At Sea to Borneo — Cape Po, 9 July 1893

At 4 o’clock in the morning the anchors were hoisted and we now steered through the Api passage passing the island of Merunduny at a distance of 2.5 sea miles, followed by a small steam boat that had also spent the dark night awaiting daylight and now used our wake.

The North-western coast of Borneo was very close to us and offered a strange image much different from the islands we have seen before: along the coast and also in the interior of the land, as far as one could see, there were low-lying plains out of which abruptly rose hills and mountain ridges some of which were of respectable height and mostly in grotesque shapes. Thus some mountains had the form — to use culinary terminology in spite of all deference shown to the science of geology —  of a „Gugelhupf“ others those of a sugar loaf. Other parts of the mountain ridges appear, like many Alpine mountain ranges, as an irregular mountain land with steep slopes and faces whose parts do not queue up as in a regular range or even are connected to a continuous ridge line but instead stand there alone as if they were dispersed over the area. A mirage made water appear in place of the low coastal areas so that the mountain giants rose as if they emerged out of the water and looked like a maze of tall islands — a picturesque and original illusion. Among the heights we saw produced by the mirage, Cape Datu and Sipang were especially conspicuous.

Both capes are already within the sultanate of Sarawak declared sovereign and since 1888 a British protectorate which contains 106.200 km2 with 320.000 inhabitants of which around half are Dajaks while the rest mostly are members of Malayan tribes. A tiny percentage of the population are Chinese who here too are controlling the considerable trade and agriculture.

The territory of Sarawak is to a large part alluvial land of the numerous rivers flowing from the Southern border of the region to the coast, among them especially notable are the Rejang with its highly branched estuary, the wide Batang lupar and the Sarawak on whose Western shore the capital Sarawak or Kutching is situated as it is also called. The coastal area is followed by a hilly terrain. In the South furthermore there are high mountain ranges.

Sarawak has been ruled since 1868 by Sultan Charles Johnson Brooke, the nephew and successor of raja Sir James Brooke. The latter — originally in the service of the British East India Company — had equipped a ship at his own cost, being a heir of a considerable fortune from his father, the yacht „Royalist“ and had sailed to Borneo seeking adventures and enterprises where he found a favorable terrain for his actions. The Sultan of Brunei had just subdued an insurrection in what is now the territory of Sarawak but could not complete the task with his own means. James Brooke now offered his services and that of the ship’s crew to the sultan and soon thereafter put down the insurrection. But Brooke as practically thinking Englishman was unwilling to provide his assistance for free. He demanded and received the territory of Sarawak as compensation.

After skillful political intrigues and scheming Brooke was festively declared raja of Sarawak or Sindjavan on 24 September 1841 and knew with energy and smart actions to consolidate his rule so that he became a relatively powerful, fully independent prince.

His most noble task was to eradicate piracy that was very common in the seas around Borneo as the many bays and rivers of the land offered most welcome hiding spots for the hyenas of the sea. He organized a small army in the English manner, built schools and public buildings and tried as well as possible to tame and civilize the wild Dajaks, the natives of the land who used to practice head-hunting. He favored the immigration of the Chinese in order to promote trade and agriculture in Sarawak starting in 1850. He had repeatedly to step in forcefully, however — in 1867, there even was a general insurrection against the yellow people — but still their contribution, their trading industry still remained irreplaceable for Sarawak.

The growth of the sultanate made England integrate this territory into its domain even though this hitherto independent state owed its existence to a British citizen and had friendly relations with Great Britain both under James Brooke, as well as under Charles Johnson Brooke since 1868. Due to this action, Sarawak was put under an English protectorate in 1888 in a peaceful manner. In a treaty it was stipulated that the territory should be turned into a crown colony of England in case the ruling house of Brooke became extinct. The heir presumptive of the governing sultant is his nineteen-year-old son Charles Vyner Brooke.

Kuching, the residence of the sultan, may have been our main destination, but we anchored at 2 o’clock in the afternoon at the mouth of the Sarawak below the lighthouse of Cape Po as the town was about 25 sea miles upstream of the Sarawak river and the commander considered the water too shallow for „Elisabeth“ and there was no pilot. The position was picturesque but nothing was moving, no pilot, no boat and no signal.

How could we now learn whether the drive upstream was possible, at least to the coaling station where we wanted to load coal to reach Bangkok? Our ships „Saida“ and „Nautilus“ used to drive up to 15 sea miles upstream to the confluence of Sarawak and Quops with the anchoring spot of Pindany. The much deeper bottomed „Elisabeth“ however could not dare to undertake this journey solely based on the maps. It thus was decided to send a cadet to the lighthouse to ask for information and then drive with the steam barge to Kuching the next day.

Even though it was already quite late in the afternoon I had myself rowed in a boat to the shore nearby to inspect the vegetation and if possible hunt some birds. Wherever I saw land, my urge to collect and research became overwhelming. And in such cases, I could not stay behind on board.

The piece of Borneo we saw was very beautiful. One of the gentlemen of the staff even compared the surrounding of the bay, the rising hills and mountains and rocks to the lake of Gmunden. But I found the comparison of this landscape with the much praised pearl of the Upper Austrian mountains too audacious despite my willingness at the first glance of something to seek and appreciate its beauty.

The lighthouse is on a 150 m high hill that drops steeply down to the sea and is surrounded by mighty and very fantastically formed rocks. The strong tides of thousands of years and the breaking waves had scoured the foot of the rocks and formed numerous caves and grottoes on whose walls, high above the water level, the common swifts had artfully attached their nests, while below the water surface oysters and other shells had taken up position. Furthermore still there are rocks gnawed and hollowed out by tidal waves along the coast and now and then small bays as well as insections jut out. Everywhere there are between the rocks and stones picturesque bunched palm trees, ferns as well as pinewood which everywhere reminds me of home. Where the rocks recede, there are plenty of mangroves whose hundreds of branched air roots dip into the swampy water and form horrible almost impenetrable thickets filled with myriads of mosquitoes.

As my deficient footwear — the nailed shoes from Goisern that I had sent for had been catching up to me for five months and were currently in Sydney — did not permit climbing the rocks, I tried to enter into the mangrove thicket. But the pestilential air full of miasmas and putrid water forced me after a few steps to go back. With the exception of mosquitoes, those small but especially today very annoying bloodsuckers, the fauna here was very sparse and only a few beautifully colored sunbirds scurried through the branches while all kinds of great and hermit crabs were mingling.

Having no chance to land here, I drove around Po Point in a Southern direction and using the opportunity bought some fishes from two Dajaks who rowed by in a small boat. I then returned on board.

The cadet we had sent to the lighthouse returned only after sunset on board as he spent much time looking for a way to ascend to the lighthouse and had lost his way. The messages the cadet brought with were not especially favorable: He had tried to communicate with the two lighthouse guards, two native Malays, with a dictionary but could only ascertain that there were no river pilots here and there was no telegraph or optical relay from Po Point to Kuching — thus we had to go and look upstream for ourselves the following morning.


  • Location: Cape Po, Sarawak, Borneo
  • ANNO – on 09.07.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Der Störenfried“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

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