Save Alice!


IF Bau can draw visitors, foreign and local, to its caves and mountains, so can Simanggang to its fort and its bore. If the path to Serambu mountain can be named after the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, so can one of the libraries in Simanggang be dedicated to the well-known novelist Somerset Maugham.

REPAIRS NEEDED: Fort Alice is presently in a sorry state. Efforts are required to conserve and maintain this historical site for posterity.

Maugham was saved from drowning by a convict serving a life sentence when the boat in which they were travelling was struck and overturned by the bena (bore). Read his story, ‘The Yellow Streak’.

Does anybody know where the name ‘Simanggang’ came from?

That name has stuck to this day. The town acquired a new name — Bandar Sri Aman — after the signing of the peace agreement, Memorandum of Understanding, between the then Chief Minister Abdul Rahman Ya’akub and Bong Kee Chok, director and commissar of Paraku (North Kalimantan Peoples’ Armed Forces) on Oct 20, 1973, which ended communist terrorism in Sarawak.

Another tourist attraction

If the federal tourism ministry can find funds with which to rebuild the old James Brooke bungalow at Peninjau, so can that ministry or its counterpart in the state repair Fort Alice at Simanggang.

Both are good tourism products, if smartly promoted; both have a place in the history of Sarawak.

All that is required for the tour guides taking tourists to the resorts in Skrang or in Batang Ai is to go straight to Simanggang town, a short distance away. The fort is on the riverfront. If they are lucky, they may see the bore if the time is right. Have lunch in the bazaar and before it gets bored, backtrack to the main Kuching/Sibu junction en route to your final destinations.

Tourists or no tourists, efforts must be made soon to renovate the fort, not restored to its former glory for this is impossible, but as a historical landmark properly conserved and maintained for posterity.

Hopefully the state Museum, the Badan Warisan, the Ministry of Tourism, both state and federal, would let us know what is being done about Fort Alice. That’s the question people ask every time they drop in at the bazaar.

People first policy

The fort named after Charles Brooke’s sister is the symbol of a people-oriented government. A simple regulation styled ‘Hints To Young Officers From The Rajah’ was the catechism used by the government servants in dealing with the rakyat at the time. All offices were sited in one place — one-stop counter. Government officials were accessible to members of the public any time before 8pm.

From 8pm sharp until the next morning, Fort Alice was out of bounds to its clients:

Jam pukul lapan udah bebunyi
Tangga udah ditarit
Pintu udah di tambit
Orang ari ulu orang ari ili
Enda ulih niki agi …

(Now the clock has struck eight, ladder has been drawn up, doors shut;

People from up and down river can no longer enter)

Perhaps, of interest to present day government servants are the following extracts from the Rajah’s Hints, as AB Ward remembers them in his book ‘Rajah’s Servant’, Cornell University, 1966:

“An officer to be efficient must have regularity in his habits. He should never give an order for anything to be done except he sees that his order is properly carried into effect. He should devote a certain amount of time to social and friendly intercourse with those he has to govern, and this is necessary in order to obtain some knowledge of the character of the people.

“The best manner in the long run with natives is to be thoroughly natural and in no way patronising. A mixture of kindness and freedom with severity when required without harshness or bullying. Joking to be limited to the comprehension of the people. Never put natives on a familiar footing. They hold their position in society and you yours. They are not inferior, but they are different.”

The fort’s forte

A fort had earlier been built on low ground at the mouth of the Skrang sometime in 1849, but as the site was flood-prone and vulnerable to attacks by the headhunters, it was moved down to Simanggang where she has survived to this day. Hardly.

In its heyday it was the seat of government of the Second Division, almost independent of the Astana in Kuching. In his younger days, Charles Brooke as Rajah Muda had spent most of his time administering the district. Unfortunately, Charles was not as prolific a writer as his uncle James was. Apart from the information glimpsed from his book ‘Twenty Years In Sarawak’, records of his administration of the district in the form of minutes of meetings or administrative instructions or development plans have been difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

Ward, who became Resident of Second Division, describes the fort as it was in 1913:

“Like most of the outstation forts of Sarawak it was built of massive ‘belian’ or iron wood in an oblong enclosing a small courtyard. The exterior was protected against the attack of spear-armed natives by a latticed screen from the eaves.

“The hill itself was sheer on the river side, but elsewhere its slopes were shady with trees and bright with flowers — cannas, jasmine, Honolulu creepers, and the mauvy blue morning glory.”

A picture of benign neglect

Early this month, I went to photograph the Old Lady.

The hill is still there, the cliff is still as steep as ever, its slopes are still shady with trees, but its compound is overgrown with weeds, and gone are the Honolulu creepers, the jasmine, the cannas and the mauve blue morning glory. What remains is a picture of a forlorn and neglected icon badly in need of vitamins C, M and PW — Care, Money and Political Will.

Charles’ second home

When he had become the second Rajah after his uncle’s death in 1868, Charles continued visiting the district. By then he had acquired a wife, Margaret, and sometimes she accompanied him.

During one such visit, while her husband was away with his force (bala) on one of the government-approved headhunting expeditions upriver, the Ranee recorded: “Tunku Ismail was left to guard the fort and me.” Read her book ‘My Life In Sarawak’, originally published by Methuen & Co Ltd, London, 1913.

With her bodyguard, “Sunok, bent double with age, sleeping ‘at my door’ and Fury, a half-breed Yorkshire terrier belonging to Mr Maxwell”, officer in charge of the district, the Ranee was manning the fort when a group of Kayans suddenly appeared on the Batang Lupar.

A 600-strong contingent in 15 boats led by Tama Paran, from the Rajang, offered to help the Rajah. Margaret had problems in dissuading them to proceed upriver for fear they might take advantage of the situation to hunt heads for themselves in the name of the government.

When they became restless, having been in town for 12 days without seeing real action, and insisted on joining the fray, she held a war council with Sunok and Tunku Ismail. As the situation was serious and her power of persuasion did not work, she had to concoct a ‘cock-and-bull’ story.

Knowing that these warriors believed in dreams, she announced she had had a good one the previous night, but what it was all about would only be made known a day later. If they refused to wait until then, she pointed to the fort’s guns aimed at their boats. Unknown to the Kayans, however, none of the Ranees’ men knew how to handle those guns!

By a remarkable coincidence, as if she had sent an SMS to her husband, the Rajah’s bala returned triumphantly the following day. And the Kayans believed in the Ranee’s dream. She had bluffed her way out of a sticky situation with a pure white lie, thereby beating the warriors from the mighty Rajang hands down.

At the end of the Japanese Occupation in 1945, Fort Alice was still useful, this time as a detention centre. By then, she had begun to show signs of old age and fatigue. Now she is in a pretty bad shape indeed.

But she may still be of practical value in terms of tourism. As one of the important landmarks in Simanggang and a national heritage, tourist brochures should include mention of the fort for the benefit of the visitors to our state.


Meantime, we hope the relevant authorities will secure funds very soon for the renovation of what was once the seat of the equivalent of a ‘People First, Performance Now’ government — an idea thought of by Sarawak’s rulers, more than a century ago.

Before she breathes her last, allow tourist dollars to restore   her health. We will never be forgiven for her demise when    we have all the funds for   overseas trips to lure tourists over. Alice will disappear into oblivion from the modern   history of Sri Aman, the Abode   of Peace, unless rescued by  a knight in shining armour  soon.

My plea repeated: SAVE ALICE!