I was reading the Sarawak Gazette from the 1890s, when Sarawak was under the control of the Brooke family, and I was looking at how the news from Kuching, the capital, was presented.
At that time the Sarawak Gazette was published once a month, so each issue contained a month’s worth of news. That news was presented more or less chronologically.
What is interesting is that there were two topics which predominated: 1) the criminal activities and deaths, etc. of Chinese and 2) the arrival and departure of ships. Other topics were covered as well, but information about Chinese and ships appear the most frequently.
In reading through the paper, there is a kind of rhythm to the way this information is presented. Here is a sample from 1 April 1895.
-P.S. Adeh sailed for Singapore via Sibu on the 12th.
-A Chinese prisoner who was undergoing three months imprisonment for theft escaped from a gang working on the new road at Tanjong Patingan on the 14th.
-On the previous night two Chinese, awaiting trial for theft, escaped from the cell in the Police Station by pulling up portions of the flooring.
-His Highness the Rajah, accompanied by Sir W. Bampton Gurdon left for Sibu and Kapit in H.H.S. Aline on the 18th and returned to Kuching on the 23rd.
-The Lorna Doone returned from Limbang on the 21st and sailed again for Sadong on the 23rd, returning to Kuching on the 25th with a cargo of coal.
-Another prisoner, one Tan Yong Miow, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment on the 5th ultimo, for illicitly cooking opium, escaped from the gang working at Tanjong Patingan on the 22nd. He was however recaptured some hours later hiding in a clump of thorny palms, not far from the spot.
-S.S. Rajah Brooke arrived from Singapore with passenger, the Revd. J. Verbrugge, on the 20th. She had been expected a day earlier but was delayed by bad weather at Singapore.
-A Chinese named Ah Goo was recently found hanging, dead, in an empty Dayak house near Senna.
-The P.S. Adeh returned from Singapore via Sibu on the 29th.
-A Chinese named Chu Ah Lam, cook at the plank factory on Ah Chick’s land in Kling street, was found hanging in an empty and unfinished house in Kling street on the 29th. An inquest was held the same day and the jury returned a verdict of suicide.
-S. S. Rajah Brooke left for Singapore on the 30th at 6 a.m. with passengers, Sir. W. Bampton Gurdon and Mr. A. Durward.
-She was followed at 8 o’clock by H.H.S. Aline, with His Highness The Rajah and the Hon’ble H.F. Deshon on board, bound for Sadong.
This is the rhythm. A ship arrives. A Chinese prisoner tries to escape. A ship leaves. A Chinese hangs himself. A ship arrives. Another Chinese hangs himself. A ship leaves. A Chinese prisoner tries to escape.
There is so much here which seems to reflect the colonial condition. You have the logical regularity of the movement of the ships and the desperate, but silent, suffering of the Chinese laborers. The ships can represent the imposition of colonial rule and exploitation, while the Chinese who are imprisoned and dying represent the colonized.
The European colonizers have the freedom to move about and even leave the colony, whereas the Chinese can go nowhere. Death is their only escape. But that escape comes in such lonely places – abandoned houses.
Although the information is presented in this paper in a very prosaic or matter-of-fact manner, what it reveals is a horribly exploitative society, where ships arrive and Chinese die, ships leave, and Chinese die, alone and far from home, in abandoned shacks.