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The Borneo Company's role in the economic development of Sarawak during the Brooke dynasty: Part III: up to the Japanese occupation of Kuching on 24 December 1941.

The original territory, Sarawak Proper, had provided mineral wealth in the form of antimony, mercuric sulphide, and gold, while the Brooke acquisition of the Batang Lupar district (1853) had provided coal. The Borneo Company in Sarawak (BCLS) pioneered the economic extraction and processing of these minerals, but by 1923 this was no longer economic and BCL (Borneo Company London) then relinquished the 1857 Agreement "to take over and work Mines, Ores, or Seams of all descriptions of minerals in the Island of Borneo" (Porritt 2013). There was, however, some residual activity in the mineral sector and other incidental activities in addition to important cash crops and forestry.


Although early writers on Sarawak held out prospects of diamond riches, James Brooke's own diamond mining venture had, in his own words, "run away with his money" by 1842 (Keppel 1856: 293). In the 1860s and 1870s diamonds were being mined and exported on a small scale, but were precluded from the mining rights of BCL (Everett 1878: 13-30). However, BCLS achieved one notable success in the diamond trade c. 1880, buying a large diamond that may have originated from Dutch Borneo and reaping a profit of over $1,400 by on-selling it on the Singapore market (Martine 1946: 30).


Relinquishing its rights to mineral mining and treatment rights other than gold and mercury did not prevent BCLS from trading in other minerals and the company made occasional purchases and shipments of "very mixed [antimony] ores" from 1920 to 1940 (Martine 1946: 42). However, the preponderance of low grade ore that incurred penalties on the London market, coupled with miners in Sarawak expecting to sell all their ore at high grade prices, led to Sarawak becoming uncompetitive on the world market.


In the early 20th century, BCLS became involved with Bodoek Concessions Ltd. in what appears to have been more than a simple management agreement (Martine 1946: 36a,b,c). Bodoek Concessions was set up to treat ore at Bodoek (now Buduk) and Bannie in East Kalimantan, then Dutch Borneo. Around 1904, Benito Howe and Mr. Girdlestone, both then working at the BCLS Bidi gold mine in Sarawak, attended a meeting with the Borneo Company's directors in London at which ore treatment at Bodoek and Bannie was discussed. Howe had successfully launched the cyanide process at the Bidi mine and was the site's manager at this time. Subsequently, Girdlestone and another Borneo Company employee, L. G. Attenborough, were transferred from Bidi to manage the Bannie and Bodoek mine sites respectively under the overall control of Benito Howe. Ore treatment at both sites failed to achieve satisfactory gold recovery rates and c. 1906/7 Attenborough was ordered to close the Bodoek operation, after which he was appointed the manager of the Bidi operation.

Howe and Girdlestone then negotiated with the Borneo Company the right to continue working the Bannie deposit on their own account at an annual rental of 4,000 [pounds sterling]. However, their starting capital of Straits $100,000 quickly proved inadequate due to delayed delivery of ore treatment plant and the plant's inability to achieve an adequate gold recovery rate from Bannie's complex ore deposit. Unable to meet the first year's rent, under their agreement with the Borneo Company the plant at Bannie became Borneo Company property. BCLS then transferred the plant to its Bidi gold operation in Sarawak and the Bannie operation was abandoned, thus ending this BCLS venture in Dutch Borneo.

A relic of the past

In 1938, a 60 x 1.8 meter suspension bridge near Kampung Seropak some 80 km south-southeast of Bau was found by a group en route to visiting the BCLS mercuric sulphide mining site at Mt. Tcgora which had been abandoned in 1895 (Martine 1946: 39). The bridge was completely overgrown but on clearing found to be in good condition. No record of the bridge was found in government or BCLS records, although it is reasonably certain that it was built by BCLS as part of their mining operations. In 2011 a group trekking to Tegora photographed the bridge which was still being used "by rubber tappers and trekkers on their way to Tegora."


The Company Flag

Rajah Charles Brooke presented BCLS with its own flag in 1874; the Sarawak flag with a blue border added to distinguish it from the Sarawak government flag (Chater 1957: 98). On 21 April 1880 the Rajah wrote to BCL London that he had seen the official Sarawak flag being flown "at the wharf before the Manager's house" in Singapore and that he preferred the blue border being adopted to avoid "misconceptions ... as much a misplaced seal or signature might do." The flag with a blue border was then used by BCLS in Kuching for a short time before being withdrawn. Later a new BCLS flag was agreed and adopted, the Sarawak flag but with blue replacing black in the cross and the background color changed from yellow to white. This was flown at all BCLS offices and on all BCLS coastal and river vessels.


Sarawak Chamber of Commerce

Underlining the leading role of BCLS in Sarawak's commercial sector in the late 19th century, BCLS provided secretarial services for the Sarawak Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber held its first meeting on 1 May 1873 and established the Singapore and Sarawak Steamship Company on 15 July 1875. (1) Changes in the secretarial function may have led to its reconstitution as on 4 January 1897 the Sarawak Gazette recorded that a Chamber of Commerce "has been established in Kuching with J. C. Ferrier of BCLS as its secretary" (Ooi 1995: 97). However, the Chamber was closed in January 1900 "on account of a tendency to dabble in political affairs" (Longhurst 1956:66). Coincidentally, in 1895 Rajah Charles Brooke had invited the manager of BCLS "to form a Municipal Council," one authority holding that "the Chamber was carrying out both municipal and commerce functions" (Chater 1964: 165). "The few records available" show that this was formed, but "ceased to function at about the same time as the Chamber of Commerce."

Sarawak Steamship Company

As mentioned previously, the Sarawak Steamship Company was formed on 1 July 1875 under the management of shareholder BCLS with two steamships, the 212-ton burthen Royalist 2 and the 910-ton Rajah Brooke (Porritt, 2013:147). In accordance with its Articles of Association, the company was wound up in 1880 and replaced by the Sarawak and Singapore Steamship Company Limited (S-SSCL), the government selling its shares in the company to BCLS. (2) A further steamship, the 378-ton Ranee, was added to the fleet in 1885, but on 31 July 1896 the Rajah Brooke ran aground and was a total write-off. (3) Against a growing chorus of public criticism of its monopoly, SSSCL managed to resist pressure to run uneconomic services and began to rebuild its fleet, adding the 903-ton Kuching in 1904 and "four vessels ... to inaugurate its coastal and riverine service" (Foo 2001: 29-41). S-SSCL's shipping services were curtailed in World War One due to shipping requisitions and in 1919 "the merchants of Kuching ... bought out the Borneo Company's interests" and its fleet of steamers (Foo 2001: 63). BCLS retained an on-going interest in Sarawak's shipping as Lloyds Agent, wharf management, insurance and trading activities (Kaur 1993: 86).


Deed of Settlement and territorial expansion

Territorial concessions had rapidly expanded the independent state of Sarawak along the coast of Borneo from an initial 7,700 square kilometres in 1841 to over 125,000 by 1905, while the BCL Deed of Settlement of 8 May 1856 empowered the company to carry on "business in all parts as general and commission merchants, ship owners, miners, agriculturists and planters." This opened up a plethora of activities for BCLS and was replaced with Memorandum and Articles of Association on 14 August 1890 by Royal Act.

Cash Crops

Contributing to the development of viable cash crops in Sarawak during the latter part of the 19th century, a LMA document records that "the [Borneo] company ... experimented with miscellaneous crops such as sago, indigo, tobacco, pepper and rubber. (4) As covered in Part II of this series, BCLS built a sago refinery at Mukah that began operating in 1862, but a combination of unsuitability of the location for ocean-going vessels, falling prices and Chinese competitors, led to closure of the refinery in the early 1900s (Porritt 2014).


On indigo, there is no evidence that BCLS was involved in any way in the cultivation of plants from which indigo, a blue-colored dye is extracted, notwithstanding the statement in the LMA document quoted above. However, there was some experimental, if short-lived, cultivation of these plants by Chinese fanners, the Sarawak Gazette of 17 April 1972 recording the introduction of "indigo" into the Simanggang area.


Martine records that BCLS "was associated to a certain extent" with Rajah Charles Brooke in growing tobacco near Lundu in the early 1880s (Martine 1946:31). The correspondence of A. Gibson, who was in charge of the project, indicates that a "considerable area" was planted and several shipments of bales of tobacco leaf were made to the London market where they were reported to have been favorably received. However, c. 1886 against Gibson's recommendations, the Rajah shut down the venture at what was described as "a costly experiment to the Government" (Baring-Gould 1909: 432). A government officer subsequently wrote to the Sarawak Gazette of having seen boxes of "Borneo Cigars" for sale in a shop in Piccadilly, London (Martine 1946: 31-2). A colored label in each box depicted Kuching's river frontage, overlooked by the BCLS office and adjacent Chinese temple.


Jelutong (Dyera Costulata), one of the trees of the tropical low elevation rain forest in Sarawak from which latex can be tapped, was in demand in the early 20th century. Exports of twenty-four tons in 1900, rising to about 9,000 tons in 1909, are reported (Smythies 1961: 167-73). BCLS interests in jelutong were confined to spasmodic purchases of crude jelutong from "Native growers" for export, to which the United Malaysia Rubber Limited (UMRL), a 2,000,000 [pounds sterling] company, objected, claiming to have sole export rights of jelutong from Borneo (Martine 1946: 36). UMRL had negotiated an agreement on 7 March 1909 with the Rajah's government giving the company jelutong tapping rights over large areas in Sarawak and had built two large jelutong processing factories with supporting infrastructure, one in Dutch Borneo and the other at Goebilt near the mouth of the Sarawak River. (5) The objections were withdrawn as the only restriction on exports in the agreement was that an export tax would be levied on all jelutong not offered to UMRL at market prices. (6) In two scathing articles in 1910, the Straits Times questioned the credentials of the UMRL and the wisdom of this monopoly, saying "We can hardly believe ... that the ruler [the Rajah] is quite satisfied with the arrangements made." UMRL rationale was based on yields of 15% rubber from dry jelutong and 90% extraction of acetone, but these were not achieved and a deteriorating relationship with the Rajah led to the company's concession being withdrawn on 2 July 1915 (Ooi 1995:309-11). By then, UMRL was reduced to making "some paltry Carriage and Rickshaw types" and BCLS assisted in the liquidation of its Sarawak interests as well as the disposal of its plant and equipment (Martine 1946: 37).


Pepper, derived from the fruit of the Piper nigrum vine, was an ongoing important export crop for Sarawak that was developed during the Charles Brooke era (1868-1917). The pepper industry was controlled by the 1872 and 1876 Gambier and Pepper Proclamations, which also introduced a 20 cents per pikul export duty. (7) The vines bear fruit some five or six years after planting and the first exports were recorded in 1877, 30 pikuls (total weight about 1800 kg) at $11 a pikul. (8) Martine records that treatment of the peppercorn, the dried fruit of the pepper vine, to produce white pepper in a process known as "retting" that removes the outer covering of the peppercorn, was well known to BCLS (Martine 1946: 3).


BCLS operated in the pepper industry on what was known as the "tribute" system. Chinese and Malay planters were financed by the Company through prudent advances against future crops. Many of these numerous individual pepper gardens were in the vicinity of Busau (Buso), a BCLS mineral and ore shipping center at that time, and were subject to regular supervisory visits by BCLS staff based at Busau. To improve inadequacies in this form of control that became evident in the late 1890s, BCLS then encouraged its employees to take company loans at 5% p.a. interest loans to take up 12% p.a. mortgages from "the owners of native [pepper] gardens" (Martine 1946:39). Employees retained the 7% as their remuneration for ensuring good husbandry and safeguarding their own and the company's investment. Prawn refuse, a suitable fertiliser for pepper vines, was used initially but was not available in the quantities needed for the burgeoning pepper industry. The dried residue from boiled Uncaria Gambir leaves to extract Gambier, a tanning agent, dye and food additive, was found to be a very successful replacement and also eliminated weeds. The Uncaria Gambir, a climbing shrub, was being grown by Chinese farmers to meet an expanding export market for gambier that grew from $88,148 in 1879 toapeak of $311,568 in 1903.

Martine suggests that availability of this fertiliser led to BCLS applying for the Poak Concession, a long rectangular strip of land covering some 8,100 hectares southeast of Bau. Liberal land laws to encourage cash crop planting gave the planter or assignee complete rights over the land "as long as it remained under cultivation" and on 8 July 1901 a "Licence to plant Pepper and Gambier by the Borneo Company in Upper Sarawak" was granted, enabling work to proceed on the Poak Concession (Baring-Gould 1909: 432, Ooi 1995: 303). By 1908 there were said to be 12,140 hectares (30,000 acres) of Piper Nigrum and 242 hectares (600 acres) of Uncaria Gambir in the Poak Concession, but by then the export market for gambier had fallen to $106,856, leading to a shortfall in fertiliser. This was reflected in a drastic fall in Sarawak's pepper exports by BCLS and Chinese farmers from $2,638,414 in 1904 to $1,398,623 in 1908.

The total Sarawak 1878-1941 export figures from all growers are shown in Appendix 14, the highest being recorded in 1934. In 1935, the year of the great pepper crash in London due to attempts to corner the world market in white pepper, BLC Chairman Adam B. Ritchie wrote that Sarawak was "the principal pepper-producing county in the [British] Empire" (Longhurst 1956: 91). BCLS exported its produce under its own name and the planting and fertilizing methods and procedures developed at the Poak Concession by BCLS were "largely responsible for giving Sarawak White Pepper ... prominence ... in the world's market" (Martine 1946: 39). The Japanese occupation in December 1941 ended all BCLS activities in Sarawak for the duration of World War Two.

Gutta Rian (Getah Rian)

In the late 19th century, there was a growing demand for the latex from gutta rian trees, genus Palaquium gutta, then mainly used then as insulation for submarine telegraph cables and which is still used for tooth root-canal treatment. The price of latex from gutta rian trees increased from 69 [pounds sterling] per ton in 1870 to 320 [pounds sterling] per ton in 1902, which "did considerable injury by tempting the population away from their usual occupations, such as farming, gardening, etc." (Smythies 1961:168). The Rajah granted BCLS the sole right to all gutta rian trees, both wild and planted, to the company in the vicinity of Poak on 8 July 1901. Martine reports that E. Hose began planting gutta rian trees around Poak utilizing land impoverished from growing Uncaria Gambir that provided fertiliser for Piper Nigrum (pepper vines) trees (Martine 1946: 39). Appropriately, BCL London dealt with the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Cable Company at Silvertown in London on this product. However, world-wide unsustainable harvesting and competition from plantation-grown Para rubber quickly led to negligible trade in gutta rian latex (Tully 2009: 559-79). To provide some protection for gutta rian trees, in 1918 Rajah Charles Brooke issued Order No. XVI regulating the removal of gutta leaves from which latex could also be extracted. An extract from Bean's gutta diary in Appendix 17 gives an impression of what was involved in plying the gutta trade at the company's Dahan Rubber Estate.


The Industrial Revolution in Europe created a boom from 1879 to 1912 in the demand for rubber, the primary source of which is the latex from the Para rubber tree (Hevea Brasiliensis), sometimes referred to as plantation rubber. Rubber trees need to be some six to seven years old before latex can be tapped. On 8 July 1901 BCLS was granted the sole right to all "India Rubber trees" both wild and cultivated, "in the vicinity of Poak" and by 1904 had planted 284 hectares, increasing to 607 hectares by the end of 1907 (Martine 1946:40).

Situated near the Sungei Dahan, this became known as the Dahan Rubber Estate. In retrospect, Martine questioned the viability of the Estate because of its inefficient layout, a long narrow strip of land along one side of the winding Sungei Dahan selected by BCLS (Martine 1946:40). To control the Estate, the manager, E. Hose, required two bungalows, one at each end of the estate. Also, the estate was said to have been planted on the other side of Sungei Dahan to that intended and against advice there was some planting on part of the estate already impoverished by Uncaria Gambir. Inexperience in what was then an industry in its infancy in Sarawak was shown in 1907 when Hose was on leave. Records show that the acting manager, L.E. Slade, reported some 120 hectares of young rubber trees were infected and had died. This led to a hasty site visit by BCLS Manager J. M. Bryan and samples were sent to the Curator of the Botanic Gardens in Singapore for examination. The subsequent report showed that the trees were actually in the "wintering" state, but by that time all the trees had been removed and new seedlings planted. However, Eaton reports that by 1911 some 40,000 trees were being tapped with an average total yield of 6,000 lbs of rubber a month and that 472 Javanese had been "imported under contract to work on the estate" (Eaton 1967:128). On 1 January 1911, the Land Office formalized the position of the Dahan Estate, issuing Provisional Land Grant No. 13 covering 4,089 hectares for "planting Rubber, Pepper, Gambier, Cocoanuts or other products" and applying an "export duty of 2 1/2% ad. valorem" on all the products exported.

In 1906, buoyed by the successful planting at the Poak Concession, BCLS sought more land and, as suggested by Rajah Charles Brooke, selected some 4,000 hectares at the Sungei Tengah near Matang. As at the Dahan Estate, labor was recruited from Java. By 1908 two blocks of 370 acres had been planted experimentally with a spacing of 5.3 meters between trees and later in a small area an increased spacing of 6.1 meters, the latter proving to show "great improvement" (Martine 1946: 41). In another experiment claimed to be the "first cover crop planting in the East," to improve soil fertility Mr. Malet planted some 1,200 acres [485 hectares] with Desmodium (tick-trefoil) at a cost of $8 an acre ($20.77 per hectare). (9) The Desmodium was burnt off over a six week period, after which rubber seedlings were planted. However, this method of improving the soil fertility does not appear to have been adopted in practice. Martine records that "the ultimate" placing of rubber on the Singapore market in a prime condition from the Sungei Tengah Estate was "something of a feat," as it had to be taken downriver from the Estate in small prows that had to deal with "sudden heavy rainstorms and "freshets" or floods that are common in Sarawak (Martine 1946: 42).

During the early years of development of both Dahan and Sungei Tengah Estates, more capital became necessary, leading to the Certificate of Incorporation of the Sarawak Rubber Estates Limited, a limited liability company, on 5 December 1911. To address the Rajah's concern, three months earlier BCL had confirmed the new company would be controlled by BCL and preference shareholders would not be able to "exercise any interference in the management" of the company. (10) This was confirmed on 13 December 1911 when BCL advised that the share capital of the new company would be 200,000 [pounds sterling], with BCL retaining the 99,993 ordinary shares and offering the 100,000 preference shares to BCL shareholders. A day later an agreement was signed selling the Dahan and Sungei Tengah Estates to Sarawak Rubber Estates for 200,000 [pounds sterling] and on the following day Sarawak Rubber Estates signed an agreement that "the general control and supervision of the business of the Sarawak Company shall be in charge of the Borneo Company," thereby ensuring continuation of existing management and control practices already in place. A typical Sarawak Rubber Estates contract for expatriate employees was that with John William McGowan as an "Assistant on any their Plantations" on 19 August 1913, which stipulated that he was "under the direction and control of the Borneo Company Limited." Under the four year contract, McGowan was paid 20 [pounds sterling] per month, was not allowed to marry without written permission, and dismissal for incompetency, disobedience, insobriety, or any legal offence removed any liability on the Company "for salary, passage money or any other claim."

Later, the Company built a hospital at Sejijak on a 2.9 hectare Land Grant overlooking the Sarawak River and a 2-metre wide, 5 km connecting roadway to the Sungei Tengah Estate to provide local medical services (Martine 1946: 8, 42). To deal with the latex from the maturing rubber trees at the Estate, in 1912 the Company built a factory at the Estate producing ribbed smoked sheets (RSS), which was shipped downriver to Kuching by local prahu, then known locally as "Tegora Boats." (11) By then, the price for RSS 1 was in free fall, from apeak of $9,697 per ton in 1910 to M$728 per ton (M$ 665 on the Singapore market) in 1922. (12) This led to the Rubber Growers' Association and most rubber growing countries agreeing to restrictions on rubber output on 1 November 1922 under what was known as the Stevenson scheme (Purcell 1993: 37-9). Both the Dutch East Indies and Sarawak benefited from not taking part in the scheme by not having to curtail production and the ensuing price improvement, but the scheme, which was abandoned on 1 November 1928, encouraged the reclaimed rubber industry and development of synthetic rubber.

Low rubber prices, overstaffing, and an inefficient layout inhibited the economic viability of the Dahan Estate and, as reported by Martine, the Estate was sold to a London company in 1925 (Martine 1946: 41). A year later the government established the Rubber Exports Improvement Board Fund to help smallholders improve the quality of their rubber. In 1930 BCLS found that the export duty of 2 1/2% ad valorem laid down on 1 January 1911 in their original Land Grant was higher than the export duty scales gazetted in 1926. On representation, this was corrected with a clause to that effect on the Land Grant (Martine 1946:45). Although the 1926 scales were gazetted as applicable for twenty-five years, in 1940 the government introduced an increased scale of duties. BCLS objections to the increased duty were rejected by the government, which was then paid without prejudice to allow for future appeals.

The Great Depression triggered by the US stock market collapse on 29 October 1929 drastically affected the world rubber market, the "landed in London" price falling from 12s 9d in 1910 to one penny three farthings a lb. in 1932 (Longhurst 1956:91). The International Rubber Regulation Agreement of 1 June 1934 ensued, allocating rubber export quotas to the territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, India, and Thailand (Purcell 1993: 43). These territories made up "98% of the international area under rubber production." Sarawak was allocated an export quota in 1934 of 24,480 tons, rising to 44,880 tons in 1943. Sarawak then enacted "Order No. R-3 (Rubber Restriction) 1934" and "Order No. R-4 (Rubber Dealers and Exporters) 1934" controlling rubber growers and export licences. Although the Company's Sungei Tengah Estate was able to provide reliable records on which annual export allowances were granted, control over smallholders making up about 92% of the area under rubber cultivation in Sarawak proved more difficult (Martine 1946: 43). Complicated tapping restrictions were quickly superseded by "tapping holidays" and finally by the Rubber Regulation Order of 1938, under which transferable coupons were issued that limited the amount of rubber that smallholders could sell to dealers (Ooi 1995: 62). These restrictions were in force when the Japanese invasion began in late December 1941.


Rajah James Brooke's strategy for the development of Sarawak was "European Capital, and Chinese labour" (Ooi 1995:28). This was reflected in the predominant role of Chinese labor in the mining and agricultural ventures of BCLS and its recruitment of indentured Chinese workers through agents in Singapore from the late 1870s (Ooi 1995: 270). To bring some order into the recruitment process, the Sarawak government issued Order No. XX, 1899 legislating "rules for the management and regulations of Chinese Depots and the engagement of Coolies from such Depots" (Ooi 1995:367). Some Chinese workers, both sponsored and unsponsored, came directly from China and were indentured on arrival in Sarawak (Chater 1957: 68-70). From 1905, BCLS also began employing indentured workers from Java on its rubber estates (Lockard 1987: 86).

Indentured labor was "legally bound to the Company's service and was liable to imprisonment for absconding," a benefit for the employer but considered a "mild type of slave labour" (Martine 1946: 5; Chater 1969:70). Changing public opinion led to Chinese indentured immigration in the Straits Settlements being abolished from 30 June 1914 and the system of indentured labor being officially abolished by the British Government in 1917 (Saw 2007:20). For BCLS the phasing out of indentured labor created both a labor shortage as the Malay peninsula offered more attractive opportunities and instability in the labor force, as employees could "desert at any time to work for a neighbouring Employer offering higher wages" (Martine 1946: 5,Ooi 1995:273). Workers were further protected by the appointment of a Protector of Labour by the government in 1929.


Brooke acquisition of the Batang Rajang area (1861) opened up not only the sago industry to BCLS as covered earlier (Porritt 2014), but also the valuable timber of the tropical rainforests stretching from the coast to the East Kalimantan border. Together with later land concessions, Batang Baram (1882), Batang Trusan (1884), Batang Limbang (1890), and Batang Lawas (1905), Sarawak had a total of about 92,000 square kilometers of tropical rainforest made up of mangrove forest, peat swamp forest, heath forest, lowland forest, and hill forest. By 1870 Cantonese loggers in the Kanowit district were making intermittent shipments of timber to Hong Kong (Sutlive 1980:44). The Sarawak Gazette of 3 January 1887 encouraged Sarawak merchants to "utilise our magnificent timber to a larger extent," after hearing that Singapore sources were making inquiries for Sarawak timber. In 1887, $35,220 of timber was exported, representing less than 4% of Sarawak's $918,136 total exports.

BCLS began exporting "rough-hewn logs, including Billian [belian] timbers" to the company's branch offices in Calcutta and Hong Kong in 1886 (Martine 1946: 2, 32). The logs were floated down to the Rajang River estuary to await infrequent steamer arrivals for shipment overseas, during which time the softer timbers were subject to the highly destructive attacks of teredo (ship worms) and rendered useless. This led to BCLS incurring considerable losses and abandoning its first venture into timber exports. During this venture, BCLS had sought export contracts supplying belian, a hardwood highly resistant to bacterial, fungal, insect, and teredo (marine borer) attack, and sent samples of hand-adzed belian railway sleepers to the Bengal State Railways through Forbes Forbes Campbell & Company of Bombay. Although the cost of hand-adzed belian was relatively high, B. E. Smythies, the Conservator of Forests in 1961, records that "the export of adze-hewn belian sleepers to the Indian railways" was the Company's main activity towards the end of its first timber export venture (Martine 1946:32: http:// The first move to protect Sarawak's forests was made in 1899 by Order No. XI that introduced a permit system for collecting timber in the First Division for any purpose; exports from the First Division were not permitted as hardwood needed for building purposes was in short supply in Kuching. (13)

In 1904, responding to a demand for squared logs in Hong Kong, BCLS installed a modern sawmill on "the flats at the mouth of the Rejang River on the true right hand," together with a bungalow for the manager (Martine 1946:32-4). BCL's head office in London trusted that there would be "no repetition of this [the 1856] fiasco," a hope that was not borne out by subsequent events (Longhurst 1956: 54). The mill as initially installed by N. McPhee, sent out to manage the mill by the suppliers, McDougall and Johnston of Lanark in Scotland, proved to be unworkable as the site was only "a foot or so above high water mark" and the main saw mechanisms in the sunken foundations became water-logged at high tide. Under the supervision of Mr. Ramsay, the mill floor was raised, a major task involving the entire rebuilding of the mill.

Logs were bought from Chinese contractors operating upriver, assembled into rafts with the valuable belian non-floating logs supported by floating logs and moved downriver by river and tidal flow. The logs were pulled ashore at the mill at high tide, processed, and rafted out on outgoing tides to ships anchored off the Rejang estuary. The floating logs were returned to the mill site by incoming tides for re-use and those not reusable served to fire the mill's boiler feeding the plant's steam engine. According to Ramsay, this simple system of making full use of the tidal flow in moving the logs should have made the venture successful after the problems with the mill were resolved. Indeed, when the mill was finally running, most of some 400 people living in the vicinity of the mill were employed in various capacities by the Company.

However, as recounted to Martine by Ramsay, operational problems began to emerge. The mill's frame saws were "found to be most unsuitable for the type of timber it had to deal with" and teredo attacked logs "not stacked clear of mud" at the mill (Martine 1946: 43). A falling demand for the timber from Hong Kong and a slump in prices led inevitably to the closure of the mill in 1906. After lying idle for two years, it was dismantled and shipped to Surabaya in Java where the Company had forestry interests. The government bought its bungalow at the Rejang estuary, which then became the local District Officer's residence. It is interesting to note that the venture had a major impact on timber export figures at the time, as shown in The Dominions and Colonial Office List, 1902-12.
Year   Exports

1900   $118,001
1901   $155,535
1902   $188,445
1903    $53,664
1904    $63,226
1905    $82,182
1906    $58.073
1907    $54,347
1908    $77,795
1909    $74,145
1910    $25,241
1911    $36,181

In 1936, faced with an uncertain future in working the forests in Thailand, BCL engaged the services of a German logging expert from Bangkok to report on the use of tractors and trained elephants for timber extraction in the forests of the upper Rejang (Smythies 1961:170). By then a Forestry Department had been established (1919), Forestry Rules legislated (1919), the Forest Reservation Order introduced (1920), and the concept of Protected Forests instituted (1934). In 1937 the logging expert issued a favorable report on the project, having investigated forestry operations in the Philippines, British North Borneo, and Sarawak, including an inspection of the forests in the upper Rejang. BCLS then obtained the necessary licence to work the forests in the upper Rejang and set up "The Rejang Timber Concession" to carry out the project. The German logging expert subsequently supervised the launching of the project, which included a forest headquarters at the foot of the Pelagus Rapids, a log-storage pool at Batu Setutin above Kapit, and a sawmill eleven kilometers upriver from Sibu (Longhurst 1956: 93). To place this sawmill in context, in 1938 there were fourteen sawmills in Sarawak, of which thirteen were owned by Chinese, showing their near monopoly of Sarawak's timber industry during the late Brooke era (Ooi 1995:258).

A tractor was imported for timber extraction, but "was before its time and achieved nothing," possibly due to lack of adequate maintenance facilities (Smythies 1961:170). Two female elephants with their mahouts were imported from Siam in 1938 and, as in Siamese forests, proved to be a very useful asset. In 1939 or 1940 one of the elephants died after slipping down an embankment and becoming entangled in creepers, the other surviving for several years. Sarawak's timber export values increased dramatically from 1937 to 1940 as shown below.
Timber Exports

Year      Exports

1937      $27,535
1938      $37,659
1939      $55.975
1940      $80,840
1941   Not available

However, as Martine, Manager of BCLS at the time later commented, there were "difficulties, disappointments and mistakes" on the project and "the Company might have profited by past experience, but neglected to do so and incurred unnecessary expense" (Martine 1946: 34). He pointed out that logs should be stored in fresh water and if on land, above mud levels to avoid teredo attack, history having been allowed to repeat itself at Salim. He also wrote that the site of the sawmill at Salim being so far upriver presented hazards to ships, that frame saws were unsuitable for Sarawak timber, and that milling should be limited to "squaring" logs. Martine pointed out that a large proportion of Sarawak's "soft woods" were not worth extracting and suggested that future forest working should concentrate on semi-hard, hard, and the best softwoods only.

All work on the "The Rejang Timber Concession" as well all other BCLS activities in Sarawak came to an abrupt end in December 1941 with the Japanese occupation of Sarawak, which also ended negotiations underway at the time to import another twelve elephants from Siam.




J. M. McBryan, Manager of BCLS, 1902-1921, introduced the first motor car in Kuching, a 10-12 hp Coventry Humber, in 1907 (Pollard 1972: 65). However, before WWII there were few roads in Sarawak, which limited the local market and may account for the amusing but far from enthusiastic article by the editor of the Sarawak Gazette of 1 May 1922, when he wrote: "I risked my body by going for a ride" in a car. On the other hand, the market in Malaya flourished and on 28 March 1924 Borneo Motors Ltd. was registered in Singapore to take over the business of dealers in motor vehicles and garage proprietors of the Borneo Company Ltd. BCLS then became responsible for developing the limited local motor vehicle market as the Sarawak agent for Borneo Motors.

BCLS made a contribution of $5,000 towards the construction of a long-time Kuching landmark, the Satok Road Suspension Bridge opened in 1926 to carry water pipes from the Matang reservoir to Kuching at a cost of $52,000 (Martine 1946: 42). The contribution ensured that the height of the bridge would allow the BCLS launch service from Kuching to Buso, which had been the center of its mineral mining and processing operations in the Bau area, to continue operating.

Prelude to WWII

T. C. Martine (1900-1984), who had joined BCL in 1919, was the last manager of BCLS before WWII, taking up office in February 1939. He found that the importance of BCLS had "become less apparent" since its mining rights were relinquished in 1923 and that the Third Rajah's government was averse to "any material European-owned interests in the State" (Martine 1946: 4). Having been unoccupied for some time, BMK (Bukit Mata Kuching), the manager's house in Kuching, had to be completely refurbished before the Martine family could move in (Martine 2004: 86). A BCLS overseas staff list at 30 Septembers 1940 shows Richard Sagar, Norman Lucas, and Arthur Merrells in Kuching, Peter Cobbold in Sibu, Kenneth Cargill at Miri, and on the Rejang Timber Concession, Charles Horn and Frank Spooner at Salim and Connop Miles at Pelagus. By this time the Company held an impressive list of agencies covering insurance, shipping, and products ranging from tractors to liquor. However, the Japanese occupation of Miri, Lutong, and Seria on 16 December 1941 ended company activities in Miri. A Japanese air raid on Kuching three days later badly damaged BMK and destroyed an oil depot next to the Company's office. All its activities in Sarawak ceased on 24 December 1941 when the Japanese occupied Kuching, leaving its personnel to their own devices.


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(1) Sarawak Gazette, 3 January 1873; 17 February 1873; 29 August 2007.

(2) Sarawak Gazette, 1 September 1885, p. 81.

(3) Sarawak Gazette, 1 July 1885, p. 55; 1 September 1896, p. 171.

(4) "Borneo Company Limited, 1856-1967," London Metropolitan Archives, ref. GB 0074 CLC/ B/123-11.

(5) "United Malaysia Rubber Limited," Straits Times, Singapore, 1 July 1910, p. 7.

(6) "The Malaysian Marvel," Straits Times, Singapore, 24 August 1910, p. 8.

(7) Sarawak Gazette, May 1872: 3 January 1876.

(8) Sarawak Gazette, 1877.

(9) Dominium has also been used as ground cover under pepper gardens in Sarawak (http://www.

(10) BCL letter, 5 September 1911, P. D. Thomson to H.H. The Rajah of Sarawak.

(11) Sarawak Gazette, 16 September 1912, p. 210.

(12) The 1922 figure of M$665 was the price being obtained for Sarawak rubber on the Singapore market (Sarawak Chronology, Sarawak Gazette, 29 August 2007). All other prices are those on the London Market.

(13) Sarawak Gazette, 1 July 1899, pp. 230, 234.

Vernon L. Porritt

Honorary Research Associate

Murdoch University
Sarawak's Total Pepper Exports (BCLS & Chinese farmers)

Year         $

1878        226
1879        362
1880       8,850
1881      19,125
1882      48,610
1883      87,078
1884      108,952
1885      121,997
1886      138,171
1887   not available
1888   not available
1889   not available
1890   not available
1891      231,000
1892   not available
1893      223,889
1894      240,211
1895      240,248
1896      230,693
1897      400,689
1898      736,760
1899      859,188
1900     1,254,422
1901     1,477,499
1902     2,205,762
1903     2,773,301
1904     2,611,478
1905     2,638,414
1906   not available
1907   not available
1908     1,398,623
1909     1,428,868
1910     1,531,246
1911     1,302,902
1912     1,672,876
1913     1,339,967
1914     1,034,611
1915     1,390,188
1916     1,481,380
1917     1,471,003
1918     1,336,767
1919     1,867,063
1920      712,122
1921      827,508
1922      587,841
1923      561,496
1924      792,350
1925     1,172,374
1926      896,686
1927     1,465,141
1928     1,398,069
1929     1,804,606
1930      978,395
1931     1,162,960
1932     1,422,169
1933     1,106,178
1934     3,029,674
1935      632,571
1936      541,410
1937      631,099
1938      633,645
1939   not available
1940   not available
1941      362,563

Main reference: Dominions Office, The Dominions and Colonial Office
Lists, 1888-1940, London: Waterloo & Sons.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Porritt, Vernon L.
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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