British Empire Article

by M.W.F. Tweedie (Former Director of the Raffles Museum, Singapore)

The Borneo Story: 'Borneo from the Beginning'

In October 1954 I joined an expedition to the Great Cave at Niah in Sarawak to assist Tom Harrisson, then curator of the museum at Kuching, in an excavation for stone-age remains; we also had the company of Hugh Gibb. Both Tom and Hugh have since died, Tom in 1976 and Hugh in 1991. What follows is an edited and condensed version of my diary from that expedition.


I flew to Kuching from Singapore and was met by Tom and taken to his house in Pig Lane. He has a number of animals around, including a half-grown cassowary which stalks about the garden and periodically puts on a display, racing around, prancing, posturing and twisting its neck; they become dangerous when they are adult. On a perch by the door lives a solemn and perfectly tame rhinoceros hornbill.


Hugh Gibb joined us today and we all had dinner with the Governor, Sir Anthony Abel.


Off in the Zohara at 0930 when we left the river and got out to sea there were a lot of sea snakes floating at the surface, all Pelamis piaturus, coloured brown and bright yellow, the pattern variable. Birds included black-naped terns, brown boobies and small flocks of phaleropes flying over the sea or swimming like gulls. Tom says they winter at sea, feeding on plankton, and are new-comers to this area of sea.

The Borneo Story: 'Birds Nest Soup'


Still at sea. I saw a fairly large butterfly out to starboard, flapping tiredly along, and even as we watched, it faltered and fell into the sea, floating with wings outspread, obviously never to rise again.

Soon after mid-day we were met by a smaller boat, the M.V. Rainbow, which will take us up the Niah River. Fortunately a calm day enabled us to trans-ship all our luggage without mishap. The boat touched bottom once crossing the bar, and then we went on upstream to the pengkalan or landing place where we disembarked for the caves. There is a Chinese trader here on whose premises there is a thatched area called a balai in which, with his permission, we decided to stay the night. Unfortunately it was also the home of his considerable flock of chickens, which had to be ejected from the rafters with a broom at nightfall; even if you have a mosquito net you don't want chickens roosting immediately overhead.


Up after an unrestful night due to the aggrieved clucking and crowing of the poultry, which roosted nearby.

The Borneo Story: 'Cavemen of Today'

After some coffee we got some porters together to carry our stuff out to the cave. Tom went first with some of our own men, and I did two trips, out and back with some locally engaged porters. It is, I suppose, under two miles, but a trying walk as most of it is over slippery planks raised to form a causeway high enough for a fall to be dangerous when the surrounding area is not flooded. (One prowls cautiously along, soon reaching a state of semi-hypnosis, staring at the board at one's feet. The porters, of course, made nothing of it despite their heavy loads.

Our cave habitation, constructed and used by the birds' nest collectors, is most curious: an assemblage of rooms and open 'verandahs', raised on piles because it is constructed under an extensive rock shelter which gives complete protection against the weather. The nest collecting is seasonal and not at present being pursued. The nests are of course the edible nests relished by the Chinese, made by the swiftlets from strings of their sticky saliva; they consist in fact of coagulated mucus.

The Borneo Story: 'Peoples of the Tinjar River'

In the afternoon we went to the big Niah cave which is close by. It is huge with an enormous entrance and the roof is populated by swiftlets and several kinds of bats. These animals play 'Box and Cox', the swiftlets flying out in the morning when the bats come home to roost, and the same in reverse in the evening.

The arrangements for collecting the nests are quite alarming to contemplate. 'Ropes' of long, joined pieces of wood hang from the ceiling, between 100 and 200 feet up. In the ceiling are holes and tunnels into which the collectors crawl, having climbed up the 'ropes' using just hands and feet. There are subsidiary structures of wood stuck here and there about the ceiling on which they scramble about to gain access to the nests in otherwise inaccessible cavities. The climbers are exceedingly strong athletic men, and tbey are exposed to risks rather like those faced by sailors 'going aloft' in an old-time sailing ship. The sailors had better hand and foot-holds, the nest collectors hove nothing to fear from the weather.


Up after a long and quiet night's sleep. Our water supply comes from two holes, one above the other in the same line of flow. The upper one supplies pure perfectly safe drinking beside water and we wash on a platform beside the lower one at the bead of an outflow ditch. There is no visible flow, but the wells fill rapidly, the mass of limestone overhead acting as a reservoir of rainwater.

The Borneo Story: 'The Dyaks'

Before we could start excavation we had to sponsor a ceremony to propitiate the spirits of the cave, based on that performed before each nest-collecting season. A small wooden structure was made consisting of a pair of upright sticks each having a container at the top with an egg in it, one boiled, one raw. On a cross-bar are some leaves, pinched and folded to resemble swiftlet nests and filled with boiled rice. Two elderly men, functioning as priests, attended and intoned and gesticulated, pausing twice to collect ten-dollar notes from Tom.

After this we started digging at a site marked by a wide mound-like shape, just under the cave overhang, which we interpreted (rightly as it ensued) as a habitation midden. We soon encountered shells, both mangrove and fresh-water species, evidently brought to the cave for food. A few potsherds but no other artifacts.


Hugh and I went on a tour of the caves with the K'tua Kampong (head man) of Niah. The floor is everywhere deeply covered with guano, bat and swiftlet, and largely composed of the indigestible remains of insects, with innumerable wing-cases of beetles, so that the surface glitters like sequins. This guano is a more important product of the caves than the birds' nests. Great quantities of it are loaded into sacks and carried along the wooden causeway to the river, where the Chinese trader buys and re-sells the guano, which is a very effective fertilizer. He also buys the birds' nests and sells them to merchants from Singapore and Hong Kong.


An alarm in the evening: Ahmat, a plant collector whom we have with us has not returned to camp and must be lost.

The Borney Story: 'The Rainforest'


Ahmat still missing after a wet night. The neighbourhood has been roused and a fifty-dollar reward offered for news of him, but he turned up half way through the morning very wet and hungry. He had been cut off and confused by floods. A quarter of a wild pig brought in today and we have fed well on it.


In the afternoon we set off for a local long-house to which we have been invited to a party and to spend the night. Although we have been perfectly dry and comfortable the surrounding country has been flooded by heavy rain and we went to the long-house partly by boat and partly by wading. A longhouse is really a village under one roof consisting of a string of cubicles opening onto a wide verandah, the whole structure being built of timber, bamboo and palm-leaf thatch, the raised floor six or eight feet above the ground. The whole thing may be 100 to 200 yards long with the verandah forming a continuous covered 'street'.

We entered and sat down in our wet clothes and were plied with tuak (rice wine) and had supper of rice with pig and mouse-deer. There was rather half-hearted percussion music ard dancing and Hugh scrambled about taking flash photos and once fell off a ladder providing some light relief. We set up our beds on the verandah with mosquito nets (a lot of the community are suffering from malaria) and turned in about midnight.

The Borneo Story: 'Fisherman of the Coast'


I suppose I must have had some sleep, but was well awake by 0500, roused by a fearful shindy of pigs, dogs and crowing cocks. The pigs live on the ground under the house, the dogs anywhere up and down the verandah, and both start their day a bit before sunrise, squealing, barking and fighting. The cocks are a peculiar phenomenon. They are not just denizens of the hen-run (which does exist outside somewhere and contributes a few decibels of its own), but are cherished fighting cocks, each one spending the night tethered by one leg outside its owner's cubicle. I had one only a few feet away. The cacophony rises at sunrise about 0600, to a pitch which precludes thought, to say nothing of sleep.

We arose and dressed about 0630 before an attentive audience of fifty or more, children in front arm's length or less from the bed, men standing behind them and women at the back. I managed to get my more intimate dressing done under the mosquito net and was glad of its shelter. This experience reinforced my opinion that to be a successful social anthropologist you must be, just a little bit eccentric. We left about 0800 and our cave seemed to me quite luxuriously appointed when we got back. But in the evening a fine dinner of pig presented by the long-house community - good luck to them. The next week was occupied with excavation; I will summarise the archaeology later.


Occupied in the move down to Niah village where we shall spend the night. Hugh and I got away about 0930 and walked slowly to the pengkalan (where we spent the night on the way in) and waited for the porters with our luggage to catch up with us. We then transferred it to a boat and came down to Niah village. Tom arrived in a later boat after doing a series of visits and arranging for our journey along the coast tomorrow. We are invited to have dinner tonight with the local 'Capitan China', a friend of Tom's and chief of the local Chinese traders.

The Borneo Story: 'Highlanders of the Equator'


Dinner with the Capitan China was quite a party with no stint of beer. In the morning we left Niah by boat, went down to the river mouth and turned west crossing the mouth of the river Sibuti. Tom had somehow managed for three bicycles to be available, our plan being to cycle along the shore to the town of Miri, the location of Sarawak's earliest oil field. We allowed two days for this.

The first day's cycling was a wonderful experience. Imagine a shelving shore of pure white sand with the sea at about 80 degrees F. (27 C.). Landward a fringe of casuarina trees and an open strip 50 yards wide with scattered bushes. Behind this uninterrupted swamp forestl the whole scene utterly uninhabited and deserted, mile after mile. At intervals we stopped, threw off all our clothes and rushed into the sea. It was so hot that we dried and dressed almost immediately on coming out. Was the Garden of Eden something like this?

Towards evening we arrived at a place called Bungai where there was a hut, put up by Shell Petroleum and fortunately not occupied, and the man in charge allowed us to sleep there. Sardines and eggs were produced from somewhere and we had supper and went to bed. Sandflies very bad here; they easily penetrate a mosquito net.


A steep headland at Bungai prevented us from taking the bicycles any further and they were left behind. I suppose their owners were informed later of their whereabouts. We climbed the cliff, up and down the other side, and were on foot from there on. However, some distance short of Miri a young Chinese driving a truck along the shore picked us up. We paid off the porters and gladly climbed aboard. We soon left the shore and a bumpy road and hot following wind made the drive quite uncomfortable. We got to Miri about mid-day and fortunately there were vacant rooms in the Rest House. We dug out of our luggage some very creased white coats and trousers and hastily got them ironed in response to an invitation to dinner at the Residency with the Resident Mr Buck and his wife and daughter.


We made our way to Kuching by stages, first in a little plane called a Rapide, coming down at Seria in Brunei and then at Labuan. There we changed to a Dakota which took us to Kuching. I returned to Singapore the next day.

A note on the Swiftlets.

These birds are similar to swifts but very much smaller. All swifts use their saliva to glue their nesting material together, and some of the swiftlets (genus Collocalia) build their nests solely of matted sticky threads of mucus which hardens quickly. These are, of course, the valuable edible birds' nests. The whole thing softens in hot water and furnishes the celebrated soup. I have had it once or twice; its taste and texture are very much what one would expect having regards to its origin.

There are several species. The very small white-bellied swiftlet makes a nest of moss stuck together with saliva, which is of no value. The latin name Collocalia esculenta was given to this species in error before much was known the birds. The nest is made in daylight situations and two eggs are laid. Iow's swiftlet (C. maxima) lays and incubates one egg and the brown-rumped swiftlet (C. vestita) lays two. Both stick their nests to the cave walls well inside and often in total darkness. It is these two that produce the edible nests, which are made sntirely of saliva.

The Borneo Story: 'The Swamp'

In 1954 Tom and I noticed that the swiftlets flying in the dark continually made a staccato clicking noise. We speculated whether this might be a form of 'sonar' comparable with that of bats and used for echo-location in the dark. On a subsequent visit in 1957 Lord Medway (now the Earl of Cranbrook) Remonstrated without any doubt that this is so.

A note on the archaeology.

At shallow depth, both on the excavated midden and elsewhere in the cave, we found a lot of shell remains (molluscs used for food) and some human burials. These were probably neolithic (recent stone age) but did not match the Malayan Neolithic, with which I am familiar. The affinity of this culture has not been established, so far as I know.

On the midden we soon came to a continuous stratum, over one metre thick, containing much ash and charcoal and small artificial flakes of brown quartzite. The hill in which the cave lies is limestone and we could find no naturally occurring quartzite in the vicinity. On my second visit in 1957 I took samples of charcoal from near the top and base of the habitation and carbon-14 analysis gave 19,600 years before present for the higher sample and 32,700 for the lower. Three years later Tom found a human skull associated with charcoal giving a date of nearly 40,000 years before present. Examination of the skull suggested some affinity with the extinct Tasmanian aborigines, and it is among the earliest known remains of Homo sapiens.

Sarawak Map
1961 Map of Southeast Asia
Colony Profile
A BBC program broadcast about this expedition. It shows both Tom Harrisson and Hugh Gibb.

The Borneo Story Part One
The Borneo Story Part Two
The Borneo Story Part Three
The Borneo Story Part Four
The Borneo Story Part Five
The Borneo Story Part Six
The Borneo Story Part Seven
The Borneo Story Part Eight
The Borneo Story Part Nine

The Raffles Museum


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