Cape Po to Kuching, 10 July 1893

As soon as the not really friendly morning had arrived, the barge with the gala boat in tow was ready, so that we set out up the Sarawak at the earliest moment possible in the company of the commander whom I had invited to come along.

The bay South of Po Point proved to be very shallow which forced us to make quite a detour before we reached the mouth of the Sarawak river between Muwarataha and Brook’s Point. The bay was full of fishing equipment which we recognized from Amboina: labyrinths made out of cane or bamboo with supervising seats for the fishermen.

The drive itself was not very interesting. The river is meandering in strong curves across a flat monotonous land between green walls of trees which contain neither beautiful palm trees nor other tall trunks. The only diversion offered to the keen eye were some small native villages whose huts had been erected on poles close to the shore. In front of them numerous children were mingling and playing in the mud or sand and looked curiously at the passing barge.

We met a considerable number of praus which were all awaiting the rush of the tide to continue their journey to Kuching. The difference between high and low tide and the upstream and downstream current caused by this are incredibly strong here and ease shipping considerably so that the onset of the tides sees whole flotillas of praus sail in close proximity. If these boats do not manage to complete the journey from the mouth to the city in one day, the anchor and await the next tide.

The closer we came to Kuching the narrower the meandering river became and more and more boats passed us by with oars or sail. Some of these were tightly packed with Chinese. As soon as we had passed the final turn of the river at Tanah Putik, Kuching presented itself to us as a long row of brick ovens, saw mills, huts and houses, all dominated by a glittering white fort with a signal tower on a small hill. Continuing further upstream one reaches the city, a strange mix of European and native buildings. The contrast between the modern and the Malayan architecture did not abruptly clash here but seemed from afar to combine into one picture that was quite pretty. Here another fort or better fortified barracks became visible whose lime-washed white walls were glittering while the glacis and the outer works were surrounded by park-like groups of trees and luxuriously growing green lawns.

On the left bank the residence of the sultan is towering, a building in villa style. On the right bank rise the public buildings, the court with the post office, the market hall, small barracks, the prison. The bank itself, however, is covered with Chinese houses and native huts. The dirt around these buildings, the numerous fishes laid out to dry and rot in the sun, as well as numerous disgusting garbage and supplies produced a penetrating quite malodorous smell. Numerous vehicles almost all with the flag of Sarawak were moored at the shore, among them a quite nice steam yacht belonging to the raja.

The first question we posed in English to the curious crowd after our landing was where the club house was which „Saida“ had found and praised during its visit of Kuching.  Our questions were quite insistent as we wanted to eat something first of all and refresh ourselves a bit before we turned to the other points of the day’s program. Unfortunately I received to my great consternation the answer that the club house had been recently sold and demolished but not yet replaced by a new structure. So we were left to walk across the fish market to the city to seek information there. Fortunately we soon met a blond son of Albion who was immediately willing to help us in finding orientation and lead us directly to a large building fronted by an open hall of pillars. In it were situated the court, the post office and other offices. In the hall stood peacefully all kinds of cannons, mostly of Chinese origin, on wooden pedestals. Here the British man presented us to the post master general of Sarawak who was wearing a tropical uniform and who, being informed about our name, rushed away to inform the raja about our arrival.

His Highness Sultan Charles Johnson Brooke was just presiding as a judge as a glance across the open hall of pillars showed. Besides the raja sat yawning judges in their upholstered leather chairs, stood claimants, defendant, witnesses, and thus we had the opportunity to watch a real session of „The Datus Court“. This supreme court of the territory in which the raja preside and only native dignitaries are able to speak and vote is the highest authority in all civil law affairs for the natives. The enquiry and decision of these matters is handled according to Sarawak’s customary laws.

The raja interrupted the court proceedings and appeared in front of me carrying a long staff as a external sign of his honor in his hand and surrounded by the dignitaries of his territory. Even though my visit to Kuching had been announced quite some time ago, my sudden unexpected arrival caused quite some astonishment. After a pause, the raja asked how he could be of service to me. His proposal to provide a life guard staffed by his people was not to my liking. My desire was simply to quench my hunger with better non-fluid food than the market of Kuching provided and then visit the city and undertake an expedition into the interior of the land the following morning in order to have a look at some real Dajaks and their villages and perhaps make the acquaintance of a still free Orang-Utan, this giant great ape.

We presented this program to the raja but its realization stood little chance. The raja agreed with pleasure to show me his residence but the expedition into the interior could not be organized as such an expedition required at least two weeks. It was unfortunately impossible for us to spend such a long time given the fixed journey and the approaching typhoon season in the Chinese sea. As far as the Dajaks were concerned I had to learn that the Dajaks in this territory had taken to the milder customs and their villages had lost much of their originality. A consequence of the approaching civilization even in the jungles of Borneo is the disappearance of the notorious pirates and head-hunters of the North-western Dajaks and their huts formerly very originally decorated with war trophies. As much as we saluted the progress of civilization, it was still disappointing for an ethnologist! Also the hunt for Orang-Utans had to be cancelled as these had seemingly been completely displaced from the surrounding areas of Kuching.1

In view of these not very pleasing messages I decided to return on board after visiting the city and thus hasten our arrival in Bangkok.

The sultan wanted to serve personally as my guide in his capital and residential city and started showing us the sights whereas he strangely started with the prison which seemed to catch his special governmental attention. It is located within a miniature fortress and unquestionably well maintained.

A tall, very slim man, the sultan walked at a fast pace despite being more than sixty years of age and despite the great heat which cost us many drops of sweat and made the sightseeing of some of the institutions rather superficial. We thus rushed through the government building offices, the post and telegraph office, through the courthouse until finally the carriage approached which had been ordered for me  — a small gig drawn by a pony — to transport me to the newly built museum. Here too the raja wanted to complete everything at a fast pace but I found too many interesting things in this small but very rich museum not to rein in Brooke’s speed. The collection only contains natural or ethnographic objects from Borneo itself: Orang-Utans which I unfortunately was to view on Borneo only in stuffed form. The strange proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus); specimens of other on Borneo not really very numerous mammals; a rich collection of birds and butterflies of numerous gorgeous species etc.

The most important department of the museum was the ethnographic collection which contains only objects of the Dajaks. The taste and skill with which the Dajaks, a tribe that is in many aspects at a low level of development, produce and decorate weapons, jewelry and tools etc. is remarkable. As material they use human hair, teeth, bones as well as complete human skulls play an important role. From the museum terrace one has a nice view of the city, overlooking the newly built church, the palace of the bishop, the pretty country mansions of the few Europeans living in Kuching in the middle of green gardens.

During the sightseeing journey I noted the exemplary order and cleanliness of the roads. Everywhere there were signs of hard hand and a European sense of civilization that guided the sloth and indolence of the population. Without doubt, the house of Brooke had performed excellently during their short time of rule. As far as affairs were in the interior of the land and how the administration was working there I naturally could not assess.

In small barges we crossed the river to reach the raja’s residence which was built on a hill on the left bank and surrounded by a park. The exterior of the building was bare of any ornamentation. In the interior I found a number of bare, neglected rooms. The furniture and the other equipment in the reception and dining hall looked as if these two rooms with a moldy atmosphere were rarely used. It is a habit of mine to examine all the pictures in a house or palace I entered for the first time. From these I can secretly try to draw conclusions about the character and the passions of the owner. Here there were only a few pictures and only one caught my eye: a life-size portrait of James Brooke, the founder of the territory whose forceful energetic features fully matched my expectations. This agreeable impression, however, was completely destroyed by the picture of  Garibaldi that was displayed close by.

In the guest room the raja assigned to me, the moths had caused quite a bit of damage at the furniture and the bed so that only a very uncertain estimate could be made about the original splendor of the room’s equipment. But at least it was agreeable to rest there until lunchtime given the reigning heat.

The lunch could not be called princely — the court of Sarawak practised not really good English cooking which says about all there is to say about the cooking of one of the sons of Albion whose products can not be seen as culinary master works. The court wine cellar however did not seem well stocked as only I was served champaign while the other gentlemen received nothing. Besides the son of the raja, the heir apparent Charles Vyner Brooke and his educator completed our circle — Her Highness the Sultan has been for quite some time staying in England — there was a lady who had come to see the race that was soon to take place here. The lady’s contribution to the conversation was limited to the words „yes“ and „no“ now and then which she produced without any movement not even a turn of her head. As the raja was a bit hard of hearing and only English was spoken, I can hardly count the lunch in the dark dining hall among the most stimulating social experiences of my life.

Before my departure the raja had a company of his army assemble in front of the palace with a music band. The regular army consists of 300 men. I can not be denied that the soldiers who I inspected made a very good military impression. They were wearing white coats with black lacing in the Hungarian manner and pants made out of the same material as well as round black caps and were armed with Snider rifles. The men were all recruited from native Dajaks who were quite small in stature but were said to still distinguish themselves in strength, endurance and courage. The company saluted and the music band played our anthem — the virtuosi were Malays — apparently only practised at the last minute and the artists did not manage to play more than the first part while a battery nearby was firing countless shots. Then I took my heartfelt leave from the friendly raja and drove downstream with our barge which did not take long thanks to the favorable low tide so that we covered 25 sea miles in 2.5 hours.

During the last part of the journey down the valley a beautiful spectacle developed before my eyes as the sun was setting and sent its last shining rays onto the rain-filled clouds of an upcoming storm and thus produced a row of enticing beautifully colored rainbows.

On board of „Elisabeth“ it was decided to hoist anchors immediately and directly drive to Singapore and only from there steer towards Bangkok. The thought of another stay in Singapore was not very enticing to me but calling again at this harbor made sense out of a number of reasons: the coal stock had to be replenished which was not doable in Sarawak due to the loading difficulties and the inappropriate quality of the coal. Furthermore the ethnographic and other collections had grown so much that it was expedient and timely to send a part of it home to make space. The main reason for calling at Singapore was however that there had been undetermined rumours about entanglements between France and Siam. We had first to know more about this in order to eliminate the risk of travelling to Bangkok and find the mouth of the Menam blocked.

Vivarium in the Vienna Prater advertises the arrival of three new Orang-Utans in the Neue Freie Presse on 1 August 1892.

Vivarium in the Vienna Prater advertises the arrival of three new Orang-Utans in the Neue Freie Presse on 1 August 1892.

Links

  • Location: Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo
  • ANNO – on 10.07.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Der Veilchenfresser“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

  1. Franz Ferdinand might have seen an Orang-Utan in the ape and monkey building („Affenhaus“) in the Schönbrunn zoo or as a special attraction in the Vienna Prater, though the Neue Freie Presse reports that the Orang-Utan of the Prater Vivarium died in June 1891. 

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