The digitization of archival materials, newspapers, etc., is fantastic for researchers, but I also find it a bit frightening as there is undoubtedly information that is now freely available that some people perhaps wish wasn’t available for the world to see.
So when I come across information about people whom I have never heard of, particularly when it is information from the twentieth century, I always try to be careful about what I say and reveal.
At the same time, by now I’ve had numerous people indicate to me that I’ve written about their grandfather, grandmother, etc., and are happy to find information that they were unaware of.
So with a couple of readers recently indicating that they are related to a Malay woman from Sarawak whom I previously mentioned in a post – a woman I referred to as “Munirah,” but whose real name was apparently Saerah – I decided to look a bit more into who this person was.
As I mentioned in the previous post, in the 1930s Saerah was married to an Englishman by the name of G. T. M. MacBryan who converted to Islam while serving as an official for the Brooke regime in Sarawak and who made the pilgrimage to Mecca together with Saerah.
The story of MacBryan’s life and his pilgrimage with his wife was recorded in a 1937 book by Owen Rutter entitled Triumphant Pilgrimage: An English Muslim’s Journey from Sarawak to Mecca.
Shortly after this book was published the couple returned to Sarawak via Singapore and there were a few articles that appeared in the Singapore press about them at that time. The Singapore National Library has digitized those articles and they can be easily found by searching for “Munirah” (the name that Saerah was known by in this book) at this site.
These articles are generally positive, although it’s clear that they relish in what was perhaps amusing to their expatriate readers, namely stories of the time that Saerah had just spent in England where saw snow for the first time, enjoyed weekend parties in London, etc.
Here is an example: 1937 article.
By contrast, there were clearly some people in Sarawak who were not as amused. In particular, the people who published The Sarawak Gazette “welcomed” the couple back with a short article in the October 1937 edition (available here) entitled “Shabby Pilgrimage.”
While Saerah was referred to in this article with the utmost respect, as MacBryan’s “Malay wife of wondrous charm and surpassing manners,” MacBryan (or “David Chale” as he was called in the book) was not treated so nicely.
To quote, the article begins by stating that: “Very little will be done to improve the relationship between Islam and Christiandom by the publication of Triumphant Pilgrimage, an account by Owen Rutter of an English Moslem’s trip to Mecca. Trip is the right word. ‘David Chale,’ whose incredibly aquiline profile serves as frontispiece, was a young district officer in Borneo and developed a great liking for the Malays, which raised confused ideas in his mind of ‘giving a lead’ and in some obscure way promoting world peace by adopting their religion, a resolve bolstered up by a good deal of oblique disparagement of the Sarawak administration.”
Then a month later the critiques continued as The Sarawak Gazette published some critical reviews of Triumphant Pilgrimage, such as this one from The Spectator:
“David Chale (an assumed name), ex-district officer in Sarawak, over lunch at Quaglino’s, asked Mr. Rutter to write for him the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca. He explained, with a ‘strange exalted look in his eyes’ – ‘glittering blue eyes, strangely compelling,’ of course (see carefully posed studio portrait) – that he hoped to unite Islam and make it into a great force for world peace. ‘His lobster forgotten,’ he told [of] his conversion and of his marriage to a Malayan, and of the struggle he had had to reach Mecca.
“Exhausted by Chale’s intensity, and convinced that it was not another shameful journalistic stunt, Mr. Rutter agreed.
“Triumphant Pilgrimage is as sickly with sincerity, as exhaustingly tense as its hero. Presumably Mr. Chale approves of his portrait, but if he possessed any of the judgment, modesty and sense of humor with which Mr. Rutter endows him, he would have refused to pass this account of his physical and spiritual adventures which nauseates by its smugness, its exaggeration of difficulties and its lack of any sign of real understanding of the Islamic world.
“After reading this book one sees the wisdom of Ibn Saud’s law (which Chale evaded) forbidding converts of less than six years’ standing to go on the pilgrimage.”
So G. T. M. MacBryan clearly had some detractors. Whether such criticisms were warranted or not, I don’t know enough yet to say, but the claim that he was “intense” does seem to me to have some basis.
It is also unclear to me what the relationship between MacBryan and Saerah was like after their return to Sarawak, but with the arrival of World War II, the relationship apparently fell apart, and the next time we find Saerah mentioned in the media is in 1947 when she was interviewed in Singapore as she was on her way to England with her new husband-to-be.
There was an article that was published in 1947 in The Singapore Free Press (18 April 1947, page 1) entitled “Malay Beauty Sets Sail for UK: Love Story from Sarawak.”
This article reported on a steamer that had set sail for England from Singapore the previous day. It noted in brief that such well-known people as the wife of the Governor of Singapore were onboard, but then it proceeded to discuss in detail two “not so well-known” passengers, “Sarah MacBryan, a lovely Malay girl, and young Mr. Derek [should be David?] S. Walford.”
The article then relates in detail “their story, which is as interesting as any which had come out of Sarawak.” Here I think it is perhaps best to simply quote from the article:
Mrs. MacBryan, a Sarawak Malay, 34 years old, mother of two children, wore a short think silk multi-striped European summer frock. Derek Walford, tall, young and serious – he is only 24 years old – an ex-Sarawak police officer.
Mrs. MacBryan was brought up on a Sarawak rubber plantation. Her story really begins in 1936, when Mr. G. T. M. MacBryan, a member of the Sarawak Government Service under the White Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, asked her to marry him. The ceremony was duly performed under the Muslim marriage rites.
Mr. MacBryan, who supplied material for an author to write his life story, revealed that as a midshipman at the end of the Great War he threw up the Navy because “discipline chafed his spirit,” and “spiritual suffocation is worse than physical.”
Given a job in a shipping office he was so disgusted at being little better than an office boy that one day he threw a cup of tea in the face of the manager. Then he met an old friend of his father’s from Sarawak. The idea of running a district appealed him and he took a job in the Sarawak Government service.
Apprehending a murderer one day, Mr. MacBryan was so impressed with the stoicism of the man when he was captured – a Muslim – that he came to the conclusion that he could not live out his life without the help of such a faith, and to meet his spiritual needs he must make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
He resigned from Government service, went to India and in three years returned to Sarawak. It was then that he met lovely Sarah MacBryan – known as Munirah – and with her he planned his trip to the Holy City.
With the aid of his charming wife, MacBryan succeeded in his mission, and is one of the few white men who have kissed the black stone and so absolved himself from his sins, and he witnessed the mass sacrifice of the animals in all its color.
They examined the great library at the Mosque at Medina, full of the treasures of the Moslem world collected over the last thousand years.
Their happiness lasted for several years, and the Malay girl visited many of the capitals of Europe, had parties at the London Casino, the Berkeley, and the Savoy Hotel – and saw snow for the first time in her life.
Then came separation, the war, and in September 1946 – – a divorce.
A few months ago, she met Derek Walford.
“I was intending to join Rajah Brooke’s police force when war broke out,” he told me yesterday, “but naturally I went into the Army, and my service took me to India.”
“At the liberation of Malaya I was a half-trained policeman with the British Military Administration and I went there with the occupying forces. Then I was released from the services in the Far East and held a post in the Sarawak police force until I resigned recently.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Walford had met Mrs. MacBryan and together they traveled to Singapore on their way to England.
They remained here for three weeks staying with friends while they arranged their passage.
When I saw her in her cabin before she sailed today, I asked her: “Are you going to be married in England?”
She replied: “I have been divorced under both Mohammedan and English law, and I am, therefore free to marry whom I please.”
Mr. Walford added: “We cannot say we will definitely be married until we have studied the legal position in England, but if we are able to marry it will be in England and not in Malaya.”
“I plan to spend the next few years in Malaya if I can get a job, and I am going home on leave for a spell. My parents know about the situation as it stands at the moment, and they are not standing against my wishes.”
“Most of my leave will be spent in London.”
And they left to carry their luggage up the gangplank to the ship which will carry them to England where their future will be decided for them by the lawyers.
Why would a reporter for The Singapore Free Press in 1947 spend so much time talking about two “not so well-known” people?
My sense is that it is because they didn’t fit “the norm,” and this made their story potentially interesting for readers. They were doing something that “normal” people didn’t do, and they were taking a chance that “normal” people also did not take.
As the advertisement above indicates, late-colonial Malaya and Sarawak were places where there were supposed to be clear boundaries between the British and the Malays.
MacBryan, Saerah and Walford all crossed/blurred/ignored/challenged those boundaries.
The reasons behind their “transgressions” might have differed, and might have fallen across a wide spectrum from the ignoble to the noble, but ultimately crossing those boundaries at that time was an action that was ahead of the tide of history.
These were some very interesting people.