(Old Sarawak – A Pictorial Study by Craig A Lockard and Graham E Saunders) Everybody knows Sarawak is the Land of the Hornbills or “Bumi Kenyaland”. It is also the largest state in Malaysia. Its neighbour, Sabah (Land Below the Wind), is the second largest state.The capital is Kuching which has a population of 580,000. What is lesser known about Sarawak is that the first reported sighting of a foreigner on its soil was some time in 1320 when a Franciscan clergyman named Odoric of Pordenone arrived to spread the “good news”.
After that, there were no Europeans until the 16th century when Italians, Dutch, British and Spanish showed up.
The Spanish, however, preferred to stay in the Philippines. But old Sarawak earned its reputation during the period 1841 to 1941 when it came under the influence of the Brooke family.
This pictorial essay of old Sarawak covers the years between 1840 and 1920. It has a significant number of old photographs which reveal the lifestyles of the rich and famous and the natives and other foreigners who temporarily made Sarawak their home.
James Brooke ruled Sarawak from 1841 to 1868. Then it was Charles Brooke (1868-1917) and for a brief period later, Charles Vyner Brooke took control (1917-1941).
The 116 pictures in the book speak volumes of the life that left huge footprints on the history pages of land that holds many tribes. There is a five-page long picture of the Kuching waterfront in 1864 which illustrates graphically the commercial significance of the place.
The old photographs show the world the ancient faces of tribes like Melanau, Penan, land Dayaks, Kelabit, Kenyah, Kayan and the Iban.
Old Sarawak has five sections. They are First Impressions, Gunboat & Flag, Rural Life, Urban Life and the Brooke Raj.
The information and old images were taken from various museums and probably from a few private collections as well.
Although the text of the book does not have significant details, the photographs within cast a bright light into nooks and corners of an old Sarawak that many Malaysians are not familiar with.
There are interesting pictures of British officials who ruled Sarawak in 1872, Simanggang officials in 1913, Malay members of the Supreme Council in 1918 and tribesmen at the Marudi peace talks in 1899.
Glimpses of Sarawak’s colourful past exude an ancient musty aroma that tells of a time when Christian missionaries walked the land in the mid-19th century and the gradual spread of Islam among the Melanau community.
Chinese traders came to seek their fortune in the bigger settlements while other Chinese came to dig for gold, grow pepper and gambier.
The population of Kuching was 6,000 in 1848. By 1880, it was 20,000 and at the turn of the 20th century, it was touching 30,000. Roman Catholic, Anglican and Chinese proliferated in the early years of the 1900s.
Wealthy Chinese towkays like Law Kian Huat and Ong Ewe Hai made their presence felt in their own communities. The face of Kuching underwent a dramatic change with the relentless march of trade and development.
With the dawning of the 20th century, old practices like headhunting began to evaporate. However, some jungle folk like the Penan continued to pursue their own normadic lifestyle.
The others embraced the modern changes, albeit slowly and their women who did not understand outsiders’ intense curiosity about their topless lifestyle began to cover up.
The wonderful array of pictures, drawings and paintings of old Sarawak are windows to its kaleidoscopic past. The Brooke dynasty ended in 1941 with the invasion by the Japanese.
Sarawak has a 750km coastline on north-eastern Borneo. Its huge tracts of tropical jungle are home to an astounding range of plants and animals.
It is also a land of four big rivers: Sarawak river, Lupar river, Saribas river and the Rajang river. The Rajang is 563km long and it is the longest river in Malaysia.
The Chinese who came to Sarawak in the 19th and 20th centuries are from diverse groups. They are the Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, Hailam, Foochow and Puxian Min.
Modern Sarawak is divided into 11 divisions but it is the Old Sarawak that has the magic of a picturesque bygone era.