The British Empire Library

Borneo, jewel in a jade rainbow: Letters and legends from North Borneo Sabah

by David and Sue Fielding

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Stephen Holley (North Bomeo/Sabah 1945-64)
Borneo - Jewel in a Jade Rainbow is a captivating title for a captivating book. So many of us have rued the fact that we did not keep detailed diaries of our service days. David and Sue Fielding have done better than that. They have preserved and published their letters home to interested and enquiring families. The letters have far more impact than a diary as events have to be explained and reasons amplified.

The Fieldings came to North Borneo as a newly married couple in 1960 and served for one hectic tour until North Borneo became the State of Sabah within Malaysia. Though that is less than forty years ago their letters, the records of the bric-a-brac of travel and the excellent photographs recall an age that seems worlds away - the leisure and luxury of the voyage to the East in the SS Carthage and the transition to an earthy existence in Borneo is as evocative as the smell of a good curry.

But the heart and essence of the book is the record of their work as Mr & Mrs D.O., first in Tambunan in the primitive interior of North Borneo, then as Mr & Mrs Dogsbody in sophisticated Sandakan, and again as Mr and Mrs D.O. at Sempoma on the coral shore of a pirate-ridden Sulu Sea. Throughout, their desire to learn about the country and befriend its people of all races, shines through.

One of the legacies of the shoestring administration of the pre-war North Borneo Chartered Company was that there were so few officers on the ground that administration was only possible if the District Officer became part of the local community. The Fieldings certainly did that, and because they lived simply and frequently servantless, growing their own vegetables and raising their own poultry, they were befriended by local people wherever they were stationed.

David Fielding's first tour was into the Murut country, shifting cultivators and hunters whose main pleasure in life was to indulge in marathon binges on tapai a potent and somewhat insanitary rice brew. To this end they had feasts for planting, for harvesting, hunting, births, deaths and marriages and especially for visiting officers. It was politically correct to get drunk and sobriety was an insult to one's host. His mentor on this initiation tour was Ben Stephens, the locally born D.O. who later became President of the Malaysian Senate.

His next posting was to Tambunan, a rural paradise two thousand feet above sea level where extensive irrigated rice paddies graced the, plain and stepped their way up the hillsides. Here he assumed all the responsibilities of an outstation DO - magistrate, police officer, land officer, agriculture, education, health and all the other things a community needs, and in addition visits to remote kampongs which had not seen a representative of government for many years. This was not because of neglect but because North Borneo had been so devastated during the Japanese occupation that reconstruction of essentials took priority over visits to remote areas. The official side is recounted in detail by David, and the trials of setting up a home with supporting vegetable garden by Sue.

But this is no superficial account of official and domestic life in colonial days. Their letters are evidence of a deep personal involvement in local affairs. They never accepted "Theirs not to reason why". They reasoned, they pondered, they worried and wondered and have recorded the frequent frustrations and occasional joys of those who so do. The letters record how David intervened rapidly to avoid a local massacre when a naive young priest defiled a pagan monument, almost destroying thirty years of painstaking work by a devoted missionary who treated the views of the pagans with as much respect as his own.

There follows a brief posting to Sandakan, a thriving port trading with Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Australia, with huge timber exports and sophisticated, hedonistic population, mainly Chinese and European. They form a close relationship with Chinese friends. And then to Semporna, once a sleepy fishing kampong but changing rapidly through timber extraction, settlement schemes, Improvements in communications and the constant need to combat piracy and coastal raids. It was a murderous trade.

They capture in their letters the magic of the exotic islands and the hardships and hopes of the Bajau inhabitants. An outbreak of cholera stretched them to the limit. Sue a qualified nurse, wore herself down in the intense fight to defeat it. There are amusing glimpses of the Royal Navy at work in the tropic seas, and mythical local legends.

One of their last tasks was to organise local elections as the Colony's entry into Malaysia approached. In this they worked closely with a young Native Chief named Sakaran who later became the Head of State of Sabah.

The book is a valuable archive and vividly illustrates the selfless dedication of the best of the Colonial Service. It should be read both by those who are proud of our record of Empire and by those who belittle it.

British Empire Book
Author s
David and Sue Fielding
K.D.I. Kota Kinabalu


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