The British Empire Library

A Cargo of Spice: or Exploring Borneo

by Dr R. A. M. Wilson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Henry Kirk (Sarawak 1954-1960, North Borneo-Sabah 1960-1967)
Any would-be visitor with a serious interest in the Malaysian region would profit by reading this aptly named book by exploration geologist and technical administrator Bob Wilson.

Dr Wilson was one of a team of eight British geology graduates recruited by the Colonial Geological Survey Service in the '50s to produce the first regional maps of what was then called British Borneo. This area, under Japanese occupation during the War, consisted of the Rajah Brooke State of Sarawak and the Chartered Company British North Borneo Territory, about 77,000 square miles forming the northern third of the island of Borneo.

In the '50s much of it was under primary jungle in one of the most mountainous and sparsely populated areas of southeast Asia so it was an ideal challenge to young geologists of the day with their unsophisticated equipment, supported by budgets minuscule by present day standards. The huge area was mapped in about fifteen years and formed a basis for mineral and other development after independence by incorporation in Malaysia in 1963. It is good to see that Bob Wilson gives full credit to the younger local geologists and the ever-helpful technical assistants who made increasingly valuable contributions. The work had its economic successes; with UN help one of the largest copper and gold mines in southeast Asia was located high on Mount Kinabalu and developed by a Japanese company.

Although much of the book has a strong historical flavour, describing the political and piratical anarchy of the South China Seas, the author has successfully employed the interesting technique of intertwining his own experiences and views with the historical record gained by his studies in London since his retirement. A particularly good example of this is right at the start where there is a masterly brief account of the ancient geological history of the region where continents collided and sub-ocean plates crumpled to form Borneo. This is alongside views on the recent historical trade in stoneware Gusi jars which are a feature of many longhouses and settlements in northern Borneo. In the generally light-hearted account, the more arduous and frustrating aspects of the explorer's life in mountainous jungle are not dwelt upon. In many respects the primary jungle was a benign sort of place where common sense and a few simple precautions prevented major accidents and illnesses which would have been serious indeed in isolated areas with no radio communication. As Bob Wilson says, the only advice he got before his first field trip in North Borneo was 'see how you get on' and we had to learn by experience: as it happened there was no major problem during the whole programme.

The book is a good read, describing with relish the hard work and play forming the lot of the technical expatriate in the latter days of the empire in southeast Asia. Not cheap. Bob Wilson's book is a fine library volume, but it is to be hoped that the publishers will bring out a more modest priced paperback edition for the less well-off purchaser.

British Empire Book
Dr R. A. M. Wilson
The Radcliffe Press


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