Letters from the Past

31 May 2017

To learn about Sarawak’s economic history, one need only look through the pages of the Sarawak Gazette.

History relies on the observations and writings of individuals from the past. Malaysian history buffs would be familiar with the role of I Ching, the travelling monk during the Tang dynasty who provided descriptions of the ancient Srivijaya Empire in his travel diaries; or the role of prolific writers such as Stamford Raffles and Alfred Wallace in documenting their travels to the Malay Archipelago. 

Ruled for over a century by the Brooke family, Sarawak has a publication of similar, but centrally compiled first hand accounts that began since 1870 by the second Rajah, Charles Brooke. Sarawak Gazette, printed under the Sarawak Government Printing Office, started in 1870 as a newspaper reporting news from England before eventually recording local affairs within the state.

On the left, the table of contents from a 1907 edition of Sarawak Gazette. A 1993 edition on the right retains the Old English masthead but no longer carries the colonial coat of arms.

The most delightful for a casual reader to indulge in would be reports from native and district officers returning from their travels to the communities in their respective districts; the most lucid retelling of events would be told as-is, almost without any censorship or edits. The spirit of the publication was to inform and report, and this would later be the basis for the formulation of local policies. Poring over the reports is akin to the officers telling you the stories themselves. Some of the anecdotes even appear to be stranger than fiction, from the funny to the tragic.

“The entries can include stories of people's migration, arrest for cockfighting, murder cases, inter-community conflicts, travel diaries and so on”, says Kelvin Egay, an anthropologist based in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Faculty of Social Sciences.

Having frequently used the Gazette for his own research, he adds, “The personal accounts or diaries were occasionally contributed by travellers, missionaries and colonial officers. One such diary entitled A Tour Amongst the Dyaks of Sarawak was particularly interesting because it shows the lives of the communities in the upper reaches of the Sarawak River on both sides of the Bengoh mountain range in the late 19th century, a place that I have visited regularly over the past ten years.”

A Tour Amongst the Dyaks of Sarawak, written by Charles Grant – the Laird of Kilgraston who was an officer under Charles Brooke until 1863 – is one example of how past writings facilitate present day social research. “It explains a lot of things on how Sarawak became what it is today,” says Kelvin.

Although the publication was printed by the colonial government, it accepted the placement of advertisements.

While not necessarily anthropological, articles published in the Gazette were driven by a similar spirit of fascination and discovery. According to Professor Dimbab Ngidang, a retired academic currently based at the Tun Jugah Foundation, “The colonial officers were knowledge-centric officers, they wanted to know and they were very good at documenting things. Sarawak during the colonial period was an entirely unique new frontier.”
Like Egay, the professor has also used the Gazette for his research and found it truthful, documenting bits and pieces in a manner that’s no longer practised today. The meticulous reporting in some of the entries, which can include topics such as right to the prices of market goods to the results of the Sarawak Regatta dragon boat race among other things, has turned the Gazette into an indispensable primary source for Sarawak’s history.

Hence, there have been several efforts in preserving the Sarawak Gazette not only by the state government, but also by foreign institutions in Japan and United Kingdom. While Sarawak Museum is the main repository of Sarawak Gazette, Pustaka Sarawak (Sarawak State Library) has made many issues of the Gazette accessible online since 2013.

With the advent of colour printing, the Gazette also introduced the "Photo Corner" contributors’ section, enabling not only textual but also pictorial documentation of the state.

“The digitisation project of Sarawak Gazette started under the Innovative Creative Circle (ICC) initiatives,” explains Dayangku Horiah Awang Gani, who’s heading the Archives Management Division of the library and is currently responsible for the digitisation of the publication.

The full online archive is targeted to be completed by this year, but you can still find issues published as early as 1907 until 1993 available for download via the library’s website. According to Dayangku Horian, public response has been positive; visits to the e-Sarawak Gazette has garnered 247,815 views to date with requests originating from outside Sarawak.

“Beyond academic research, the Gazette could benefit students reading on history and geography of the state,” Dayangku Horiah adds. But the Sarawak Gazette is more than just a historical documentation – it’s also a source of personal identity for locals. “The generation today could attempt to trace the names of their parents and grandparents in the Gazette. They could discover and understand the stories written by or about their relatives and forefathers.”


By Yuen Kok Leong
e-Sarawak Gazette scans from
Pustaka Sarawak.

This article is related to OFF THE BEAT SARAWAK HISTORY