I had never heard of the Batu Puteh Caves until I read about them in the July 16, 1903 issue of The British North Borneo Herald. These caves high up in a limestone mountain known as Batu Puteh/Putih in the area of what is now Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo, but which in 1903 was part of British North Borneo. And these caves have coffins in them.


The first Europeans to “discover” these caves and the coffins in them were tobacco planters who had established a tobacco plantation, or “estate” as they were called in British North Borneo, in the area of Batu Puteh. This report in The British North Borneo Herald describes what the caves and coffins look like. I’m assuming that this was the first time that anything had been written and published about these caves and coffins.

I will quote what the report says about the coffins. To see the description of the caves, see the attached images of the article.


“The discovery of the. . . caves is attributed to Mr. P. Breitag, the Manager of Batu Puteh Estate. . . The first exploration was made in company with another well-known planter in 1894, when in the top cave were found numerous bilian (ironwood) coffins, artistically carved with figures of buffaloes, crocodiles, lizards and snakes, containing skeletons of men, women and children, also valuable gongs, sumpitans (blowpipes), spears and articles of Chinese and other pottery, with brass ornaments of native and foreign workmanship”


“The carvings and scroll-work on some of the coffins. . . are even superior to those now executed by native craftsmen. The edges of the tracery, too, are almost as sharp and clear as upon the day they left the carver’s hands. All the subjects are cut from solid heart of bilian and the heads and splendid examples of archaic handiwork.”


“It is believed that the coffins ornamented with the protruding heads of buffaloes or cows, contained male skeletons, while figures of snakes, lizards and crocodiles appear to have been used for the decoration of those of the women and children.”


“No tradition is extant among the natives with regard to this extinct race or their remains; and, moreover, no tribes of this country are known to make habitual use of caves as dwellings or as places of sepulture.”