Hugh was a botanist who had set off for South-East Asia when he was just 19 years old. He struck up a close friendship with James Brooke. He wrote about his time in the archipelago in his 1848 book Sarawak: its Inhabitants and Productions. He returned to England but set out again in 1848 to take up the post of secretary to Brooke, who had been appointed governor of Labuan.
Labuan, a small island off the coast of Borneo, had disappointed British hopes that it would become a busy port and exporter of coal, and survived as an isolated and very unhealthy place. As colonial treasurer, his principal post, Low managed the finances of a colony with a total annual revenue of only 4000 pounds, including a British subsidy. He acted as governor whenever appointees had yet to arrive in post.
The persistent quarrels among the small European community degenerated into open warfare during the governorship (from 1867 to 1871) of John Pope Hennessy. Although Hennessy married Low's strikingly beautiful teenage daughter in 1868, relations between the two men became so bitter that Hennessy resorted to habeas corpus proceedings to recover his wife and son from refuge in Low's house and suspended Low temporarily from duty for owning a house occupied by persons 'known to the police' (Low's Malay mistress and their child). The Colonial Office censured both men, and stood firm in its refusal to give Low the governorship in which he had acted for a total of eight years. His main consolation, through the years of tedium and frustration, was his twelve-acre garden with a choice selection of plants, including many improved strains, for Low was always a practical horticulturist. He also travelled, and he climbed Mount Kinabalu, the highest in Borneo, three times, partly to collect specimens.
Despite his censure, he was moved to become resident of Perak as the Colonial Office required an empathetic administrator who could smooth relations with Malays who were becoming resentful of high-handed and clumsy British involvement in their affairs. it was a successful appointment in many ways.
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