SABLI BIN BUJANG has grown up at Fort Margherita. he followed his father into service at the sarawak Museum, but his grandfather was a gardener for Vyner, the last Rajah of Sarawak. Now Margherita is in his care and he firmly believes that she has guardians of her own. he talks freely of hantu, as so many in Sarawak do – of cold hands on his skin when he is alone there at night and dark shapes in the trees. But he tells them that he is there to take care of her and so they should take care of him. in spite of this, he was overjoyed to return to the Fort. he feels that she was waiting for him. his childhood in Kampung astana, land given to the employees of the Rajah before their abrupt removal to Demak laut, was spent playing ‘lastic in the jungles around her or pretending to be at war with their bamboo guns.
When the Brooke dynasty fell to the Japanese in 1941, so too did the Fort. The Japanese occupied the building and their presence was felt all around it. Kak abet of Kampung Boyan is 74 and she remembers the soldiers coming down from the fort, throwing their rice to the chickens and then taking the chickens for themselves. she also believes that the Japanese held prisoners in the Fort.
These poor unfortunates, according to her, were fed nothing but kangkong though the villagers would smuggle them cigarettes. sabli recounts a story from his father of how the Japanese lured the village representatives from his kampung up to the Fort with promises of rice, only to execute them by beheading in the Fort for their service to the Brookes before them. in fact, despite popular belief, there is no documented evidence of any executions taking place at the Fort – Japanese, British or Brooke - the cells, the scaffold and the head house notwithstanding.
The Brookes favoured the Malay method of a keris driven through the right shoulder direct into the heart, most likely carried out graveside. They even had a professional executioner for the purpose. colonial government, which succeeded the Japanese, seems to have used the old prison for its dirty work, including the execution of the young Rosli Dhoby for the assassination of the British Governor during the anti- cession movement which followed the unseemly final departure of the Brookes from sarawak. Kak abet, in fact, remembers welcoming the Governor on his arrival in Kuching, short days before his untimely death in sibu.
As the Japanese left, the British army took up occupation and eventually the police Field Force, setting up a police museum in the seventies. Kak abet took her one and only trip to the fort during this time and she recounts the old guns and the war memorabilia and, most strikingly for her, the ‘patung’ showing how opium would have been smoked. her younger brother, sofian, a true child of Malaysia at the age of 54, remembers the other-worldliness of the fort - how he and his friends would play at the castle in the jungle above them, so different from the kampung they lived in below. The police would even let them inside to stand at the walls and take in the city across the river. sofian also tells of searching for the discarded bullets on the ground when the police finished their training. every Friday, there would be movies in the police compound – p Ramlee or even hollywood classics like hercules.
Sabli bin Bujang's childhood in Kampung Astana, land given to the employees of the Rajah was spent playing ‘ lastic in the jungles around the fort or pretending to be at war with their bamboo guns.
Left: Sabli bin Bujang, caretaker of Fort Margherita today.Below: The boys from Boyan.
Kak Abet took her one and only trip to the fort in the seventies when it was a police museum and she recounts the old guns and the war memorabilia... her younger brother, Sofian remembers the other-worldliness of the fort - how he and his friends would play at the castle in the jungle above them, so different from Kampung Boyan they lived in below.
Left: Kak Abet and her brother Sofian. Right: Their old family photos show Sarawak's melting pot in the Malay Kampung
The children would scramble over the fence just to get a glimpse. But the enduring memory of all those who lived around her is the 8 o’clock cannon, booming out into the evening sky. it is a tradition that many in Kuching still miss, a noisy yet calming reminder for all residents of the continuation of serenity in sarawak. Those closer to the Fort itself tell how they would even hear the bugle, sounded morning and night. sabli describes a huge bell hanging at the fort that would be rung in case of attack, though thankfully it has always remained silent.
Now that the new museum has opened there, it will be returned to its former place. as Jason Brooke expresses it: ‘It (the fort) symbolises power yes, but it also symbolises protection… The new fort symbolised the permanence and security of the government, part of a triangle of structures representing the pillars of state – the Rajah at the Astana, the Council Negri and Judiciary at the Court House, and the Sarawak Rangers at Fort Margherita. In the Rajahs’ days the sentries at the three buildings would call ‘All’s Well’ across the night, reassuring the populace that all was at peace.” Why the tradition of the cannon was discontinued is unclear.
Many commentators claim it was confrontation that put rest to it but it seems to have continued long past that period. perhaps it is time to reinstate it?
It seems reinstatement may be the current theme of the Fort’s position in sarawak society. The Brooke dynasty has long been gone and the people of sarawak have grown up and past it in many ways. as the Fort fell into disuse, so too did its memory. The trees too grew up around it and even the residents on the other side of the river put it out of sight and out of mind. The only reminder of its existence for the kampung people is the steady stream of tourists seeking its memory. sofian,
Who runs a restaurant in Boyan, shares that they always come looking for the Brookes but then they discover the kampung on their way back. For him, the new museum is a blessing.
No more disappointed tourists who have made the long trek only to find an empty and deserted reminder of a time long gone. Now at least, there is something for them to see.
Hopefully, as Jason Brooke wants, it will ‘put some heart back into this iconic building.’ But for sofian personally, the Brookes have little meaning in his modern Malay life. Maybe one day he will go up and see the exhibition but his shrug suggests that he is not too concerned. Kak abet is keener. The Brookes are not even a memory for her, but as for whether she will visit the new museum: Kelak-kelak, she says, patut juak! (later i must!).
However, interest in sarawak history is enjoying a renaissance. The Brooke family are being re-examined as sarawak pride and status become prominent themes.
The gallery itself is fast becoming a favourite for school groups and there is no shortage of volunteers for the ‘Fort Rangers’. For some, the Brookes were real people.
as Jason Brooke states: ‘It (the fort) is a reminder of personal relationships forged over 3 generations which still resonate for many people today. When we interred my late grandfather’s ashes in the family burial ground beside the Fort in 2013, what moved me more than any other gesture was how anonymous members of the local Malay community attended the grave for many months following, replacing and relighting candles to surround the place of burial. I never found out who they were, but it remains in my memory as a deeply meaningful gesture.” But for others, they are an unwelcome memory of other-worldly rulers, as the protest at the opening of the new gallery suggests. For most, they are a period in history; as sofian puts it, some good and some bad.
One thing that cannot be in doubt is that they are increasingly becoming symbolic in some recognition of sarawak’s early statehood, just as the Fort was at her inception. in so many ways, she is Margaret - eternally english yet somehow sarawak. she may remain distant from the people of the state today, but perhaps she will start to bridge the gap again as her namesake once did. either way, the seeds of the sarawak we know were sown in her heyday. as Jason Brooke says: “In what other place on Earth have people been so willing to look past the differences which divide us – ethnicity, faith, language, and to so eagerly embrace what unites – values of tolerance, hospitality, acceptance.” perhaps this is why sarawakians can still call Margherita their own.
Boyan lies directly across river from the former Borneo Company headquarters, the site of Karen’s father’s final office in Sarawak, and many of its first residents, according to Sofian, were workers for the company’s warehouses. East meets west is in her blood and so the relationship of British fort to Malay village was bound to speak to her!