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.