History through a child’s point of view

“What is history , Mummy?” my son, Ethan asked when I told him that we were going to Fort Margherita in Kuching, which housed the Brooke Gallery. I thought about how to explain to him what history was and why it was important to us. It reminded me of the numerous times I have been asked why I took history as my major in university.

“Why history?” people would ask with a quizzical look etched across their faces. The only way for me to explain it is that I was interested in the big impact history had on us today. History tells us where we come from – the events and people of the past shape who we are today. When I was in school here in Kuching, history was the only subject I enjoyed other than English.

I couldn’t understand the need for mathematics (and I was terrible at it) but I, for one, was intrigued by the turmoil, adversities and joy that encapsulated the past in order for the present day to happen. At university, I studied British, American, Chinese and Australian history. Admittedly, I found the latter rather dull but I was captivated by the history of the first three.

My friends used to think it strange that I found sheer delight in spending hours writing an essay on history.

Having said that, I thought that explaining all this to a 5-year-old was probably not the best way to answer his question. So I decided that the best way to answer his question was to tell him that history was like a giant story that led up to you.” That answer seemed to have satisfied him, as he immediately said, “Let’s go to the Fort!” The word “giant” may have also sparked an interest. Either way, it proved to be a rewarding visit for my son. Most Sarawakians would know the history behind the old fort, which was constructed in 1879 by Charles Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak.

An important landmark and monument in Sarawak’s history, the fort goes back to the Brooke Dynasty. It was built in the style of an English castle and was designed to protect Kuching from being attacked by pirates. It served as a Police Museum from 1971 before it was handed over to the Sarawak state government and is now a tourist attraction in Kuching.

As mentioned earlier, the fort now houses the Brooke Gallery, an exhibition showcasing the history of Sarawak under the Brooke Dynasty. I remember visiting the fort as a little girl , so I was looking forward to seeing what the fort looked like after it had been restored. A portrait of James Brooke greeted us as we entered the gallery. “Look, Ethan, this is James Brooke,” I said pointing to the portrait. Ethan was not listening , however, as he was drawn to something else in the lobby entrance of the gallery. “Whoa, Mummy, a cannon!” he shouted excitedly as he ran to the machine. I knew right away that what would intrigue me at the gallery would be totally different from what would intrigue my son. I would have to view history through the eyes of a 5-year-old, so I went along with his pace. “This is Bujang Sadok, the cannon,” I told him after a quick scan of information on the cannon. I added that the cannon weighed 12-pounds to which my son replied with his current favourite expression “Whoa!” Just before we entered the ground floor of the gallery, Ethan stopped by the portrait of James Brooke.

“Who is this man?” he asked. After a brief explanation of who James Brooke was and the role he and his family played in Sarawak’s history, Ethan said that he wanted a photograph next to the portrait. The ground floor of the gallery is themed “The Allure of Borneo” which details what attracted explorers and traders to the island over the centuries leading up to James Brooke’s arrival in 1839.

I was drawn to a photograph of the Sarawak River and Kuching town in 1847, which depicted what the view would have looked like when Brooke arrived in Sarawak. My concentration was broken by my son telling me to hurry up the spiral staircase to the first floor. The first floor of the gallery explained how Brooke became the Rajah of Sarawak, the birth of an independent state and the building of Sarawak by Charles Brooke.

As we moved through the gallery, I attempted to explain the stories behind the exhibits to my son, who made a gallant attempt to listen. But the attention span of a 5-year-old is typically around 10-15 minutes at a time and while my son was mostly able to filter out small distractions occurring at the same time, there were some exhibits that he just could not ignore. “Whoa, cool, it’s a sword!” he shouted as he ran past me to get a closer look. I told him that the sword is the “Sword of State’ and it was James Brooke’s original fighting sword.

“You mean James, the man in the picture downstairs?” Ethan asked. “That is so cool.” As we continued our tour of the gallery, Ethan would point out to various exhibits that caught his eyes. “Who are these guys?” he asked curiously about the bronze depiction of major ethnic communities known under the Brooke rule – Dayak, Kayan, Malay and Chinese.

“Interesting,” he said after I read the information to him. He decided that this was a good place to stop and sit for a little while before continuing his tour. Climbing another set of spiral staircase, we reached the second floor, which featured what life was like in Brooke era Sarawak. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed a glimpse into the lives of the White Rajahs and their families.

Ethan’s attention was caught by the Rajah’s ceremonial uniform on display in a glass casing. “Is that a pirate’s costume?” he asked. I explained to him that it was not a pirate’s costume but that the Rajah wore it on official occasions. “I like the colours on the uniform and check out the hat.

Can I have a uniform like this for my birthday party? ” asked my son who stood to attention as I took photos of him next to the uniform display. We finished the tour of the gallery at the rooftop with a great view of the city. We went back down to the ground floor and turned left through these huge doors, leading to a large compound. Along the way are two rooms with massive doors.

“These were prisoner cells,” I told my son who excitedly tried to jump and down to look into the cells. “The cells are empty, no prisoners,” he concluded before running out the compound. Then I heard him shouting “Mummy, more cann ons! Awesome!” He counted 13 cannons as he ran from one cannon to another. “Mummy, they must have fired the cannons through these windows, kapow, kapow!” As we finished off our tour, I asked if he enjoyed the “giant story”. Ethan declared, “It is the best story ever.” Indeed it was, especially through the eyes of a 5-year-old.