Review by Otto Steinmayer
Accuse me of special pleading, but not of insincerity. I love Borneo, and I love anything written about her—and that’s included some perfect trash. This magnificent Rajah Brooke’s Borneo is stuffed full of nifty old engraved pictures of all kinds of nifty old Borneo things, veritable chocolate creams for my eyes. The publisher and instigator of RBB and its companion volumes, on Japan, China, Malaya, also happens to be a good friend of mine, and I wouldn’t dream of saying anything less than the best about his baby.
Notwithstanding all my biases (I don’t see why a person can’t have a few biases) Rajah Brooke’s Borneo is a fine, fun book. In my role as small-time borneologist I have forged through plenty of articles and books that wrinkle the brow. It is a pleasure to have a volume of pictures, like postcards from the past, to pass an amusing (and improving) few hours with. If the Bornean rain keeps me from the Bornean outdoors, so much the better.
The bulk of the pictures, as well as the text, first appeared in the Illustrated London News, a magazine that got its start and enjoyed its greatest popularity in the Victorian era. (It still exists). Developments in printing technology, wood engraving and stereotyping, had made it possible to turn out printing-plates for illustrations quickly and cheaply. The proprietors of the ILN cheerfully provided the British public (and others) with plentiful picture reportage on all the things that the public still craves and journalists still hasten to provide: marvels, mayhem, the bizarre, Royalty, and, occasionally, the informative.
The loyal and curious Victorian public had quite an appetite for scenes from the exotic reaches of the Empire. True enough, none of Borneo ever got into British hands (Sabah, until late, was run by a private company), but James Brooke’s success at getting himself appointed rajah—his outlandish title itself caused a thrill—to independent Sarawak was a glamourous sensation substantially flattering to British patriotic pride, white man ruling alone over a land of naked savages, etc., etc.
Expect whimsy, even if that’s not what the long-dead editors had in mind. In the days before photography became readily portable, news illustrations were engraved from on-the-spot sketches. Out in the Far East a professional draughtsman was rarely at hand, and while some amateurs were skilled and accurate, others obviously drew not so much what they saw as what they thought they ought to be comprehending they were seeing. Back in London, the perplexed engraver had to do whatever he could with the raw data. Thus, on page 117 here, we have a strange headhunter attired in bonnet, ruff, mini-skirt, and sabre, holding a stick of uncertain use, and stands before a perau carved out of a large melon; thus, elsewhere, the plethora of native males in diapers.
No doubt such fantasies caused much merriment when they arrived in the hands of their putative subjects. Commodore Perry, who “opened up” Japan in 1852, was disappointed that the Shogun and his court were not more impressed with the western techno-toys he lavished on them. The Shogun, in fact, had read all about them in the ILN, to which he subscribed through his Dutch agents. Margaret Brooke speaks somewhere of an Iban tuai rumah who kept a stack of issues, a gift of the local resident.
In more recent-distant years, the issue published on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II made a big splash in Sarawak, and cuttings from it were pasted on the bilek-walls of those many longhouse dwellers lucky enough to get a copy. It seems that ILN was as hard to escape as National Geographic is today.
On the other hand—to get back to the point of the pictures—most of these old cuts are well-done, accurate, and deliciously informative. The frontispiece, a composite portrait of several Dayak men and women, and a longhouse in the background, presents a reality that a person here can recognize as essentially true, if not in every detail, today. Need I say how tickled I am to view sketches daubed, 150 years ago, a bare mile from my present abode?
And then, you can see pictures of things that are
completely no longer. Regard the portrait of H.M.S. Transit’s
fate. Here is how a wooden steamship looked when hung up on a rock and
sinking by the stern. The paragraphs on the progress of the submarine
electric telegraph will grab anyone enthused by its latest descendent, viz.,
An album of Sarawak without a smidgen of the, uh, savagery that made the place interesting would have bitterly disappointed thousands of readers. Thus the ILN displayed, in gruesome detail, the exact method Dayaks used in smoking the severed heads of their enemies (cover the eyes with banana leaves). Brooke’s massacre of the “pirates” got adorned with large panoramic layout of the battle, and breathless columns of despatches from the roadstead.
D.J.M. Tate, the compiler, has also included a good selection of the text that accompanied these engravings. With some exceptions, the writing is not reliable as a source for events, but the 19th century words are priceless as a sample of the way British people thought about Borneo and the east. It is surprising and fascinating to see how much they knew, and how much they didn’t know. In short, the same situation prevails today. Just to keep everything in perspective—taking ancient British prejudices too seriously would spoil the fun—Tate guides us to the quirks of the ILN mind with a series of helpful little commentaries.
Along with the ILN wood-engravings, Tate has mixed pictures from books by Brooke, Keppel, Marryat and others, most of them difficult to get. In the middle, as a bonus, we have seven full-page colour prints, printed on one side and suitable for framing—the cream of Borneo lithography.
The Illustrated London News was a fixture of drawing-rooms in Bloomsbury in the last century. The then British bourgoisie had no coffee-tables, that low-standing, glass-topped article of furniture still waiting to be invented. But copies of ILN purveying the lush flavour of Borneo, delicately redolent of violence and sensuality, certainly mingled with the aroma of darjeeling on many a tea-table. There could be few books in modern-day Malaysia (since this with its brothers is a local product), that could more entertainingly take the equivalent role in modern times. Or, you may want to arrange that a friend get his first copy, as I got mine, as a gift!