Wednesday, November 29

Kuching’s heritage


ONE of the most important creations of the Colonial government was the Borneo Literature Bureau. Established on Sept 15 1959, it had four main functions, one of which was “to encourage local authorship, and by this means obtain materials suitable to meet local needs and arrange for their publication and distribution.”Soon, history enthusiasts began collecting materials from oral and written records with the view to having them published by the bureau.

A favourite topic among the expatriate community was the history of Kuching itself, beginning with the arrival of James Brooke in 1839.

A couple of books, ‘Sarawak Long Ago’ by W J Chater and ‘Kuching Past and Present’ by Elizabeth Pollard were printed in 1969 and 1972 respectively by the bureau. About the same time, it also published the ‘Old Sarawak – A Pictorial study’ by Craig A Lockard and Graham Saunders.

Recently, other publications on the subject followed.

Evidence of more than one longhouse

However, a little-known historical fact has somehow escaped the attention of most of these post-war chroniclers. It is that a couple of Dayak Iban longhouses were in existence in Kuching in the early 1830s: one at Padungan Creek and the other at Gresik stream.

A sketch by Harriette, wife of Bishop McDougall of the Anglican Mission, dated April 30 1849 of the Sarawak River shows what looks like longish houses along the bank of the river. This belief is being reinforced by what is claimed to be the first geological map of Sarawak; this was a map made by one Hiram William in 1846.

Apparently, these longhouses were not attractive enough to draw the attention of the many visitors to Kuching following the appointment of James Brooke as the Rajah in 1841. The Dayaks there did not pose a security threat to him that there was no mention of their existence in his journal, as published in Henry Keppel’s book, ‘The Expedition To Borneo Of HMS Dido’. When he asked permission of Rajah Muda Hassim to see the Dayaks, it was recommended that he visit Lundu. Merdang or Singghi.

The longhouse at Padungan is welldocumented while the Gresik community was merely mentioned in passing by Fr William Henry Gomes in his report to the Mission Committee in London. Other than Brian Taylor’s ‘The Anglican Church in Borneo 1848-962)’ and Harriette McDougall’s ‘Sketches Of Our Life At Sarawak’, several writers did not consider this part of Kuching’s heritage important, especially the Native community at Gresik.

For this reason it may be necessary to reproduce the letter written by Fr Gomes to his bosses in London to support the view above.

Datelined Mission House, Sarawak and dated Dec 24 1852, Gomes writes:

“During Mr Chambers residence here, I have with him visited the Padungan Dyaks who live in one of the creaks (his spelling) of the Sarawak river and have opened a kind of school amongst them, Mr Fox having kindly promised to keep it up in our absence. With the tide in favour it takes me only few minutes to reach them, and if we had the leisure to visit them regularly I have no doubt that a great deal of good may thus be done, but with our limited numbers and the pressure of other duties, no effectual measure can at present be adopted towards evangelizing them. They all being Saboyooh Dyaks, speak, I believe the same language as the people of Linga & Lundu, and if we can establish a regular school amongst them, besides other advantages, it will afford ample opportunities for our Missionaries to get an insight into the Dyak character and prepare them, during their residence at Sarawak, for effectual working among the several tribes to which they will be sent. The Committee will perceive that our plans can only be carried out by an addition to our number, and that it next to impossible Messrs Honburgh & Fox, in our absence, with their present duties, to devote to this object that time and attention necessary to insure success. Indeed these with the Grisek Dyaks up another creak equally near, and the Mallanos scattered along the banks of the river demand the labours of a travelling Missionary who can visit them regularly for the purpose of instruction and thus communicate to them the saving truths of the Gospel…”

Mr Chambers in this letter was an Anglican priest who eventually became the Bishop of Sarawak and Labuan.

Charles James Fox, a young catechist from the Bishop’s College, Calcutta, was earmarked for the priesthood. He came to Sarawak in 1851 and was tasked to teach at the ‘Home School’, forerunner of present day St Thomas’s. He was also responsible for starting a class for the six Dayak children, including two girls, at Padungan.

Spenser St John, private secretary to James Brooke, persuaded him to join the Rajah’s service against the wishes of Bishop Francis McDougall. He served for a couple of years at Kanowit where he was later murdered along with his colleague Steel in 1859.

Filling a gap

Hopefully, this information gleaned from the Gomes letter could fill a little gap in the history of Kuching. If a waterfront project is being planned for the area around Petanak, the history of that part of Padungan will be of some importance. It was not a terra nullius and as such there exist native customary rights and they have not been extinguished.

That’s my opinion.