Harriette McDougall, Sketches of our life in Sarawak. With an introduction by R.H.W. Reece and A.J.M. Saint. Originally published 1882 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, reprinted Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1992. 250 pages, $64.00.
Review by Otto Steinmayer
You don't have to be a Sarawak chauvinist to appreciate the beauty
of Kuching, the state capital. Not very far from the Main Bazaar on the
bank of Sungai Sarawak (where most of the old shophouses and other
historic building remain commendably intact), lie the grounds of the
Anglican cathedral, a large green space in the middle of the town. On
top of the hill there sits the Bishop's house, probably the oldest
building standing in Sarawak, if not all of Borneo.
Rev Francis McDougall, first Bishop of Sarawak, and his wife Harriette caused the house to built in 1849 and lived there almost continuously until they left Sarawak in 1867.
The house is at the centre of these sketches. The
various male actors in the early Sarawak drama wrote books of their
grand actions in war, politics, and exploration. Harriette's Sketches
are the record of Sarawak life as lived day-to-day by an intelligent
and sympathetic woman, and the only such account of daily life under
the first Rajah.
Harriette writes with modesty. Yet she was an accomplished woman, who could paint with more than amateur results, play the piano, write with fluency and charm, and manage a large episcopal household, with all the housewifery and entertaining that involved.
To her part also fell the work of overseeing the
schooling of girls at the Mission House, caring for sick children, and
helping out in church work, including preparations for festival days.
Furthermore, although she is here silent about her part (she says "I
shall avoid alike all political questions, or...individual histories
among the English community..."), Harriette played a key (and tragic)
role in Sarawak politics.
She was the only member of the European community
who was unreservedly loved and respected, and she used her kindly
influence trying to mediate between both her husband, the Bishop, and
the Rajah, who ended up at daggers drawn, and in trying to patch things
up between Brooke Brooke, the Rajah Muda, and James his uncle. Her
diplomacy failed to dissolve either acrimony.
Behind her descriptions of these for the most part humble affairs, the reader senses that Harriette practised a remarkable courage. Her personal life was filled with suffering. Sickness was always a risk in the last century, and Harriette was seriously ill many times. In the course of her marriage she bore ten children, and in her first six years in Sarawak she saw each year one child sicken and at last be committed to the grave, in spite of her husband's considerable (for that time) medical skill. As she put it, "the flowers died all along our way."
Harriette was solaced for the deaths of her
friends and children by the conviction that they were now with God. Her
courage and energy had their source in her profound and liberal
Christian faith. Reece and Saint believe that Harriette was the one who
urged her husband to go to Sarawak.
Unlike many other English people, especially, it seems, missionaries, Harriette actively enjoyed the tropics. As a painter, she had an accurate eye for scenery. She delighted in flowers and colors, and often describes beauties of Sarawak land and water that other writers missed. She coped easily with rough life, and she had great pleasure in trips and outings, and gives amusing accounts of bathing under jungle waterfalls.
I remarked, in one description of an outing to an
uninhabited part of Santubong, an attitude to nature which no one but
Harriette seems to have felt or expressed:
there are many such spots in Borneo where no human foot ever trod, and
where trees, flowers, and insects flourish exceedingly; where the birds
sing songs of praise to their Maker, and where the wild animals of the
forest live and die unmolested. There is always something delightful to
me in this idea. We are apt to think that this earth is made for man,
but, after many ages, there are still some parts of his domain
unconquered, some fair lands where the axe, the fire, and the plough
are still unknown."
Poignant to read when this is becoming less and less true.
Harriette kept her mind on her work while in the tropics. She was not much taken with Dayak life, but was not contemptuous of it either, and she treats Dayaks and their religion and customs with sympathy if not with approval. She faced with aplomb her two encounters with severed heads.
Harriette spoke Malay, although Malays complained she sounded "like a book." She was on good terms with Malay and Chinese women (in those days proper women did not mingle casually with men), and found intimate friends among them.
Historians make the distinction between "primary"
and "secondary" texts. The former are documents from the time itself,
and though they can be ranked as more and less useful, primary texts
are all equally valuable as the handing-down of information. Harriette
McDougall was an eyewitness to many of the major events of early
Sarawak history. In particular, her account of the Chinese Rebellion of
1857, which she wrote down while it was in progress, gives important
details not found elsewhere.
Harriette's original audience was the many English men and women interested in following the progress of Christian missionary work abroad, with which many parts of her book deal. She was used to speaking about Sarawak to people who did not know the country, and knew the ways of "public relations." Still, her quiet zeal did not lead her either to sensationalize the dangers and adventures of the mission, nor to paint rosy a picture for her readers. She is realistic about the perhaps meagre progress the Anglican mission had made, but as a Christian proud of it too.
Of all the English people who wrote about Sarawak
in the last century, I think that Harriet McDougall is by far the best
artist in words. Her style and the special sensibility that reflects
her remarkable character are in my opinion the best of her book's
delights. There are many reasons to read Sketches, and many
reasons to enjoy it.