I recently came across this poem in the British North Borneo Herald and Fortnightly Record, no. 9, vol. 21 (1 May 1903), 107. It is about a prisoner by the name of  Tampan who was executed. It was written from his perspective by a Westerner (I’m assuming he was British). I am not sure what ethnicity Tampan was. Other people mentioned are Si Bukai and Assala. If anyone who ever reads this can tell me which ethnic group(s) these people were from, I would appreciate it. In any case, it’s a humorous poem, but considering the topic and the person who wrote it, the humor in this poem also raises many interesting questions about what life was like in British North Borneo at the turn of the twentieth century.


Condemned to Death for Murder at Tawao

(Executed in the Central Gaol, Sandakan, at 7 a.m. on Wednesday the 22nd April, 1903)

I, luckless Tampan, will unfold my crime

And how I mocked my destiny, what time

I dwelt in Tawao. Thither had I come

Unknown, an outcast, and without a home

From foreign shores, and half my days were spent

In sullen aimlessness: for where I went,

I cared not, and my soul with dull despair

Was darkened, till I met that woman. Fair

She was and comely; but one day her eyes

Met mine and made a longing rise

Within me to possess her for my wife.

Thus then began the ruin of my life.

For from that hour we daily formed a plan

To meet and talk;–a converse sweeter than

All earthly sweetness–. This from day to day

I lived for; still her husband stayed away.

Her presence grew more gladsome, and her name

Si Bukai always clung to me. The same

As when a stray forsaken buck has found

A greeting fawn and learns to love the sound

Of his new consort’s voice, so she and I

Just lived those days in joy and ecstasy.

But when Si Bukai’s spouse, Assala, came

Back home from jungle, then I felt the shame,

For now ‘twas changed. I saw Si Bukai’s look

Was cast on him, and I, how could I brook

Thus unavenged a change which made me seem

As nothing to Assala. In a dream

I seemed to live, until again one eve

I met Si Bukai, and felt loathe to leave

Her who was once as mine. We chatted and

I felt the touch of her alluring hand,

Until at last I murmured my desire;

I told her how consumed by burning fire

I could not bear to see another blessed

With joys I longed for: and I straight confessed

That I would kill Assala, and thus win

The wife I loved.

                                    She rose and went within,

Perhaps half frightened, but a passion strong

O’er-powered my sense, and in me right and wrong

Were both as one: and maddened with the thought

Of murder, I forgot all else, and brought

My mind to weave a plot, and to conspire

The method of the deed. So fierce and dire

Was this intent within me that I soon

Contrived the means. The night was dark, no moon

Shone out, and clouds obscured the sky. I crept

With caution to the house wherein they slept

And grimly waiting, closer girt my knife

Yet sheathed, but soon to quench a human life.

At last when not a noise nor sound was heard

And all within was peaceful, then I stirred

And slowly with precaution’s stealthy tread

While thoughts of hate rushed thronging through my head

I wormed my entrance through the kajang wall.

The house was dark (night lent her sheltering pall

To aid me) save one sorry candle’s glare

Which made the dark more darkly. Oh! how rare

This chance! He lay upon his mattresse’d bed

Beside his wife Si Bukai, and his head

Was pillowed close to hers. That very sight,

But dimly seen by dint of little light,

Was just the one incentive I required.

My nerves were overwrought, my body tired,

But one quick glance brought vigour to my frame

And with the vigour all my madness came

Back rushing through my bones. I crept quite near

Till I could almost touch him. Then a fear

That he would wake fell on me, and I drew

My keenly-whetted knife. He stirred. I knew

No more, for on that instant quick as thought

I dealt the death-blow; my revenge was wrought.

Si Bukai should henceforth from him be free

And be no wife to him, if not to me.

J. H. M.