Book gives an insight into S’kan in 1880s
Published on: Monday, July 27, 2020
By: David Thien
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Before wildlife documentary pioneer Osa Johnson sailed up and down the mighty Kinabatangan River in 1920, Ada Pryer nee Ada Blanche Locke (1855-1916) did so two decades earlier.

Ada was born in St. Woollos, Monmouthshire, Wales on Oct 26, 1855 to Edward Locke and Mary Sturcke Newton, and she wrote a book titled “A Decade in Borneo”, which was first published in an East Asian edition in 1893 and in London in 1894.

It is clear from her letters to friends that Ada was far from pleased with the first edition, and even before the London printing appeared, had started to work on an enlarged second edition.

Although this second edition never materialised, her corrections and additions did survive and the latter were published separately, with parts of her diaries, in 1989, including a substantial chapter on the “Dusuns or Ida’ans”, and a good deal more on William Burgess Pryer’s first five years in Sabah, before his marriage to Ada.

Pryer, remembered today as the founder of Sandakan, was a significant figure in the colonial history of Sabah. 

He accompanied Baron Overbeck when the latter negotiated leases to what is now Sabah from the sultans of Sulu and Brunei, and was immediately afterwards put ashore in Sandakan Bay, on Feb 11, 1878, at the site of what was then a small gun-running settlement known as Kampung German. 

Given the title of “Resident of the East Coast,” Pryer was provided with an “administrative staff” of two Eurasian assistants and a West Indian servant.


As Ada saw it, Pryer supplied “an appealing alternative of colonial enterprise to the aggressive adventure image” offered by James Brooke. By the time Pryer arrived in Sabah, James Brooke’s long reign was already over.

His nephew, Charles, had been Rajah of Sarawak for a full 10 years. And by the time “A Decade in Borneo” appeared, 15 years later, Charles was deeply engaged in the prosaic task of creating a recognisable administrative system that, whatever its limitations, would prove far more effective than anything that the British North Borneo Chartered Company would ever succeed in establishing in North Borneo.

Without doubt, considerations of gender have added a wealth of insight to historical studies, including, notably, those of recent Southeast Asian colonial history.

Ada plainly adored Pryer and one of the great charms of her memoir is the loving portrait she presented of her later husband and her own keen championing of his projects.

Whereas the Brookes claimed for themselves the role of protecting native interests against European capital, and also, of course, against possible challenge to their rule from European investors and planters, the Company advocated open access by foreign capital to local markets, resources and labour, a position very much like that advanced today by proponents of “globalisation.” 

Like the latter, promised benefits proved largely illusory, and neither regime was particularly successful in financial terms. 

But in Sarawak, at least some heed was paid to indigenous sentiments. In Sabah, this was not so, and the Company’s insensitivity soon opened a rift between William and the Company directors.

Pryer, it should be noted, was not the first Englishman on the scene in Sabah. By the end of the 1870s, Britain already had a long, if dissolute, history of engagement in northern Borneo. 

Starting with the Balambangan debacle in 1773 there followed a century of gun-running and private contraband trade.

William Crocker, the Governor of North Borneo in Pryer’s time, had himself been actively involved in this trade, most of it with the nearby Sulu Sultanate. Aside from cloth, the principal items traded were opium, guns and munitions. The latter fed directly into what was then, and had been for over a century, a flourishing regional commerce in slaves, coastal raiding and piracy.

Private British traders were deeply implicated and played no small part in the corresponding rise of the Sulu Sultanate to a position of regional dominance. 

However, on the delicate issue of piracy, from at least Raffles’ time onward, the principal British argument had been that it was not “free trade,” but rather restrictions on trade imposed by Britain’s European rivals that had caused the power of indigenous states to decline, and hence allowed for the rise of piracy.

Ada opened “A Decade in Borneo” with a version of 19th century North Borneo, a bountiful era preceded the first appearance of Europeans. The countryside was tranquil and well populated, and agriculture and trade flourished under a strong but “passable order” imposed by native sultans and rajas.

All of this abruptly changed with the coming of Europeans - not British, of course - but Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. Due to European meddling in neighbouring waters, local authority gave way to misrule and chaos.

“All the powers of evil seemed let loose to do their worst” (p. 38), and while pirates swept the Borneo coast, inland, “Dayaks, now unrestrained, indulged their passion for head-hunting” (p. 39). Nothing remained but for the Company to arrive, subdue the pirates and re-impose harmony and order.

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