A while ago I wrote about a letter I found that US consul in Sandakan, British North Borneo (BNB) Lester Maynard wrote to the Buick Motor Company in 1907 in which he explained that there were no roads in BNB, and that therefore, there was no market for automobiles.
Maynard had written that letter in response to a letter of inquiry from Buick. In reading through more of the consular records, I’ve found that numerous automotive companies wrote the US consulate in Sandakan seeking that same information. Studebaker Brothers did so, for instance, as did the Reo Motor Car Company in Lansing, Michigan.
All of these companies got the same essential answer – no roads – but one of Maynard’s successors, Orlando Baker, provided other information too. In particular, Baker provided some fascinating details about life in BNB, although those details were expressed through a degree of dry humor, sarcasm and racism.
In his letters, Baker often referred to BNB an “Asiatic country.” For instance, in response to a letter of inquiry from the A. & F. Brown Company, a New York company that dealt in various types of machinery, Baker stated that, “I fear there is very little call for the useful articles to which you are calling attention. This is an Asiatic country.”
To Baker an “Asiatic country” was a land that was undeveloped, in terms of both its physical and human resources. And as a result, he felt that there were very few American products that could be sold there, and motor cars were certainly not one of them.
Thus, in his 13 January 1909 response to the Reo Motor Car Company, Baker stated that “The country is wild and mountainous; with a few roads on which a Motor [car] could run.”
“Sandakan and its approaches, has not more than ten or twelve miles of roads, worked and graded. Men who can afford it keep a two wheeled pony cart, and a pony. The sedan chair and jinriksha are in occasional use. There are few men here who could afford to buy and keep a motor car.”
A few months later, Baker received a letter from the Wayne Wheel Company in Newmark, New York in which they had requested “the names of carriage makers.” To that letter, Baker responded that “Perhaps you will be surprised to learn, that there has never been a carriage, or a wagon manufactured in North Borneo. I think the same may be said of every part of the island. A few carts of very crude construction for bullocks are made by the natives or Chinese; so few, that I do not think that trade would interest you.”
So automobiles were not appropriate for BNB, nor even were carriage wheels. We can therefore imagine what Baker must have thought when he received a letter from R. H. Macy and Company, or what is today known as “Macy’s Department Store” in New York City.
Here again, Baker sought to explain and educate in his response:
“There are but few (50 to 60) Europeans in Sandakan – Governmental Officials and employees of the two European firms.”
“Retail business is all done by the Asiatics, who have an association called the Board of Trade.”
“There are from eight to ten thousand natives, using the Chinese and Malay languages; and the demand [is] for Oriental goods – their costume and style of goods are all different from American and European.”
“You may therefore, infer what the prospect is of a trade here wearing apparel of American pattern.”
So Baker doubted that the Asiatics would be interested in purchasing clothing from Macy’s, and he seems to have doubted that one could even do business with most Asiatics.
We get this sense in his response to a letter from Hoard’s Dairyman in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin requesting a “complete list of the dairymen throughout British North Borneo.”
Baker answered by saying that “the dairy business in North Borneo, and perhaps throughout the whole of Borneo is in the hands of Indians, Malays, and Chinese, and that these do business on so small a scale that they carry their milk to customers in a bucket, and do not speak or understand the English language. To send them your literature in my opinion, would be useless.”
So did this mean that Baker thought that it was simply impossible for American companies to do business in BNB? No, it doesn’t look that way. For instance he seemed to hold out some cautious hope for the Yonelle Exteminating Co. in Annandale, New Jersey.
This is what he wrote in his response to their inquiry: “We have rats and mice, and I am sure your ‘Rat-Snap’ would be useful here if it could be introduced.”
“The inhabitants are mostly Chinese, and slow to use anything new.”
“Language for circulars should be in Chinese or Malay.”
Baker also saw potential for selling toothpicks.
On 29 January 1909, Baker responded to the Cutter-Tower Company from Boston, Massachusetts, thanking the people there for their letter of inquiry and the sample tooth picks that they sent. He then said, “This is an Asiatic town, and retail business is done by them.” Baker then indicated that M. Hadjee Adamsahib and Co. was the firm most likely to sell the Cutter-Tower Company’s tooth picks.
Baker therefore spent a lot of time answering letters from American businesses that wanted to sell their products in BNB, but since it was an “Asiatic country,” that was difficult.
Remarkably few Americans contacted Baker to ask what they could get from BNB. A letter from a man surnamed Rucker from Los Angeles who was looking for Borneo products therefore seems to have caught Baker by surprise. Or maybe it was the type of product that Mr. Rucker was after that caught Baker by surprise.
Rucker wanted to be put in communication with a dealer in “reptiles and animals.” Baker noted that “Boa constrictors and pythons are to be found in this country also the Orang-utan and monkeys of various species.”
“There is however, no dealer handling these animals in my Consular district, as far as I know.”
“I have no doubt but that the natives back in the jungles would undertake to capture and furnish such animals as you would be willing to take care of. It will be necessary to know whether you wish your specimens alive or dead. If alive, how do you propose to have them shipped?”
“Before anything is undertaken, you should see that there is a deposit of a sum of money to cover the costs and expenses.”
Baker was a character. His letters contain a dry humor, sarcasm and a racist view of “Asiatics,” but when we “read against the grain” of what he wrote, we can use his comments to nonetheless get somewhat of a picture of what life was like in the “Asiatic country” of BNB in the early twentieth century.