Dutchmen, Forest Men, and the (Blurry) Line Between Western and Indigenous Knowledge

I was recently in Sabah, on the island of Borneo, were someone told me that the local name (in Malay) for proboscis monkeys is “blanda” (or “orang blanda”) which means “Dutchman.”

orang blanda

I laughed when I heard this, as there does seem to be a bit of a resemblance. . . But it made me wonder how such a term came to be used. Today I think many of us would like to imagine that Malay-speaking peoples on the island of Borneo started to call proboscis monkeys “Dutchmen” at some time in the past as a way to “resist” or “talk back to” the power of these Europeans who were conquering and colonizing parts of the region.

In reading a wonderful new book on the history of Western writings about, and representations of, the orangutan, however, I have come to realize that the situation in which the proboscis monkey came to be known as a “Dutchman” was probably much more complex than this.

Wild Man

This book – Wild Man From Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan (University of Hawaii Press, 2014) – was written by an historian (Robert Cribb), a professor of theater (Helen Gilbert), and an scholar of postcolonial theory and literary studies (Helen Tiffin). In combining insights from their diverse areas of expertise, these three scholars have created a fascinatingly rich and illuminating work.

While these authors reveal that an enormous number of writings about the orangutan have been produced over the past few centuries, they argue that by contrast, “In their tropical homelands, however, orangutans appear to have attracted much less attention from indigenous people than they did from Europeans.” (5)

proboscis monkey

This might seem like an exaggeration, but their discussion about the origin of the term “orang utan” (or “orang hutan”), which in Malay/Indonesian literally means “man [of the] forest,” made me think about this issue.

These authors trace this term to some writings by Dutch scholars in the seventeenth century, and argue that it must later passed into local usage. They note, for instance that:

“There is no literary record, however, of the Malay-speaking peoples of the Indonesian archipelago using the term ‘orang utan’ or one of its variants to refer to the ape before the middle of the nineteenth century.

“The web-based Malay Concordance Project, located at the Australian National University, contains many references to ‘orang hutan,’ but before the mid-nineteenth century they all refer, sometimes in a derogatory tone, to human beings who inhabit the forests. . .

“In fact, the first recorded Malay use of a term resembling orang hutan to denote the ape identifies the word as a Western term. The Hikayat Abdullah, written in the 1840s, recounts that ‘The Ruler of Sambas sent Mr. Raffles a present of two apes of the kind which the English call orang-utang.’”

Hikayat Abdullah

I find it particularly interesting that these scholars found that the earliest Malay-language usage of the term “orangutan” to mean an ape appeared in the Hikayat Abdullah. This work was written by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, a Melaka-born scholar who was well-versed in Western knowledge and who is credited with starting to transform the intellectual world of Malay-speaking peoples by exposing them to Western ideas.

And while he is famous for having introduced various ideas from the West about governance and society, apparently he also introduced to his readers the “Western” term, “orangutan,” as well.

This gets us back to the “Dutchman.” I have no idea how the proboscis monkey came to be referred to as a “Dutchman,” but after having read about the etymology of the term “orangutan” in Wild Man From Borneo, I’d be willing to guess that it was likewise a complex process.

In the end, what I find significant about all of this is that it shows that the line between “Western” and “indigenous” knowledge is rarely as clear as we often imagine it to be.

British and Muruts Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ in 1925

There is an article in The British North Borneo Herald from 1925 which describes a visit by some British officials to Kamabong [i.e., Kemabong] for a day of sports and a night of dancing.

Kamabong was in the southwestern part of British North Borneo, and was inhabited by a people known as the Murut.


When the Murut traditionally held celebrations, there were a couple of things that they would do. First of all, they would drink a kind of rice wine called “tapai” or “tajau.” This is a kind of drink that you find in other parts of Southeast Asia as well. Essentially what people do is to put rice and yeast in a ceramic jar and let it ferment. Once it has done so, they add water, and it is ready to drink, and it is drunk through long thin bamboo straws.

mari mari longhouse

In addition to consuming tapai, the other thing that the Murut would traditionally do at a celebration would be to dance on a “lansaran” or “papan.” A lansaran or papan was a kind of dance floor that could move up and down several inches and which could hold 30 or 40 people at the same time.


There appear to have been at least a couple of different ways to build a lansaran/papan. One way was to place the floor on top of some bent saplings, as in the above image.


Another way was to build a floor that could bend down until it hit a supporting structure below it, as in the picture above.

These days about the only place where you can find a lansaran is at a place like the Mari Mari Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. There it is used to play a kind of game where people try to jump higher than others.

Apparently this game was also played in the past, but the lansaran was also used as a place to dance.


This is how such a dance was described in a 1952 article [M. C. Clarke, “The Murut Home, Part I,” Man 52 (1952): 17-18.]

“All members of the village—men, women and children—join in, and the floor may hold as many as 20 or 30 dancers at a time. Several pot-bellied children usually collect in the center of the floor. Around them is a circle of men linked by hands, with a second circle of women on the outside (strict separation of the sexes in this way is not always followed).

“By concerted downward pressure with their feet the dancers soon have the papan bouncing up and down on the sapling springs, and the dancing consists of everyone slowly making their way, step by step, round and round the papan in an anti-clockwise direction, each step being a pace sideways to the right and inwards, and then outwards a little, in rhythm with the movements of the floor.”


With all of the above information in mind, let’s take a look at how some British officials experienced a celebration with tapai and dancing on the lansaran in Kamabong in 1925:

“The sun has sunk below the frowning hills and all that sort of things. Dum-dom go the gongs and whack whack goes the springy dancing floor as it hits the bending poles. There are about thirty men in the middle of the 12’x12’ floor surrounded by a ring of Kaiams [I’m not sure what this means] holding hands; these in turn are surrounded by a ring of red white and black apparelled damsels all holding hands and facing inwards.

Marut warriors

“The men are in the full Murut costume, chawat, feathers, beads and rudder sporran (I forget the official term.) The damsels are in smart black sarongs with a broad band of white beads round the hips and a strip of red cloth would round the breast. They have light colored tillets round their glossy black hair which is gracefully looped low on the left shoulder and tucked into the tillet.

Murut girls

“‘Do-ai-kan-di-lo-oo’ booms the song in sonorous base voices not unpleasingly mingled with the shriller voices of the damsels’ reply. With short side steps and slightly bending knees, the whole crowd sways slowly round and round. As the dance proceeds the floor is caused to spring up and down like a bobbing boat in a short choppy sea.

lansaran dance

“We join in. . . I, but lately from the Tapai tajau, miss-kick and am shot clean through the roof—well nearly anyway. I embrace a loudly bawling Kaiam; the Kaiam bawls louder and embraces me.

“Bagat is tickling the damsels’ backs as they gracefully bob past with their dumpling like faces and shapely arms and shoulders. Salleh yelps with delight as he makes the dancers blink with an electric torchlight.

“A distinguished visitor is sucking tapai (and cheating) ear to ear with a merry little wench who doesn’t mind quaffing three tandas to his one; he wears a “dastar” and hornbill’s plume and reminds me of a musical comedy Balkan Prince.

“The Resident with beads of perspiration on his brow soberly sits discoursing with the Elders.

Murut man

“Something pushes past my leg; I look down, it is a brave whose powers of locomotion have been temporarily retarded by the gentle tapai. He pushes his way with unerring directness to the bubbling bamboo in the tapai jar firmly lashed to a post.

“Through a slight crack in the din I hear Sir Harry Lauder exhorting the lads to cuddle the lassies,–from the gramophone, the inevitable ubiquitous gramophone.

“We stagger out into the open air, a cutting bitter blast when compared with the solid frowst of the house.

“The revelers are left,–in heaps three deep all around; yet as we tuck in our klambu, booming through the darkness comes the song. . .


Sir Harry Lauder was a Scottish entertainer who often sang about “lassies.” I’m not sure which song was on the gramophone at that time, but I would like to think that it was “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” (“gloaming” means “twilight”):


I’ve seen lots of bonnie lassies travellin’ far and wide,

But my heart is centred noo on bonnie Kate McBride;

And altho’ I’m no a chap that throws a word away,

I’m surprised mysel’ at times at a’ I’ve got to say–


Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde,

Roamin’ in the gloamin’ wi’ ma lassie by ma side,

When the sun has gone to rest, that’s the time that I like best,

O, it’s lovely roamin’ in the gloamin’!


What a scene this must have been—drunk revelers in a longhouse dancing on a lansaran while Sir Harry Lauder sang on the gramophone about cuddling lassies. . .

This makes me want to know more about what relations were really like between the British and the various indigenous peoples of Borneo. An account like this one makes this even seem innocent, but I’d be curious to know if there were other sides to the story.

Whatever the case may be, this was a fascinating world.

The full article can be found here:

Sport and Dance in Kamabong

The Cosmopolitan World of Horse Racing in British Colonies in Southeast Asia

I’ve been reading colonial-era newspapers from Southeast Asia for quite a while now, and I’ve always skipped over the sections on “turf club news,” that is, news about horse races, as I’ve always assumed that this was a strictly European (and particularly British) activity.

Then today I saw a list of the names of horse owners and their horses at the Jesselton Turf Club in British North Borneo in 1925, and I realized that the world of horse racing in the colonial world was much more cosmopolitan than I had assumed.


Here, for instance are some of the names of the owners and their horses:

Mr. Lo Tian Yin – Rosop

Mr. Voo Tiau Ken – Copra

Mr. Miko – Limbai Padang

O. T. Genang – Bintang Pindah

Mr. Abdullah – Lucky Boy

Mr. Binut – Alang Laut II

Haji Taba – Langkon

O. K. Matjakir – Kijang Kalabu

O. K. Saman – Rapnap

Mr. E. G. Grant – Lady Eva

. . . and the British North Borneo Government’s Maisie


Realizing how many “natives” were involved in this “British gentlemen’s” sport, I looked around for some pictures of horse races in the colonies and found the above one (from the British Library) of the grand race stand at Hyderabad. It’s a bit difficult to make out who exactly was there, but it was clearly more than a British sport.


This then made me look to see what academic works have been written about the role of horse racing in empire. I didn’t find much. A little bit appears to have been written about the history of sport in Singapore, and it notes how wealthy Chinese became involved in the horse races. But it’s obvious that there must be a lot more that can be said.

It looks like there were turf clubs in virtually all of the British colonies. It would be interesting to see what role they played in the local societies and how this might have different from one locale to the other.

The Long History of Filipino Musicians Playing Western Music

In reading the 16 September 1904 issue of The British North Borneo Herald, I came across a reference to a band from Manila that passed through Sandakan. This is what was reported:

“A STRING BAND, comprising two violins, a clarionet, mandonline, guitar and trombone, arrived recently from Manila on their way to Singapore, and during a brief interval here fulfilled several engagements, including one at the Sandakan Club on the evening of the 6th. . . The music, besides containing elements of popularity, reached at some points a high artistic level, and such were features that combined to win for the players a verdict of emphatic approval.”


Over a century earlier, in 1788, navigator John Meares recorded similar comments about a band that he heard perform in Zamboanga, on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. To quote,

“We were equally surprised at hearing a very tolerable band of music, which was composed of natives of the country. –It consisted of four violins, two bassoons, with several flutes and mandolins. This unexpected orchestra [was] acquainted with some fo the select pieces of Handel; they knew many of our English country dances, and several of our popular and favourite tunes; but in performing the Fandango, they had attained a degree of excellence that the nicest ears of Spain would have heard with pleasure.” (page 44 of this book)


Filipino musicians can be found playing all across Asia today, and that has been the case for a long time. In the late nineteenth century there were Filipino musicians in King Norodom’s court in Cambodia and in the 1930s they played in jazz bands in Shanghai.

So while I’ve long known about this, I’ve never understood why this was the case. Not, that is, until I recently started reading D. R. M. Irving’s Colonial Counterpoint: Music in Early Modern Manila (Oxford, 2010).


What Irving demonstrates in this book is that there was a rich experience of musical contact and exchange between Spaniards and Filipinos that began not long after the Spaniards established their control over the Philippines in the sixteenth century.

Filipinos therefore learned Western musical forms long before many other peoples in Asia, and that to some extent can explain why they started to be sought after in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when aspects of Western culture started to take hold in other Asian societies.

However, this also makes me wonder about the contacts between other peoples in Southeast Asia with other Europeans like the Dutch and the Portuguese. There were people who learned about forms of Western music from them as well, like people on Java and the Malay Peninsula. Why didn’t they end up playing at the Sandakan Club in British North Borneo or in jazz bands in Shanghai?

Slow Telegrams and a Riffle-and-Opium Shopper in 1907 Sandakan

I need to learn more about how telegraph systems worked. I came across a couple of telegrams that were sent from Zamboanga in the Philippines to Sandakan on Borneo in 1907.

The first one was sent on May 15 and said, “Amai Sankala [a] Moro from Marahui [is] reported [to be] in Sandakan [for the] purpose [of] buying rifles [and] opium. Please investigate.”

May 15

On the bottom of this telegram it says that it was received on 10 June, and that postage had to be paid for it by June 16th.

Then there was another telegram on the same topic that was sent on May 31 and was received on 8 June. This telegram also contained a remark about “delayed government lines.”

May 31 1

What does this mean? Does this mean that the line was broken for days? How were telegrams delayed?

The other thing that I find interesting is that this second telegram was in Spanish. I’ve found other documents that were sent from the Philippines to Borneo that were in Spanish as well. What this means is that after the Americans took over, a lot of the day-to-day functions of government must have continued in Spanish. I wonder how long this continued.

Finally, I wonder how difficult it would have been to notice that someone in Sandakan was buying rifles and opium. Sandakan was a small place. Was it really so hard to notice a riffle-and-opium shopper?

Henry Chong – Cosmopolitan Clerk Extraordinaire

Beaufort is a nice provincial town on the western side Borneo in what is now Sabah, Malaysia. In 1912 it was part of British North Borneo, and in that year the chief police officer in Beaufort wrote a letter to the American consul in Sandakan, on the eastern side of the island to recommend his clerk, Henry Chong, for a job as a clerk at the consulate.


The police chief’s letter basically reads like a c.v. for Henry Chong, and it is a fascinating c.v. indeed. This is how the police chief described Henry’s qualifications:

Age 21 years.

Speaks Four dialects of Chinese, also speaks Sulu, Tagalog, Spanish and Malay.

An excellent Typist.


Very hard working and strictly honest.

Born in Sandakan of Chinese parentage from Honolulu.

Mother and brothers are storekeepers in Jolo.

Educated in Zamboanga.

Henry Chong

I find it amazing to see the network of places that Henry was connected to – Beaufort, Sandakan, Honolulu, Jolo and Zamboanga – and the languages that he was reportedly familiar with.

Henry Chong was a very cosmopolitan young man. I wonder what became of him.

Ethnic Modernities in 1959 British Borneo

I was looking at a newspaper called the Borneo Bulletin. It started to be published in 1953 in Brunei, but it was directed at readers in Sawarak and Sabah as well, that is, in all of what was then “British Borneo.”


In looking at some issues from 1959, I found the advertisements to be very interesting. They were all depicting aspects of a modern lifestyle, but modernity was presented differently to the members of different ethnic groups.

To the British, modernity meant sending your children back to the UK on the planes of the British Overseas Air Corporation and Malayan Airways so that they could go to school.


For the Chinese it meant eating Quaker Oats so that they could work better. . .

quaker oats

. . . and drinking Ovaltine so that they could play better. . .


. . . and eating Chivers Jam so that they could have a healthy family. . .


. . . and relaxing with the family by listening to a Blue Spot radiogram (i.e., combined radio and gramophone). . .


. . . and getting a good night’s sleep on a Dunlopillo mattress.


Finally, for the Malays, modernity apparently meant being able to “take it easy” by riding a Raleigh bicycle. . .


. . . a bicycle that was strong and gave people “the highest degree of technical skill.”


It’s well known that the British colonial system in the area of what is now Malaysia and Singapore led to the growth of inequality along ethnic lines. What I found interesting in these advertisements is that a sense of modernity was being employed in all of these advertisements to sell products.

Regardless of what people’s buying power was, someone else had a “modern” product that they wanted to sell them.

Making Money in World War II North Borneo

In 1945, the Australian Imperial Forces were given the task of retaking from the Japanese the former British territories on the island of Borneo. To do this, the Australians had to first obtain as much intelligence as they could.

The wonderful people at the National Archives of Australia have digitized a lot of the materials that were produced at that time as part of the intelligence gathering effort.


I was looking at one report the other day which had a section on “Commercial Enterprises and Possible Cover Agencies.” This section contains a list of “Japanese firms operation in North Borneo. Captured enemy documents show that Japanese civilian firms are widely used as cover agencies for spies and subterranean movements.”

Here is the list:

Borneo Acquatic Products, Ltd

Borneo Daily News

Chosen Leather Co Ltd

Cider Factory

Fukuosho Co Ltd

Gaya and Co

Hattori Watch Store

Higashiyama Industry Co Ltd

International (Kokusai) Traffic Co Ltd

Imperial (Teikoku) Textile Industry Co Ltd

Jesselton Brewing Industry

Kansai Electric Current Distributing Co Ltd

Kato Industry Co Ltd

Kato Suiso Do

Mitsui Products Co Ltd

Mitui (Mitsui?) Agriculture and Forestry Co Ltd

Motion Picture Distributing Co

Nampo Dobatu

Nanri Industries Co Ltd

Nichimei New Agency Co Ltd

Nissan Norin Co

Nippon Hides Co Ltd

Nippon Line Stock Promoting Co Ltd

Nippon Publication Distributing Co Ltd

Nissa Co

North Borneo Association

North Borneo Daily News

North Borneo Material Supply Control Association

North Borneo Water Transport Section

Otsu Industry Co Ltd

Pilot Fountain Pen Co Ltd

Sankyo Traffic Co Ltd

Showa Commerce Co Ltd

Southern Development Case Office Ltd

Taiwan Fibre Co Ltd

Taiwan Colonial Co

Takashimaya-Iida Co Ltd

Takemura Cotton Industry Co Ltd

Tawao Cotton Industry Co Ltd

Tawao Industry Co Ltd

Tawao Sango Co

Tokio Marine Fire Insurance Co Ltd

Toyo Association

Toyoda Motor Trucks Co Ltd

Tozan Noji

Usira Coy


I’m attaching the images of this list below as it contains more information about some of these companies and their activities.

The Japanese occupation of Southeast Asian is a fascinating historical topic which has been researched to some extent, but there is much more that can be examined. What fascinated me about this list is that it points to an entire Japanese “business world” that must have existed in Southeast Asia at that time.

It would be wonderful if someone would research this topic.


The Coffins in the Batu Puteh Caves

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.”

Kogyu’s Lost Bride and the Animation of Southeast Asian Folk Stories

I was reading Owen Rutter’s 1922 work, British North Borneo: An Account of its History, Resources, and Native Tribes, when I came across an interesting account about a “native” story about orangutans. By “native,” Rutter was referring to people on Borneo other than Malays. There were many different groups of “native” peoples at the time, and I don’t know if the story he recounted came from one group, or if it was shared by many.

In any case, I’m just going to quote what he wrote (pgs. 13-14) and then comment at the end:


. . . the most interesting inhabitant of the Borneo jungle is so strangely human that it has earned the Malay name orang utan — man of the forest. In its native state it travels great distances in search of the fruit that is its food, moving deliberately and not flinging itself from branch to branch like the monkeys, yet capable of great speed.

It obtains its water from the leaves and rarely comes to earth. It is found only in Borneo and Sumatra, and in at least two distinct species, the larger, which attains great size and strength, being more common in Sarawak than North Borneo.

Unlike the gregarious monkeys, it lives in families, not herds, and makes a nest of twigs and boughs far up in the forest trees. When pursued and enraged it tears off branches and hurls them to the ground uttering its strange cry, half-belch half-coo, from which it gets its native name kogyu.


It is not strange that the orang utan should be the subject of native legends. There is one which tells of a native girl whom an orang utan carried off and kept a prisoner on the top of a lofty tree from which there was no escape. He treated her kindly, made her a nest amid the branches and every day would bring her fruit to eat and coconuts to drink.

In course of time she bore the jungle man a little son, part ape, part human being. Her heart grew even heavier than before at this shame she had brought into the world and she longed more than ever to be free.


At last she hit upon a plan, and when her captor was away she would patiently twist into a rope the fibre from the coconuts he brought her, hiding her work among the leaves, until there came a day when the rope was long enough to reach the ground. Quickly she slipped down and fled towards the sea, leaving the little babe behind.

But her jungle husband soon discovered her escape, and, just as she saw the blue sea dancing beyond the lattice of the jungle, she heard his howls of rage from the branches overhead as he followed, swinging from tree to tree; before he could reach the ground, however, she burst her way through to the coral beach and scrambled into a fishing-boat that, by the kindness of the fates, was putting out to sea.


The baffled ape went back to his leafy nest; in his rage he seized his strange son and tore him in two, flinging all that was human of him into the sea after his mother and all that was of the jungle back into the forest from whence he came.

But the man of the woods never caught his one-time bride again and to this day, when they hear that strange guttural cry far up in the jungle trees, the natives say, “There is Kogyu looking for his lost bride, to take her back to his leafy home.”


– As I was reading this, and having seen “Tangled,” the recent Disney version of the Rapunzel story, I was thinking that this would make a great animation film – a kind of “Borneo Rapunzel” in which a trapped girl escapes by using coconut fiber rather than hair.


Then I got to the part where the orangutan tears apart the baby. . . and realized that if it is made into a movie, it probably shouldn’t be for kids. But it is a great story, and would make for a great animation.


Animation is wonderful for visually depicting folk stories like this one where “the impossible” happens. Some people at Monash University have been creating such animations for stories that some of the indigenous peoples of Australia created in the past (including audio of the narration in an indigenous language).

I really like what they are doing, and as the story above indicates, there are many more great stories out there that could be animated like this.