vented out a few of his irritations about life in Borneo.

He grew sick of eating Dusun food. He was tired of being stared at by the natives who had never seen a Caucasian man before.

Additionally, Frank thought the local methods of headhunting was cowardly, calling it “head-stealing” not “headhunting” as he said the natives would wait in the bushes before making an attack during headhunting.

Frank Hatton and his sudden death in North Borneo

In 1883, Frank went up to the Kinabatangan river from Elopura (now known as Sandakan) to verify a local report of gold in the area.

There he was killed during an elephant-shooting expedition when his gun reportedly got tangled in the vegetation and went off, shooting him in the lungs.

According to Anne Tagge in Hatton’s Folly: Assaulting “This Eden of the Eastern Wave”, Frank had been persuaded to give up his hunt.

“On the way back to the boat, his Winchester rifle twisted in jungle creepers, a twig pulling the trigger. His followers reported that Hatton’s last words were in his recently required Malay ‘Odeen, Odeen mati saya’ (Odeen, Odeen, I am dead) to his servant while resting his head on Odeen’s shoulder.”

Frank’s only non-native companion during the expedition was an Australian gold miner named Andrew Beveridge.

Somehow knowing that Frank had always been careful with weapons, Beveridge first shouted “Who has done this?” to Frank’s party.

But after looking at how distraught his native servants were as they were exclaiming “Better we had died!”, Beveridge believed the incident was an accident caused by Frank himself.

Beveridge and the rest then went on a 60-mile journey down the river to Elopura, carrying Frank’s decaying body.

After arriving in Elopura, an inquest was held on the day of Frank’s burial on Mar 4, 1883.

Elopura where Frank Hatton’s body was brought . This illustration was first published in  “Frank Hatton in North Borneo. Notes on his life and death, by his father“. Century Illustrated Magazine. Credit: Public Domain
Did the natives kill Frank and make it look like an accident?

Before Frank’s death, one of his colleagues in the British North Borneo Company named Franz Witti had been killed by headhunters.

Frank had written to his parents, reassuring them that he could take care of himself and that they shouldn’t be worried about Witti’s murder.

Tagge pointed out, “The company always ascribed such deaths (Witti’s) to accident or uncontrolled tribes or to tribes across the border in Dutch-ruled Borneo.”

As for Frank’s shooting, there was no proof that it was premeditated. The then resident at Elopura, W.B Pryer wrote to Treacher that there was no evidence that the gun was cocked.

The muzzle of the gun would have had to slip from Frank’s shoulder as he held the stock and moved a jungle creeper with his hand holding the stock.

Furthermore during the inquest, Beveridge revealed that he didn’t notice whether any of the guns carried by the natives had been discharged.

He stated that Frank fell in a very open place with a little undergrowth; the nearest vine was four feet from where Frank lay. When Beveridge arrived at the scene, running in four or five minutes from the boat, the gun had already been moved, and Frank was no longer able to speak.

Was there any tension between Frank Hatton and his servants?

According to Beveridge who had questioned Frank’s servants, he found that the natives would have defended Frank from an elephant even if it meant their own deaths.

However, there was still no definite proof that the bullet which killed Frank came from his own gun. Even if it had, how did it happen?

Before the incident, Frank had sighted an elephant on Feb 17, 1883.

He was reportedly extremely anxious to shoot one before leaving Borneo and this was his last inland trip. (Obviously, the trend of Western tourists desecrating or ravaging local spots goes back centuries…)

In his diary, Frank recorded that his group had been struggling through the swamp through this trip. One of his servants, Durahim, had also capsized a boat, costing them some of their food and valuable supplies.

He had even listed down all his losses in the diary and his willingness to cut his servants’ wages if he found out that it was their fault that the perahu (boat) had been overturned.

While they were pursuing the elephant, the day was getting darker and his servants were restless to return.

But Frank was believed to be obsessed with shooting the elephant. If he had managed to kill an elephant and acquired its tusks, he might have been the first white hunter to do so in North Borneo back then.

The inquest’s result

Maybe it was Frank’s obsession over elephants tusks that brought him to his death.

Nonetheless, the British North Borneo company interpreted Frank’s ambiguous death as an unfortunate accident and he was buried at Sandakan cemetery.

“The company seems to be anxious not only to exonerate but to praise the natives who were with Hatton. A young man dies because he is determined in the last weeks of his contract to find minerals, preferably gold, in Borneo, also to bring home the triumph of having killed an elephant. His family is determined to interpret him as a hero fallen in the cause of British scientific and geographical supremacy,” Tagge wrote.

The Hatton family also accepted the verdict of the inquiry. An article in the North Borneo Herald of 1 Sept, 1883 noted Hatton’s death and comments on contributions to the Company, including a Dusun vocabulary and mineral samples ‘which will in time doubtless be developed in the interests of the Company’s Government’.

The same issue contained a letter to the editor from Joseph Hatton in which he thanked the Company for their tributes to and care for Frank’s grave.

He also sent a floral wreath for the grave – from London to Borneo – as well as knives to be given as gifts to Frank’s servants.

After his son’s death, Joseph co-wrote and published Frank’s writing in a posthumous work entitled North Borneo, Explorations and Adventures on the Equator (1886).

Frank Hatton was 22 when he died.

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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