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Sabah's men of history

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

THE 60 odd years of North Borneo Company rule in Sabah, from 1878 to 1941, saw a steady flow of European administrators being sent to run the state. The newly formed company was lucky because, in the first 20 years, it could draw on experienced serving officers from other British territories.For instance, William Hood Treacher, the first governor of Sabah, was formerly the colonial secretary for Labuan. L. Von Donop, the first Agriculture director was from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). A. H. Everett (pioneer resident at Papar), C.A. Bampfylde and E.P. Gueritz (Governor 1903-1911) were all former members of the Sarawak Service. Gueritz had even spent a few years in Jelebu, Negri Sembilan, as a revenue collector.

From the Straits Settlements (of Penang, Malacca and Singapore) and the Malay States on the peninsula came D.D. Daly (Resident), Hugh Clifford (Governor, 1900-1901), E.W. Birch (Governor, 1902-3) and J. Scott Mason (Governor, 1912).

Even the commandants of the armed constabulary were engaged from officers of British forces elsewhere - Captain R.D. Beeston, for instance, was a veteran of the Bengal Infantry. Post 1900 saw the arrival of a new breed of officers who joined as cadets in the service immediately after their tertiary education. They were the ones who combined their textbook knowledge and experience in the field to leave behind a substantial number of publications on various aspects of life in pre-World War II Sabah. Many of these works became vital sources of information for latter day research, particularly on ethnography and the natural sciences. Three names stand out in this regard: G.C. Woolley, Ivor H.N. Evans, and Owen Rutter.The name Woolley would surely ring a bell among those who have used the Sabah State Library in Kota Kinabalu, for there is a Woolley Collections Room for materials on local history. The Woolley Collections of photographs, diaries and other artefacts was the basis of the State Museum in the 1960s.

George Catheart Woolley came from a very distinguished family in Britain. Born in 1876, Woolley was the elder brother of world famous archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley who won fame for his discovery of the ancient City of Ur in Iraq. Another brother, Rev G.H. Woolley, won the Victoria Cross (one of Britain's highest honours) during World War I in 1915.George Woolley was educated at Queen's College, Oxford University, where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1897. Eager for adventure, he joined the North Borneo Company as a cadet in 1901, attached to the Land Office.

Almost from the beginning, Woolley had a great passion for things native. In one of his early diary entries, he mentioned how, immediately upon his arrival in Sandakan in Sabah, he bought three Malay krises and was attempting to buy a native chain mail vest. His collection of native weapons over the years became one of the most complete available. Some of these weapons were later bequeathed to the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University; some were later acquired by the Sabah State Museum.

It was, however, in two other areas that Woolley's contributions to the study of Sabah, particularly in the field of ethnography, that are remarkable. As land commissioner in the Land Office, Woolley travelled extensively to carry out surveys and to settle land disputes. These travels brought him closer to indigenous people, especially the Muruts of the interior.

His tenure as district officer for Jesselton, Beaufort, and Province Clarke, and later as resident of interior, also contributed to his knowledge of the ways of life in the interior. This resulted in the publication of several notable papers after his retirement in 1932. His papers on adat (customary practices) of the Dusuns, Kwijaus and Muruts are especially important as his attempt was the first to record these practices; they served as the standard references on these key tribes in Sabah for many years.

Apart from his papers, Woolley also left behind a great collection of photographs (2,843 in 17 albums), 1,797 glass negatives and diaries (covering the years 1901 to 1920), a treasure trove for present day researchers with an interest in that period.

After Woolley's retirement in 1932, he went back to Britain briefly before deciding to return to Sabah in 1934. He was interned at the Batu Lintang prisoners of war camp during the Japanese occupation and died in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in 1947. His grave can still be seen in the old Christian cemetery behind the Istana.

I.H.N. EvansIvor Hugh Norman Evans was born in Cambridge in 1886, and educated at Clare College, Cambridge. He joined the North Borneo Company as a cadet in 1910, but resigned the next year. His only posting in Sabah was an attachment to the West Coast Residency.Sabah had obviously had an impact on the young man as, upon his resignation, Evans went back to Cambridge to study anthropology and returned to South-East Asia as assistant curator and ethnographer at the Perak Museum in Taiping. Even though his stay in Sabah was extremely short, it did not deter him from having a great interest in the state's indigenous community, particularly the Dusun people. At Taiping, Evans published papers on the Dusuns before he produced his monumental work entitled The Religion of the Tempassuk Dusuns of North Borneo (1953).

Evans' more popular work is Among the Primitive Peoples in Borneo (1922) that covers his brief stay in Sabah, with detailed descriptions of various groups of indigenous peoples and of the Chinese on the West Coast of Sabah. Evans' main contribution to scholarship on Sabah is his pioneering study on the Dusuns; it has served as the basis for research on the Kadazandusun people.

Evans retired from the Federated Malay States Museum as ethnographer in 1932, and returned to Suffolk, England. He returned afterwards to Sabah, for the call from the East was too strong for him to resist. Captured and interned by the Japanese during the war, Evans stayed on in Labuan after his release and died there in 1957.Perhaps the most colourful of these scholar administrators was Owen Rutter. Born in 1899, Rutter joined the North Borneo Company service in 1910 as a cadet, the same year as Evans. And like Evans, he was first attached to the West Coast Residency.

Except for a few months in 1912 when he was the assistant district officer for Tawau, Rutter spent most of his five years of service on the west coast of Sabah. He finally rose to the position of district officer in 1913, leaving the service in 1915 to return to Europe to serve with the British Army during World War I.

Demobilised after the war with the rank of major, Rutter returned to Sabah and spent 18 months as a planter and traveller. Upon returning to Britain, he became an academician and writer. He died in 1944.

Rutter was a prolific writer. His books dwelt on subjects of the East, ranging from legends of Sabah to a biography of Sarawak's Rajah James Brooke.

Two of his books, British North Borneo: an Account of its History, Resources and Native Tribes (1922) and The Pagans of North Borneo (1929), remained classic texts on Sabah for many years.British North Borneo was published in the same year as Evans' Among Primitive People but was better received in North Borneo Company circles for its uncontroversial contents. It served as the standard reference on Sabah until the publication of K.G. Tregonning's A History of Modern Sabah (1963).

The Pagans of North Borneo provides systematic insights into the lives of the various non-Muslim tribes in Sabah, not confined to only the people of Tuaran and Tempassuk as in the case of Evans' book.

Rutter carried out extensive research for The Pagans of North Borneo, drawing on materials and information from other North Borneo Company officials, notably, F.W. Fraser, the long serving government secretary who had spent some years in Tambunan and Keningau, and Woolley.

Even though there are now some gaps in Rutter's presentation on the non-Muslim indigenous people, it is still regarded as a major contribution to the study of ethnography in Sabah. The only regret is that an intended companion volume on the Muslim people was not completed.

These three scholar administrators are only a few of the colonial administrators who have contributed enormously to the preservation of knowledge on Sabah, particularly in the fields of ethnography and the natural sciences.

Although they started to become interested in their subjects for different reasons, and although they presented their subjects in a manner suitable to their times, their work has thrown much light on Sabah's past. They surely deserve a place in the history of the state.n Danny Wong Tze-Ken is the author of The Transformation of an Immigrant Society: A Study of the Chinese in Sabah (Asean Press Ltd, London, 1998). He is a lecturer in History at Universiti Malaya.Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF -: In the second article in the special Millennium Markers focus on Sabah, DANNY WONG TZE-KEN looks at the scholar-administrators that laid much of the groundwork for historical research in that state.

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