I was reading the Sarawak Gazette for May 1st, 1895. It contains a section on local news. This section consists mainly of single-sentence reports about the arrival and departure of ships:
“S.S. Rajah Brooke reached here from Singapore on the 6th.”
“S.S. Lorna Doone arrived from Limbang on the 9th with passenger, Mr. E. Bartlett.”
“S.S. Rajah Brooke sailed for Singapore on the 23rd with passengers, Fathers Driessen and Verbrugge.”
Then interspersed between these brief notices, are matter-of-fact reports of deaths. Such as the following:
1) S. S. Vyner arrived from Singapore, with a mail, on the 14th and having discharged a part cargo of cement left the same evening for Sadong.
A fatal accident occurred on board the vessel whilst in port. One of the crew, Dollah by name, fell down the fore-hold and sustained a severe compound fracture of the arm and concussion of the brain: he was at once removed to hospital but died on the 19th without having regained consciousness.
At Sadong whilst taking in her cargo of coal, a similar accident occurred to a Malay coolie named Yahyia. He fell down the fore-hold and dragged a portion of the hatch with him. He died the same evening.
2) Goh Moey and Goh Pau, Chinese potters, brought a boat load of jars from the factory at Tanah Puteh to Kampong Tanjong on the evening of the 14th. Having disposed of their wares they were returning down river, when Goh Moey, who was rowing, saw his companion fall into the water. He sank at once and did not rise again. The body was not recovered till the 16th, when an inquest was held on the remains. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death by drowning.
3) The Sultan of Pontianak is dead.
4) It was reported on the 20th that the dead body of a Chinese was lying on the river bank near the race course. The body was brought to the mortuary by the police and an inquest was held the next day. A verdict of found drowned was returned. Deceased was not identified and no one has been reported missing.
5) On the morning of the 19th the remains of a Sambas youth, 12 years of age, named Mohamat, son of one Leman, a Sambas settler, was brought in in an advanced state of decomposition. The body was found hanging by a piece of creeper, Akar militik, from a young durian tree in a small fruit grove on the S’kati plain.
The deceased had run away from his parents some ten days previously and it was thought he had gone over to Sambas. When last seen he was said to have been in an excitable state, and on observing one of his relatives, who were in search of him, made off.
– – –
There is something so tragic and lonely about all of these deaths. Two coolies falling into the hold of a ship, hitting their heads and dying. A Chinese potter falling overboard and drowning. A distraught Malay boy hanging himself. And an unidentified Chinese man found dead on a river bank. Even the passing of the Sultan of Pontianak seems lonely as it is rendered in a single short sentence.
Did the coolies have any family members? I would imagine that the unidentified Chinese must have had relatives back in China. Did they ever find out what happened to him? Or did he go off in search of wealth, only to die alone by drowning and wash ashore on a river bank?
What makes these deaths seem even darker is the juxtaposition of the reports of ship arrivals and departures with the reports of these deaths. A human life and a ship arrival are of equal note.
Not all, however, was dark and meaningless. There is one account from the same paper of a near death. That this person survived was in part due to the kindness and help of strangers.
“Ajan, a Batang Lupar Dyak, was brought in on the evening of the 13th in an unconscious state owing to his having been bitten by a snake “Tedong Mata Hari” whilst on his way to Simatan, about 1 ½ miles from here. Ammonia and whiskey in strong doses being administered, Ajan recovered during the night and was able to return to his house the next morning by boat. He was unable to walk for several days, his left leg being paralysed.
Ajan stated that he was about to drink some water from a small stream he was crossing when he heard a hissing noise and was almost immediately struck by a snake on the big toe. The snake he says was not more than two feet long.
On being bitten he tied a handkerchief round his leg and ran to a Chinese pepper garden as hard as he could until he lost the power of his limb and fainted. He was found by some Chinese, and was brought in by some Dyaks who fortunately happened to be passing that way.”
The jungle frontier world of 1895 Sarawak must have been a tough place to live. Many people probably died suddenly and senselessly, like the coolies who fell into the holds of ships and the Chinese potter who fell overboard. And many probably died alone too, like the unidentified Chinese man and the young Malay boy.
But it looks like at least some people helped others as well, and thanks to such people, Ajan survived.
Senselessness and kindness – two of the most powerful forces in human history – were both clearly present in 1895 Sarawak.