MARIANNE NORTH in Sarawak
The basis today of a thriving eco-tourism industry, Sarawak’s rich bio-diversity has long attracted scientists and other scholars. Alfred Russel Wallace, famously, stayed in Sarawak during the 1850s, collecting, with the help of his Malay assistant, Ali, biological specimens for museum collections in Europe. The Italian botanist, Odoardo Beccari, also spent time here, commenting that nowhere else in the world had he seen “primeval forests so rich, so varied, and peculiar in their flora as in the vicinity of Kuching”.
In 1876, this biodiversity also brought to Sarawak the Victorian botanical artist, Marianne North. Born in 1830, Marianne was the daughter of the Liberal Member of Parliament, Frederick North and his wife, Janet. Although music was originally Marianne’s passion, she became obsessed with topical botany after seeing the beauty of tropical flowers at Kew Gardens, which she visited regularly with her father, who was a friend of its Director, Sir Joseph Hooker. Marianne took painting lessons with Magdalen von Fowinkel, a Dutch botanical artist and Valentine Bartholomew, who also instructed Queen Victoria. An Australian painter, Robert Dowling, trained her in oil painting, which she compared to “ a vice, like dram drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one”.
Frederick’s death in 1869 left Marianne with the independent means to travel. Having visited Japan to paint, she arrived in Sarawak from Singapore in 1876, with a letter of introduction to the Rajah and Ranee from the Governor of Singapore and his wife.
Marianne North in the midst of creating the painting of the pitcher plant.
This new pitcher plant "Nepenthes Northiana" from the Limestone Mountains of Sarawak was-
named after her.
Forest scene in Matang.
On her arrival at the Customs Post, which was then located in the Square Tower, Marianne sent her letter of introduction by messenger to the Astana. With Rajah Charles upcountry, Ranee Margaret sent a boat to bring Marianne and her luggage to stay with her. Both women have left detailed accounts of the visit. Margaret devoted a chapter of her autobiography, Good Morning and Good Night, to Marianne’s visit, while Marianne also recorded her experience in her memoirs, Recollections of a Happy life.
The Ranee was less than flattering about her guest, noting that she had a large nose, thin lips and was not good-looking. In contrast, Marianne described the Ranee as beautiful. (Ranee Margaret had many admirable qualities, but beauty is not usually listed among them.) Marianne was of a practical bent, which startled the Ranee, who was surprised at her “diminutive portmanteau” containing only a “skimpy wardrobe”. In contrast, Margaret noted the enormous amounts of painting equipment with which she travelled. Marianne was shockingly practical in her clothes as well, further surprising the Ranee with the shortness of her skirt and petticoats, and her habit of sitting with her knees “en evident”.
After Marianne had settled in the guest room, which overlooked the river, the Ranee suggested that they rest, meeting for afternoon tea later in the afternoon. Marianne, however, declared resting to be a waste of time, telling Margaret that she wanted to set off to find pitcher plants, which she had come to Sarawak to paint. Having never heard of pitcher plants, the Ranee asked her servants, one of whom knew where they were to be found in the forest. Overriding the Ranee’s protests, Marianne insisted that they go immediately in a small canoe and bring the plants back to Astana for her to paint. Small wonder that Margaret later described Marianne as being “hurtlingly energetic”.
Notwithstanding the Ranee’s writing, subsequently, that she did “thoroughly love Miss North”, Margaret clearly found her new friend very trying. On the Rajah’s return some days later, he appears to have found his opinionated guest virtually impossible. Having previously observed to Margaret that men always think that they know everything, Marianne had commented that she might have to put the Rajah right on a few things. Unused to being challenged, the Rajah was angered by Marianne’s disagreeing with him on his classification of the orchids in his collection, and on the best ways of cultivating them. The Ranee observed that their tempers seemed particularly short on those evenings on which they had eaten curry for dinner.
Blue-flowered climber and a common swamp plant.
View of the river from the Rajah's Garden
Marianne’s strong-willed independence of thought, and her willingness to speak her mind without regard for his feelings, sometimes provoked the Rajah to malice. On one evening, Marianne proposed to paint one the Rajah’s orchids, which had just come into full bloom. The Rajah countered that the orchid needed to be pruned heavily if it were to produce blooms again. Marianne remonstrated that it needed no such thing. When, on the following morning she entered the orchid house with her canvass and paints, she found the delicate blooms trampled into the earth. “Oh Rajah!”, she protested at lunch, “How could you?”. The Rajah, she later wrote, was a man “with much determination of character”. Marianne also provided in her autobio- graphy a rare and telling description of the future third Rajah, Vyner, who she recalled as a “small tyrant, who was amusing to watch at his games, and in his despotism over a small Chinese boy in a pigtail, and his pretty little Malay ayah”. Marianne’s art comprised, in the absence of colour photography, an important contribution to botanical science. As Susan Morgan observed about Marianne, however, “There is nothing politically innocent about a nineteenth-century British woman painting rare tropical flowers and writing about her experiences. But there is nothing politically simple about it either”. Marianne’s art did not just contribute to science, as she travelled through the tropics and to various parts of the British Empire, she ‘discovered’ new species, which were then classified and named in accordance with European classificatory systems. In doing so, she appropriated indigenous knowledge, which she subsequently ignored and erased, as she also ignored and erased the names of the indigenous people who found for her the plants that she ‘discovered’. In this way, she was complicit in the spread of Imperial control, including control over the production of knowledge. Margaret recorded an instance of this in her autobiography. When she showed Marianne a particularly beautiful flower, Marianne immediately identified it by its Latin name. Margaret replied that the Latin was too ugly for the flower, and that she preferred the Malay name for it. Marianne demurred.
Nor was Marianne content to remain in the relative comfort of the Astana. On one occasion, she accompanied the Borneo Company’s manager, Mr. Brodie, “nice Mr. B”, to the antimony mine at Tegora. She was struck by beauty of Tegora, later writing:
"I never saw anything finer than the afterglow at Tegoro. The great trees used to stand out like flaming corallines against the crimson hills. It was lovely in the full moon, too, with the clouds wreathing themselves in and out of the same giant trees around us".
During the trip she formed a friendship with Mr. Brodie’s assistant, Mr. Everatt, himself a talented artist and botanist, and a cousin of the French artist, Marais. Everatt secured for her a species of very large pitcher plant, which she painted. When the Director of Kew Gardens, Sir Joseph Hooker, confirmed that it was a species previously unknown to science, he called the plant Nipenthes Northiana. This was one of seven species of plants named in her honor.
Marianne’s life is the subject of a recent documentary, entitled Kew’s Forgotten Queen, commissioned for the Smithsonian Channel in the United States. Producer, Irene Antoniades and her crew filmed extensively in Sarawak in January of this year. The film was screened in the United Kingdom last September and can be viewed on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=C7y5Z9zq-O4.
John Walker has long enjoyed a love affair with Sarawak and its history, on which he has written extensively. From December until March you can find him at his ‘office’ at Green Hill Corner, or in a coffee shop in Carpenter Street. He is seriously addicted to Kolo Mee.