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What Sarawak nature looked like in the 19th century according to Harriette McDougall

Harriette McDougall was the wife of Francis Thomas McDougall, the first Anglican Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak from 1849 to 1868.

They first arrived in Sarawak on June 29, 1848 then subsequently established a medical mission as well as a home school here.

The couple spent the next 20 years -on and off- in the Kingdom, visiting various areas in Sarawak.

In 1888, Harriette published ‘Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak’, a book sharing her experience while staying in Borneo.

While some of her accounts were controversial, arguable and biased; she cited the deaths of the Great Kayan Expedition as “their own fault” and stated Islam as “not a faith which teaches mercy or respects life”, Harriette did give descriptions of Sarawak nature during the mid-19th century that would be important for historians or ecologists today.

They not only gave glimpses of how the state appeared back then, but how much has changed in term of biodiversity:

Here are some of the places Harriette described in her book ‘Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak’:
1.Buntal Bay
Welcome to Buntal Esplanade!

Over recent years, scientists identified Bako Buntal Bay as the wandering site for at least 27 migratory bird species in their annual migration between Southeast Asia and Australasia.

However, can you imagine that the number of bird species could be more during the mid 19th century?

According to Harriette, there was no settlement at Buntal bay when they occasionally visited the area.

Harriette wrote, “As the tide ebbed the birds arrived–tall storks, fishing eagles, gulls, curlew, plover, godwits, and many others we did not know. They flew in long lines, till they seemed to vanish and reappear, circling round and round, then swooping down upon the sand where the receding waves were leaving their supper. I never saw a prettier sight. The tall storks seemed to act like sentinels, watching while the others fed.”

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She continued, “And there are many such spots in Borneo where no human foot ever trod, and where trees, flowers, and insects flourish exceedingly; where the birds sing songs of praise which are only heard by their Maker, and where the wild animals of the forest live and die unmolested. There is always something delightful to me in this idea. We are apt to think that this earth is made for man, but, after many ages, there are still some parts of his domain unconquered, some fair lands where the axe, the fire, and the plough arc still unknown.”

2.Muara Tebas
The view of Muara Tebas.

When Harriette and her companions needed to enter Sarawak, they used the Muara Tebas route.

Along this route, she took in the view of villages and environment along the river banks.

Though Harriette mistook crocodiles for alligators, she did describe how the mangrove forests came alive with glittering fireflies during the night.

During this 21st century, one can only imagine how beautiful that sight was.

“The river winds continually, and every new reach had its interest: a village of palm-leaf houses built close to the water, women and children standing on the steps with their long bamboo jars, or peeping out of the slits of windows at the schooner; boats of all sizes near the houses, fishing-nets hanging up to dry, wicked alligators lying basking on the mud; trees of many varieties–the nibong palm which furnishes the posts of the houses, the nipa which makes their mat walls, and close by the water the light and graceful mangroves, which at night arc all alive and glittering with fire-flies. On the boughs of some larger trees hanging over the stream, parties of monkeys might be seen eating the fruits, chattering, jumping, flying almost, from bough to bough.”


3.Batang Rajang

When Harriette arrived at Batang Rajang, she described it as a glorious river saying “It is not visited by a bore, and eighty miles from the sea it is half a mile broad, and deep to the banks.”

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She also had high praises for the flowers in Borneo.

Harriette wrote, “They seldom grow on the ground, though you may sometimes come upon a huge bed of ground orchids, but mostly climb up the trees, and hang in festoons from the branches. One plant, the Ixora, for instance, propagating itself undisturbed, will become a garden itself, trailing its red or orange blossoms from bough to bough till the forest glows with colour.

The Rhododendron, growing in the forks of the great branches, takes possession of the tall trees, making them blush all over with delicate pinks and lilacs, or deepest rose clusters. Then the orchideous plants fix themselves in the branches, and send out long sprays of blossom of many colours and sweetest perfume.”

At the Rajang river, Harriette also paid attention to the sounds or birds.

According to her there were not many singing birds in Borneo but she did notice the curious creaking noise made by the wings of Rhinoceros hornbills as they fly past.

(We bet Sarawakians nowadays may not be aware of how hornbills’ wings sound.)

Regardless, the biggest noisemaker of the Borneon jungle was none other than the gibbons or as Harriette called them, the Wawa monkey.

Here is how she lengthily described the sounds of gibbons:

“More musical is the voice of the Wawa monkey, a bubbling like water running out of a narrow-necked bottle, always to be heard at early dawn, and the sweetest of alarums. A dead stillness reigns in the jungle by day, but at sunset every leaf almost becomes instinct with life. You might almost fancy yourself beset by Gideon’s army, when all the lamps in the pitchers rattled and broke, and every man blew his trumpet into your ear. It is an astounding noise certainly, and difficult to believe that so many pipes and rattles, whirring machines and trumpets, belong to good-sized beetles or flies, singing their evening song to the setting sun. As the light dies away all becomes still again, unless any marshy ground shelters frogs. But to hear all this you must go to the old jungle, where the tall trees stand near together and shut out the light of day, and almost the air, for there is a painful sense of suffocation in the dense wood.”

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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