The British Empire Library

A White Headhunter In Borneo

by Stephen Holley

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by David Lidding (North Borneo/Sabah 1960-63)
As a young Royal Artillery Lieutenant the author was flown into Sarawak as part of the small group entitled "British Military Administration" with the daunting task of trying to put British Borneo together again after the devastation left by the Japanese. This book is, in his own words, a personal story from those early days to his eventual position as Sabah's State Secretary to the Chief Minister in the post-colonial government.

And a thundering good read it is too. Many who have worked in Sabah will recognise the author's direct and honest style: pithy, witty, and refreshingly clear of humbug. He lucidly outlines the problems of those early post-1945 days; a demoralised and undernourished population, a wrecked infrastructure, and the twice daily Morse code schedules which were the only means of communication between districts and the outside world.

The nature of that early work is graphically illustrated with extracts from his diaries, where a gift for vivid descriptive touches is evident.

A chapter Serving Soldier to Obedient Servant takes a tongue-in-cheek view of the protocol which arrived with the change from military to colonial rule, which he was well placed to appreciate as the Governor's Private Secretary. Later chapters describe his various postings which included Resident Interior. His enjoyment of the people he worked with is very evident, and there are again humorous touches which keep the reader turning the pages, none more so than when he is outwitted by Arusap, the Chief of the Bokan Muruts.

Anyone who has had any contact with the Colonial Service will enjoy his chapter Governors, but perhaps the piece de resistance is his fascinating account of the early days of post-colonial Sabah. He was in a unique position as an expatriate here, as Sabah's State Secretary to the Chief Minister. Those turbulent times are outlined with clarity and objectivity and ended with his own resignation. This account fills a huge gap in the history of Sabah which has been rumoured over for too long. With this chapter it is quite clear now to see what actually happened, and any reader with an interest in Sabah, or the transition from colonial to independent rule will appreciate the author's honesty here.

The book is not just compulsory reading for those who have worked in Sabah or Sarawak. It will appeal to the wider traveller who will recognise the enormous changes which have taken place in this fascinating corner of the world. This book achieves the description of those changes with a deft, wry, and lucid touch.

British Empire Book
Stephen Holley
Natural History Publications (Borneo)
983 812 081 2


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